Reflections on Bill Jacklin’s Graphic Work
Bill Jacklin has a deep-rooted instinct for graphic art. As an artist for whom drawing – be it with the pen or the etching needle – is like breathing, the graphic medium of printmaking comes naturally and lies at the very heart of his work. Yet if Jacklin’s prints originate in his instinctive mastery of line, they are equally striking for their painterly qualities: they incorporate the free, expressive touch of an artist accustomed to exploring the fluid effects of paint and colour. Indeed, Jacklin’s graphic work occupies a magical threshold between drawing and painting. The very process of printmaking releases in the artist an intense yet liberating creative state that comes close to the focused mood of a child at play. For all his seriousness of purpose, printmaking frees Jacklin from the responsibility of large-scale work and reveals him at his most open and experimental.
The artist is nevertheless only able to pursue this experimental path because he has an absolute mastery of his craft. Jacklin began to study graphics at the age of eighteen. When he returned to art school after briefly working as a commercial designer in the early 1960s, he gravitated naturally towards printmaking. Here Jacklin learnt the etching technique, which he favours doubtless because it is the graphic medium closest to drawing that also allows for atmospheric and textural effects. Whether it was the drawn mark that scored the paper or the etching tool that scored the plate, Jacklin experienced line from the outset as a direct conduit of his thoughts and feelings about the world – clearly evident, for example, in the moving drawings he made in 1963 of his sick, alcoholic father, in which observation and emotion are balanced on a knife-edge.
When he came to reformulate these moving drawings of his father as etchings, a highly experimental pathway opened up in Jacklin’s art. For example, while he was still learning about etching techniques he left one of the etched heads of his father in the acid bath for an entire weekend. Returning two days later he found the room blackened and steaming from the toxic fumes of the acid, and his etching plate shattered into several pieces. After washing the plate, Jacklin pieced it back together and printed Portrait of My Father (1963), which incorporates the destruction wreaked by the acid in the fragmented image. The violence of this encounter with the darker side of the graphic medium is expressed not only through the shattered plate but also through the dramatic collision of deepest shadow with otherworldly light.
Jacklin’s growing mastery of the etching medium came to the fore in the Anemones series of 1977, in which he records the petals of a vase of flowers gradually falling and being transformed into an abstract pattern. Jacklin worked on the seven prints of the series sequentially, executing the linear elements in hard-ground etching and the tonal areas in aquatint, which involved ten or more stages achieved in a single session. The key to the latter technique is to judge exactly the length of time that the acid bites: the longer the plate remains submerged, the darker the tonal areas become, and any subsequent modification risks compromising the aquatint’s vivacity and sparkle. The series displays Jacklin’s technical prowess. Each tonal variation is precisely judged, creating radiant effects that lie between velvet blacks and luminous whites. The play of light and shadow that the artist achieved in the Anemones series opened up new horizons with regard to the depiction of darkness and light and the metaphorical implications of this pairing. Moreover, working on the series with such intensity not only honed Jacklin’s skills but gave him the latitude to experiment and push the boundaries, confident that he had enough control over the medium to deviate from learnt techniques.
Not all Jacklin’s motifs relate to the dark imagery evident in his heads of his father or the falling petals of a dying flower. On the contrary, the artist is committed above all to an affirmation and celebration of life. What Jacklin discovered in the printmaking process was the power to create his own expressive universe through pushing the boundaries of the graphic medium to extremes. Although he responded at the time to the new lease of life given to printmaking by contemporaries like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960s, Jacklin felt a deeper, underlying affinity with etchings by Rembrandt that he had discovered as a young man, even purchasing a Rembrandt print from a large edition on a student trip to Paris, which he still keeps beside him in his studio. Jacklin was fascinated by the alchemical process that was reflected in the wide variations between different states of Rembrandt’s prints. Studying them closely, he observed how Rembrandt would move areas of light and darkness across the surface of his etchings by scraping away the original composition, polishing and redrawing, so that an area of shadow might move from one side of a print to the other. The resulting image emerged in a state of metamorphosis, like a living, breathing being. This process of transformation and growth that Jacklin witnessed in Rembrandt’s work stayed with him and deeply influenced his own approach to etching. Through continual experimentation – combining the effects of etching on hard and soft grounds, incorporating chance effects such as thumb-marks, building up textural surfaces on the plate with gauze, scraping and erasing to create bursts of light – Jacklin’s prints became a mirror of the magical way they are made.
Gradually, in his skating prints from the mid-1990s, for example, Jacklin’s graphics moved away from their early association with line in the direction of textural, painterly effects. This development was underlined by the artist’s increasing interest in monoprinting – a one-off process that initially involved Jacklin painting over and reprinting etched images, but quickly evolved into fully fledged monotypes, where the image is painted in ink or oil onto an unetched plate and then passed once and once only through the press. Jacklin works on his monotypes – most recently exclusively in oil – alongside his paintings as a spontaneous visual exercise that helps to free up his technique and to suggest new possibilities for a painting in progress. The advantage is that he can work rapidly on a series of prints, exploring chance textural effects and colour combinations, while readily accepting that ‘today was a day of magic – or not’. In some instances, like Degas before him, Jacklin will take up a discarded monotype and work over it in pastel or paint to take the image further. In this sense the monotypes are the aspect of Jacklin’s graphic oeuvre that takes us straight to the heart of the artist’s workshop and illuminates the modus operandi of his creative universe in a unique way.
But the monotypes are also extremely beautiful artworks in their own right. Whether executed exclusively in black and white like New York Skaters VII (2005), or combined with coloured oil, as is the case in The Black Umbrella (2007) or Transition I (2013), these prints are primarily concerned with the depiction of light. In an interview with the present author in 2001, Jacklin explained how ‘particularly in the monotypes, I don’t start off with a composition. I have a black plate and I just flood in the light and then I find a figure and a space, or a horse.’ He continues: ‘In my case, it’s the light and the object, and one is interacting against the other. In the monotypes that is really all it is – the essence of the movement of the forms against the lightness of the paper, against the darkness of the ink, and the engagement of those two forces. Then it’s over, whatever the figuration.’
To create the incandescent bursts of light and mottled textures – which look like processes of alchemical oxidisation – the artist approaches his monotypes in the same experimental spirit that is evident in his etchings. Rather than allow his colours to thicken and clog the plate, as is often the case in monotype, Jacklin maintains the transparency and fluidity of his medium by splashing his plate with turpentine or water, erasing areas of paint to create luminosity, and then reworking the image. The energy and spontaneity of the process is captured in the surface of the print, imbuing it with vibrancy and life. The fact that these images may or may not succeed, that there is no going back once they are run off the press, adds to the sense of urgency. They exist, so to speak, on a knife-edge of being and non-being that renders their beauty all the more intense.
With models like Rembrandt and Degas, Jacklin has created a graphic oeuvre that is rare in today’s art world and bears witness to a radical renewal of what is sadly a dying tradition. With the ubiquity of digital techniques and the commodification of serial images, artists who practise the traditional fine-art skills of etching, lithography and wood engraving are becoming increasingly few and far between. Bill Jacklin is not opposed to contemporary techniques of reproduction; on the contrary his openness to new possibilities can be seen in the body of work he created around the steel gateway Skaters and Shadows, which he made in 2007. In this project his original drawings were vectorised on a computer and cut into steel with a laser, while versions of the same images were printed as etchings. In the artist’s view, this was simply an extension of the experimental process that characterises all his printmaking. Graphic art for Bill Jacklin does not involve a choice between traditional and contemporary methods but rather a deeply personal journey of discovery that avoids dogmatic preconditions and leaves the artist free to create, explore and communicate his own imaginative world.
From Bill Jacklin Graphics, Royal Academy of Arts, 2015