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Kyffin Williams Printmaker

by Nicholas Sinclair

Patagonian Horseman by Kyffin Williams, Welsh painter and printmaker.


Patagonian Horseman 1969

Linocut on paper

23.5cm x 28cm

Throughout my childhood, my family received a Christmas card each year in the form of a linocut. These cards stand out in my memory because they made no reference to Christmas. No wise men, no angels, no Star of Bethlehem. Instead they had conviction. Their subject matter could be unusual, perhaps a Patagonian horseman or a kestrel, and they connected with me in a way that no other card ever did. My mother kept these cards, partly because the artist who made them, Kyffin Williams, was a contemporary of hers at The Slade School of Art during World War 11, and partly because they were beautifully conceived graphic works and printed by hand.


Students at The Slade in the 1940s were introduced to the German expressionists by their art history professor, Tancred Borenius, a Finnish art historian who had studied in Berlin and who had met several of these artists. As a young student attending these lectures, Kyffin Williams found that the vigorous style of this movement resonated with his own sense of how he wanted to express himself as a painter. The Die Brucke group in particular, formed in Dresden in 1905, fascinated him because of the bold and primitive character of their woodcuts and it was Erich Heckel’s work that inspired him to take up printmaking. 

Ellis Evans 1945, Kyffin Williams


Ellis Evans 1945
Ink & wash on paper 24.7 cm x 19.7 cm

Ellis Evans Woodcut_edited.jpg


Ellis Evans 1945

Woodcut on board

25 cm x 17.5 cm

Kyffin began to experiment with printmaking techniques soon after leaving The Slade and his earliest known woodcut is Ellis Evans, 1945, based on an ink & wash drawing of a carpenter at Broom Hall, Pwllheli. Comparing the drawn and printed versions of this subject it is clear that he had the ability, early on in his career, to identify key characteristics of a subject and to transfer them to the picture plane in different media. The sharp incline of the eyebrows, the weight of the moustache, the direct but mildly quizzical and melancholic gaze, the eccentricity of the hairstyle – all these aspects of Ellis Evans are as clear in the woodcut as they are in the drawing and they suggest that the artist’s approach to his subjects made him a natural printmaker.

Kyffin chose to work not with woodcuts but with linocuts, because linoleum is softer than wood and easier to carve into. It was an ideal vehicle for him because of his natural graphic sense. He knew instinctively how to create shapes that fitted the proportions of the block while expressing the movement of clouds over Snowdon or cascading water at the Ogwen Falls in North Wales. Looking at these prints now we feel as if the tools he used, the spitsticker, the graver and the scauper, simply glided over the linoleum, hardly touching its surface, because of the fluency and apparent ease with which he brought these images into being. In fact the technique requires physical effort, precise judgement and a clear vision of how the finished picture will look. The image must be in the artist’s mind at the start of the process because there is no second chance with this printmaking technique. No scraping back of the paint. No rubbing out of the pencil marks. Kyffin brought his draughtsmanship to the process, and this gives his prints a feeling of spontaneity we associate with his drawings.

Waterfall, Ogwen 1972, linocut by Kyffin Williams

Kyffin made small linocuts throughout his career, and in 2002 The Gregynog Press published Cutting Images, a collection of his best work in this medium. However he only made four large, editioned linocuts, all produced between 1972 and 1980 and printed by Joan Connell, who owned a printing press in Beaumaris, on the Isle of Anglesey.

The first of these was Waterfall, Ogwen 1972. He made both ink & wash drawings and large oil paintings of this subject throughout his career, but in this linocut he brings his inherent sense of design to a subject in continual motion, using a vertical format and dividing the picture into three distinct areas - the sky, with its minimal depiction of clouds, the waterfall itself and the pool of water beneath. Each area of the picture plane is characterised by movement. The clouds travel horizontally across the sky, the water drops vertically over the rocks and the movement of the water at the base of the picture is circular, providing the viewer with three interconnected areas of activity. The print is nearly a meter in height and made with a typically subdued range of colours.

Kyffin Williams, Snow at Gwastadnant 1966



Waterfall, Ogwen 1972 Linocut on paper
96.5 cm x 46.4 cm


Snow at Gwastadnant 1966 Oil on canvas
91.4 cm x 71.1 cm

Kyffin Williams, Gwastadnant 1971


Gwastadnant 1971

Oil on canvas
121.9 cm x 121.9 cm

Kyffin Williams, Gwastadnant 1975


Gwastadnant 1975

Linocut on paper

53 cm x 52 cm

The second was Gwastadnant, 1975, taken from a subject he had painted in oils in 1971. He made paintings, drawings and watercolours at Gwastadnant from 1958 onwards, and he considered Snow, Gwastadnant 1966 to be one of his most successful pictures. It depicts a group of four cottages at the foot of the mountains near Llamberis in Snowdonia, with snow on both the mountain tops and on the roof tops of the cottages. But it is the 1971 painting, made in the autumn, that Kyffin takes as the basis for the print, with both pictures sharing the same square format and a similar structure. He then combines two seasons, autumn and winter, enabling him to introduce snow, or areas of pure white, to provide pictorial drama, while still retaining an autumnal foreground colour. He places the cottages against the dark mountain side to give them greater prominence, replacing the close tones of the painting with sharp contrast in the linocut.

The artist also heightens the sense of movement in the composition when transferring the subject from oil paint to print. In the foreground the land drops away from left to right, suggesting a subtle arc in the placement of the four cottages, and this is counterbalanced by the shapes on the righthand side of the mountain, providing a diagonal movement from right to left. We can also detect animal forms in these shapes - eyes, necks, beaks - and these have an ambiguity about them. Are they predators or guardians and how should they be understood in the context of the picture? What was the artist’s intention when giving these shapes the character of pre historic birds?  While the formal elements of this print are taken directly from the 1971 painting, the relationship between man and nature, an ever present theme in Kyffin’s work, is taken from the earlier painting. In Snow, Gwastadnant, 1966 the four cottages feel inconsequential compared to the bulk of the mountain above them and Kyffin seems to be reminding us that the land is here for eternity, where the cottages will disappear in time.

“ I’ve always liked the cottages and farm houses. People lived in them and they were solid, interesting, abstract shapes, sometimes against a dark mountain and sometimes against a light sky. But I also drew them because I knew that they would eventually disappear. After the war people wanted to live in more modern houses so they were often abandoned and left to decay so I made a conscious decision to record them before they were gone”.

Kyffin Williams, Welsh Ponies, 1974


Ponies, Llanfair-yng-Nghornwy 1974

Oil on canvas
76.2 cm x 121.9 cm

Welsh Ponies by Kyffin Williams


Ponies, Anglesey, 1976

Linocut on paper
38 cm x 48 cm

The third print, Ponies, Anglesey, 1976, is an adaptation of Ponies, Llanfair-yng-Nghornwy, 1974, one of the most lyrical oil paintings of Kyffin’s sixty year career. For the linocut, the composition is restructured with both the horizon line and the group of ponies positioned in the upper third of the picture, where, in the oil painting, they are placed below the midway point. The sun becomes a simple white disk with the skyline and the highlights on the water indicated by four horizontal cuts into the linoleum. The tonal range and the colours remain close in both pictures but with the ponies depicted as simple black and white shapes.

Kyffin felt a natural affinity with the wildlife of North Wales and as early as 1948 he began to include horses and ponies in his paintings. They became a theme throughout his work, sometimes grazing, sometimes rearing, sometimes galloping, sometimes in the service of man. Sheepdogs, buzzards and other animals were equally important in his work, suggesting that he saw the wildlife as integral to the land, not as an adjunct, so the inclusion of eight Welsh ponies in this print is entirely consistent with his vision.

The final linocut, Tryfan from the Carneddau, 1980, is based on an ink and wash drawing of the same subject and it employs the panoramic format often associated with Kyffin’s work. The two pictures share similar proportions and an almost identical horizon line, but with contrasting cloud formations and this creates two distinct moods. The linocut has an uncharacteristic lightness of spirit, with a prominent sun and bright, simplified clouds in yellow, where the ink and wash drawing has a gentle, melancholic atmosphere with the sun hidden behind clouds and only implied by subtle highlights.

Welsh Mountains by Kyffin Williams
Welsh Mountains, Tryfan,  by Kyffin Williams


Tryfan from the Carneddau, 1980

Ink & wash on paper
27 cm x 75 cm


Tryfan from the Carneddau, 1980

Linocut on paper
36 cm x 82 cm

Ink & wash, often mixed with sepia, was one of Kyffin’s preferred ways to portray the landscape of North Wales. He responded to the richness and density of the Indian ink and he would leave areas of the paper untouched to add drama to the picture. He let the diluted ink dissolve naturally and spread uncontrolled across the paper, creating subtle shifts in tone. But this was not possible with linocuts because the technique demands precision and clear, controlled decision making, so we see a more disciplined approach in his prints. And yet the precision is never on show. Technique for Kyffin was always secondary to atmosphere. The lines appear fluid, even random in their application, as if they appeared by chance on the paper. The same relationship between discipline and chance, between descriptive and random marks, can be seen throughout the artist’s work, especially in his pencil drawings where an apparent scribble can describe a cloud, a road or a mountainside.

The subject of this picture is a mountain in the Ogwen Valley, considered to be one of the most recognisable peaks in Britain, having a classic pointed shape with rugged crags. The name Tryfan is derived from its historical Welsh name Tri-faen, Tri meaning three and faen meaning rocks, referring to the three rocky peaks seen at the mountain’s summit. Kyffin made a large oil painting of this subject,

Farmers on the Carneddau, 1980 in which three farmers and their sheepdogs occupy the foreground of the picture.

Welsh Farmer in Snow by Kyffin Williams


Pontllyfni in Snow, 1974

Lithograph on paper

45 cm x 74.5 cm

In 1974, Kyffin produced a rare lithograph with The Curwen Studio, entitled Pontllyfni in Snow. It was made under the direction of

Stanley Jones, who is widely regarded as one of the finest print makers of the 20th Century and this collaboration enabled Kyffin to make an image with a wider range of colours than was possible in a linocut. It is one of the highlights of his printmaking career and an outstanding example of how he was able to distill his vision of Snowdonia into a single image.

Farmer, Pontlyffni, Kyffin Williams

Farmer, Pontllyfni 1971

Oil on canvas
76 cm x 127 cm

The composition of this lithograph is based on one of Kyffin’s largest and most dramatic landscape paintings, Farmer, Pontllyfni, 1971,
in which a lone farmer is seen under a vast, oppressive sky. In a possible reference to Vincent van Gogh’s painting Wheatfield with Crows, 1889, Kyffin uses simple, black shapes to evoke birds in flight, and in the lithograph he sets these shapes against subdued tonal changes in the mountains and the sky. We feel that each bird has its own unique character, responding in its own way to the wind currents and this is a considerable achievement given the minimal information he provides in the picture. He knew how to eliminate superfluous detail in a composition and leave only the essential information. A lifetime of drawing and observing the wildlife around him, an acute sensitivity to nature and a willingness to let the unconscious take over at the crucial moment in the picture making process enabled him to achieve this.

Young Buzzard by Welsh Artist, Kyffin Williams


Young Buzzard,1990

Linocut on paper
41 cm x 35 cm

"I want the work to transmit a particular mood and to do this I have to strip away a lot. I have to distil the subject, to eliminate anything that distracts and whether I’m painting a portrait or a landscape, mood is always the most important thing”.

Kyffin Williams believed that an artist should produce their best work in their fifties. He felt that a career should evolve slowly, that it should be nurtured and allowed to develop at its own pace and not be hurried to suit the demands of the marketplace. He was skeptical of careers that peaked too quickly and that involved an over abundance of self promotion. In the age of social media, this belief now seems outdated but Kyffin Williams belonged to a different era, a pre-internet world, where there was a different sense of how an artist contributed to the tradition of picture making. Whatever the merits of this idea, it is true that he himself produced some of his most accomplished and enduring paintings in his fifties and these paintings occasionally spawned equally beautiful prints. Where his drawings and watercolours were made quickly, often relying on instinct and memory as well as on observation and draughtsmanship, his linocuts were more considered and required careful planning. They differed from his other works on paper because they were also collaborations. He needed skilled print makers to bring his vision to life. The process required patience as well as a knowledge of how to distill and translate his ideas so that they would connect with his audience in this simplified form. Every cut into the surface of the block contributes in a linocut, however small and insignificant it may at first appear. Every mark adds to the dynamism within the whole. Each tonal shift helps to connect us emotionally to the spirit of the picture. The shapes to the left and right of the cascading water in Waterfall, Ogwen are an example of this. Each line extends and accentuates the downward movement of the water. When we examine the fifteen birds in Pontllyfni in Snow we see that each cut has its own character. Every bird is placed exactly against its background. Kyffin’s sense of placement, like his choice of colours, is beautifully judged in these prints, making them amongst the most significant works of his career. When seen together, they evoke the spirit of his entire output as an artist, focusing on themes that appeared throughout his pictures over six decades – the lone farmer, the mountains, the sea, the sky, the cottages, the wildlife, the waterfalls and rock formations. The artist’s touch is clear, as are the imperfections of the process. This humble medium, with its modest reputation, was transformed in Kyffin’s hands and enabled him to connect with people in a way that no Welsh artist had done before him.

Text © Nicholas Sinclair.

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