Hark! Is that the sound of wassailing children outside the door? And that slightly bilious feeling – why, isn’t that the result of a surfeit of mince pies and alcoholic revelry? Aw, look – a robin redbreast – alighting on my monitor and leaving a little festive deposit on my USB hub!
It can only mean one thing – yes, time to give the blog an end-of-year tidy-up so we can stride purposefully together into 2011, fresh-faced, mustard-keen and with nary a backward glance at the wreckage and regrets of the old year.
So where to start this time? Probably with a gig we went to shortly after my last post, actually. I do genuinely try to keep this blog ‘on message’ so I wouldn’t be mentioning this unless there was a relevant, drawing-related reason for doing so. In this case, the band in question were Gorillaz and the reason is, of course, Jamie Hewlett. The show was at the Brighton Centre, everyone’s least-favourite venue, but in spite of that handicap it was a triumph – an absolute feast for the ears and eyes. Especially so for any fan of the outrageously-talented Mr Hewlett, whose drawings and animations poured off the giant screen backdrop in a torrent of visual invention. Even the programme – and yes, I realise no-one over 14 should be seen dead buying band merchandise – is a work of art and worthy addition to anyone’s bookshelves.
The Brighton Illustrators’ Group meet once a month when we usually listen to a guest speaker from some area of the industry – a fellow illustrator, art director, publisher or whatever and do a little socialising into the bargain. Earlier this year it was decided to introduce the occasional 6 x 6 evening, based on a concept that’s been around for a while elsewhere, where six speakers each speak for six minutes on six separate images. I understand that these events normally stick pretty rigidly to the format, whereas the BiG version, from what I’ve seen so far, is a looser, more flexible affair, befitting a bunch of rule-dodging artists. This was certainly true of the recent December 6 x 6 that I took part in, which started out with seven speakers listed but was whittled down to five on the night thanks to the transport-hobbling effects of the extreme weather.
I quickly realised that any attempt to somehow pick six images to represent 26-years-worth of output would be an exercise in futility so I instead chose a linking theme – Brighton – that made the selection relatively simple. Though far from being an overview, the six pieces did, as it happens, span the whole of my career. Strictly speaking, I didn’t narrow it down to just six pieces but rather six separate jobs or projects; I think I got away with it.
So for anyone interested or who was snowed in and couldn’t make it on the night, here are the pieces in question:
Al Terno. This was a comic-strip I produced once a month back in the mid-80s for the long-defunct local listings magazine The Punter. It was one of my earliest jobs. Al was a shallow, trend-obsessed hipster loser (they still exist – you know who you are) and as such was an ideal vehicle with which to satirise anything I happened to have in my sights at the time. The strips read like real period pieces now, dealing with such burning issues as Margaret Thatcher, Filofaxes, Golf GTis, ‘The Great Storm’, TV satellite dishes that were then spreading across the country’s skyline like a rash and several long-forgotten Brighton Festival themes: ‘Australia’ or ‘A sense of Freedom’, anyone?
The strip ran for about four years and gave me an enormous amount of pleasure. I now have very mixed feelings about it though, as anyone would about work they created a quarter of a century (!) ago. While some of the writing and drawing still stands up ok, there’s a general deranged, overcrowded, manic quality to the strips that I find exhausting to even look at now. I’ve calmed down a lot since then, as has my work.
The Long Tall Texans were a Brighton rockabilly trio who approached me via their manager with a view to creating a cartoon version of the band (eat your heart out, Mr Hewlett!) to appear on t-shirts, record sleeves, posters, badges etc. They were apparently fans of my Al Terno strip and were keen to create an image for themselves that might distinguish them from the rest of the then-thriving rockabilly scene. The first image I produced for them was used as a t-shirt design but it wasn’t until I started to design full-colour album covers for them that the characters really took on a life of their own. They were never intended as conventional caricatures – my aim was always more to capture the spirit of the band, which was exuberant to say the least. They always played with huge smiles on their faces and their sense of enjoyment was extremely infectious. The small independent record labels that put out their albums never had much in the way of a budget but I loved working on the Texans’ stuff and never resented the slim fees in the slightest; I think the relish I took in producing these pieces still comes across.
Three Long Tall Texans-related mini-anecdotes that I didn’t have time to include during the 6 x 6:
1. Big in Japan part 1
In 2001 I was fortunate enough to enjoy that rarest of occurrences in an illustrator’s career – an expenses-paid research trip. This was no coach trip to Bognor Regis either, but six days in Tokyo visiting Japanese workplaces courtesy of Oxford University Press, in preparation for the ‘At Work’ edition of Passport, a series I’d been involved with since 1995. (incidentally, I flew out there on 15th Sept 2001; an historically interesting period to be travelling anywhere by air but that’s another story…)
Anyway, by a bizarre coincidence about a week prior to the trip, I received an email from a chap called Tetsuya, who was based in Tokyo. It was the first time I’d ever been contacted by anyone from that part of the world so the timing was remarkable. He was a fan of the Long Tall Texans and had tracked my details down to ask permission to use various bits of album cover artwork on some flyers and t-shirts he was producing for his record shop. This was all too weird. I explained that, believe it or not, I was going to be ‘in town’ shortly and that if I had any free time I’d try to look him up. To cut a long story short, we did meet up and he took me along to his little Rock’n’Roll record shop above a coffee bar in the back-streets of the Harajuku area, where all his Japanese rockabilly pals (including the singer from a band called, rather marvellously, Barrel Of Ninjamen) had assembled to meet the Gaijin illustrator. We drank cold cans of Guinness and perused the large selection of LTT records, featuring several albums whose sleeves had been thoroughly ‘Japanised’ and now bore only a tenuous likeness to my original designs. Surreal but oddly thrilling at the same time. It seemed the rumours of a thriving Tokyo rockabilly scene and, more specifically, a local Long Tall Texans fan-base were true after all.
2. Big in Japan part 2
Two years later, in 2003, I was back in Japan and once more OUP were picking up the tab. This trip included visits to various schools and colleges across the country, gathering reference material for the forthcoming young-person’s edition ‘My First Passport’ books 1 & 2. Although both these research jaunts were pretty intense and had absolutely packed schedules, I won’t pretend they weren’t also great fun and well beyond the usual perks of this most perk-less of jobs. They’re probably the main reason I’m still happy to do regular work in the educational publishing field – a generally much-derided area of work among fellow illustrators but one that has been pretty good to me over the years, if occasionally less than inspiring.
“Hang on – what’s all this got to do with the Long Tall Texans?”, I hear you ask. Well, after arriving at Narita airport at the start of this trip, I’d barely got through baggage reclaim when a young Japanese couple walked past me on the airport concourse and blow me down if the guy wasn’t wearing a LTT ‘Singing To The Moon’ t-shirt that I’d designed for the band many years earlier. It did fleetingly occur to me to run up to him and introduce myself but he’d probably have quite justifiably called for security so it’s perhaps just as well I restricted myself to standing there with my mouth hanging open. It made for a great ‘welcome to our country’ moment anyway, and remains the only time I’ve seen one of the t-shirts I designed for the band being worn anywhere other than at one of their gigs.
3. A most unexpected development
In 2006 my son Sam started at BHASVIC 6th-form College in Brighton, where his form tutor turned out to be none other than Mark Denman, the bespectacled guitarist from the ‘Texans who, since having a child himself, had turned his back on the precarious prospects offered by the rock’n’roll lifestyle and devoted himself full-time to his altogether more fiscally reliable other job as a maths teacher. Sam was suitably amazed by the coincidence when I pointed out his new teacher on the old record covers!
Brighton Poster. Brighton’s local daily paper, the Evening Argus, known for its occasionally surreal / morbid headlines, celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2005 and I became involved in setting up a slightly bogus art competition with the intention of finding six Brighton-themed images (my own plus five others) to be reproduced as commemorative posters and sold around town. For some inexplicable, masochistic reason, I chose to create an aerial, fish-eye view of the whole city, giving disproportionate emphasis to the notable landmarks but at the same time trying to stick at least roughly to the correct geographical layout. Needless to say, it took ages to work out and execute, and the meagre royalties I eventually earned from sales came nowhere near compensating for the time spent working on it. No matter, it achieved a certain ubiquity for a short time and is still a piece that I’m quite fond of; a proper labour of love.
I actually got the idea from an illustration I produced years earlier for the Weston-Super-Mare tourism campaign of 1993. This was another highly-detailed aerial view of a seaside resort but that’s just about where the similarities end. The W-S-M piece was made in the pre-computer era, a four-foot square gouache and ink painting on heavy watercolour paper that, remarkably, I received back from the client unscathed and which hangs on my wall at home to this day.
As for the Brighton image, there is no actual ‘original artwork’ as such, other than the twenty-odd aesthetically-worthless A4 sheets of black ink linework that were scanned onto my Mac and eventually jigsawed together to form the basis of the final piece. And whereas aerial reference material is now a mere click or two away thanks to the wonders of Google Earth, back in the early 90s there was no such convenient shortcut available. Which I have to say worked to my advantage in this instance, since the client evidently felt obliged to provide a two-man helicopter to take me and my camera on a most enjoyable low-altitude reference-gathering flight along the coast of Weston. Can’t imagine many clients providing that sort of service these days, somehow.
The final three images I included in my 6×6 were all from this year. 2010 has been a bit of a strange one work-wise, alternating between full-on frenetic and almost zen-like levels of inactivity. It was during a prolonged period of the latter that I took the opportunity to indulge myself in some rare personal work and experimentation with digital techniques.
The Bricon pieces emerged from one of these technical exercises. I started out with the Helter-Skelter image initially as a one-off vehicle for trying out a couple of ideas with dot-matrix vector effects but decided to extend it into a series to give myself a sense of purpose and structure in the absence of any client-imposed guidelines. I’ve since had them made into a set of postcards – a snip at three quid a pop!
The Bird Table image also evolved from this period of personal work and has no underlying logic or purpose whatsoever, which I think is why I’m rather fond of it. A simple vector rendition of the back of my house (that’s the Brighton connection, by the way), loosely based on a photographic composite, this again started out as a purely technical exercise before figures were gradually added for no reason other than to add visual spice. I’ve had the final version made into a large giclée print and I also produced a modified version for use as my Christmas card this year (see the previous blog entry).
Finally, I included one of my iPod paintings made with the Brushes app, of Brighton’s Duke of York cinema, as a means of further proselytizing my enthusiasm for touch-screen technology. My earlier blogs are already full of this suff so I won’t bother repeating geeky old rants here.
One last thing before I draw an overdue veil over this final post of 2010 and, oh dear, it concerns another drawing app – quel surprise! I’ve been speculating aloud for a while now that I could see no reason why there wouldn’t soon be a raft of vector-based drawing apps being developed for the touch-screens in addition to all the bitmap / painting apps already available. Well, behind the curve or what? They’re already there.
The only one I’ve tried out so far is called Quill by a company called Estella Touch. It’s very much a work in progress and version 1 has only a very limited range of tools and controls; Adobe Illustrator this is not. Shapes drawn on screen are converted to paths which can be moved and re-sized but there is no bezier curve control and consequently no means of fine-tuning shapes once drawn. Stroke and Fill colours and opacity are fully adjustable as is stroke width. There are just two brush styles at present: a round brush and a calligraphy / italic style. Layers are not available but the stacking order of objects can be changed using select / move forward / move back controls. A relatively blunt instrument for now then, but a nicely designed interface and with obvious potential for improvement and already providing a fun method for knocking out quick, punchy images.
Here are a few early doodles using Quill. As I said, pretty crude but the limitations of the App do lend the results a certain naive charm.
See you in the new decade. x