I have always been a drawer not a painter, and I love crisp, clean decisive lines.
The whole business of decision-making fascinates me – in life and art.
I’m with G.K. Chesterton when he says:
“All my life I have loved edges; and the boundary-line that brings one thing sharply against another. All my life I have loved frames and limits.”
I have a deep need to feel that a line is really nailed down – that whether right or wrong, it is clear. This means that I’ve always preferred ink to pencil or crayon, etc.
This is a drawing I did when I was 14. I drew with a biro, and I’d draw late at night, when really I should have been fast asleep. (I used to catch up on sleep during maths lessons.)
I graduated to using a steel-nibbed dip pen as an older teenager, imagining myself as an Arthur Rackham or Aubrey Beardsley. I loved Durer too. Anything intricate and richly decorative has always attracted me.
(Of course, as things become more intricate, as “micro-decisions” accumulate, the end result often becomes less and less clear…)
This was my first ever commercial illustration job – aged 17 – for the Bleeding Heart wine bar, in Bleeding Heart Yard, in Clerkenwell. (It is still on the wall there.)
It is a picture of the old medieval inn-sign of the Bleeding Heart of the Virgin Mary – stuck through with swords representing the five great sorrows of her life. (As a good Catholic boy it had particular meaning for me.)
Getting into college, on a Foundation course, pulled the rug from under me, turning me upside down, as I struggled to find a way to fit in with the prevailing culture.
I knew that romantic medievalism was definitely NOT what was wanted – and there was no place for my love of intricate pattern, or dreamy nostalgia.
Encouraged to question everything, my work fell apart – and trying to piece something new together, my drawing style became increasingly stiff and brittle and geometric.
Groping for certainty, I began making simple, hard-edged pattern, or reducing figures to cold 2D arrangements, drained of life. One of the perils for me is over-thinking everything – and art college had just that effect – encouraging unhealthy navel-gazing.
I took time out to go on a long backpacking trip around India, (this was the late 80’s when India was much less developed than today) and I kept a sketchbook full of different styles of drawing as I moved around the wildly varied cultures and landscapes. The profusion and colour of Hinduism had a powerful effect, but so did the Islamic architecture, and the unique Christian culture of Kerala.
I got onto an illustration degree course at St. Martin’s on the strength of my India sketchbook, but at college I still clung to my own ‘system’ of geometrical pattern. I had decided I could cut out all depth, and colour, and even tried to dispense with line, so that my pictures were arrangements of flat, black shapes. It was figurative – it wasn’t meant to be abstract – but it was very cold, and pretty much incomprehensible.
(I haven’t kept any of that work at all – which is perhaps a shame.)
The turning point came, half way through my degree course, when we were assessed – I came equal 13th out of a group of 26. I couldn’t claim even to be misunderstood – my work was seen as just thoroughly middling. I expect I was a certain ‘type’ the tutors had seen often before.
I let go at last of my crazy, brittle system, and began drawing with a brush, and for a long time I stuck with that.
These are drawings I did at the Royal College of Art – this was in the early 90s, when it was fashionable to draw in a sort of stumbling way – and I enjoyed this style a lot – but it was too free to really control, or to do reliably to order. The ‘woman’ in the picture below is actually from a photo of Mexican men in drag.
Being too free, it can feel that nothing has meaning, that without strict boundaries meaning drains away – and the profound need I have for decisiveness and meaning and pattern was unsatisfied.
I got one or two jobs after college that demanded a ‘medieval’ style – and it was an excuse to return to using a dip pen again:
This was from a series of drawings for Lloyds Bank.
I was working in all sorts of styles, doing greetings card designs, doing whatever work I could get – but I knew that I’d only really begin to make a name for myself if I settled on one style.
I’d written a picture book text, Halibut Jackson, (and got good feedback from people who knew about such things) and I put together a dummy book and started sending it out to publishers. Halibut Jackson is all about pattern, and the story demanded a fine, crisp line, so I drew the pictures in dip pen – but I coloured the sample pictures in flat colour on the computer.
Klaus Flugge at Andersen Press said he’d publish the book if I did the artwork in watercolour – which I hadn’t used since I was a teenager.
I quickly polished my watercolour technique – I remember one of my studio-mates trying to tell me to be braver about using deeper tones – and the book got the go ahead.
I had recently discovered the joy of drawing on lining paper (wallpaper). The ink line feathered, and bled, a bit like drawing on blotting paper, and I could correct mistakes with a scalpel – delicately slicing away the ink. (That is a technique medieval artists would have used on parchment.) That meant I could draw quite freely, but could still correct any ‘excesses’. The paper also gave my work an ‘antique’ look – and I’d read about the Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi – where imperfections, agedness and humble materials are prized.
Quentin Blake had been a visiting tutor at the RCA and he was encouraging, saying he could see that I could “really draw” – but his one practical piece of advice I remember was to use either very expensive or very cheap paper.
In other words, use paper that has an identity – that is not middling.
My first books were all on lining paper – but a few years later un-sized lining paper became unavailable – wallpaper shops sold only “new” and “improved” paper, where the line didn’t bleed.
I began using watercolour paper, and I felt I’d finally got my watercolour technique to a good level with my book Piglet – which was due to be published in 2013.
I’d developed a five colour palette (these are Winsor & Newton colours):
permanent rose, naples yellow, winsor orange, phthalo blue (green shade), winsor violet
As long as you mix always at least three of those colours together (often using only the tiniest quantities of one or two of the three colours) you get gorgeous rich hues. It felt like a final refinement of my colouring technique. But the publishing company folded and the book went unpublished.
My new publisher was Flying Eye, the new children’s book imprint of Nobrow, and Sam Arthur and Alex Spiro, who together founded Nobrow, had developed a unique print-production technique – which gives their books such outstanding richness.
For my two Flying Eye books (A Letter For Bear, and This Is My Rock) I’ve used a dip pen on watercolour paper, tinting the drawings with washes of monochrome watercolour, then overlaying colour on the computer. It’s like tinting an engraving – and I see it as a sort of printmaking.
The pattern and use of frames in my Flying Eye books bring me back to the Chesterton quote above – and the strange magic of frames and borders and boundaries is something I want to write more about.
One element in my visual work that I’m less happy with is how my line has tightened up again over time. I draw over a traced design, and each mark is made first time, without hesitation, so that the line flows across the page, and the actual pen work is done very quickly, but perhaps I’m too practiced at that technique now, and it is too precise, and a bit cold. I want more waywardness and warmth in my line work – I want to take more risks again.
The drawing below is a page from two books I recently designed and illustrated for a schools project with the literacy charity Pop Up Projects. It was drawn spontaneously with no tracing or preparation – and only tidied up a little afterwards on screen.
With my next picture book I’m also trying a freer technique – that I hope is a happy blend of my need for crisp definition and energy.