In my previous post I discussed some of my work on book covers back in the late 1980’s, which also happened to be among the best paid work I ever did. Best paid, both in regards to the amounts, and the time-to-work ratio. I think that the longest I ever spent on a cover was about two days, with the pay, rarely less than four-figure sums, and in the spectacular case of Billy Bathgate, just 20 minutes work for over £3000!
I also made many illustrations for the inside pages of books, and these were often less well rewarded financially. Normally, if one was contributing a single illustration to a text-book, the rule of thumb was £250 for a half-page, and £500 for a full plate. And even this, seemed pretty good most of the time, when the typical job took less than a day to complete. However, on one occasion, in 1996, I received a commission for a half-page illustration which turned out to be the polar-time-to-work-ratio-opposite of the Billy Bathgate job.
The commission offer was for only £150 (the lowest offer I ever accepted in my ten years or so as an illustrator), and I knew from the brief, that it would be enormously time-consuming. But, just as struggling actors, never turn down a role, however bleak, so it is with most freelance illustrators (as I then was).
Fortunately, as things turned out, what the commission lacked in remuneration, it more than made up for in job-satisfaction. For, not only was the illustration for a Thames and Hudson publication – the sort of encyclopaedic book I’d devoured as a child – the subject matter – the great Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, in modern Syria – was truly thrilling, and not to mention, extremely challenging.
My task was to draw and colour an accurate as possible reconstruction of the castle based on two large black and white photographs, supplied by the art director, of its ruined state. Fortunately, I dug up some additional colour photos from my local library, and with just a touch of artistic license, after nearly three weeks of hard work, I arrived at a plausible vision for the how Krak would have looked in its intimidating pomp.
When, a little while later, I received my complementary copy of the book, I can honestly say, that seeing one of my own, lovingly executed illustrations, gracing the very sort of book which had thrilled me as a little boy, I have never experienced more gratification. Which all just goes to prove, it isn’t always only about the dosh!
It’s a well known fact that up until relatively recently, painters made up their own colours from ground pigments and whatever carrier mediums they preferred; most commonly oil, water or egg yolk. One of the marks of the successful artist was being able to afford an apprentice (or two, or three…) to do the blending of the paints for them, and so the acquiring of the skill of paint blending became a crucial rite of passage for all aspiring painters.
By the time I entered art school however, the era of commercially produced, convenient pre-prepared paints, of all media was firmly established, and pestles and mortars had long disappeared from our studios. Nevertheless, I, and one or two fellow students of a more traditional persuasion were curious to experience, at least fleetingly, both making and using our own paint.
Fortunately, our school was close by an art shop that still supplied raw pigments, so we were able to have some fun making up our own oils, watercolour and egg tempera and then trying them out on paper and canvas.
Presented here are the results of my own experimentation with tempera and watercolour. Because water was free, and even back then eggs were relatively expensive, I was able to create a far broader palette in the latter, and had to restrict myself to just two colours in egg tempera – Prussian blue and burnt umber – hence the several monochrome sketches…
As a young artist I went through numerous phases and enthusiasms, the briefest of which, being a desire to master the portrayal of animal-kind. I think my “animal period” lasted about five months in all, but despite its brevity, I still managed to fill several sketchbooks and give myself highly useful reference material for my later professional career.
Sadly, I have since mislaid two of the main sketchbooks, and could only find a handful of pictures as examples for this post. Nevertheless, I think they are sufficiently worthy, and interesting to be reproduced here.
My two favourite painters, Vermeer and Hopper, shared an amazing knack for turning unremarkable moments and scenes into images packed with dramatic nuance and eternal resonance. Their most famous paintings offer graphic testimony to the enormous power of the “small still voice”, where the importance of the message belies its volume.
Lacking those two gentlemen’s genius, and in common with most regular artists, I was typically more of a megaphone artist when attempting to get my own pictorial messages across, relying on devices like huge canvases and epic subject matter.
However, even an artist of my own normal abilities could occasionally succeed in imbuing the mundane and the ordinary with a little charm and presence, especially, when I resorted to watercolour. For me, watercolour painting was an antidote to everything else I did, in oils and even gouache – a therapy almost – a sort of breathing exercise with brushes and colour, whereby I visually inhaled a scene; processed the scene in the blink of an eye; and then exhaled the scene through my water-sodden brush.
The pictures presented here are good illustrations of how a few simply applied watery daubs can raise a mundane suburban sitting room into a theatre of colour and light. No overthinking; just a touch of keen observation and easy application, and the everyday is morphed into the exotic. These watercolours are the closest I ever got to successful whispering.
(Incidentally, I should mention that I still have the originals of most of these images from my old watercolour sketchbooks and I’m happy to sell them for £400 each, plus, they reproduce beautifully as digital prints on fine papers for £100 each, plus postage and packing. All images, original and repro’ about 25 x 18 cm)
plus several other famous historical battles through the eyes of a battle movie crazy youth…
In addition to the remarkable Mary Poppins (1964) the other two films that first set my spirits soaring – though in a markedly different way to Mr Banks’ joyous kite – were The 300 Spartans (1962) and Zulu (1964)*. Like most little boys growing up in the 60’s (and some little girls too in my experience of the time), I was thrilled by epic cinematic depictions of battle. But, whereas movies like Ben Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963) and even the extraordinary Spartacus (1960) did that Wagnerian thing of interspersing the brilliant battle and action scenes with boring half-hours of tedious “drama” (or so I thought as a child), The 300 Spartans and Zulu were vehicles for the (beautifully staged) battles themselves – Thermopylae and Rorke’s Drift respectively – with the drama, merely the filler. In other words, perfect films for little Adams everywhere.
The most ambitious film ever made about a single battle was Sergei Bondarchuk’s enormous Waterloo (1970), which I first saw as a ten-year-old on its UK release. But even then, as much I was awestruck by the superlative battle scenes, I was irritated by the stodgy script (actually, just an endless seam of historical quotes) and the awkward caricaturesque acting, which lurched wildly between the histrionic French and the aloof British.
With more modest budgets and far smaller casts, by canny use of camera angles, stunning photography, beautifully paced editing, and (certainly in Zulu’s case) thrilling musical scores, directors Rudolf Maté with his Spartans, and Cy Enfield with his handful of red coats, made films that felt far larger and much grander than they actually were.
But perhaps the greatest testimony to the enduring appeal of all of the above is how well they stand up against their modern CGI equivalents. For example, Frank Miller’s 1998 Thermopylae film, 300 – allegedly inspired by Maté’s 1962 version – despite its having a virtual cast of millions and “authentic Spartans and genuine battle violence” is – apart from one or two scenes – utterly forgettable. Most interestingly of all is how “small” and claustrophobic the later, studio created film feels by comparison with its location-shot forerunner. And similarly, for all the earlier film’s wooden acting and heavily tableau’d dramatic interludes there is a dignity and humanity totally lacking in Miller’s animated comic book treatment.
The pictures presented above date from about 1970 – 75, and reflect the obsession I had as a 10-14 year-old boy for attempting to recreate the battles that had thrilled me so much on the cinema screen. Sometimes, I would base my pictures on famous historical battle paintings, using the figures in the original artwork as templates for my own infantry and cavalry, often for battles of different eras. Those wonderful “templates” – all of which influenced my childhood self almost as much as the movies above, are included below.
*Other films which are worth looking out for as noble – if imperfect – examples of pre-CGI historical battle movies are: Clive Donner’s 1969 Alfred The Great – a turgid film, but with decent battles; Tony Richardson’s 1968 Charge of Light Brigade – marred by Richardson’s anachronistic, relativist, anti-war message, laid on with a trowel, but largely successfully staged, and a genuinely epic charge; Cy Enfield’s return to Natal for his 1979 (“prequel” to Zulu), “grittier and more historically accurate” Zulu Dawn – compares poorly to the near-perfect Zulu, only proving yet again, that grit and accuracy (and vast numbers of extras) alone do not guarantee a great picture. Worth seeing though, just for the British scouts first sighting of the massed Zulu impis (11,000 warrior extras) – an astonishing cinematic moment.
Plus, two more CGI fiascos to avoid at all costs: Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander the Great – should be retitled, Alexander the Petulant, and as for the cartoon-filled battles!; Also, the woeful 2004 – Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy – which has to be the leading candidate for worst adaptation of a great and immortal work of literature ever executed. Brad Pitt’s appallingly miscast, pouting, kung-Fu-fighting super hero, isn’t even the worst characterisation in the film!!
Finally, one exception to prove the rule, although CGI is mercifully absent from the superb opening battle scene, is Ridley Scott’s exceptional 2000 film, Gladiator (actually, a close reworking of Anthony Mann’s terribly dull, 1964 Fall of the Roman Empire) – which introduced the historical battle movie genre to a whole new generation of little Adams…
another look at the art of painting from photographs…
The two pictures presented below have both featured in previous posts (here and here), but neither with their template photographs. The “Walking Away” is particularly interesting to me as it has the penned grid over the girl drawn onto the photo itself. Generally, as far as I recall, I would use a sheet of tracing or acetate paper over the photo so as not to ruin it. But, for some reason I didn’t bother in this case. The fact that I only “gridded” the girl is reflected in the relative freedom of the landscape painting. The skiing scene mountain-scape by contrast is much more faithful to the original photo, in form, if not in tonality.
Both pictures present further evidence of what is possible using the humble snap, in terms of expressive potential and dramatic interpretation.
My recent post on line drawing was so well received that I thought I would follow it up with this look at a set of my more studied drawings from 1996.
The images here will be familiar to some, as they form the basis of one of my most successful and enduring themes, which I returned to many times over the course of decade or more. It all started with a casual photo-shoot on the sunny south terrace of our Spanish home, when my wife Dido (the blonde lady in these pictures) and Lynne, an old ballet pal of hers, performed a variety of impromptu poses for my camera. Mostly, they involved dance (see this related post), but they also acted these three, far more contemplative vignettes.
Unlike line drawing sketches, these take account of light and shade as much as form, giving them a more obvious dramatic content. But, as with line sketching, often, what is left undrawn, is as important to the feel of the picture as what is drawn. In the case of these works, it was my intention that the whiteness of the untouched paper in contrast to the painstakingly executed figures, and the shadows they contain and cast, would accentuate the feeling of the harsh Spanish sun, saturating the tender friendship of the two girls.
All in all, I think they succeed pretty well, and for me at least, remain precious moments captured in lead.
A fact of the current restrictions upon our normal lives is at once curious, obvious and virtually universal; that being the loss of, and consequent longing for, normal, boring, and even tedious everyday experience. Missing erstwhile unremarkable pleasures of life, like going to the pub, restaurants and concerts is bad enough, but when one starts to get nostalgic over things like hopping on and off buses and even journeys on the tube, it’s apparent that the present regime is really starting to bite.
This nostalgia struck me keenly the other day when I was trawling through slides of old sketchpads dating from the time of my commutes to art school (an incredible forty-plus years ago). And, as an artist’s sketchbook is often a tool for magnifying the seemingly mundane into something more meaningful, it occurred to me that the drawings from those old books might provide a peculiarly apposite reminder, for all its apparent dinginess and dreariness, of the glory of normality…
Photography has played an ever-growing role in my picture-making since the first day of the second term, of my second year at Saint Martin’s School of Art. It was a bleak winter’s day in 1980 and I remember feeling particularity depressed about the direction – or lack of direction to be precise that my painting was taking. For the past four terms at the school I’d walked a wobbly tightrope between the pressure to emulate my tutors’ abstract expressionism, and my own innate passion for making representational images. The resulting stream of paintings echoed this dichotomy, rarely convincing as abstract or figurative; more often than not, a clumsy, unresolved mishmash of the two forms. If, as occasionally happened, I turned out a pleasing picture, it was always more by luck than by design, with me clueless as to how or why I had achieved this.
Then, on that winter’s day in 1980, while I was pacing back and forth, dreading the coming weeks and months, a new tutor called David Hepher walked into my studio space, and my art career was changed forever. David, unlike all the other tutors at Saint Martin’s was a figurative artist and to this day I have no idea how he came to be teaching there, but for me, his sudden appearance was as timely as that of an Old Testament angel. I distinctly recall his expression as he first set eyes on my paintings – large canvases full of expressively, heavily painted figures of young people hurtling boldly through a romanticised Israeli landscape.
A warm quizzical smile came across his face like that of someone unexpectedly bumping into an old friend. Then I remember that he sat down on my rickety paint-spattered moulded plastic chair. During the previous four terms at the school not one tutor had ever smiled this kind of smile when looking at my pictures, let alone sat down in my space. By the end of the ensuing conversation it became apparent that he was almost as relieved to see my work in that school, as I was thankful that he was now teaching there.
The first thing he asked me was who my favourite artists were, and when I said Vermeer and Hopper he looked curiously at my wild and frenzied pictures. He then reminded me of Vermeer’s reliance on the camera obscura for achieving these perfectly painted captured moments and asked me why I didn’t use my own photos in a similar fashion?
While I’d already been using photographs for the past year or so as a form of rough reference, in the same way I worked from my sketchbook, David convinced me to try something “bolder”, in his words, but hugely controversial; especially within such a temple of conceptualism and abstract expressionism as Saint Martin’s. He suggested that I take my favourite photographs and copy them as faithfully as possible in oils, like huge painted photographic enlargements. He felt certain that in this way I would find the inner artistic peace I was craving.
And cutting a long story short, David’s empathetic advice proved successful, even though the pictures I went on to produce with this new method ensured that I would prove even more of a problematic enigma for most of his colleagues. Presented here are several of the large canvases I painted as a direct result of David’s tutelage. Some them have appeared on this site before, but never side-by-side with the “offending” snaps!
Regular readers of these posts will be aware of how prominently our 1991 trip to Chile has featured, and of its main purpose; for Dido to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool to support social integration and participation for children with learning problems. Thus far however, I’ve only ever touched upon that key element of the trip, focusing more on our impressions as first-time travellers to an incredible country (and-then reborn democracy).
While it would be lying to say that whenever I hear a mention of Chile, my instant mental vision is not of mind-blowing epic scenery, it is also true, that this is always quickly followed by a starkly contrasting melancholy caused by memories of the faces shown here.
The plain truth is, and one of the main reasons I’ve avoided the subject as far as possible, despite the fact this happened nearly 30 years ago, there are issues of confidentiality which severely compromise my scope for description.
Suffice to say here, that with the cache of her Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship behind her, Dido was able to convince the relevant government authorities in Santiago to grant us access to a group of nine children (all boys in this case) with whom she could work. Nothing however could have prepared us for the circumstances in which the work would take place, for instead of a regular school, or, as we had naively expected, a special needs school, we found ourselves that first morning being driven through the security gates of a home for young male offenders – a borstal.
More shocking still, was that none of the nine boys – all of whom had either been orphaned or abandoned as babies and who all suffered from various forms of mental and/or physical disability – were themselves offenders or delinquents of any sort. Their only crime was to be born into a Chilean society, then-ill-equipped to properly care for them. Hopefully, during the years since, as Chile has developed into a more stable (the current, popular ructions notwithstanding) and socially sophisticated democracy, children born into similar circumstances enjoy a less bleak prospect.
Nevertheless, from the start of the week we spent with them, we were struck by most of the boy’s cheerfulness and sense of optimism, and their enthusiasm and excitement for Dido’s program of dance-based therapy. Despite some shyness and reluctance from a couple of the lads to begin with, by the end of the week all nine boys had become thoroughly engaged and were already showing significant progress with regards to their levels of creative social engagement.
The idea had been for one or two carers and/or teachers working in the home to at least observe, and hopefully participate in the activities, and thereby learn to continue the therapy once we had left. Sadly though, despite their repeated assurances to the contrary, neither the government department who facilitated the project, nor anyone employed at the home showed the slightest curiosity or interest in what Dido was doing until the very last day, by which time, it was too late.
Thus, we left the boys for the last time with as much frustration as satisfaction, and saddened in the realisation that this week had probably been the highlight of their young lives rather than merely the beginning of a brighter future.
Following our return to England, and during the months which followed Dido often wrote to her Chilean contacts in an attempt to secure some kind of followup to her work – at least for the nine boys. Unfortunately, all her appeals went unanswered. The painting here was meant as both an expression of our frustration and also intended to insure that at least we would never forget those nine remarkable young individuals.