(this post abridged from a previously published essay)
I’ve been sketching ever since I can remember, looking back now in honest truth I don’t believe I could have followed any other path except illustration. I was pretty dreamy about everything else at school apart from English and History, so by the time it came to a career decision it was pretty well determined which direction I would take.
As a young child I had limited access to children’s books, the only reading matter I remember in the house were cheap weekly comics, Rupert the Bear annuals and on special occasions my mother’s old volumes of collected fairy tales which she’d retained from her own childhood in the 1930’s, would be pulled out. These latter were generally locked away and rarely shown, so to me were like mysterious volumes full of ancient, beautifully drawn images. I didn’t know it at the time, but these drawings by Golden Age illustrators were later to prove an enormous influence on me.
I’d occupy myself happily alone filling up sketchbooks with animals, or of galleons and WWII aircraft dogfights between Spitfires and Messerschmidts, the staple diet of adolescent boys in the late 1960’s. Around the age of ten I discovered my first serious artistic influence – José Maria Jorge, an Argentinian illustrator specialising in realistic action paintings who used to draw B/W strips for the DC Thompson “Commando” comic series in the UK. I would lovingly pour over Jorge’s accurate renditions of WWII aircraft in titles such as “Aces High” and “Battle Squadron” and struggle to emulate his detailed pen and ink line technique.
Once I discovered the joys of the local library other artists began to make an impression, largely through book illustrations, notably Edward Ardizzone, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Shepard (Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh etc) and Quentin Blake. At the same time as a bi-product of my interest in 17th and 18th Century history I became interested in period engravings, and was particularly seized by the wonderful bouncing, vibrant line of Thomas Rowlandson, who’s always been one of the most important influences on my work. Also I would pore over the work of James Gillray, and epic Napoleonic paintings by Louis-Francois Lejeune, and P. J. de Loutherbourg, although these were more inspirational than influential on my own work.
One important Christmas present from my parents was a “How to Draw” guidebook written by TV-artist Adrian Hill, and I vociferously collected other titles he’d written about drawing and painting in various mediums. Hill inspired me to start drawing from life, especially on holiday, and I began filling sketchbooks with observed drawings, always carrying one around with me (and still do!). At school in the 1970’s the staff discovered I could draw, and put me under some pressure to follow the path of “real” painting (as opposed to that nasty inferior commercial graphics business), though all my instincts pushed me towards illustration. Then while on holiday in Cornwall at the impressionable age of 15 I discovered the work of Arthur Rackham, whose work made a colossal impression on me. In fact it was a re-discovery really, as I’d already seen Rackham’s work in my mothers old Fairytale collections when I was younger. But now I was mesmerised by Rackham’s sinuous lines and sepia tones and was sucked into his pictures, which appeared to be windows into another universe. From that point on I was determined to be a children’s book illustrator.
Fast forward to Art College in 1977. This was the time of punk rock and all the iconography that went with it. On a social level Manchester in particular was a great enlightenment, the music was buzzing, new challenging graphic images, yet my strongest artistic influences remained unswervedly in the past. Of the many artists I discovered in the four years I studied illustration at Bournville and Manchester my favorites were Aubrey Beardsley, Edmund Dulac, Egon Schiele, William Heath Robinson, Mervyn Peake, and Ralph Steadman. Steadman is the only one of those “illustration icons” who was still alive and I’ve actually had the pleasure to meet in person.
Also, I shouldn’t forget children’s book illustrator Tony Ross my course head at Manchester, who shook me out of a dangerous obsession with Edwardian illustrators and encouraged me to work in a more “modern” style.
By 1983 I was a professional illustrator in my own right. After setting up the art cooperative Facade Studios I shared rooms with fellow illustrators Jane Ray and Willie Ryan, as well as my old friend designer Andy Royston, we all tended to rub influences on each other. Reflecting the tight deadlines for magazines and book covers that formed my staple source of income, modern illustrators replaced those of the past as my chief influences – artists such as Paul Sample (the comic illustrator not the painter), and in particular the Tintin comics by ‘Hergé’ (real name Georges Remi). In children’s books I was particularly overwhelmed by the work of Errol le Cain – a decorative picture book artist of immense talent, and Michael Foreman‘s wonderful use of colour.
The Japan connection grew from a fascination with Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Most of my “heroes” of illustration – Rackham, Beardsley, Heath Robinson etc owed a strong debt to Japanese art; it was by researching their influences that I became caught up in the same art form. For a long while I was intoxicated with Harunobu, Utamaro, Sharaku and Hokusai. Interest in Japanese art became an obsession that eventually led me to leave London and move to Tokyo in 1987.
In Japan, a new culture and a new market led to a burst of experimentation in my work. Fresh styles and techniques based on scratched lines resembling woodcuts and vigorous freely applied gouache paintings, but in the end I settled into a dynamic commercial style that returned to my first love – pen and ink. This time however drawn directly on coated paper with little or no underdrawing – a technique prompted partly by shodo and sumi-e.