Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Interview With The Vampire

I received this email yesterday and it confounded me. How should I reply? Should I reply?

It's polite enough, and spelled correctly with proper punctuation; he knows my name, and my work very well (which all help ensure I make time to give an enquirer a reply).

But this is the email, and it stumped me. (Im)pertinent info has been removed.

I am a cartoonist and creative entrepreneur based out of *** (home/school). This week and next I will be making a hand drawn calligraphic website banner for ***'s new *** creative magazine The ***. 

During my research phase I came across your poster for ***. I really enjoy the *** and plan to use the lettering for "***" as a template for my own lettering. If you have a minute, I want to ask you some questions regarding your experience with the poster: 

1. What did you use as a reference to come up with the lettering for "***"? 

2. What was the format and medium for the poster design?

3. Which inking tools did you use? Pens, brushes, digital?

4. Did you use any stencils to render the letters?

5. Anything else that you would like to share about the creative process behind this poster. 

I have attached a copy of the poster to let you know which one I am talking about. 

Now, these are the kinds of questions I get when someone's writing a thesis. A PhD, a dissertation. I've received, and fulsomely replied to, countless emails from students and still-learning illustrators about just about everything over the years - promotion, methods, working practice, fees and so on. I'm usually happy to reply, and use my two and a half decades of experience to lend my opinion to those already offered to a student by their tutors and peers. After all these students are the future of the industry - well, some of them will be, I'm always aware not all will pursue their chosen subject - and mine will be only one of several voices chiming in. I won't tell you how to make your work - only you can do that - but I can suggest how you market it, promote it, refine it, sell it and so on.

But this was an email from someone referring to themselves as a CEO, essentially i) telling me they are going to copy my lettering for their own piece of work - work they intend to take to market, and ii) asking me how to do it, implying in the process that I copied it in the first place.

Was I wrong to interpret this as a politely-written request for a set of instructions on how to re-create the work they want to mimic? Sure, I pulled on all sorts of specific historical references for the work in question - four A3 sheets full of clippings, sketches, photos; my old books and their ornate spines, type books by the likes of Louise Fili, Steven Heller, my Letraset catalogues from the 70s - did they really not have access to the same stuff as me? Maybe they just don't know what to Google, what typographic books to dig into.

I didn't know where to start with it. My first thought was bemusement, then I was a little breathtaken by their cheek, then cross. Then the opposite. I started to think 'OK; just a student, they're learning, and that includes learning protocol and etiquette, I'll just talk to them about their approach'.

But then I saw their website and that as well as being a student, that they're calling themselves a CEO - "the position of the most senior corporate officer, executive, leader or administrator in charge of managing an organization". 

That bothered me. I'm a Company Director, but I don't call myself that day to day - you'll find it on legal paperwork but that's about it. It's a legal status regarding how our company's set up - it doesn't give me any special hierarchy or status. And yes, I guess it's technically possible to be a CEO and be  student - many people go back to study after first careers, or set up fully operational companies while they're still undergraduates.

So what was it about that that bothered me so much?

My thoughts moved onto wondering whether this is 'Just How People Learn Now'. I thought about this for ages - all afternoon in fact, as I did my work. Work that was original, on paper, created afresh, without anyone else's work in front of me, just some references of the particular ancient ethnic henna tattoo style I was taking as influence for the very specific content of this book.

Hang on - how was what I was doing any different from what this person wanted to do?

I recalled a colleague recently talking about an email he'd had from another, presumably newish, illustrator wanting to know his short cuts, what software effects he used and how he could make work like his. My colleague was very cross with the enquirer, as they'd implied that Bob* (not his real name) used some kind of filter, software effect or short cut, when in fact he hand-draws individual elements by hand in hundreds of layers to build up very complex illustrations. Bob was happy to tell the enquirer this, in what we shall call a Firmly Worded Reply. The essence of his reply was, There Is No Short Cut.

As much as I can understand a student's eagerness to just bloody well know how to do it, and quickly please because I live in a world where everything happens NOW, I can also understand my colleague's umbrage. One day you find yourself ten years into a career, and you've built up certain skills through years of trial and error, you're working long days, longer nights. Then you find yourself 15 years into the same career, a little more confident, faster maybe, but still learning, and you're a bit more knackered, the days seem longer. One day you hit 20 years, which you can't believe because only yesterday it was new Year's Eve 1999, and you're adept, busy, confident (ish), and, possibly, well established and well known. Maybe a bit less tired, because some things might have become easier, and still learning. Nobody who reaches any of these chronological landmarks, nor any in between, having spent the entire time working in their craft, likes to believe that anyone thinks their work's just 'knocked out' using filters or effects. We might love our largely anonymous existences as creators of images 'behind the scenes' - we don't get into this to be pop stars - but we are just as vulnerable to pride, fear of eclipse and puffed-out-chests. So we do time-lapses, GIFs, step-by-steps, BTS and WIP Instas to show how we do it; to prove we have skills and what that unique set of skills comprises. We might, as I did in the middle years of my career, share and teach the very thing that's making us unique and marketable at that time - in my case, my lettering work. As early as 2000, I was showing students how to use myriad pens and nibs, create styles like mine, and explore how lettering can be a standalone thing, its enormous creative potential.

So you've got to watch yourself. The industry and how it is both taught and learned has changed radically in the time since my own graduation. Hours are shorter. Expectation is higher. Software must be learned, or the course risks being seen as not delivering. Courses are paid for - grants in the UK at least are no more than a wistful look in an over-40-year-old's tired eyeball - so skills must be handed out, quickly. How do we know what these learners are being taught? Maybe they're encouraged to contact their favourite illustrators directly with exactly these enquiries, rather than waste time experimenting or playing about with materials. After all, a full time course is no longer a full time course - my own experience of teaching degree level has illuminated the squeeze on teachable, on-site hours.

So back to my confusion. This person was only asking me things that a student might have done, face to face, in a workshop. They just 'need to know'. They have a deadline. There had to be something else behind my initial discomfort.

I've thought about this email a LOT since it came in, and my conclusion about my own reaction to it is this. Their email was polite, kind, well-worded, and correct. What they are asking is, technically, and perhaps even morally, perfectly reasonable. What I realised is at the root of my discomfort is the sense of laziness, and my judgement about that. From a position of wanting to have it both ways - being taken seriously as a CEO but wanting to be shown the patience and insights a student would be given - there's a waft of entitlement in the email that suggests I'm expected to hand out easy answers, solutions and instructions to cut out all of the exploration, experimentation, cock ups, embarrassing went-wrongs, wonderful went-rights and messy playfulness that go with working it out for yourself. That's the GOOD STUFF. It's the gritty, awkward, painful side of this work that's hard to engage with, that takes time, and which ultimately makes for a better, more original, more authentic product. I still struggle with that myself. Daily. But to jump that bit and go straight to Go is to do yourself a creative disservice. And I'm not even sure it's possible, if longevity is something you desire.

I'm a professional and I'm experienced, but this makes me neither The Expert nor immune to the struggle to create something new. Maybe that's why it rankled. I want that person to go through what I did - perhaps borne from a misplaced sense of 'fairness', and 'earning' your position...earning that CEO title. They didn't mean, I'm quite sure, to come across as rude. I'm pretty confident they think there's nothing at all wrong with their email; and maybe there isn't. Maybe the difference here is simply that he told me what he was going to do, instead of just doing it without me knowing. My work is copied all the time - as is that of my colleagues - we see it, you know. We just accept it if it's in the context of exploration and learning as we expect that learners will move on and evolve, like we feel we did.

I want CEO Cheeky to go ahead and try the poster without my help. They'll probably do a damn fine job. I hope it doesn't look like mine. I hope it looks like theirs, for better or for worse. In the end, we can only ever do our own thing, and I'm all occupied keeping that fresh and alive. Lord knows that takes enough energy all by itself.

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources" - Einstein

Yes, those are spud prints.


I replied to the CEP today. here's my email. I'm really hoping he'll be as willing to share his work with me as he hoped I would be with my process.

Hi *****

Thanks for your email. I hope by now you’ve got the piece of work done and handed in for the deadline, and you enjoyed the process of creating it. I’ve spent many years helping students with their progress - through Masters and Degree level lecturing, through workshops and seminars, talks, through judging competitions, one-to-one sessions, in further education and by email, and yours was a most politely worded and well written email.

I am flattered that you sought to base your work on mine; I actually wrote a blog about the process of making this poster, which you would probably have found if you’d spent a bit of time on my website and blog. (I’m not sure where you found this piece of work, as you didn’t mention that).

Your email got me thinking about a few things. I’ve had plenty of people copy my work, but never had anyone tell me they’re going to copy my work, and then ask me how to do that. So I spent some time thinking about my own response to that - it’s very unusual - and put all my thoughts in a blog which you can read if you want to ('names have been changed', of course).

Your email presented me with an opportunity to ruminate on a few topics, and I’m grateful for that (there’s no sarscasm there).

And I would be interested to see the work you did, if you are willing to share it? I would be happy to give feedback, if you still want my input.

Best regards

Thursday, June 15, 2017


Our home city of Leicester's banged itself right on the map lately. 

We won the snooker championship in 2016; the same year that Leicester City rose from the dusty levels of Third Division football to win the Premier League against all the odds, and only a year after the city's magnificent reburial of King Richard III, whose body had been found right where the chairwoman of the Richard III Society had always believed he was, under the letter R in a city centre car park (that car park now turned into the King Richard III Visitor Centre, which I worked on with Studio MB).

The city has always been my closest, and its transformation began in earnest 20 years ago when major work began to expand the three universities there. Alongside De Montfort University's soon-to-be halls of residence ran the river, Western Boulevard, and a row of buildings about to be demolished, behind a mile-long stretch of hoardings.

It was these hoardings that graffiti artist and long-time mate Solo One gained permission and funding from the council to paint, end to end, creating the largest piece of continuous graf created to date (over a mile). 1996 did indeed see Solo work himself to a husk, recruiting artists from around the world to come and throw paint at white spaces. The energy was big, the colour bigger, and the art was destroyed, as all street art must ultimately be, when the development was finished.

Here's a great little film by Solo One of the original Western Boulevard event, cut with May's event 21 years later:

Twenty-one years later, the energy returned with Solo's Return of the Macks, part of the larger, council-supported Bring The Paint Festival, organised by Leicester's paint-and-pen lovers' cave Graff HQ, from whence I buy my Poscas and Grog. As soon as I heard Boyd had set it up, I asked for a spot, no matter how small, as we wanted to part of this anniversary extravaganza.

We had a modest space alongside the towpath at Frog Island, on a sunny but windy day, and stood next to 'real' graffers working at lightning speed with the kind of casual experience and confidence acquired through years of midnight throw-ups, hitting two cities in one day and climbing to precarious spots to get a chroma up. All were welcoming and just as accepting of my slow spraying and help from a brush as they were the schoolkid next to me working on his first big piece, supervised by his Dad, clearly an experienced graffer - yes we're getting to that age now - and the atmosphere was one of calm, shared productivity, someone's system blasting the perfect drum'n'bass mix at the end of the towpath.

Live footage!! Proof I put paint on the wall myself:

Look at these guys, embodying the spirit of 80s graf!

Think this leaf had the painting blues...

The work along the towpath was breathtaking enough, but meanwhile in the city centre gigantic pieces were being finished by the infamous, incredible Smug, Boogie, Cantwo, Hombre, N4t4, Inkie, Philth, Voyder, Zomby and loads more. I'll let the pictures do the talking, as it were (bearing in mind we worked till very late, and it was dark by the time we hit the big stuff!)

(How did he get it so SHARP??)

The work will remaining place for as along as the elements allow it to.

If you love large-scale work, murals or graf, Leicester's the place to visit right now - and you can pack your day in the city centre with more delicious food, good ales, galleries and shops than at any time in the city's history.

Thanks Solo One for letting us be part of this inspiring event!

The List

This was an interesting one - by Patricia Forde, this book is about a world where the very use of words itself is restricted, and the terrible consequences which could befall anyone who pluck words from outside the List:

"In the city of Ark, speech is constrained to five hundred sanctioned words. Speak outside the approved lexicon and face banishment. The exceptions are the Wordsmith and his apprentice Letta, the keepers and archivists of all language in their post-apocalyptic, neo-medieval world. 

On the death of her master, Letta is suddenly promoted to Wordsmith, charged with collecting and saving words. But when she uncovers a sinister plan to suppress language and rob Ark’s citizens of their power of speech, she realizes that it’s up to her to save not only words, but culture itself."

The hardcover comes with a selection of words from that list in sticker form so you can see for yourself how hard it would be to work with such a limited vocabulary. 

Nicole at Sourcebooks and I had ideas about this cover should look; an air of menace, and darkness, with hints of hope and empowerment. I made many variations to start with, exploring the idea of being muted, a mouth covered, a head full of words, and lots and lots of expressive, writhing ink textures, to suggest unrest and unease:

The final design was the tower block of words, Letta on top hurling sheets of paper into the wind.  From rough to final was a fairly quick process, and I really enjoyed doing the blocky type for this, a refreshing breakaway from the cursive swirls that have dominated my lettering life for the last twenty years!
Here's the rough:

And here's the final, with lovely glowing spine lettering:

Thank you Nicole for hiring me for this one - it was a joy!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Inkymole's Motors

Despite it sometimes looking like all I ever do is stay chained to my desk with my hands just loose enough in the manacles to move the pen/cil, we've spent our entire time together ‘doing stuff’ — what used to be called ‘side projects’ in popular terminology are now just ‘projects’; brethren to the main body of what occupies our time, rather than extensions of or competitors to it. 

An important but gradual shift in our perspective, this way of thinking has changed our approach to ‘side projects’ in that they now sit within the brightly-coloured, myriad wobbly circles of the Venn diagram that is Inkymole.
And it means ANYTHING can be ‘a project’.

There are, and have been, many of these in the near-two-and-a-half decades of working together. This is one of them, brought blinking and pale into the sunlight at last!

Ever since I was given a custard yellow 2CV in lieu of a debt owed to my boyfriend, which I threatened not to keep, I've been into cars.

I wasn't going to be - cars were something you got into and went to the shops in, or on holiday; they made you have dirty hands, meant you had to go outside in the cold to 'do things' with them, and cost money, all things I hated. But Dad's series of interesting vehicles, changed every 3 years, piqued me and my sisters' interest, until she became the biker and Ford Escort petrolhead, and I, eventually, reluctantly, became a car owner too. And the 2CV wasn't just any old car; French, with legendary, bouncing suspension, air-cooled with a vertical gear knob in a pattern not seen on any other vehicle, and with a peel-back roof, skinny tyres and an engine you could fix yourself, I was soon outside, in the cold, doing things with my car, spending money on it, and getting mucky hands.

This morning Leigh and I drew up a list of all the cars we've owned together, after a chat with an art director mate who's a proper car nutter (I mean, he has a racing car, in FAST ORANGE). We talked for 28 minutes and agreed to swap car lists. We've had quite a few...with a bit of a theme running through them.

This weekend we took our Nissan Pao and Suzuki Carry to JDMCombe at Castle Combe, Bristol. JDM stands for 'Japanese Domestic Market' - so any vehicle that was made for the Japanese market (though just because it's Japanese car doesn't mean it's JDM!) We were on the 'Rare Breeds' stand, since the Pao (pronounced POW like Batman) had a very limited production run, and although the little Carry did not, what we've done with it is quite unusual.

It was a sunny but windy day (Car Show Hair is a real problem, one I've only solved in the last 48 hours with pigtails and a baseball cap), and the air was heady with the smell of cleaning products, chips and hydrocarbons. I love it; they should make THAT into an air freshener. Having spent weeks preparing your wheels for the show, you turn up, park, and start polishing. Props may be added to dashboards and engine bays, or they may not; additional graphics may have been added for the occasion, and you might also select clothing / nail polish / lippy to tone with your ride (oh wait no, that might be just me). Prizes are given for Show'n'Shine (er, the shiniest) and for Best In Show. You can usually take your car on the track, for which helmets are required, and there's nothing quite so mentally and emotionally liberating as staring at cars going berserk round a track, on two wheels, burning through tyres, sliding sideways into corners, or missing corners altogether.

After ensuring your car is as buff as it can be, it's off for a coffee (standard), a walk around the other cars on your stand, then you might be surprised by the man coming at you with a microphone in hand, at 8.30 in the morning, asking questions about your car!

It can take hours to go round a car show like this, as they're magnets for the thousands of humans attracted to the distinctive shapes and sounds of Japcars, the good, the bad and the ugly. (We like a lot of the ugly ones.)

We'd spent the weeks before working on the vehicles, making little refinements and improvements ready for this first big show of the season. I say 'week'; really, every show is a culmination of everything you've done during the entire time you've owned the car, from its very first wash. In particular though, for this one, we added graphics - Dynodaze, who do the mechanical and fabricating work - Uncle Keith's Paintshop, and our new logo for what has for twenty years been a project, but never had a name or a shape - Inkymole's Motors!

As well as new exhausts made and fitted recently by Dynodaze, with custom manifold gaskets by SubCon Laser, the Pao went out with its from-scratch beautifully curved rear parcel shelf and speaker panel for the Pao - designed by Leigh to look like an original feature (which it isn't) and made by Rob at Artfabs:

Gold tints for the Carry, to stop nosy people looking in the back (and to ADD BLIIIING):

Obligatory toys - this is Gudetama, the whining, lazy egg, who lives in the van full-time - he had a bath (the Rillakkuma pocket looks on, unimpressed):

Sillies from Japan:

Black One-Shot used to make my first tentatively sign-painted Japanese characters:

There is more to be done to the vehicles, and these latest additions represent only the very latest bits of work; much of it is done under the bonnet, under the car, and behind panels - the stuff that really does give you mucky hands!

You can follow the progress of these two, our workhorse Peugeot 406 and Nissan Cedric on Instagram.

And there's a little moody video of the show here, where you can spot me buffing the paintwork at 16 seconds.


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