Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Snowtrees: A collaboration with Dr. Ed Garland

Our friend and long-term Inkymole collaborator Ed Garland is finally on Instagram, after moving away years ago and becoming Dr. Ed. This is good news.

After meeting up with him for a weekend recently, I’ve been thinking of all the projects we worked on together. Obviously I hope there will be more now that his gruelling study schedule has eased off, but I wanted to share a few as they emerged at a time when social media was still new, and were therefore only seen by the people who received a copy, attended an exhibition, or were part of the project.

This is Snowtrees. We had just put up a big installation called ‘The Witches’ in the repurposed church building of our regular clients TBWA\Manchester, for which Ed had written the words, and we were in the van on the M6 driving home, knackered and full of chips. I checked my email. It was mid-October and, thinking ahead, I’d asked Ed to write a piece for our annual Christmas mailing, which would take a different form every year. I would illustrate whatever he wrote. His story was in, and I read it; crying, because it was so beautiful and it was exactly what I’d hoped for. Even a little more than that, in fact.

I made a black and white ink illustration to go with it, indulging my longing for eerie stories to illustrate and my love of all things creepy and atmospheric. (Whenever the opportunity arose for some personal or promotional work, this is often the direction it would take). We had a 1000 copies printed to A3 in navy blue ink, foldable to A6 (sorry Kelly, who did all the folding). They were addressed individually and sealed with a tiny label, and it stood like a Christmas card with a snowflake-tree on one side, inspired by a duotone 1950s fold-out birthday card we’d had on the studio wall for years.

And there it was. Ed will probably do the thing people often do when confronted with old work — shrugging off my praise, pointing out all the things that are ‘wrong’ with it, maybe even cringing a little— but I love this piece of writing, and more importantly, I love the creative response it triggered in me. Although I too can see things I would do differently now, I love the outcome.

I woke up under the Snowtrees in a cradle of roots. The branches dripped sunlit water around my head. I’d been told about this forest. “It attracts the wrong crowd”, I’d heard. I wasn’t convinced. I could hear wolves treading icy crackles somewhere almost close, and cold crept in where my coat didn’t meet my trousers. But I didn’t want to move. I was happy looking straight ahead at the branches tickling the sharp blue morning. Snowtrees had perfect fractal features at this time of year, and there wasn’t long to wait before they expired. Today or tomorrow they’d come apart all at once, in whispering white-gold explosions. 

One tree becomes a thousand pale fragments, making a soft, deep cover for the ground. The whole forest bursts into a shimmering blizzard and then a freezing flatness. People witnessing this feel a release, as with fireworks and demolitions, and great distance is travelled to be within it.  I was, by some forgotten accident, in a prime position, if only it would happen before I got too cold. Sniffing and howling from the wolves now, and I thought about the tension my absence might be causing at home. They weren’t expecting me at any particular time, and the sun seemed to say I wasn’t worryingly late, yet. I could hear others arriving to watch. 

“Any minute now, someday soon” we said, and wondered why anyone wouldn’t want to be here.

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

“…but how long did it take you get your STYLE’?”

Created in paper and polystyrene for Arjo Wiggins Fine Papers, about 1997/8.

I do a lot of talks and seminars for schools and colleges, and one of the questions I get asked the most is “how important is it to have a ‘style’?” — followed by “how long did it take you to get your own style”?

My answer to this is not straightforward. Have a quick scan down the sample images in this post — they’re all from the same period of about 7 years, from graduation onward. You can see what was going on; I’d graduated with a portfolio of wildly ambitious 3D work, built pieces for the stage, costumes and models as well as poster designs and storyboards and illustrations full of lettering and ink. I basically wanted to do Everything — and, I would pretty much go on to do that, but for a young illustrator starting out the resultant folio was what clients described as ‘exciting but confusing’.

How would I get this (pre-internet) 3D work to them? It would all need photographing — would the client pay me for that? If they give me a brief, how do they know what they’ll get back — will it look like this, or this?

A magazine editorial from about 1998/9. This one actually got me a LOT of work.

I liked to build stuff, I loved to work on a large scale with pastel pencils (you can see an A0 example of that in the slides) AND with my inks, and I loved lettering (I won awards for it and was one of the earliest to posit hand lettering as a ‘thing’ you could commission in its own right — more on that in a separate blog) but I was also fascinated by digital; check out the work I did for the panto dames!

The Panto Dames! I did not know how to use layers properly.

Clumsy but wildly energetic, I was quite literally laughing as I drew them; they were real panto dames. What made people like this image is the energy and the humour — those things eclipsed the lack of sophistication (and lack of Wacom tablet) in the rendering. I only had a mouse then, so you can see that the work here was created with an ink drawing which was then digitally coloured.

I don’t get horses, at all, but at one point found myself doing a monthly slot for Your Horse magazine. Woah there.
And this was one of a series for a bestselling gardening magazine. I had about a week to do each one, and regular income was very welcome at that time! They looked the same as the flyers I was simultaneously creating for the pirate radio station I was working on.

I went on to have multiple magazine series in that style, so I suppose it could be argued that was ‘a style’ for a while — but running simultaneously, I also illustrated a magazine column once a month with built, almost set-like pieces which were photographed, like this (yes, this one involved baking real bread; real baby clothes and a real self-made poppet doll. I ate none of them afterwards, and the illusatration actually lasted for years).

All of these images are very ‘me’, but it isn’t one style and it’s definitely not one medium.

In fact, I’ve always viewed this multi-medium thing as a blessing, not a curse. It means I’ve been able to turn my hand to a vast array of opportunities that, had I favoured one style, medium or way of working at the exclusion of all others, I would not have been willing or able to tackle. It’s made me flexible, adaptable and, in a lot of cases, bold — the ‘sure, I can do that!’ approach (say yes now, worry about it later). A 15m mural in paint? Check. A 3D piece to illustrate a spoken word poem? Check. Detailed pen and ink drawings for a ghost story? Check. Fast digital pieces for an urgent editorial? Check. A set of animated GIFS? Check.

You get the idea.

Some people use pseudonyms to identify their different styles — an example is Toby Leigh who also works as Tobatron, or Tim McDonagh who also works as Avril15. Those identities exist to make sure you know which of their worlds you’re in, and that’s definitely something I’ve thought about over and over again — I even have the names worked out. But I’ve never actually done it…maybe I still will, though, and it could work for you, too, with careful consideration and enough work to hang under each banner — this is important, as clients will need to see that you’re well-versed and a ‘safe pair of hands’ in all of the styles or identities you put forward.

Personal work from a book project that I shelved. I might un-shelve it — though the artwork would look very different today! (the toddler in the picture is now a post-grad).
These two lettering pieces were created in an Edinburgh hotel room, in the middle of what felt like a little breakdown. I was creatively stuck, feeling at a dead end, and really upset, but was away for the week teaching degree students about illustration — so feeling like a massive fraud. My partner suggested combining some of the lettering I’d been doing for years with flowers and plants, and some of the darker stuff I liked to draw. Thank god he did; the work that nervously emerged that week saved me, and set me on the path for the next decade.

Over time, my ways of working all combined to create a body of work that utilises several different media, but hangs together as a look which is definitely ‘mine’. And the ‘mine’ comes via the movement, the energy, the content and the vibe, rather than the equipment I used to make it.

So I say, DO NOT worry about ‘style’ — if you see someone who looks to have a really strong visual language or colour scheme or way of working, they’ve likely had a long time to develop that. Maybe they don’t actually HAVE other ways of working — maybe they can’t! — or maybe they just don’t feel comfortable offering more than one look. And what you probably won’t see are the mountains of work that led to what you see in front of you.


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