Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Owl Service

There's no doubt that owls are special.

Catch a barn owl in your headlights and you think you've seen a ghost or an angel.

The classic owl hoot or t-wit-t-woo is the call of the tawny owl and there are few sounds more guaranteed to send a tingle down the spine.

This little sketch, a humble offering for the winter solstice, is probably a cross between the two. A tarn owl perhaps. Happy Yuletide.

Sunday, 30 October 2011


Inasmuch as I thought about them at all I used to dislike pylons. A chain of blots besmirching a much loved landscape. Etc. And I would happily put my name to any petition that sought to discourage their relentless march.

But a while ago drawing one made me look at them afresh.

And I realised I actually quite like their extraordinary height, their slowly tapering perpendiculars and intricate geometric symmetries.

And just as with weeds, once you've learned the name of something it’s harder to hate it. Pylons are officially called ‘transmission towers’ and they come in a multitude of styles and permutations. The most common are L2s and L6s but just when you think you have their measure you’ll spot one that doesn’t conform to anything you’ve previously seen.

Wouldn’t this look just dandy in the Turbine Hall ?....

(And as it turns out I'm not the only one: they even have their own Pylon Appreciation Society. Check it out.)

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

William S. Burroughs and These Paranoid Times

Bill Burroughs was an early literary hero of mine, mainly because he was so far out there. I read - or struggled through - The Naked Lunch just for respite from the Eng Lit A Level novels I was studying at school. I really had never read anything quite like it. A comic strip adaptation of the Mugwump sequence I attempted was soon discarded: I realised it would just be impossible.

I worked behind the bar in my parents' pub at the weekend for a bit of pocket money. A regular customer was Robert, a small middle-aged man of Indian origin who spent lengthy periods of the year abroad doing some unspecified job for Texas Instruments. With his hare-lip and mildly scarred face Robert had the slightly sinister air of a Peter Lorre-ish outsider figure, but he was well travelled and had a good knowledge of literature. If he’d been in the Middle East, as he often was, by the time he got back to the UK he had worked up quite a thirst and we always held a case of Jack Daniels bourbon just for him. On quiet Saturday lunchtimes after he’d knocked back a few he would tell me stories of his travels and one of these was of the time he lived in the same hotel in Paris as the writer William Burroughs. In suburban Essex I had scarcely met anyone who’d even heard of Burroughs at this point. “A strange man” Robert said, “I would look into his room occasionally and he’d just be sitting there staring out of the window....”

I never met Burroughs but I did see him read at an event in London once. And I made many drawings inspired by his writings. I haven't read him for a long time but I’ve been thinking about him again recently because one of his themes was the paranoia that begins to seep when big business and the machinery of state become too closely entwined.

I was observing this gorgeous dragonfly in my garden yesterday when I was startled by a loud thrashing engine noise above my head. I swung my lens upwards and framed this Apache Gunship circling and hovering around my patch. From one bug to another. I assume they’re practicing for some deployment in Afghanistan or somewhere. This is not so unusual. The Colchester Airborne Garrison is not that far away to the south and there are still USAF bases up in Lakenheath and Mildenhall. As a small boy I found soldiers thrilling. Watching the changing of the Horseguards at Whitehall, I felt proud and reassured to think that they were there to protect us. But now ...? I know they’re there to protect something, but I’m pretty certain it’s not my interests they care about....

This morning an unsolicited email from Amazon headed ‘Tilt’, informing me of some discounted Scott Walker albums. Firstly, I’ve never ever purchased an album from Amazon and secondly, how the hell do they know I like Scott Walker? Maybe that's what that helicopter was finding out? The Soviet Bloc was notorious for keeping it’s citizens under constant surveillance lest they think an ideologically unsound thought. We appear to be adopting similar if more advanced techniques in order to monitor and encourage the public's spending habits. Is there a future just around the corner where we’ll be arrested and taken for questioning for simply not buying enough? “Tell me, Meester Johnson, vhen vas ze last time you were in Next? And vere are ze receipts? And ve can find no ZZTV records of you in Westfield at all!”

Paranoia.... just paranoia....

Monday, 3 October 2011

Pushing The Envelope

Some of my new envelope drawings can be seen (and even purchased) alongside many other nice bijou pieces by talented local artists as part of Gallery Q's 'Small is Beautiful' currently showing at Quay Theatre and Arts, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 2AN. Until December 2.

Friday, 9 September 2011

In The Land of Grey and Pink....

Today I'm looking through the ... bay window. And what do I see? The faces below are from my local town and although they look made up they are in fact all from real life - can you recognise someone you know? Or perhaps yourself....?

And to go with: a little helping of classic English whimsy-rock for no other reason than that the girl above and the grey and pink and it all sort of you get the picture...

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Road To Ruin

What is it that draws many of us to old abandoned buildings? For many years I thought it was just my own personal quirk but now there’s a whole internet subculture of ‘Urban Exploration’ dedicated to finding and documenting obscure and disused buildings and structures.

When I was a child, my corner of London still had plenty of WWII bombsites along with derelict and deserted warehouses. That’s all gone now (see Ghost Milk entry). But perhaps it gave me a hankering curiosity. Some need to always want to look inside. Just to see. Usually, what one finds is always the same detritus. But the aura of mystery and the small frisson of trespass remains.

Here’s a place I used to visit in Essex. A classic ruined 18th Century 'haunted' mansion - at the time it had become almost completely overgrown with creeper and bramble; every crevice sprouting with elder and buddleia. The only people that seemed to know about it were thieves and vandals. And me. I spent many afternoons up there hacking through the undergrowth to find a stone face staring blankly back at me. I felt as though I were discovering some lost Incan city.

Since that time, the house and it’s gardens have been rescued from decay by a Trust who are diligently restoring it to it’s former grandeur. Finally safe from the depradations of the antiquity raiders and the tendrils of nature, it can be visited on several open days each year when you will be guided around the good works.

Here’s a ruin from another age. This place can be found, almost incongruously, hidden tree-deep in otherwise bucolic Suffolk countryside. It’s a former chemical factory. I stumbled on it almost by accident and was suddenly transported back to ‘the Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’. Even the weedlife looks oddly mutated. Hope I don’t grow any extra fingers....

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Where Have All The Flutterbys Gone?

A couple of years ago, we had what can be called a real 'butterfly summer' around these parts. Never have I seen so many and of such wide variety. Everything seemed right in the world.

This year, in contrast, I've seen only a handful of Cabbage Whites and one or two Red Admirals (above). Hope this is just a seasonal blip and not a sign of anything more alarming...

Friday, 12 August 2011

One Swallow May Not Make A Summer ... But Four?

Okay, after the darkness the light. Couldn't resist sharing these little fellows with you all. A family of swallows have been returning to my garage studio for as long as I've been here. They arrive back from Africa on virtually the same day each spring and it so gladdens my heart when I hear their chattering and chirruping again. They normally raise two broods each summer. This is this year's second clutch. Once they're big enough mum and dad encourage them outside for trial flights, guiding them and showing them how to hunt for insects. In between they come back to their perch to rest - at night they return to the little mud nest to sleep. By September they will gather together with the local flock and make that incredible flight south for the winter. A really remarkable little bird and a real privilege to share my space with them.

Bill Oddie and friend.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London Metamorphosis

All this does take me right back - I wasn't involved in the 1980’s riots but I well remember the sense of young male excitement at seeing normal laws and rules suspended and not knowing what might happen next. Now it doesn't excite me, it just makes me depressed and concerned. I was listening to Radio Five-Live last night in bed and from the panicky and heightened reporting it appeared to be spreading right across London.

No doubt that most of what's happening is what they call 'recreational violence' with no point other than thieving and 'fun'. But you can't help reflect that we've built this culture where we send signals all the time that we value possessions and status above all else. How can we be surprised when people without cushy jobs in the city or the media suddenly decide to just help themselves?

I feel sorry for the small businesses that have felt the brunt of it all. I feel like there could be some political justification if they were marching on big multinational business but it seems to be mostly small family concerns being ransacked and burnt to the ground for no other reason than that they can. My gut feeling is that it will all peter out but what I dread now is the forthcoming weeks and months of endless analysis, enquiries, newspaper columns etc etc. The left will blame it on racism and economic deprivation - the right will want to bring back the birch, hanging and national service. In the end police powers will be even more beefed up and we'll all lose. Anyone would think we were back in the days of a Conservative Government....

I was looking for a drawing to illustrate this piece... but what do you do? What would be a suitable artistic response to all this? An angsty graphic of police stormtroopers? An ink spattered apocalypse of menacing hoodies, maybe some leading politicians wryly portrayed as looters? Other artists will be busy doing this right now: guns, fire, anger... but it’s all been done and it all seems a bit inadequate to be honest. So I’ll simply leave you with the lady above who wandered across my drawing board earlier today...

Sleep tight.

And to go with, the beautiful and incomparable Karen Dalton 'It's Alright' ...

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Wanted ...and Found

Found this old card when it fell out of a library book. Wonder if Tessa ever got her donkey?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

In Praise of the Sketchbook

The cloud drawing in the last post is not there because I thought it so great that I must share it - it’s there because that was what I happened to draw at that moment watching those clouds. It’s a sequence of scribbles, almost doodles based only on shapes I could see. But even as I’m looking and drawing, there’s a kind of editing and selecting going on. Decisions to slightly emphasise that particular curve, to perhaps omit that piece of ragged vapour or stretch this bit to make it more elegant and proportionally pleasing. Whenever we’re looking we’re also filtering and editing. In a way the drawing itself is merely the receipt of that mental transaction.

In the days when I was a student at Camberwell the venerable old school regarded itself as the last proper ‘drawing’ college. Ie. it still placed a premium on drawing from observation when other schools were adopting a freer, more laissez-faire approach. Art teaching seemed to be having a crisis at that point. No-one seemed to know what they were supposed to teach or indeed whether art could actually be taught at all.

But at Camberwell, the traditionalists were still just about clinging on. In the old Wilson Road annexe the ancient charcoal and graphite stained floorboards would creak under the weight of life-size plaster statues. To be honest by this time most of them were pushed into corners under cobwebbed dustsheets and I don’t remember drawing from them myself but we were required to be in the life-room at least once a week and to carry sketchbooks at all times. Coming from my background of comics and ‘imaginative’ drawing it took a while to get used to this new regimen. But oh, what a marvellous discipline it proved to be.

Sketchbooks are totally addictive and even now I’m never without one. I’ve amassed hundreds of them. Large under-the-arm ones; tiny pocket-sized ones. A small ‘Moleskine’ always in the car. An old ‘Silvine’ pad by the telly. I have ‘lucky’ ones and favourite ones. Some of them for observing; some for inventing; most a mixture of the two. They also function as unofficial diaries. Most pages take me back so precisely to where and when I was as I made the drawing.... priceless to me.

In truth I probably enjoy prying into most artists’ sketchbooks more than their finished work. The finished piece is the final polished performance if you like, but the sketchbooks take you behind the scenes, let you peek into the rehearsal room as ideas develop, thought processes begin to ravel. Mistakes, wrong turnings, naivety. All fascinating stuff because it’s a place you’re not really supposed to see.

Like a diary, a ‘proper’ sketchbook ought to be a private, secluded place to try things and to fail. To record fleeting errant thoughts and notions that may grow into something substantial or just as likely remain as stunted, feeble seedlings that deserve to be thinned away.

The only downside is that when you have amassed too many they are pretty much useless as a reference archive. Last week I went rooting through looking for a drawing, a study, of rain and puddles that I KNEW I’d made in the past few years. After an hour I just gave up. Flicking quickly through hundreds of images induces a sort of car-sick type nausea.

And talking of the good old days here’s a couple of shots of my student self enjoying a hearty breakfast (tea and Bensons by the look of things) and here’s a record that never seemed to be not playing on the student bar jukebox during my first year....

(photo: Joelle Depont)

Monday, 11 July 2011

Alone In A Cloud

I’m a big fan of clouds. Very cheap entertainment. Going about my business in the yard today I couldn’t help but admire the huge banked up cumulus bee-ships unfurling and rolling out from horizon to horizon. Dark white and light black. East Anglia is good for skies they say. It’s known for the breadth and depth of them and the luminescent light that diffuses from them.

I suppose the most famous painter from this region is John Constable. Known for biscuit tins and calendars nowadays, in his time he was actually a bit of a revolutionary. He looked long and hard at nature, didn’t make any assumptions about what it was - he just looked until he saw. Skies and clouds were among his specialities. He was quite a student of them.

This marks the grave of two of the Constable family. John himself isn’t here but this is where he grew up - it was the place he came from. I think this is the grave of his aunt and uncle. It’s in a wonderfully tranquil little churchyard to be found after a gently undulating walk across a couple of meadows and through a herd of softly lowing cattle. The grave of John Nash is also here, war artist and brother of Paul Nash. There are worse places to end up.

For fellow lovers of Clouds: The Cloud Appreciation Society;
A Day With John Constable on Hampstead Heath (thanks Jeremy).

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ghost Milk

I’ve mentioned Iain Sinclair on here before I think. He’s a fine writer and his painstaking documentation of the complex layers and strands of London history and culture is something of great interest to me. The parts of London he most often writes about are the parts where I have my roots. The places I came from and frequently return to. I have a slightly uneasy love/hate relationship with the capital and it’s something that crops up in my work now and then if you look out for it.

Sinclair's latest book - Ghost Milk : Calling Time on the Grand Project - focuses on the River Lea Valley and the 2012 Olympic site. A " scorching 400 page diatribe...a literary polemic, full of dazzling phrases and angry denunciation". The site of the Olympic project is a place I knew very well. Marshgate Lane, Pudding Mill Lane, The Promenade and the toxic canals that dissected them. This is where I once rode my bike and climbed along the sewage pipes just as my father had done years before me. As an adult I frequently went back just to walk and draw and take photographs. It was perhaps the last real inner city wilderness and it was a place I felt very close to. Now it has been literally ring-fenced as the old fabric is swept away to make room for the shining gewgaw of the 2012 Olympic Games.

I could go on at length but better to read Sinclair.

"We are all suckling on this new chemical, this ghost milk, this substance that buffers between the old dream of London that I have and the computer generated, perfected, hard edged dream where nothing is what it looks like".

Ghost Milk will be available from 07/07/2011.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Return of Git Boy

I’ve recently enrolled on a short course in children’s book illustration with the brilliant and inspirational Rebecca Elliott. Illustrating a book for kids has been at the back of my mind ever since I first thought of going to art college. When I was growing up some of my strongest visual impressions of the outside world were from the books and pictures of artists like Edward Ardizzone, Charles Keeping, Thomas Henry and Pauline Baynes. Even as a young artist my idealised old age was as an elderly illustrator of slightly subversive children’s books pottering about his cottage garden like Ernest Shephard or Alfred Bestall.

I think there’s an impression that writing and drawing for children is somehow ‘easy’. That makes me think of the kind of people that used to say to my brother Matt: “why don’t you just write a hit record?” as though it were something that you could just knock off in an afternoon whenever you felt like it. There is a scrupulous art to writing and designing a good children’s book. Whether it is too exact a science for me remains to be seen...

But the search for stories has prompted me to prise open the old ‘pending’ drawer in my plan-chest, blow off the dust and revisit some older projects that never made it into the sunlight.

Here’s one from the early 1990's called ‘Git-Boy’. I was inspired, I think, by tabloid reports of some feral child up north called ‘Rat-boy’ who had compiled a jaw-dropping list of minor offences in a very short life. I re-imagined him as a sort of ‘Baby Crockett’ figure. In fact his first working name was ‘Baby Fukett’ (yes I know but this was then and it seemed the apogee of ‘dark & edgy’ wit to be sweary). For a while he became ‘Naughty Boy - the Little Pudding of Hatred’. Then someone I knew, otherwise very reputable, bought a car with a numberplate that went GT 8OY or something so obviously he became known (to us) as ‘Git Boy’ (to much hilarity) and I also thought it a perfect fit for my nascent character.

These are obviously just rough first layouts but they show the way I had begun to work - and still do - producing lots of small drawings (doodles often) and collaging them together to create some sort of narrative.

The stories - as far as they went (and they didn’t go far) - involved Gitsy (sometimes he was a small boy, other times a baby in a nappy) variously drinking, drug dealing, fighting and stealing, trying to have relationships with older women and generally feeling very fed up with his lot. I’d recently been enormously impressed by Jim Cartwright and Alan Clarke’s film Road and I think you can see the influence of that here. The male figures are generally feckless, depressed alcoholics. the women tearful and hard done by. It was determinedly violent and antisocial, urban (the back streets and wastelands of Bethnal Green I think were my model) and despondent. Perhaps it wouldn’t have made a very suitable children’s book.

By way of a theme tune I think only this man comes close to a musical equivalent of what I wanted to do with Git-Boy. I love this song (and it might interest you to know that the dark-haired girl on keyboards is now the pain medicine consultant at my local hospital. Lord, how time does fly!)

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Come Into My Parlour...

Here are two recent studio visitors. Actually I think the spider lives here. Well, loads do and they go about their business decorating the upper reaches of the room with their handiwork. I think we're going for that Miss Havisham look. The moth is a ‘fly-in’. I think it’s a Privet Hawkmoth. Quite big and impressive. And absolutely harmless. Just curious for a look around to see what’s what. One of the things I love are the small moments when people and wildlife overlap in a harmonious manner. We’re so lucky in Britain that everything that lives out there is benign. Nothing wants to hurt us. I only wish we would treat nature with a little reciprocal respect.

And here’s two art spiders. One by me for Insectopedia and the other by Odilon Redon, whose work I like very much.

And a little tune to go with: Wire's Blessed State.