Wednesday, 29 March 2006

Train sketches

Wherever I go I always carry in my bag a small A-5 size sketchbook for scribbling ideas, doodling or sketching when I'm out and about. I panic if I don't have paper and pen close at hand, as Murphy's law goes flashes of inspiration always come when I don't have any paper, then are forgotten.

Most of the time the only chance I get to really use the book is if I get a seat on the train during my increasingly rare trips into central Tokyo.

Here's something recent - it's not often I get chance to draw a Westerner on the train sitting in front of me. I love these fleeting chances to draw people, never sure when they're going to get off, or someone block the view.

His newspaper was in Spanish, which was even rarer to see around here.

Tuesday, 28 March 2006


(This is another post adapted from a previously published essay)

It's time to have a rant, strap yourselves in, I'm going to talk about PRIDE. Pride in my profession, pride in being an illustrator.

It strikes me that illustration isn't getting the kind of recognition it really deserves, especially in my country of birth the UK. Over in Blighty I hear horror tales of crumbling standards, plummeting fees and dastardly clients. One old illustrator friend has upped and left London as being too expensive. "Plasterers and plumbers can charge twice as much as I'm able to achieve in the UK" he says - and this is someone famous. Well known children's illustrators say to me "don't come back! There's no work, you're better off in Japan!"

Well things are not that rosy for illustration in Japan either, but at least artists are respected in this country. In the UK is it true that illustration is getting a bum deal nowadays?

In one sense illustration has always had a bum deal, whenever it's compared against "fine" art. In general it can be argued that Britain's creative heritage is built on a literary tradition, on the written word rather than the painted image. Illustration, which was born from this literary heritage, is one of the greatest cultural gifts the UK has to offer, yet all too often it's run down or dismissed.

Every time I go back to the UK I hear the never ending appeal of my father, who sums up the general attitude of the older generation when he says "this illustration lark is all very well I suppose, and we all have to earn a crust, but come on John, when are you going to do some proper pictures?" (i.e. a nice picturesque landscape he can hang on the wall). I suspect many illustrators in the UK have similar stories.

Alright, so this is my dad talking (bless his heart), not some art critic. But is the establishment any better? I'm reminded of the Arthur Rackham retrospective held at the Dulwich Gallery in London a couple of years ago. In the Foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Desmond Shawe-Taylor succinctly tells us "Arthur Rackham is probably more famous than any British artist of his generation; yet there has not been an exhibition devoted to his work in this country for thirty years. This may be because Rackham is regarded as a mere illustrator, a Jack of all Trades, or as childish taste; what is certain is that to some minds Rackham is 'not quite an artist'...".

Nevertheless the exhibition still had a disproportionately large section devoted to Rackham's unpublished and personal paintings, almost as if the organisers were paying lip service to those very "minds" that dismiss Rackham as a "mere illustrator". I wonder whether by showing a large number of his non-illustration works they hoped to make him somehow qualify as a "real" artist?

To top it all, if it's not bad enough having illustration being portrayed as somehow "inferior", illustrators themselves are guilty of denying their own profession! I remember years ago being at a talk given by Maurice Sendak, where in answer to my question regarding his illustration work he said he hated being called an "illustrator". Perhaps the connotations of the word were unsavoury? I know a London based illustrator who, when asked what he does for a living always tells people he's a "painter and decorator".

Why? What's WRONG with being an illustrator?

I'm an illustrator, and I love it, I truely do. I wouldn't want to do anything else in the world (my missus would probably say "couldn't" rather than "wouldn't", but there you go...). I regard myself and others of my ilk as practitioners of a rich heritage of pen and ink art dating back from before Hogarth. I'm proud of what I do, certainly it's nothing to hide!

Sure there are bad illustrators and unskilled wannabes in every country, as well as the cheesey, the crass and the blatant rip-off, but these shouldn't detract from the good stuff. Essentially this is a highly skilled and demanding profession, where talent should be encouraged, rewarded and praised. Using the analogy of the music business (which in some respects can be similar), in the same way that almost anyone can pick up a guitar and make a noise, but it takes some talent to create an anthem, with illustration anyone can draw a picture, but it takes skill and inspiration to reach out to people. You don't see many hailed like pop stars though do you!

I don't see evidence of illustration-bashing in Japan because the dividing lines between illustration and "fine art" are blurred and interchangeable. Some illustrators have even had museums devoted to their work. Most definately no-one is ashamed of calling themselves an illustrator.

Monday, 27 March 2006

Losing lines

One thing I always have to be careful of in illustration is having line details swamped when it comes to adding colour. For example this pic. I actually prefer the B/W pen and ink underdrawing to the finished art.

Publish Post

The colour version is how it appeared in the final book. It's an illustration to Hans Andersen's story "The Flea and the Professor".

Saturday, 25 March 2006

Local elections

Local elections are in progress as I write.

For those who may not be familiar with this curious phenomenon in Japan, polling for votes here largely consists of driving around the local area in white vans with enormous speakers mounted on top, blaring out at ear splitting volume (roughly translated) "This is the Democratic Party (or whatever), vote for Yoshida Taro! (or whoever). Yoshida Taro, your Democratic Party candidate! Yoroshiku onegai shimasu!". Young(ish) smiling women wearing white gloves wave frantically out of the windows, often, in these suburbs, to streets empty apart from the odd startled cat. Curiously the candidate is rarely in sight.

I've always found the total disregard for noise pollution in Japan more than a bit annoying, whether it's the bgm soundtracks blasted out at scenic locations in the country and on beaches, or the cacophany of noise deafening shoppers at any electronics store in town. But it's particularly aggrevating when potential politicians use the same methods to gain votes, our future law-makers. It just seems to say - hey, don't expect any big changes if I get voted in.

Well, like it or not, this is the system. As a foreign passport holder I don't have the vote here, despite 20 years in Japan. So nomatter how frantically they wave or bombard my ears I feel more affinity with the poor local cats.

Tuesday, 21 March 2006


Cynthia Leitch Smith has listed interviews with some of the speakers at the forthcoming SCBWI Conference at the Bologna Book Fair cynsations.

Monday, 20 March 2006

Early Influences

(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. 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 - Jose Maria Jorge, an Argentinian illustrator specialising in realistic action paintings who used to (and I believe still does) 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.

At school in the 1970's the staff discovered I could draw, I was 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 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 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.

In recent years I can add to the list such people as Czech fantasy artist Albin Brunovsky, almost forgotten names like Sidney Sime, and myriad Japanese illustrators, of whom I'll write about later.

Saturday, 18 March 2006


There's a lot of hooha at the moment about the way copyright protection for artwork is being eroded in the US. This is mainly over proposed legislation that will strip copyright protection from "orphan" works, i.e. copyrighted artwork where the owner of copyright cannot be traced. The proposed legislation would enable anyone to reproduce a piece of artwork for free by claiming they can't find the copyright owner. Not only does it threaten the copyright of artists, it creates a rival market of "free" old artwork.

This isn't the place to go into great detail of the ins and outs, however the Illustrator's Partnership of America is running a worthy campaign against the legislation.

At first I thought "ah so what, that's America, I'm in Japan", but then it dawned on me that this legislation actually effects artists all over the world, in fact our very distance from the US would make us vulnerable to copyright infringement. "Out of sight, out of mind" so to speak - anyone could claim in the US that they "found" my picture, couldn't trace me, and I would have little way to demand recompense. Even if I won a court case the bill proposes a flat compensation fee, maximum payout being, frankly, a joke.

I'm not anti-American, on the contrary some of my most trusted clients are in the States and I have many friends there. However I'm appaulled by the increasing tendency towards "dog eat dog", with the powerful getting stronger and the weaker getting weaker, which I rarely see in Japan or the UK. A kind of "stomp on the other guy before they stomp on you" mentality of protectionism, might is right, one step out of line and you've a law suit on your hands.

Here's a very interesting comic put together to explain US copyright in simple terms and the harrowing traumas faced by documentary film makers.

To all appearances copyright in the US seems screwed up at both ends of the scale. On the one hand you have the "rights monsters" as mentioned in the comic where corporate companies assert that nobody nowhere can use even a pinch of their "property" without being bankrupted with a hefty fine, while on the opposite extreme new legislation aims to strip copyright protection from artists and other individuals.

Wednesday, 15 March 2006

So why Blog?

I actually had a "Journal" page on my website for a couple of years, a kind of hand-done blog, but as I used to translate everything into Japanese as well as English (assisted by long-suffering wife), and as I'm no great shakes at html either the whole thing became a monsterous chore after a while. Add a few deadlines into the mix and the end result was - no posts for months on end, so I've taken down the link.

This is a lot more like it though, easy to include images, and upload any time. Veteran bloggers will have heard all this before though, so I'll shut up until I've got something to say. Having learned my lesson I'll skip on the Japanese for now!

Sunday, 12 March 2006

First post

Alright, so I've finally been tempted to have a go at a blog. Once I've learned how all this works I'll be posting away like crazy no doubt, but for now, here's a recent illustration. It's the cover to the Japanese edition of "The Blue Boa", the third in the Charlie Bone series of novels by Jenny Nimmo. Published by Tokuma Shoten in Tokyo.