Tuesday, 30 May 2006

The demise of technique

Finally catching up with things after the exhibition. Here's another illustration blog,ILLUSTRATION ART, a sharply observed insight on the lost craft of technique.

It got me thinking. (Here we go, another grumble...)

It's been suggested that the two world wars basically destroyed the skills of finish and technique for illustrators, (you know, the "craft" part of Arts & Crafts), though the 20th Century was pretty much of a helter-skelter for creativity even without two titanic struggles in the middle. I think it has more to do with the rise of sliced bread, photography, and Andy Warhol's "everyone will be famous for 15 minutes" but I won't delve into sociology here too deeply. Suffice to say that by the time I was at college in the late 1970's tight academic drawings were frowned on by my tutors, I was encouraged to "loosen up", "be more expressionate".....

Maybe they were right at the time, I did loosen up, and developed a shorthand children's style that got me work, but I still regret now not having a stronger disciplined training in technique and observation, which at the time I really needed. Most of my meagre skills I honed under the demanding pressures of working in the real world after graduation. When I show my work to publishers in the UK today I often hear them bemoaning how "younger graduates don't have these kind of drawing skills any more...", so things obviously haven't changed much.

I tell myself that techniques have changed, the discipline of illustration has evolved in new directions, with new materials, demanding different skills. Not many people would want to return to strict Victorian conservatism in art, but I sometimes wonder whether the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Some of those skills seem to have been lost forever.

What I particularly worry about is another more insidious trend that seems to characterise too much illustration today (especially in Japan) - the growing popularity of "sampling" (or, as they used to call it in my house "ripping-off"!). By that I mean the wholesale copying of style, or plundering of old images.

Copying Style - the re-hash of old 50's and 60's styles without any personal input from the illustrator, a souless veneer of technique slapped on a mediocre idea to give the impression of trendiness. Shockingly just such a re-hash 50's style copy illustration is being used to promote sales of this year's "Illustration File" sourcebook in Japan. It's an unforgiveable stylistic rip-off!!

Plundering Images - the digital collaging of other people's out-of-copyright work in some attractive juxtaposition and calling it "original artwork". - "Oy! That's not illustration, it's graphic design!"

In the USA lobbyists are about to pass new legislation that strips copyright protection of orphaned works (copyrighted works where the copyright owner cannot be found), making it easier than ever to "sample" other's work, cut and paste, and get away with it.(A campaign against the bill is being promoted by The Illustrators' Partnership)

Whichever case, it's the blatant re-moulding of old work re-launched for a generation that doesn't know or care about the original source. I see it every day I get on the train into Tokyo, (I'll try and remember to post some examples...) and it bugs me.

Computers have made it so easy to copy and re-package. The general trend is "hey, anyone can be an artist". I won't argue with that. Anyone really can be an "artist", for art is after all in the eye of the beholder. But illustration is a much more professional business, which is being undermined by a lowering of technical standards and fees. The bottom line is - if you don't have the skills you shouldn't be doing the job.

The old saying "there's nothing new under the sun" has always been true with illustration, you can never come up with a truely original concept, everything has it's precedants. However there's a big difference between being "inspired" by other's work, and simply stealing it to repackage as your own.

And on that note I put a smile back on my face and get back to work...

Saturday, 20 May 2006

Exhibition Closes

Today the exhibition at Space Yui finally ended after a very hectic week. I can't say exactly how many people came to the show, 117 people signed the guest book, but many others left without signing, so perhaps something in the region of 150-170 visitors in total perhaps.

If anyone who attended or helped to promote the show is reading this, a very big THANKYOU!

For me personally the exhibition has been a great success. This was the first time I've held a one-man show since 2002, and it was in one of my favourite Tokyo galleries. The illustrations were somewhat of a break from my usual style, although this is something that has been simmering away for a very long time indeed. Thanks to the publishers Hyoronsha, finally I was given the right project, with the inspiring text of Hans Christian Andersen and a free hand to interpret for a "mature" readership. I was let loose to do almost anything I wanted within the realm of the text.

And boy, what inspiring writing! It was for me as if the flood gates were suddenly opened, and the words on the page electrified my imagination. It was as if Andersen himself had raised the stakes, and thrown down the gauntlet - "rise to the challenge Shelley!" I was commanded. And so I did. It just goes to prove the point - the better the text, the better the illustrations. I don't make any claims that the work in this show is to everyone's taste, but for me at least I feel I've broken new ground within my own work. The fact that the show consisted of work for a single project also gave it a strong continuity.

The creative fraternity has an understandable tendancy to pigeonhole artists, and for many years my reputation in Japan has hinged on colourful bold commercial work on the one hand, and intuitive warm children's illustration on the other. Although I love both of these genres, with this exhibition I wanted to make a clear statement that there is another side to my technique, a style that challenges my technical ability and my vision. I believe the message hit home. I don't usually exhibit artbook from every book I illustrate, but these four volumes were a very clear exception. They simply HAD to be exhibited.

Thankyou again to everyone who helped to make this show such a memorable event.

Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Exhibition opening shots

A big thank you to everyone who came down to the launch party for my exhibition at Space Yui. Unfortunately not many photos were taken, but here are a few of the guests on the night!

Hyoronsha editors Chihomi Okamoto (l) and Junko Takeshita (r), with the translator of the Andersen books Yoichi Nagashima, who was opportunely in Tokyo from Denmark.

Surprise guest - Nagano Prefecture Governor Yasuo Tanaka!

Super Material Producer Kano Hamabatake and Illustrator Koji Ishikawa.

Author/Illustrator Naomi Kojima

Illustrators Ranko Tsuda, Sachiko Yamamoto and game soft designer Shunsuke Yamamoto.

Wifey as the sexy hostess.

Yours truely in party spirit.

Thereafter things started to get very busy and no-one thought to take any more photos. Oh well, the memory will always be there! Around 40 guests dropped in altogether for the reception through the evening, thankyou everyone!

Friday, 12 May 2006

Andersen Exhibition

From Monday I'm exhibiting almost 40 illustrations from my four volume series of Hans Christian Andersen tales, published by Hyoronsha in Japan (organizing this show is one reason why I've not been posting much to the blog lately!) With stories ranging from The Shadow to The Little Mermaid, the books were published to coincide with the bicentenary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen in 2005, translated by Professor Yoichi Nagashima of Copenhagen University.

If you're in Tokyo please drop in to the Gallery Space Yui, the show runs from 15th - 20th May, 11.00am-7.00pm.

If Tokyo's a bit unreachable, you can see the books and some of the illustrations on my website. Just click on the bookcovers.

Monday, 8 May 2006


And here are a couple of the animal characters. As they only came out as stitch patterns I'd like to see the artwork put to some use. Maybe I could find a way to squeeze them into a book one day!

Tree illustration

I've not posted much in the way of artwork, so here's something you won't find on my website.

It's the background image for a series of stitch pattern animals I made for sewing software company Janome. The actual characters were only ever released as stitching patterns so the original artwork has never been reproduced anywhere.

Admittedly very "Rackham" in flavour, one reason I've not put it on my website!

Mervyn Peake

Recently I've been reading Malcom Yorke's fascinating biography of author/illustrator Mervyn Peake (1911-1968), one of my illustration 'heroes'.

In 1947 Peake was interviewed on BBC Radio and waxed lyrical on the subject of book illustration. His ideas are so close to my own opinions on the subject I can't resist quoting the great man's words here:

For a book illustrator "above all things there must be the power to slide into another man's soul. The power to be identified with author, character and atmosphere... It is fatiguing, exacting work. Fatiguing not only because if one sets oneself a high standard the very technique sucks up one's energy, but fatiguing also because of the imaginative expenditure required if one illustrates, in the full meaning of the word."

Peake warns against taking the text at face value, producing "literal drawings which do not interpret or transmute the words into another medium, but merely repeat what the author has just said... (such drawings) underline the surface of the story or poem. They make no attempt to capture the 'colour' of the writing.

"One might say that books have different smells. Wuthering Heights smells different from Moby Dick, Green Mansions smells different from Tristram Shandy. The book of Job, smells different - very different - from The Fall of the House of Usher. It is for the illustrator to make his drawings have the same smell as the book he is illustrating. Most celebrated book illustrators impose their celebrated techniques upon whatever book they are illustrating, graft upon it as it were their famous mannerisms to the discomfiture of the fastidious reader... At the same time I find it essentially insensitive, however beautiful the book production may be, to couple fine works of literature with the alien and haphazard burgeoning of the finest artist - haphazard in the sense that they are not interpretations of the text, but manifestations of the artist's personality... In book illustration the artist must not only synchronize all the aesthetic elements with which the pure painter has to juggle, but he must have, over and above this, the power to identify himself with another personality - that of the author he is interpreting., and also with the mood of the book. He must have, in other words, not only an imagination but a pliable one - a wide one, one that is sensitive to the overtones of music and words, that miraculous coinage. He must slay his own ego in order to relive. He must have the chameleon's power to take on the colour of the leaf he dwells on".

Here Here!