Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Canal side view

The last word on Amsterdam - during our all too brief stopover the only chance I had to sketch was this quicky from our hotel window.

Saturday, 28 October 2006

Publishing Doldrums

The UK was a busy trip for us, four days in Lichfield to see the family, a couple of nights in Oxford, and finally five days in London before heading back to Japan. I wrapped things up with a meeting with my children's book agent in London. Naturally I wanted to hear some good news that would encourage me to come running back to the old country, but all was gloom and doom.

"In 40 years in the publishing business I've never known it so bad for illustrators" I was told. She even suggested if I return to the UK I should consider taking a regular job just to get by. Great, just what I needed to hear.

As an example she described a meeting she had with one of the biggest publishers in the country, and asked how many picture books they released a year. "Between twenty five and thirty" was the answer, less than half of what they would have produced, say fifteen years ago. Of those thirty, how many were from new writers and artists (i.e. people previously unsigned to them) - "just two or three".

Why is this? Firstly it's the collapse of the library system in the UK. With libraries closing down everywhere the business has become hinged on retail sales, books have a shorter shelf-life, many are pulped early with no chance to develop a long reputation, everything hinges on easy-to-sell material.

Second is the decline of independent bookshops and the massive domination of chain outlets. HMV owned Waterstones, having bought up it's biggest rival Ottokars, has now declared that it will no longer stock hard cover picture books in it's stores, only paperback. This giant bookstore chain now represents 60% of all retail outlets in the UK. And yet the choice of books Waterstones sells are picked by a tiny 6-man team, marketing people who look for the most profitable titles.

Publishers therefore have to please the bookshops by concentrating on books they can sell easily, placing all their hopes on well known established creators, or new books that reflect the transient mood of the moment. There just isn't any room for anyone else.

My agent also bemoaned the ever-decreasing print runs and the lack of international sales because America isn't buying rights. So even if authors do get their books published on royalties it's extremely difficult to earn a living out of them. The books are no longer on the shelves within months of being released, sometimes pulped before the year is out. How are artists expected to earn royalties on books if the books themselves no longer exist?

Not everyone I spoke too was that pessimistic, but the general trend does seem to be one of despondency for children's illustrators. And yet this is the path I've determined to take. Having had 20 years sidetracked as a commercial illustrator in Japan I'm now finding myself focused more and more on children's books for the Western market, I just have to grit my teeth and hope that I've something to offer that others cannot deliver. Someone tell me it's not really that bad!

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Willem Van der Velde

One of the highlights of the trip to Amsterdam was finally getting to visit the Rijksmuseum. This was my second visit to the city, but only now was I able to get to the museum. I was particularly hoping to see some of Rembrandt's fabulous etchings on the second floor, but the room was closed for renovation. Just my bloody luck! Nevertheless this was more than made up for by a discovery in the ground floor exhibition tracing the background to Holland's seventeenth century "Golden Age".

As an illustrator the most fabulous works in the whole museum for me were two enormous pen-and-ink wash drawings of sea battles by Willem Van der Velde. The two drawings were at least a metre wide each, and had an incredible level of detail of the ships involved.

Here's just one small detail from one of the pictures, The Battle of Livorno. It's not a mezzotint or engraving, but freehand pen lines and sepia wash on panel. The detail just took my breathe away.

Here's the whole picture:

Background information on this and two other ink drawings by Van der Velde are on the Rijksmuseum website.

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

The Dick Bruna Huis in Utrecht

I'm posting this from a hotel room in Amsterdam, as the missus, daughter and I are at the beginning of a 2 week break in Europe. We've three days here in Holland then on to the UK.

Today we visited the Dick Bruna House in Utrecht, ostensibly to appease our 3 year old daughter, a big Miffy fan, but also to satisfy our own curiosity.

The museum House stands opposite the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, a fairly compact building converted from a former mental health institution (or so the staff told me). The whole place is painted white inside, which gives maximum effect to the powerful graphic simplicity of Bruna's work... not to mention Miffy.

That iconic symbol of Dutch graphic design dominates the ground floor. A golden statue of the eternally youthful rabbit welcomes visitors, with books, interactive computer games and other activities for young children in the rooms beyond. Our daughter was in her element, which gave me plenty of time to watch the film documentary on Bruna and be inspired by the fascinating gallery of his graphic design work on the upper floor. (There's a rather inadequate virtual tour on their website).

I have to admit I was slow to pick up on Bruna's genius. I knew him mainly for Miffy and not much else until comparatively recently, when I saw a book covering the full range of his earlier posters and book covers from the 1950's and 60's. Seeing the work here in poster form however knocked me out with it's powerful simplicity and design. I was deeply impressed - if only I'd been more aware of this kind of work when I was commissioned for all those Japanese posters in the 1990's! I've learned a lot of lessons today, not least the proudly traditional way Bruna works - it's not technique that matters in the end, it's what you do with the techniques you have, whether it's using the latest technology or doing paper cutouts by hand. Results matter, not methods.

I was amazed by the deliberate simplification of design, stripping things down to the most minimal of suggestions, his limited palette of colours, his book cover designs are amazing exercises in "less is more".

Moreover insights into Bruna's lifestyle really made an impression. There's a lot about him that makes me think that deep down most artists (or graphic artists at least) are the same - he sticks to a daily ritual, he procrastinates before beginning work (don't we all!), he passes all his drawings to his astute wife for approval before finishing (I do exactly the same with my better half), he lives to work on his pictures and is relatively disinterested in money. He knows his world and he's a master of presenting it in what seems to be a fresh manner with every book. Basically it's because he's a perfectionist, he gives his best every time.

All in all an inspiring visit to this little museum. I highly recommend it to anyone passing through the area.