Monday, 31 October 2016

Inktober Day 31: Into the Woods

Into the Woods. Day 31 of #Inktober2016.

It's the last day of Inktober, so here is my final offering. Happy Halloween everyone!

John Shelley inktober 31

Friday, 28 October 2016

Inktober Day 28: Poor Children

Poor Children. Day 28 of #Inktober2016.

Today's Inktober is a little different - rather than personal sketchbook doodles here's an extra illustration for a current book project, a new edition of L. Frank Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This was a 'warm-up' drawing to get me in the groove and test nibs, so a little rough and ready, though often first drawings have an energy that re-draws somehow miss! Unfortunately, although there are several sections featuring children in the text, this drawing doesn't quite fit with any specific passage, so I've not submitted it to the publisher with the other cuts.

I can show it here though!

The book is in production as I write, more news on that to come.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Inktober Day 16: Tree

Day 16 of #Inktober2016. Last night's sketchbook while half-watching the telly.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Inktober 2016

I'd not heard of "Inktober" before, but after a few recommendations, one of them from everyone's favourite anthropologist @DrAliceRoberts I thought I'd give it a go this year. The idea is to post on social media an ink sketch every day throughout October and tag it with #inktober2016 and #inktober. I wasn't sure at first whether the sketches have to be created the same day you post them or can be older, for the first five days of October it overlapped my series on Archives, which included ink drawings, so I just tagged those posts, but this week from 6th October onwards I've been tweeting fresh sketchbook doodles.
Day 6
Looking at the splendorous work from other artists tagged with Inktober some has clearly been laboured over for several hours, but I'm keeping very much within the spirit of the idea and just posting coffee-break doodles, and other down-times grabbed during the day, so these are very rough around the edges.

Day 7
In case you don't follow me on Twitter (@Godfox) here's a summary of the last few days worth of Inktober sketches. Anyone can join in, and it's not too late to start now... here's more information

I was offline on Day 8, but this for Day 9.... feeling somewhat adrift perhaps

Day 10. In retrospect I think I might have been subconsciously channelling Mervyn Peake's Captain Slaughterboard

Day 11 - messing about with faces on the TV last night

I'm thinking, well, if I'm going to do it I shouldn't just limit to Twitter, let's put them on my blog, so for the remainder of the month I'll post one a day. Provided I can keep up that is .... lots to do, so few hours in the day....

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.10: Tokyo Sketchbook, 1987

The final item in this History of my Archive in 10 Objects found in my father's loft are two sketchbooks from my earliest days in Japan in 1987.

Just after I arrived in Tokyo in January 1987 I bought a number sketchbooks of various sizes and spent a lot of the first year in particular being the sketching tourist, drawing, painting and photographing downtown Tokyo, the people around me, the whole experience of being in Japan. I didn't think any sketchbooks from early days in Japan had survived, I had a series of major purges for one reason or another over the 21 years I was there, the biggest down-size being at the very end when I left most of my belongings behind and threw away much of my commercial illustration artwork.

These two sketchbooks survived because I brought them back from Japan in the early '90's after buying a house in London, they stayed there until I later gave up the house, then found their way with a few other items to my dad's loft.

Iidabashi, 6th May 1987. This old building stood near the West exit of the station (the Kagurazaka side), and was I believe demolished in the early '90's development of the area. pen & ink.
Street vendor's cart, Yotsuya, 6th May 1987. pen & ink
There are so many memories wrapped up in these pages, that first year in Tokyo was a roller-coaster of experiences - I had a sponsor when I first arrived in the country, they had no real work for me but nevertheless required me to sit in their dingy downtown office every day, doing literally nothing except breathe in the permament fog of tobacco smoke (I was a non-smoker) and hope the editor would come back to the office and give me permission to go out. Initial joy at being in Tokyo was soon replaced by deep unhappiness, after six frustrating months of this our relationship finally unravelled, and I was out on my own in Shitamachi, free but penniless, fraught with fear over the future. These two sketchbooks cover that period.

The office, waiting for permission to leave, 17th June 1987. ballpen

Because I was under-employed (and yet tightly under the watchful eye of the sponsor), I leaped on any opportunity to slip out of the nicotine stained office in Iidabashi and study Japanese in the quiet of the British Council building, or go walk-about in downtown Tokyo. When I eventually found my own place to rent in Yanaka and parted company with the sponsor these sketchbooks were both a comfort and way to come to terms with Tokyo, it's architecture, atmosphere, details, all things that would serve me well later on.

Roppongi, 18th April 1987, ballpen

On the Hibiya Line, 8th October 1987. ballpen
So these drawings were at a point of change for me, initially a creative escape from my sponsor's office, they then became a comfort when I was on my own in Yanaka, it was a time just before things started to move for me, so looking back at them now brings a mixture of nostalgia and vivid memories of the turmoil I was in then.

Mishima village near Sendai, painted during a volunteer weekend with UNICEF, Summer 1987. watercolour
With these drawings I come to the end of the 10 pieces from my archives. Discovering all of these things in my late father's loft has made me very contemplative about my current position in life, especially after his passing. They're a reflection not only of my early development, but also how creativity tends to mirror physical changes in life. It's never a smooth path, often creative progress happens in spurts, due to some factors affecting life or physical circumstances. But experience and volativity in circumstances alone can't force your creativity either, it's equally possible that change in the wrong direction can herald stagnation or artistic cul-de-sacs. There are no easy predictions.

If there's anything these old archive things has taught me though, it's that on the whole change is generally good, provided you establish a goal that's just out of reach.  Provided you maintain this goal and keep pushing towards it, things will most definitely get better!

Monday, 3 October 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.9: Bag of Portfolio artwork, 1984

The penultimate item in this series of 10 objects from my dad's loft is a bag of unpublished portfolio material from circa 1984.

There was a lot of material from London in my dad's loft, when I left my studio just before I flew off to Japan it was the natural place to just shove everything, my entire output from 1983-1986, and it's pretty well all been preserved, waiting for me to reclaim thirty years later.

I moved to London in 1983, encouraged by two children's book commissions, but finding more work wasn't easy, a miserable, barren year went by with precious little interest before I reconnected with an old friend from Manchester Andy Royston and eventually joined a couple of other illustrators and designers to set up Façade Art Studios in Crouch End, N.8.

I've blogged about Façade Studios before  (here, and here). The aisles of an old church on Crouch Hill had been converted into studio space and were rented to us by animators Bob Bura and John Hardwick (of Camberwick Green/Trumpton fame), whose studio was in the adjacent church hall. On the other side of the church New Statesman cartoonist John Minnion had a studio, while the old nave between the two sides was renovated and used for Sunday services by the Eternal Sacred Order of Seraphim and Cherubim. Bob and John retired soon after we set up the studio, selling the old church hall to Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox (The Eurythmics), who converted it into their recording studio. Cherubim and Seraphim then became our landlords. With such a hotbed of activity all around I found myself spending most of my time in Façade, the studio was my second home, it seemed to turn me into a full time illustrator almost overnight.

When I look through the piles of old artwork now there's so much material it's hard to choose any particular piece, but this bag of unpublished portfolio images from the very early days of the studio sums up the renewed focus I had on illustration. It was a very productive period, especially for editorial work, I experimented in all kinds of directions, from very tight to cartoons, though my ultimate target was always children's books. These were all aimed to grab real paying jobs, I was hungry for commissions and had nothing to lose - no back up plan, no more signing on, it was either make it in London or run back to Norwich and get a day job, and I was certain that wasn't going to happen. I was still gunning for children's book commissions, but magazine work paid the rent. Here's a few.....

Saxon versus Viking, A drawing aimed at the historical non-fiction niche, circa 1983

This drawing and the one above are the oldest from this era, I realised very quickly that there was a limited market for tight penwork, and soon changed tack.

Two early experiments aimed at picture books

Bloody Mary - Part of a series on visualising cocktails

Give us a job! Self portrait in desperation - it probably wasn't such a good idea to show this to potential clients!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.8: The Blue Blanket, 1981-1982

Number 8 in this series of ten archive items from my dad's loft are some surviving copies of The Blue Blanket fanzine, which briefly flared on the streets of Norwich from 1981 to 1982.

Three years in Manchester may have seen a mixed development with my artwork, but it had a profound effect on other aspects of my life - especially through music. It was a fabulous time to be in Manchester - I moved there at the height of punk, and left just before the Haçienda opened. I saw all the iconic bands of the era, from Buzzcocks to The Fall to Joy Division, and all their touring contemporaries. Despite poverty as a student I loved Manchester and often wonder why I didn't just stay in the city after graduating, but I was penniless and disillusioned with my artwork, there were no potential clients for my drawings and the prospect of looking for a job or signing on in Manchester filled me with dread, I couldn't see any reason to stay in the city. A temporary return to the family home was inevitable, however while I was in Manchester my parents had decided to leave the West Midlands and move to a village outside Norwich. It was an entirely alien world to me, from the gritty streets of Manchester to a hamlet in the Norfolk countriside, which I'd only visited on holiday once. What was I going to do now?

My head was full of musical and creative frustration, I needed some outlet for this energy, I was angry, disillusioned, full of post-grad angst and resentment. I needed to get something off my chest....
Cut from Blue Blanket issue 4, 1982

Musical ambitions were never to be fulfilled, so I did the next best thing -  I started a fanzine.

Why The Blue Blanket? The first thing my parents did after I returned to the family flock, after throwing away my entire wardrobe of arty (to my eyes) second hand rags (in theirs), was to tag me along on a short holiday in Brittany. I was really not in the mood, but there was a large blue blanket at the place we stayed, and blue fluff seemed to attach itself to everything - long after the holiday we were picking bits of blue out of things. I wanted a magazine that would get into the crannies of  Norwich, a blanket coverage that would stick everywhere. The name was a joke, but it also reminded me of Der Blau Reiter art movement started by Kandinsky and others.... this was to be a magazine about art as well as music (or so I hoped). Hence The Blue Blanket. 

The fact that I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about Norwich, it's music or art scene didn't seem to matter, in fact I saw it as an advantage as everything came to me fresh, and to my eyes there really didn't seem to be that much of a scene to discuss anyway. Today, Norwich has several venues and numerous galleries, but in 1981 it was more of a city of antiques and second-hand bookshops, there were only a handful of pub venues and two small clubs that put on indie bands - The Gala (a former ballroom) on St.Stephens, and The Jacquard on Magdalen Street, plus occasional gigs at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Nevertheless there was an energy in the city, with some ambitious local bands, an energy which I soon connected with.

The first issue of The Blue Blanket extended to 16 sides of A4, printed (extremely badly) by the Freewheel Anarchist Bookshop in Norwich. It consisted of a manifesto, a news page, a band interview (the non-band Sans Culottes), some gig reviews and lots of opinionated noises from me (under various aliases) questioning whether Norwich was a creative cul-de-sac, a diatribe against the media, jokes, cartoons, an unplayable song and some truly awful poetry. I think the first edition stretched to 200 copies, some of which were stocked by HMV and other local outlets, Rough Trade in London offered to take some, and to my immense pride John Peel at the BBC gave it a shout out on his Radio 1 programme.

Spread from Blue Blanket #2, 1981

To my amazement it sold out, so I upped the price and print run and produced another one, followed by another, and another. My fanzine wasn't alone in Norwich (there was another  Is It Fish?, produced by Farmers Boys compatriot Kid Brian), but my policy was staunchly to focus on the whole of the local indie music scene rather than promote any particular band or cover touring acts. Succeeding issues ran features and interviews on Norwich bands The Vital Disorders, Carl Gustav and the 84's, Zod & the Universe, The Suspects, After Dark, The Higsons (author & comedian Charlie Higson's band!) and Popular Voice, though plans to include the local art scene as well as indie music never really materialised.  By Issue Four the print quality had greatly improved and it still regularly sold out of it's much increased print run, it was actually turning over a small profit, but the job of writing, compiling, designing and selling it was becoming a burden, though by that stage I had a few contributors and the distribution was much easier. John Peel's encouragement kept me at it for a quite a while (he announced the release of every issue and phoned me up once to talk about the Norwich scene on air, tragically I was out!), but my energy was being pulled back towards my illustration career. The focus and self-discipline of running the magazine was giving me a more professional attitude to my work, it gave me the determination to research the market and produce a new portfolio of illustrations to show around London.

The decision to finally hang up ambitions of journalism and close the covers of The Blue Blanket after 6 issues came when I was commissioned to illustrate my first children's book in 1982 - Jeremy Strong's Fatbag, published by A&C Black.

I thought I'd lost all copies of The Blue Blanket, so was very happy to find a few surviving in my father's loft.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.7: college sketchbooks, 1978-1981

For the seventh selection in A History of my Archive in 10 Objects here are some surviving sketchbooks from my 3 years on the Illustration course at Manchester Polytechnic.

Collection of sketchbooks, 1978-1981
Okey, so this is cheating a bit - these are clearly more than one object! But the contents are pretty consistent and were all bundled together in my father's loft, so I think I can safely lump them together as a single item.

Actually, very little remains of my work from the years 1978-1981 while I was at Manchester, as previously mentioned on this blog I ceremoniously threw almost all of my course work out of the 4th Floor window of Chatham House on the final day of the last term, keeping only my degree show portfolio work. It was an act of bravado, but also a statement of the frustration and disillusionment many of us sensed at the end, I felt I'd somehow lost direction during the course. So I was pleasantly surprised to find these sketchbooks still in existence in my dad's loft.

Unfortunately there's not much I want to share, most of the pages are testament to a struggle within confines I'd placed myself in as a pen and ink illustrator. Some time during the First Year I was told by my course head Tony Ross (yes, that Tony Ross) that painting wasn't really my thing, I shouldn't worry about colouring and would be best served by concentrating entirely on pen and ink drawing, with just a splash of colour. I took this advice rather too much to heart and pen drawing was pretty much all I did for most of the 2nd and 3rd years. When I wasn't galavanting off to punk gigs I spent much of my studio time illustrating some of my favourite novels in black and white - The Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Treasure Island, Tom's Midnight Garden, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH... all really imaginative books for an illustrator to explore.

College project: Treasure Island, pen & ink 1980. This drawing survived as a degree show piece.

I saw myself as a black-and-white specialist in the manner of E. H. Shepherd, Mervyn Peake and Edward Ardizzone, it didn't occur to me that in the late '70's fewer and fewer publishers were actually printing novels with text illustrations, that my heroes were all of their time. Most surprisingly of all (and this is something I was to particularly wonder about later), I either wasn't given, or chose to ignore, any guidance to study, write, or dummy picture books, the stock-in-trade of any would-be children's illustrator!

Years later when I met Tony Ross again at Bologna I questioned him about this, and was told, "you have to remember John, it was a commercial illustration course, not a children's book course"... which only partly answered the question. Tony was the head of the course and a children's illustrator, I was the only children's book illustrator in my year (all the others working towards the broader illustration market). I'd set myself very narrow constraints, my pen and ink drawings were still clumsy, the sketchbooks are full of marginalia, doodles rather than dynamic ground breaking work. Maybe I'm being rather hard on myself, but looking through the sketchbooks now from a professional point of view, of the illustration work there's very little I would want to share, I'm not surprised I wanted to throw most of my course artwork out of the window!

College project: Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, pen & ink 1981. Another degree show survivor.

However, mixed in with the heavy-handed experiments (which I'm NOT going to show!)  the sketchbooks also contain lots of drawings from life, sketches of those around me which bring back very clear memories of the time. As a break from struggling with pen and ink I drew fellow students, the things around me... it seems the more I tried to be a 'proper illustrator', the further away I was drifting from inspiration, yet the sketches from life have an authenticity and lighter touch I was somehow missing in my course work. Here are a few.

The most ready-to-hand subjects were the other illustration students on my course....
Fellow student Shirley Barker sketch mixed in with a page of course work on The Wind in the Willows, 1979

Melanie Dabbs, 1980
Bob Wood 1980
Jean Yarwood, 1981
Tammy Wong, 1981

... even occasionally the course teachers...

...then there were the places I lived...

A scruffy room in Longsight, 1980. That's my Corona typewriter on the table.
The All Saints campus from the Halls of Residence, around 1979. Student Union on the right, Oxford Road in the distance.

...and there was the Thursday afternoon life class (regretably stopped half way through the course), which was a wonderful escape while it lasted as it was purely observed drawing.

My eyes were greatly opened by my time at Manchester, not least thanks to the indie music scene and my friends. The course itself though had narrowed my output and possibly development, but I don't exclusively blame the tutors, I've a tremendous respect for Tony Ross. We must have been a tough bunch to teach.

Tony Ross drawing in my sketchbook margin, I think he was  encouraging me to make my animals fatter.