Oh when the saints…

Detail of St Margaret and the Dragon (see previous post for the complete image)

My previous post, way back in April, was all about drawing and featured an image of St Margaret and the dragon. It was based on a medieval French oak carving in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Apparently Margaret was swallowed by the devil who appeared to her in the form of a dragon. Fortunately for her, the crucifix she was carrying got caught in the devil’s throat and he threw her up again. I had such fun drawing that improbable situation I thought saints and martyrs might make an interesting occasional series.

I next came across St Vitus. He was only 12 years old, and had already been tortured by his father, when he was asked to expel a demon from the son of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. This he did but made the foolish error of not joining in the pagan celebrations that followed. Rather ungratefully, Diocletian had him thrown into a pot of boiling oil, along with a rooster to ward off evil spirits. Vitus died of his injuries the following day. The fate of the chicken is unknown.

St Vitus (ink and Prismacolour pencils in a Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook)

The dancing (St Vitus’ Dance) came much later when medieval Germans believed that throwing shapes in front of statues of the hapless boy would ensure a year of good health. Since then, Vitus has become the patron saint of entertainers, Methodists, epileptics and, oddly, oversleeping.

These are irresistible stories, I hope you’ll agree. In case anyone is concerned about the practice of throwing mystical youths into boiling oil or virgins being swallowed by dragons, neither of these stories can be historically verified, deadpans Wikipedia.

These drawings originally appeared on my Instagram feed: both were drawn in ink and coloured pencil.

The art of baseball

Baseball (A5 sketchbook page/ ink/ 2018)

I have a theory about baseball: I don’t think it’s a sport at all, but rather a type of performance art.

At the risk of offending readers in the US, as a sport it’s pretty unexciting: there’s a lot of standing around, no-one ever seems to hit the ball and, if they do, it’s nearly always caught or they get run out.

Seen as performance art, however, it’s fascinating. The costumes, the many rituals, that weird rule that someone on first or second base can run unless the pitcher spots him, the movements of the individual players, the organ accompaniment that offers an ironic musical commentary on the action (or lack of it) – all of this adds up to a rather ritualistic type of performance.

Have you ever seen a field full of rabbits? It has a similar dynamic: the rabbits appear to move in a predestined way which might appear random at first but soon suggests a bigger pattern. Are they being controlled or do they know when it’s their turn in the game?

I’ve developed this theory after seeing one game. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a baseball game the last time I was in the US, and I expected to enjoy the hot-dogs and beer thing but be bored senseless by the actual play (I’d seen it on TV once and it made drying paint look edgy…). In fact the game was compelling: seeing the field as a whole, instead of just close-ups of the players as happens on TV, was what suggested performance art. What’s more, at one stage I went downstairs to the men’s room and hundreds of people were waiting in line for food and drink – it was like a parallel event down there: a festival of deep-fried food, perhaps?

I drew the two batters (never batsmen, I was informed) above from photographs I took at the game. I would like to thank Jim and Susie for introducing me to this new and unforgettable artform, masquerading as a sport.

You say potato…

Things Americans Say

Things Americans Say (A4 Moleskine Storyboard Sketchbook spread) 2017 [Click to enlarge]

Recently I came across a book of American colloquial phrases and sayings from the 1940s. It made the perfect birthday present for one of my dearest friends, an American who – despite having lived in Paris for nearly forty years – still refers to ‘candy’ and ‘gas stations’. I drew a birthday card highlighting some of the differences in our common language (the meanings of ‘vest’ and ‘derby’) and included a couple of these superannuated phrases.

They were such fun that I carried on, not attempting to illustrate them in any way but simply drawing Richard Thompsonesque characters saying them to each other. I also added a contemporary one: the ubiquitous and deeply annoying ‘reach out’. The result was the drawing at the head of this post. It was meant as an affectionate hommage to our various Englishes, in case anyone is feeling overly teased.

A few days ago, I was drinking Californian Shiraz with some Americans, one of whom asked me the following question, inspired by The Great British Bake-Off: “If you British say ‘bluebriz’ for blueberries and ‘guzzbriz’ for gooseberries, why do you pronounce the cook’s name on Bake-Off Mary Berry rather than Mary ‘Bree’?” It’s a good question.

Last week I went to an American supermarket. A simple shop took the best part of an hour as I tried to translate my mental shopping list from British English into American: chicken stock was found to be broth, sweet potatoes appeared to be yams, not to mention the whole aubergine and courgette confusions (luckily peanut butter is the same in both languages so my breakfast was assured). Were matters of nomenclature not enough to confuse this Englishman abroad, you Americans contrive to store eggs in the refridgerated section. Is there no end to this?

I have nothing profound to say about all of this, except the obvious point that we’re different, you and I. Even if you don’t chill your eggs or talk about ‘razzbriz’, we’re still different. If you hate or fear those who are different, then you have to include members of your own family in all probability: my brother thinks it’s important to wash your car every week whereas I just leave mine out in the rain.

Ultimately such fears – perhaps even starting over something as trivial as the way we speak – leads to hatred, even civil war and genocide: to Rwandans who lived side by side for years suddenly turning on one another; to Bosnians who co-existed for decades in the same city, the same streets, being marched up into the hills outside Srebrenica.

The Germans have a saying – possibly the subject of a future series of drawings – that we’re all foreigners, almost everywhere. If we could only keep that thought in mind when someone walks into our local bar and talks funny. In the meantime our respective governments encourage us to point the finger and exploit the differences between us for their own ends. In that way at least, British and American people are alike.

A life in black and white

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Do you ever have that thing where you buy a new book – perhaps one that you’ve been waiting to turn up for a while – and when it arrives you can’t bear to read it because you want a time free of interruptions to do it justice? What’s more once you’ve read it, you won’t have it to look forward to any more.

At the moment, Krazy, a life of Krazy Kat comic artist George Herriman, by Michael Tisserand, sits on my table unread until my next holiday. If you don’t know Krazy Kat, there is much online, and if you do, you’ll want this already acclaimed biography.

The subtitle of the book is worth mentioning, George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. This refers not only to the black and white Krazy Kat comics, but also the fact that Herriman, know as ‘The Greek’ because of his swarthy complexion, was actually African American, born to a Creole family that hid its racial identity in the dangerous days of Reconstruction.

Herriman began publishing Krazy Kat cartoons in 1916, but the strange adventures of Krazy, Ignatz the abusive mouse, and lovesick Offisa Pupp still charm and amaze today, seeming both contemporary and timeless. But look behind the main characters in his strips and you’ll see backgrounds that repay careful study. Shifting vistas inspired by Monument Valley and the Enchanted Mesa come and go, a rocky outcrop in one frame replaced by a shack with a crooked chimney in another.

Herriman Trees blog

George Herriman trees (A5 ink 2011)

I was always fascinated by his trees, however, which twist and zigzag in ways that few do in nature. I was so captivated by them that I filled this sketchbook page with a few examples. Unusually for me, I copied them line for line – after all, who could improve on Herriman? I posted this drawing when I first started this blog, but as I only had about three followers then, I don’t mind posting it again.

Now that you’ve read this, please go down to your local independent bookshop – no, don’t click on you-know-where – and order a copy of Michael Tisserand’s Krazy.

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Three Santas

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Three Santas [Christmas card design] (30 cms x 30 cms ink and coloured pencil 2014)

‘Take a look back over the past 12 months,’ WordPress recommends for an end-of-year post. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather close the door on 2016 and leave it to gather dust in that room where nobody goes.

According to some rough and ready BBC research we lost twice as many ‘celebrities’ in the first three months of 2016 as during the same period in 2015 and five times as many as in 2012. The world is certainly less colourful for the loss of Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Victoria Wood and many others; my own little world of enthusiasms was rocked by the deaths of Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Billy Paul, Dutch cartoonist and illustrator Peter van Straaten, Gilbert Kaplan (who taught himself to conduct Mahler’s 2nd Symphony) and comedian Garry Shandling.

Then there was Brexit and Trump, the inability of the West to prevent the slaughter in Syria, the rise of intolerance and anger in so many European countries, a darkness of spirit that seems to have spread into so many corners of our lives in 2016. On a personal level too, 2016 for me was a year of endings and unforeseen change, of bittersweet moments, of realities that needed to be faced.

Where there are endings there are also beginnings. I’ve been blessed by the support of friends this year, surprised by the kindness of strangers and buoyed up by an excellent meditation course. Nothing can bring back Leonard Cohen, but his life remains an inspiration for second chances in later years and his music is there for everyone who wants to hear it.

So I wish you a happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Chahrshanbeh Soori, winter solstice or whatever you celebrate to bring light to these dark days. Thank you to those whose support and help has meant so much during the year, to all of you following this blog and especially those who take the time to comment. Thanks to all the artists who have provided such inspiration and helped me find my way forward.

To all of you, I dedicate these jolly, naked Santas. You know it’s what you were waiting for.

 

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When the laughter stops

To call Richard Thompson – who died on Wednesday at the age of 58 -a cartoonist is like saying Mozart could carry a tune.

The Cat

A fairly typical Cul de Sac episode

His reputation will probably rest on his syndicated Washington Post strip, Cul de Sac, which featured in-yer-face 4 year old Alice Otterloop and her deeply introverted elder brother, Petey, along with their friends, parents, their grandmother and their grandmother’s enormous dog. Thompson’s genius, however, stretched to caricatures, the ever-inventive and often weird Richard’s Poor Almanac, editorial illustrations, oil paintings and much more.

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Richard Thompson on inspiration

What I found irresistable in Richard Thompson’s work -and the reason why The Art of Richard Thompson would be my desert island book – was the amount of life he could pour into his most casual line. Look at any of his drawings and see the expression in those faces, the carefully-observed humanity in those cartoon bodies, the humour in the eyes of the figures standing behind the main figures.

He could draw the best caricature of George W Bush, wonderful cows, fools with caps and bells, Santa’s little helpers, elephants like you’ve never seen them before, a brilliant Beethoven, and the story of evolution in three perfect panels (click on the Richard Thompson link in the blogroll to the right). We shall not encounter his like again any time soon, I know.

I offer my inadequate small tribute (below) to an artist I would have loved to have met and told how much his work means to me.

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Tribute to Richard Thompson (A5 sketchbook, ink, 2016)

 

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