The Ghost of an Owl

Ghost Owl Tree blog

Ghost Owl Tree (40 cms x 20 cms, ink and coloured pencil on watercolour paper, 2016)

In 2010, an eagle owl flew from the North of England down the eastern coastline to Suffolk. It made its home in a large tree on the edge of farmland, feasting on the rich supply of rabbits and pheasants that lived nearby.

Fearless and with few natural predators, these owls have been known to swoop down into suburban gardens and take out domestic cats. They will see off other hunting birds, such as harriers, and even attack smaller farm animals.

One day the Suffolk eagle owl grew tired of rabbits and decided it would switch to a diet of piglets, but a local farmer took umbrage and shot the magnificent bird when it returned to the tree. Sometimes, on moonlit winter nights, an eerie glow can be seen among its bare branches, said by locals to be the spirit of the owl haunting its former hunting ground.

I’m afraid I’ve made up this story (although the second paragraph is true) to explain this drawing. For some time I’d wanted to do a version of Ernst Haeckel’s Pedigree of Man (1879) tree. I thought I’d draw an owl to collage onto the tree but then felt it looked more mysterious with just the glowing space.

So here it is, with a short story free of charge.



The Beautiful South

Blauvac blog

Blauvac (2015 ink A5 sketchbook page)

Ah, southern Europe! Grilled squid, a crisp dry white wine, crusty white bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the sun shining on a zinc table, the scent of the Mediterranean, the perfume of oleander and wild irises, warm evenings and a sky full of stars. The above drawing is one of the views from Le Mazet des Cyprès in Provence, but I wonder if the little abstract below isn’t a better evocation of the beautiful South with its range of Mediterranean blues?

Mittelmeer blog

Mittelmeer (2009 watercolour 5cms square)

Smiley’s People

Smileys People blog

The Ex-husbands of Jane Smiley (2014 ink and watercolour pencil A5 sketchbook page)

Some things beg to be illustrated. When Robert McCrum interviewed the lovely Jane Smiley for the Observer newspaper last year, and she described her current and three ex-husbands as “all great guys, all easy-going guys, and I’m fond of all of them” this picture of them all lined up for a group photograph sprung into my head. In the article there was a picture of Jack but not of the other three, so I had to imagine what they might be like. I wish in retrospect that I’d spent more time on the drawing, but it was a spontaneous reaction so I left it as it is. I wish, too, that I hadn’t made John look like a bit like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – I’m sure he doesn’t deserve that.

Just an illustration

Peppers 1207 WP

Peppers (2012 ink and watercolour 30cms x 40cms)

In the latest issue of Artists and Illustrators magazine, a contestant on the recent BBC TV Big Painting Challenge – a reality show featuring amateur artists – claims that she found the criticism of the two professional judges, Lachlan Goudie and Daphne Todd, unnecessarily harsh and even rude at times, and was called ‘an illustrator’ by one of them.

I know that some fine artists think illustrators are mere hacks but it seems to me a rather spurious distinction, especially when some artists of unquestionable reputation, David Hockney perhaps, are able to slip between the two without any sense of having to dumb down for their illustrative work. Furthermore, if some evil demon could wipe out an entire artist’s work overnight would we miss Tracey Emin more than Maurice Sendak, or Jeff Koons more than George Herriman (below)? Personally I’d prefer one frame of a Krazy Kat comic over Koons’ entire oeuvre but I know there are others who would see Herriman as a ‘mere’ cartoonist while a Koons vacuum cleaner in a Perspex case is a profound artistic statement.*

It seems a little like the argument about whether all classical music is somehow more accomplished than all popular music. In the end it’s just sound, just as art and illustration are both marks on a surface.

So is the picture above an illustration for a cookery book or a meditation on the graphic quality of red and green chilli peppers? Ultimately, does it matter?

* They’d be wrong, by the way…

Herriman’s Trees

Herriman Trees blog

Herriman’s Trees (ink 2011 A5)

The great George Herriman died 71 years ago today. Remembered now as the creator of the Krazy Kat comics, Herriman is not only considered the greatest American cartoonist of the twentieth century but also, by some critics at least, the greatest American artist of the twentieth century. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, the beauty of his line and his limitless imagination must surely make him a contender. His influence was always greater than his popularity: Art Spiegelman, Richard Thompson and Robert Crumb are just some of the artists who would acknowledge him as such. The strange adventures of Krazy Kat, Ignatz, and 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. 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?

No cats were harmed in the making of this bookmark

BD Bookmark Cat small

Book Depository bookmark design (ink and coloured pencil 2009 16cm x 4cm)

In 2009 the Book Depository ran a bookmark competition and I’m pleased to say I was one of the winners – not with this one though. Although it referenced books and used the bookmark shape to good advantage, I wonder now why I ever thought it had a chance of winning. Imagine the reaction of some poor child, opening her copy of the Gruffalo and finding this tucked inside. You’ll be pleased to know that it wasn’t drawn from life: I followed Edward Ardizzone’s advice and drew it wholly from the imagination as an illustrator should, according to him. My winning drawing showed an old man sitting on a riverbank reading a book and fishing with a line strung from his toe. Much more tasteful.

Inside Conducting

Seaman 1 Seaman 2 Seaman 3

Unused illustrations to Inside Conducting (ink and collage 2012-13 various sizes)

Illustrating Inside Conducting in 2012-13 was an enormous pleasure and a steep learning curve for me: you don’t, I realised, produce finished drawings to show to an author, even one as good-natured as Christopher Seaman. The outcome is that I have two or three versions of many of the drawings – some with minor variations. The drawings here were not included in the actual book and are presented as ‘out-takes’, so to speak.

The one with all the eyes was to illustrate how conductors feel nervous before a concert, but we had two drawings for that section and this was dropped; the one with the different conducting objects was thought to be too frivolous, although it is my daughter’s favourite and mine too; finally the Beethoven did appear in the book but was topped and tailed, cutting out the announcement and, tragically, LvB’s thrombosis socks, of which I was very proud. It illustrates a rather baffling quote by Tom Stoppard about how the course of western classical music would have changed had Beethoven perished in an air accident…yeah, right, Tom.

Apologies for the (c) Michael Richards legends on each image. I’ve had some slightly suspicious visits to this page and there are those who would use others’ pictures without credit and for their own gain. Yes, really!