A little girl is moving house to go and live in the city. But she knows she can’t take her cat who would be very unhappy. So full of sadness and regret, she leaves him with her cousins. All her favourite games were with Charlie. What would she do in the city? Who would she play with? But city life has other excitements Soon she has new friends and new games and while the place in heart for Charlie remains strong, and she visits him as often as she can, she learns that he can be her friend without being with her all the time. Beautiful illustrations complement this moving text which deals gently with two topics which can be a source of anxiety for children: friendships and moving house.
Working across different disciplines adds an element of confusion to the casual studio visitor, or, in one case it was somebody who wanted to see some work for a local show. Being familiar with the range of my children’s illustrations, the first thing she saw in the studio were several very large non-figurative paintings and lots of smaller ones. Puzzlement and doubt abounded. There was nothing cozy about these things. Had she come to the right place? How to extricate herself?
This was symptomatic of the reaction of many visitors and has led to me providing a brief tutorial in order to clarify this. Let’s start with the ‘abstract’ stuff.
My explanation was, and is, by invitation only otherwise the listeners boredom levels would be severely tested. Their interest was genuine and any hint of a patronising attitude from me would be spotted at once.
The gist of my riveting talk turned on learning the history and the language (or lack of it) of painting. As it is with literacy or numeracy or musical notation or culinary techniques, the study of these things is crucial. Otherwise, without the background knowledge of ‘reading’ paintings then the the lure of conventional pedestrian ‘proper pictures’ in all their tedium prevails.
Does one tackle this with a barrage of words? Heaven forbid. Consider this. After having enjoyed a play, or a novel, or a collection of poems, would you like to see a series of pictures to further increase one’s understanding? Or, conversely, does the visual experience have to be translated into mountains of words? Of course not. I once had a show where the only words were ‘fire exit’, and that was because it was compulsory. As somebody said ‘painting is about painting, everything else is about everything else.’ Quite so. Study it, learn about it, look at it, and even try it. Then forget the words.
As previously mentioned, illustrating childrens books has been quite a successful venture. And along with Ronda’s superior literary skill our Lighthouse Keeper books have kept us both busy for over 40 years. Being published by Scholastic they have been a hit in schools, with hundreds of lighthouses being crafted by kids all over the world!
Some years ago, Ronda and I were doing a school visit in London. For some reason, we worked with the kids in a lecture theatre, at the end of which was a grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was on my own finishing off some session pictures for my young audience. At some point a young man appeared, asked if I minded if he did a rehearsal on the piano. ‘Of course not’, I replied, ‘can I come and see?’ He was doing that wonderful warhorse, the piano part in Beethoven 5, a piece I had known since I was about 4 years old. His concert date was pretty close. He was nervous. He had umpteen goes at the start of the rondo. I approached the piano. ‘Look at this,’ he said, gesturing to the left hand page. He played a bit. ‘Now look at the right,’ he said. ‘You can see the problem! Bloody difficult, fancy a go?’ Of course, I could not see it at all. All I saw was a series of black marks on a piece of white paper. He looked at these marks and his head filled with music. This language was incomprehensible to me. My head filled with nothing. Not a hope. The music of top class painting is the same. It is wordless and deeply affecting.
And of course, the dross of the ordinary in this venture is just as evident and as easy to spot. There is acres of it. This can be very confusing. Online websites are full of the stuff, so much of it is of spellbinding mediocrity. More explanation required….
[A coda: Back to the lecture theatre type experience with the children….
Making images for children is wonderfully unequivocal and almost totally wordless. The scene is a draughty assembly hall. 200 kids, years 1 and 2 are settled down and expecting a good show. So, get to work and then grab them and hold them, but be quick about it. Do that and the rapport is a kind of silent and magical electricity. The children almost take all the oxygen out of the air. At the end, nobody wants to leave, including me and the teachers. If you are not up to it, death is not lingering, it is immediate and horribly final . Children don’t mess around with platitudes. This activity is not for the faint-hearted. In which case, go and do something else…..]
I first started my studio shows about 1980. Why? Dealers and I have never had a meaningful relationship, indeed, apart for a couple of minor skirmishes, one could say no relationship whatsoever, a state of affairs not likely to change. This isn’t a personality based phenomenon as far as I can tell.
For many years I worked as a jobbing illustrator. At times this could be stressful, to say the least. A phone call on Sunday evening. Who could that be I wonder? The caller, an agent, comes straight to the point.
‘Right, David, we need an A3 4 colour spread of….(take your pic)… a snow scene / children playing / an exotic forest / Greeks / Romans / Victorian slums / a moody sea scene / dogs / ducks or general livestock / portraits of war poets / airships and balloons / a Romanesque basilica / a street scene / a gooey sunset….etc. etc.’
We need it NOW, please, and… if you could courier it over by lunchtime tomorrow that would be terrific. The client will be lobbing in about 2pm. No time for visuals or scamps. Bye’.
Socialising grinds to a halt, back to the studio. Job is done to the accompaniment of an out of tune tawny owl. My motorcycle mate arrives at 10 a.m. to collect. (Wi- Fi has changed all that.) I have breakfast and get on with a bloody great ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ pic which was way overdue. What was good about all this? It paid well. The downside? One develops a pathological dread of forever doing this kind of stuff. If I see a load of this , or similar ilk, at any dealers, (quite right and proper from their point of view). I thank God, with all my heart, that I will never have to knock out these sort of pictures again. EVER .
Besides, there are loads of highly trained seals who are also really good at this, and they enjoy it! Good for them.
Amongst all of this, illustrating children’s books, a totally different discipline and for a much tougher audience, proceeded rather well to say the least, and still does. More of this anon. Finally, the discipline of painting was also prosecuted to a greater or lesser degree. I still want the painter to create a new magical world of their own, not merely illustrate, more or less, the one we just happen to inhabit. Pictures in other words. That’s easy.
Anyway back to the studio shows. These are, and still are my shop front, so to speak. These were/are a happy melange of painting, children’s illustrations, life drawings and cartoons. A lot of fun can be had juxtaposing a 5 metre abstract painting with some little A4/fragments and a load of children’s illustrations.
Audience reaction or lack of it is wonderful. I have invented a ‘shortest viewing time competition’. The current record is 2.4 seconds (viewed from the doorstep) but that will be bettered. The other great obstacle is the husband/wife dynamic. An example:
They appear. Wife sees a 1.5 metre -ish painting to die for. Hubby a slab of indifference. A tape measure was produced, the problem of furniture moving discussed at some length, generating conviction and increasing volume. Then, the matter was decided. The price agreed, a mere snip at 8 grand, a cheque written. Delivery sorted… I immediately thumbed through the en primeur wine lists and told the bailiffs to call off their dogs.
Next morning the cheque was cancelled. Never mind. I have been there, on a lesser scale, many times, and doubtless will do so again.
This post contains mature content in the form of life drawing and nudity.
Chapter 5: The Journey to Thinking Big
At the end of secondary school it was time to go back to Melbourne and stay with my Aunt. Why? It meant that I could study art at the grandly named Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. This activity was not so much a learning curve, rather more a vertical axis.
The tuition was very good, three years illustration was followed by 2 years painting. I was , and still am, deeply devoted to both. Customer satisfaction. Life drawing, a splendid discipline, was included in all of this.
In my final year I was employed as a lecturer to teach the first years and part-timers this noble art…. a valuable experience. The students did not seem to be troubled by the age of their tutor. His love of the subject seemed to preclude this. I got my diploma and learnt how to do many things.
THEN! Overtaken by events. A major theatre in the city had approached the college to see if they had a student who could paint theatre scenery. I could imagine how the conversation went… ‘We need somebody who can draw and represent the physical world…for God’s sake don’t send us some abstract expressionist or cubist clown or a mystic Meg. We want technical skill. Give him, or her, anything, and they can do it. They will have to work on a huge scale. More than that, they will have to produce results before the pubs open’!
I got the nod. My meeting with the head honcho was salutary. He was short, golden bristled in a Scottish sort of way, and had the eye colouring of a Norwegian fjord.
He gave me a ‘O God, here’s another one’ sort of look and then pronounced in a voice flat with indifference, ‘Look,sunshine, if you can’t do this, I will bloody soon find somebody who can. I can’t frig around, let’s go’. I have heard similar sentiments expressed many times over the years. You either drop your bundle or it puts iron in the soul. As if to under- score this, he produced a cartoon ( in the original sense, a preparatory study). This was about A2 landscape in format and had to be scaled up to a massive 10×5 metre back cloth. Suddenly, a jaw dropping moment.
Our leader folded the cartoon twice, and tore it from top to bottom in order to make 3 identical panels. He took one, his long time assistant another, and he gave the third to me.
‘OK,’ he commanded, gesturing at the prepared canvas, ‘you guys start at either end, I’ll do the middle. Don’t screw it up’
I am as dry as a dead dingo’s….. ‘You have an hour to get the first stage knocked in’.
I looked at the cartoon. It was a kind of Baroque hell. Greek columns, acanthus leaves, Brunelleschian architecture, figures in alcoves, tracery, decorative stone and woodwork, and on and on. It was to accompany a Strauss type Viennese Operetta. I am sure the blue Danube must appear sooner or later. That would be a doddle.
Enter the real world…
Two legacies of all this… 1. Only ever using thin paint as the cloths had to be rolled for transport; and 2. An undying love for working on a very big scale.
The T-bone steak seemed about the size of a dustbin lid , well seasoned and nicely cooked by the look of it. It nestled behind the near- side front wheel of my car, just outside the kitchen window. My puzzlement increased when I heard our neighbour’s wife, in a rather perplexed and shrill voice enquire ‘Brian, have you eaten your steak?’
The steak was then obscured by a bundle of orange fur.
Oh God,! NOT AGAIN! Two hours previously a group of people walked past our front gate. One of them pointed at Hamish and with thinly disguised fury screamed ‘That’s the one, BLOODY CAT’!
Some 10 years earlier, in 1977, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch was published.
One of the main protagonists in the story (and subsequent stories) was and is Hamish the ginger cat. A complete invention of course. We had no pets and were awaiting copies of the said book when, one morning, our children, aged about 5 and 3 called for Ronda and I to come to the kitchen AT ONCE!
On the doorstep sat a perfect example of life imitating art. He might as well have jumped out of the pages of the book. Even his whiskers matched. He was dubbed Hamish and lived with us for about 12 years.It seems he had been unceremoniously dumped by a distant neighbour. Why? He had demolished her young child’s birthday cake by the simple expedient of eating all the cream and fancy trimmings which adorned this exquisite creation. After a string of such incidents, her patience ran out.
Essentially Hamish was a fearless thug and as cunning as a dunny rat with a gold tooth. This had it’s advantages. One day I discovered an Alsatian bitch in our garden merrily trampling over the seedlings. I rushed out intervene but just as quickly in- rushed. Yellow fangs snarled, hackles rose and laser- like eyes fixed on my throat.
With what dignity I could muster I retreated inside. My ginger friend was sleeping off a heavy lunch. By now he had lost one eye, half an ear and had more dents and tears in the bodywork than an ancient stock-car. What remained of him was a bundle of teeth and claws held together by whipcord sinews. I took him outside and pointed his good eye at the Alsatian. What followed was the concept of an orange Exocet missile. He flew in a splendid glowing arc aiming squarely for the carotid artery. The Alsatian was terrified. It reared, stumbled and yowled as it got caught in some fencing wire which she dragged down the road.
Back inside, I glanced in the fridge and saw the ample remains of some very tender beef which was going to be re- cycled. As Hamish tucked into a goodly chunk of this, I am absolutely certain he knew it was for a job well done.
He was no mug.
His stay with us was a kind of symmetry, he came out of the blue and left to go ‘who knows where?’ The children looked everywhere for him, as did we all, but no joy. I think he knew his time was up and found some secluded spot. He wouldn’t want any of his umpteen vanquished rivals dancing on his grave.
Forty years later, he is about to entertain a third generation of readers. He lives on.