I’ve been drawing for decades. I’ve been drawing for decades without, until recently, stopping to reflect or even pausing to consider why I draw. With over a thousand commercial illustration commissions under my belt, working professionally across a couple of decades, one could I argue that I have drawn for a living and shouldn’t that be reason enough.
With six published books and over sixty-five articles on illustration, one could also argue that I have written extensively on drawing, albeit other people’s drawings. I have taught, led and been responsible for the running of illustration courses at four major institutions in the last 20 years – Camberwell College of Art, University of Brighton, Kingston University and London College of Communication and I have lectured nationally and internationally, in over 20 countries at last count, but never really stopped to question the importance of my own drawing in my own world?
Of course, I started drawing at an early age – I was the kid in the class that could draw from sight, from memory and from imagination. I commanded a following of my peers at the age of nine years old. I quickly realised the power of drawing one day at school after perfectly representing a deep-sea diver in 3B pencil, having copied him laboriously from a photograph in the library. Suddenly everyone wanted to hang out with me. I could draw, so I did draw. I won friends and influenced people, right up until I arrived at art school. Only then, did I realise that my drawing was limited, lacklustre, formulaic and I was going to have to buck my ideas up, if I wanted to draw alongside the best of them. Here was a place where people could really draw.
I was nothing if not creative. I took to printmaking as a way of turning my drawings into something more important, more useful and to hide my relatively low-level drawing skills, by creating a surface sheen to reflect the eyes from seeing my true colours. I started to utilise other people’s drawings – working with clip art, diagrams, Victoriana and anything drawn that caught my eye. I soon became a master magpie - locating, borrowing and up-cycling (not a term in frequent use then) existing imagery into new works whilst beginning and then progressively building, and maintaining, a career as a freelance illustrator.
I wasn’t drawing, in the strict sense of the word – I was reusing the drawings of others, often the unknown, unnamed and unloved artists of a previous world as I plundered the ads of old magazines; hunting down the long-lost work of jobbing graphic artists. I scoured car boot sales and second-hand book stores to locate rare the out-print illustrated dictionary and encyclopaedia. I utilised the drawings that nobody else noticed, that no one else wanted. I found ways to use drawings from the past in the present day – I found new meanings, new methods and new modes.
Was I a fraud? Illustrators were expected to be able to draw and here was I collaging drawings created by others, first by hand and then, as the technology developed, by digit means. But I slept easy at night – I knew that the ideas were mine; that the approach in creating new artworks, or drawings, using the work of others was my own way of making illustrations. My illustrations, initially commissioned on a regular basis by newspapers and magazines and then increasingly by design studios and advertising agencies, were a product of their time – my work was bold, flat, primary and graphic and it appealed as a visual shorthand, it got a message across and it got it across swiftly with some humour, irony and a little edginess.
A 5-year stint illustrating the Comment and Debate pages of the Guardian newspaper, on a fortnightly basis, gave me an opportunity to fine-tune my craft – little superfluous imagery or detail crept into the work. Creating an illustration from idea to artwork within a 2-hr timeframe focused the mind. From digital desktop to fish and chip paper within 24 hours, my work became concept-driven and built with a certain visual economy. Here was drawing that was quick and easy to execute as artist, and quick and easy to understand as audience.
Work as an illustrator and drawing becomes your life – drawing becomes your own unique way of describing your world, and for money. Drawing is how you are identified professionally and how you describe yourself – it is, or at least should be, your own unique visual signature. Making drawings is what you do each day – you go to work, often a shared studio of illustrators, and you draw – it becomes your profession, but a profession unlike many others.
Illustrators draw to explain, to educate, to elucidate and to entertain.
Illustrators document, communicate, disseminate. I’d started, as a student, by working to my own self-set briefs. Tutors had encouraged me to draw what interested me. A new arrival in London in the early 1980s; I took to a sketchbook and drew what I saw around me – the people in cafes, pubs, bars and clubs. I drew street-life and nightlife, the people and places that were my world at the time.
My sketchbooks, I soon realised were a closed world and I wanted an audience. And it was professional illustration that gave a context for my drawings, allowed my drawings (and the drawings of others within my work) to find that audience – I had a story to tell, a message to communicate and the pages of newspapers and magazines felt a better place, a bigger stage, for my drawings to inhabit than a sketchbook. The same rush I’d experienced, as a nine-year old boy when friends spotted my drawings at school was the rush I relived every time my drawings appeared in print in the world. I had found a way of getting my views and opinions out into the world through drawing and I liked how it felt.