1 Having left the RCA six years previously, I had become reasonably established as an Illustrator, mainly working in editorial for newspapers and magazines and for several book publishers. It was the year following my marriage and the year before moving out of London to Norfolk.
2 I came through some very intensive and disciplined drawing teaching at Camberwell, where the involvement in printmaking and producing one’s own books using litho and letterpress gave you a good grounding in the craft. Illustration was an option within the Graphics department, which also ran printmaking, so there was plenty of opportunities to explore those mediums. The college had a very dominant Fine Art department, so the drawing discipline permeated extensively throughout the college, though we in Graphics were regarded as the lowest of the low, having sold out our integrity as ‘real artists’. Illustration was the only department where drawing was regarded as an end in itself, whereas in Fine Art, it was always seen as the means to the ‘great work’.
I did a three year MA at the RCA with Quentin Blake as professor and Peter Brookes as my personal tutor. Though being a more professionally aligned course, there wasn’t a lot of teaching, and you felt you had to find your own way. Linda Kitson had introduced me to reportage drawing, and I spent a lot of time working outside all around London. The annual Folio Society competition was the only time we actually grappled with any sequential illustration – that eventually led me to finding my own path into illustration and some of my first commissioned work.
3 I remember being very excited to see my work in print, particularly in the newspapers when I had only done the drawing the day before. There was a buzz in Fleet Street when the whole production was in-house from the Linotype setters in the basement to the editor’s office on the top floor. I felt fortunate to have emerged from college into what has become affectionately referred to as a golden age of illustration. There was so much commissioned work around from brochures to colour supplements, all with a rich variety of work you would see from week to week. It was a time when you could cut your teeth and learn on the job, however much time you spent at college; there was no way of preparing you for the real challenges of working to tight deadlines and demanding briefs. Even so, the printed pages were full of illustration, and you could recognise the unique styles of your peers straight away. We thought those days would never end.
By the end of the ’80s with the recession and the print moving out eastwards, marketing and cost efficiency seemed to have got the upper hand! I look back and see it as a time when art directors held more sway in how they commissioned, and with that more trust in us illustrators to deliver. It was at this time I began doing more work in the US, so our departure from London at the end of the 80s coincided with these changes. The arrival of the fax machine was an incredibly liberating tool as before we had to rely on constant dispatch riders taking sketches and artwork to and from clients; I didn’t miss the stress of all that. Sending faxes to clients in London and New York, sometimes cut into strips with instructions to piece them together at the other end, was an amazing revolution. You could be on the phone to a client discussing a drawing that only minutes before was being formed on your desk. The rudimentary fax has been way surpassed by the ease of transmitting images digitally now, but at the time this was an extraordinary and wonderful device!
4 I think that the editorial commitment to the use of illustrative elements has undoubtedly diminished. Whether this is due to a lack of confidence in the publications will to assert their unique identity, or just a lack of imagination or courage their part. It’s probably more due to the elevated powers of the marketing departments to tightly budget their productions, giving less scope for the art directors to be as adventurous. I think the role of illustration has shifted somewhat with more emphasis on sharper, graphic conceptual images, looking bright on the page though slightly ubiquitous and less personal when viewed overall.
Digitally generating images has changed the craft in such a way that has bypassed the hand made physical object of the artwork. It has allowed the image to be more pliable to suit the client’s needs and flexible in how the illustrator can be more adaptable. It has also become apparent how little drawing is now taught in the colleges at present; perhaps the digital revolution has enabled students to step beyond it. Learning how to interpret and reflect on the world around us through the honest accountability of drawing is such a true way of forming your identity as an artist and developing your own unique approach.
5 There have been many, though one of my earliest assignments was being sent to southern Spain by John Tennant for the Sunday Times Magazine. It was to illustrate Norman Lewis’s stories set in the late ’40s just north of Barcelona. I went for a week with £900 expenses (riches!), trying to cope with the Spanish Motorways in a little left-hand drive Seat, only having recently passed my driving test. The towns and people I drew had to reflect the period and the subject of the stories which were drawn on location. The challenge of location drawing is directing the elements you see around you into an image that reflects the experience of being in that place at that time. So it’s not just a record that a photograph will adequately capture. In this assignment, the degree of manipulation and adjustment to suit the stories taught me that you could incorporate imagined elements that were not present at the time, in this case making the images more relevant to Norman’s stories.
[Optional!] I was fortunate to have found my feet at that particular time in something in I love doing; the rest is stamina and hard work!
You can see how thoughtful Paul is from the insight of his answers. His inimitable style has never gone out of fashion, and he has worked extensively for most of the UK National press as well as having a long association with Vanity Fair in the USA. He was one of the founders of Blueprint, the A3 architecture and design magazine that started publishing in the ’80s. His work can be seen here.
2 thoughts on “Twelve (5): The Observer, 1988: Paul Cox”
Love this series Martin!
Hey, Greg, it’s been too long! Hope all’s well with you…