Illustration

Interlude: Restless Spirit

John Alcorn: Evolution by Design
Written by Stephen Alcorn & Marta Sironi
Designed by Marina Del Cinque
Moleskine, £40, €49, $64, Hardback
moleskine.com

Written for Pulp magazine, 2015

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This beautiful book, printed on Fedrigoni paper, is one of Moleskine’s continuing series of publications that offer “insights into the creative processes of noted artists, designers, writers and architects”. It presents an extensive collection of the work of the talented and innovative John Alcorn, who graduated from Cooper Union, New York’s prestigious design school in 1955, and went on to find an early kind of fame working with both Push Pin Studios and Lou Dorfsman at CBS. These talented and switched-on collaborators had high profile clients in advertising and media, especially in the burgeoning world of TV, and Alcorn’s work was a perfect fit, rich in both wit and style.

At a time when illustrators were becoming interested in type and letterforms, and designers had a real feel for drawing as decoration, Alcorn was perfectly placed. The mixing of vernacular typography, languid and expressive human forms and vivid, over-the-top patterning, quintessentially evoked by Alcorn, would come to define the visual language of the Sixties.

But there was much more to him than that. In his intimate text, John’s son Stephen, himself an artist, calls his father’s approach, “in essence artisanal; at its root lay highly-sensitive eye-mind-hand coordination”. Milton Glaser characterised him as “the baby-faced design prodigy with the golden hands” while Ed Sorel, another of Push Pin’s founders, interestingly saw him as “wildly ambitious, intricate, and jolly”, a collection of words not often seen together. He had a graphic designer’s eye for how a magazine page or a print advert should work, and this made his image-making dynamic as well as smart – he was, in Lou Dorfsman’s words, “an art director’s illustrator”.

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That he may have been, but he saw himself, equally, as an artist, and was not afraid to follow his muse. In 1969, the year he contributed “Eight Days a Week” to Alan Aldridge’s The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics (and probably influenced the animated film, Yellow Submarine), he visited the home of his maternal grandmother in Piedmont and had an epiphany. As the Sixties peaked and then soured, the artistic wealth and stunning landscapes of Italy made him question his working life. In a bid to escape the deadlines and frenzy of commercial illustration in NYC, he uprooted his young family and moved them to Florence. New York had brought on, he said, “a case of indigestion” and Italy offered the cure.

It wasn’t long, however before his personal work led to his intray being filled by offers from the likes of Fellini and Italian publishing house Rizzoli. Mario Spagnol had been given the task of re-launching Rizzoli, and Alcorn, fresh and contemporary, was the key to this reinvention. In the way that Jeff Fisher’s work was crucial in defining Bloomsbury in its early days, Alcorn’s book jackets, advertising material and logos introduced a new look to the shelves of the Italian bookstore. His time here also involved caricatured covers for political magazines and a few carefully selected advertising campaigns, where his cartoon-like characters feel like a softer version of his Sixties psychedelia.

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A restless spirit, Alcorn moved back to the States in 1977, beginning a new period of freelance life, illustrating record covers and editorial projects in America, while still doing design jobs for Italian newspapers and publishers. He also did a large amount of work for paper manufacturers, whose services and products were excellent showcases for his bold line and pleasing colour palette. His series of illustrated titles for TV Guide in the late 80s used all of his talents in one job: a way with letterforms, a nostalgic set of characters, sparkling visual wit and the technique to combine it all into a satisfying whole.

He died in 1992, at the early age of 57, as Ed Sorel notes, “just as his drawing style was evolving from the purely decorative into something more expressive and naturalistic.” This lavish book is an excellent overview of his life and work, and a beautiful testament to a roaming creative spirit.

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Reprinted by kind permission of Pulp.

 

 

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Illustration, Interludes

Interlude: Anna Haifisch

From Varoom! magazine, 2017

Anna Haifisch’s twitter photo is unnerving. Her head and shoulders sit bust-like among seals in a museum diorama. And reading her latest book is equally unnerving. If you skip ahead to the last answer in the questionnaire, you’ll find out how Anna Haifisch regards the notion of rhythm in drawing. So I’ll try to avoid the word while writing about The Artist, which initially appeared as a weekly strip on vice.com.

A proxy for all struggling creatives, the strip is full of painful situations. Here, the excitement and unfettered creativity experienced at art school runs smack bang into the ugly realities of life, from the failed attempt to shrug off internet browsing – so work can actually be done – to the jealousy that colleagues’ success provokes.

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Talking to herself and her peers honestly is what Haifisch’s The Artist does. In it, her bird-like character, thin and pale, travels through the world of commissioning editors and gallerists, never at home, never at ease. Anna herself invokes Steinberg, Tove Jansson and Walt Disney as influences. Occasionally, a title page of a new strip will reference great art – Matisse, Munch, Caspar David Friedrich – as a background for The Artist to appear in, each done in the shaky line that characterises her style.

Haifisch gets a lot of mileage for a straightforward six-panel page formula with limited use of text. “I think repetition is essential for comics. I don’t know how many times I’m drawing the same thing. From panel to panel, making sure the reader can follow my thoughts. You can’t be lazy; there are no shortcuts to repetition.”

She marries her penwork to an unusual colour palette, which partly came about from her work as a screen printer. She spoke to one interviewer of her colour rules: “Don’t use red, yellow, blue and green together unless you want your work to look like an ugly children’s book – get rid of at least one of them (Goodbye green.) / Use the colors that’ll emerge when you mix them (that’s where the purple and pink are coming from) / Pick one colour that bites one of the chosen colours from above and add it to your palette (here and there you’ll find an awful brown in my work).

Haifisch goes for the big themes, too: “The religious or mythological tone is my favourite part of writing The Artist. It’s pure honesty. When I talk about artists as saviours and saints, I really mean it (and every other word, too). It’s me giving a speech. I deeply believe that art is mankind’s last straw before it sinks into brutality and chaos. If we let go of art, the world is lost, and we will all die not soon after.”

It’s funny, acute and smart, but like many great strips (Matt Groening’s Life is Hell, Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot, Ali Fitzgerald’s Hungover Bear) she captures the secret melancholy of a life examined, and what at first appears simple slowly begins to reveal its complexities. The saddest frames are the ones that have no words, where the viewer effectively reads ‘between the lines’ to feel the awkwardness and loneliness The Artist trades in.

A Q&A with Anna Haifisch

Materials: Dip pen, ink

Research: Haikus, BBCs’ The Nation’s Favourite Poems, comic books, friends and art shows.

Process: Going to the studio around eleven to see what’s up. Bohemian style. No steady rhythm. I work pretty much every day and like working late. But I don’t like to call drawing work, because it doesn’t feel like it.

Resistances: Drawing comics can be very boring. There’s too much repetition involved. I like to change it up with drawing other things. Also, I like to do some printmaking from time to time.

Insight: The Artist transformed from a flat character on paper into my mate. We really became friends over the last two years. I care for him a lot. Often enough I feel bad for him for throwing him into all these horrible situations.

Distractions: The internet, emails.

Numbers: Six panels per page, three pages per comic. That’s pretty much the maximum of attention the reader is willing to spend on an online comic.

Rhythm: I find it repulsive when people talk about a ‘rhythm in the line’. I think that’s the worst one can say about a drawing. Then I always picture an artist wearing a poncho and dancing barefoot in the studio. Swinging a wet brush.

*The quotes are taken from an excellent interview with Shawn Starr and Oliver Ristau for the blog Left Me Wanting More. [leftmewantingmore.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/unleashed-in-east-interview-with-anna.html]

There’s also a video here of Anna talking at an It’s Nice That event.

Reprinted by kind permission of Varoom!

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Illustration

Eleven: David Driver

I learned more about collaboration and commissioning in the three years that I worked for David Driver than at any other point in my career. It was about finding talented people and letting them bring their gifts to whatever project you were working on. It was about enjoying your work. It was about honing your skills.

in 2014 Simon Esterson and I went to David’s house to talk to him about his career, with some vague thoughts about the fact that he had never really been profiled. There was an excellent two-part post on Mike Dempsey’s wonderful Graphic Journey blog, and some pen pictures in various books about the Radio Times, but not much of significance. That was odd, as he had given many well-known designers and illustrators important breaks in their careers. I had talked to David when profiling his long-time colleague Peter Brookes for Eye, and Simon was certain that it would be valuable to at least start a conversation with David.

We had a riotously enjoyable meeting that lasted four hours and left with hilariously unrepeatable stories about working for the BBC, The Times and the radical press of the Sixties. It would take four years before it made it into print, bolstered by two more equally enjoyable meetings. The profile finally found a home in the second of two issues of Eye devoted to Magazines, which came out in November 2018.

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I talked to various designers and writers about David, and parts of what they emailed me were used in the profile. The great English designer Robert Priest, who has mostly worked and lived in New York wrote a very thoughtful and punchy piece about David’s influence, which I’ll run in full here. Priest worked with David Driver at Welcome Aboard and Radio Times.

“The role of the editorial art director in Britain changed in the 1970s. It was influenced by the work of Tom Wolsey at Town in the 60s but was more fully realized a decade later with the emergence of a new breed of art director who was not just a visual journalist but a bona fide journalist in all senses of the word. They were well educated and savvy and wanted more of an influence on their magazine’s content. Leading the charge were Michael Rand and David King at The Sunday Times Magazine, David Hillman at Nova and David Driver at Radio Times, the journal of the BBC. 

“As a young designer at the time I was tremendously excited by their work, and that of their American counterpart, George Lois at Esquire. I was fortunate enough to become a magazine art director (back when it was the top title in the art department) at the age of 23 at Conde Nast’s Wine & Food and did my best to learn on the job until I met David Driver a year or two later. David had created an in-flight magazine for BOAC for Cornmarket Press and was doing things I’d never seen before. He combined a big picture vision with an attention to detail that was incredible.

“I went to see him on Conduit Street and found him be a larger-than-life character. Tall, with long curly hair and extremely funny, he welcomed me into his world. David always kept a small coterie of lieutenants around him. People he trusted. Just as he did with artists and photographers, always a limited roster of contributors who understood his vision. I wanted to work for him, despite being a number one already, because I wanted to observe his process and to find out how he came up with such great ideas, but there were no jobs available at the time. Soon after, however, David joined Radio Times and recommended that I follow him as art Director of Welcome Aboard. He didn’t interfere from afar but I always felt his support and influence. 

“In 1975 I had my own design consultancy and David asked me to redesign the TV and radio listings in Radio Times. One thing led to another and I went to work for him at last. I became one of his lieutenants.

“David worked very closely with the editor, Geoffrey Cannon to fashion the content of the publication. It was a double act and they were a formidable couple. They demanded that stories be conceived both editorially and visually from day one. David would expect complete information from the other editors at the magazine when we started working on a feature. If it wasn’t delivered precisely David would crush the editor with frightening efficiency. In more than a few instances they were unable to respond at all, having not thought the idea through, and were forced to skulk out of David’s office, often in tears. Not pretty but extremely effective. 

“In 1977 David was offered the job of Art Director of Weekend Magazine in Toronto. After much thought, he decided to turn it down, but a mutual friend recommended me for the job and I was pleased to accept. I would try to put what I’d learned under David into practice. I’ve been trying ever since.”

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Illustration, Interludes

Interlude: Concrete Canvas

Outdoor Gallery – New York City
By Yoav Litvin
Designed by Steven Mosier
Gingko Press, $39.95, £34.50

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Written for Eye Magazine, Summer 2015

When a Banksy original turns up (usually prised off a wall) and sells for £300,000, and when today’s newspaper reports on a London opening for the work of the Mexican street-art collective Lapiztola, we know that graffiti has come in from the cold. In October 2013 Banksy even had a month-long ‘residency’ in New York, saying that he was there ‘for the spirit and audacity’.

It is that vibrant culture, an integral part of a city in a league of its own in terms of urban canvas material, that the photographer and writer Yoav Litvin aims to capture in Outdoor Gallery – New York City (Gingko Press, $39.95, £34.50, designed by Steven Mosier).

Litvin succeeds, not only because of the breadth of styles his photographs show but also because of the richness of the stories behind the paint and stencils. These artists include teachers, parents, loners and fashion designers. They are not all young and alienated. A surprising number are women. Some are older than you may imagine, having been stencilling and spraying for more than 30 years.

Their eloquence is impressive, their influences wide-ranging; Rauschenberg and Basquiat may well be expected, Norman Rockwell and the German Expressionist Käthe Kollwitz less so.

The Yok traces the movement back to cave art. Some are inspired by other street artists: the abstract work of Hellbent, for example – powerful geometric shapes which cover industrial walls (top) – is influenced by the Brazilian street artist Zezão.

The book dispenses some useful bits of information along the way: Brooklyn is safer to operate in than Manhattan; the police are often ignorant of the laws regarding public painting, and some large works have increased the value of the property on which they are painted.

There is much striking work here, work that plays with scale or makes pointed social comment. Asked about the materials she uses, Jilly Ballistic, who creates site-specific work using historical photographs in the NYC subway, offers a list that includes: Wit. Humour. Honesty. Ink. X-Acto knife. Hands. Adhesive. History. Consumerism. New York itself.

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An online gallery of the work featured in the book can be seen at yoavlitvin.com. Reprinted by kind permission of Eye.

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Illustration

Ten: Peter Brookes

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I was thrilled to see a profile that I wrote for John L Walters and Simon Esterson at eye magazine in print this week. Last year I visited Peter in his office at The Times and spent a fascinating couple of hours talking to him about his career in illustration and cartooning, below a wall covered in stunning examples of his art and craft. I was lucky enough to have met Peter as I started out in magazine design, at my first proper job, in the art department of Radio Times. By then, he had worked with its brilliant Art Director, David Driver, for a decade, and his approach to problems and his enjoyment of finding creative solutions rubbed off on the whole team. “Happy days!”, said Peter as we talked about that part of his career, and they were. As I left, I noticed a stack of previous cartoons, topped off with his brilliant Michael Gove/Boris Johnson “Et tu, Brute” from a few weeks before, memorably summing up Gove’s disastrous entry into the Tory leadership battle.

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Illustration, Interludes

Interlude: Ali Fitzgerald

From Varoom! Winter 2016

Let me introduce you to your new favourite cartoonist: her name is Ali Fitzgerald and she moved to Europe after grad school in Austin, Texas and is now perched high above the Berlin wall in a bungalow, where she draws her regular cartoon column for McSweeney’s, “Hungover Bear and Friends.” It came as a result of winning their annual Column Contest, and is about, well, a hungover bear and his friends (Entitled Fox, Catty Curator et al) confronting the strangeness and quirk of the modern world. As the website puts it, “he’s not an anti-hero, he’s just a bear in a sweater trying to make it all work.”

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Moving from the home of outlaw country musicians and the South By Southwest festival to the art cauldron of Berlin was not carefully thought through. In fact, as she says, “I basically left Texas with the complete absence of a plan or any German skills.” She also moved from large-scale wall paintings and dioramas to a much smaller canvas: “I was burnt out and disillusioned with the “high art” world and wanted to engage in a more direct way of telling stories. I had to really teach myself how to work on a small-scale – working in a large, gestural way comes much more naturally. But when I moved to Berlin I knew I wanted to learn how to work smaller, and how to communicate ideas visually. So I made a lot of weird/dark comics and drawings that I will probably never show anyone except my therapist.”

For Ali, Berlin actually isn’t so alien. “I think I’m more ‘European’ in temperament (reserved, kind of dark, fatalistic), so Berlin has always felt less foreign in some ways – and despite its rocketing hipness, it’s still essentially a city of outcasts.” Which is, of course, part of the stock-in-trade of cartoonist – an outsider’s eye on the absurd way the human race works. There’s something of Charles Burns in her style, and of Roz Chast in her language, but “Hungover Bear” has a tone and timbre all of its own.

You can see the series so far on Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendancy (mcsweeneys.net/articles/the-twisting-road) and laugh/wince in recognition, at the caustic Ant Rand – “Never forget that the finest nectar comes from egoism, industry and the invisible hand of the Free Market” or be told that “Self-Righteous Hawk thinks that you don’t fully understand the situation in Gaza.”

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Reprinted by kind permission of Varoom!

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Illustration

Interlude: David Hughes

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David Hughes
The Pillbox

Jonathan Cape

Written for Varoom! The Illustration Report, Autumn 2015

The biography on David Hughes’ website has this to say: “My father was a plumber, a painter and a decorator for fifty five years. Turner was a painter. My mother used to ask… ‘Why can’t you draw something nice? Why don’t you get a proper job?’ During the 2nd World War she stitched goggles in Turner’s house…”

Not drawing something nice is at the heart of Hughes’ new book, The Pillbox, as is the Second World War. It presents a chilly version of an English seaside holiday, wrapped around a depraved murder mystery from 1945, involving American troops stationed nearby.

It begins with a typical scene: a boy and his dog on a beach on England’s East Coast, before veering away into more uncharted waters. A wooly mammoth appears to the boy, before it suddenly turns tail, saying “I forgot… this is not a children’s picture book.” And with that, we know we are on a journey that will a) get somewhat darker, and b) probably not end well.

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Jack’s excited retelling of his extraordinary vision meets only parental indifference. The next year, at the same spot, he finds a Second World War pillbox, a concrete gun emplacement for shooting at enemy invaders. But the invaders in this story are two of the American soldiers, one good, one bad. Jack’s meeting with Bill – a boy who seems to come from another time – sets in train a story of terrible fascination that reaches back to Bill’s childhood in the 1940’s.

In pages filled with raw, uneven drawings, Hughes works within the framework of a graphic novel while ignoring its niceties – there’s no smoothing-out or polishing here. Hughes makes in-jokes about his technical limitations, but it just adds to the feeling that it’s a deliberate decision not to overwork the drawings and lose spontaneity. The characters’ features are inconsistent, but the one-take feeling gives it enormous energy. In fact, there’s something musical in the way that Hughes works, using rhythmic building blocks of repeated panels, interspersed with spreads of wild improvisation, where one image leaps out to accentuate the meaning of a scene.-Blogpillbox.jpgHughes’ ability to freeze moments in time gives the images an uncomfortable power, reminiscent of Ralph Steadman or Roland Topor, but The Pillbox ends up being a thing unto itself, a unique and disturbing tale, brilliantly realized. Just listen to his (mammoth) warning that it’s not a children’s book.

Reprinted by kind permission of Varoom!

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