Thursday, 29 March 2012

Red and orange and green and blue

As I was at the Royal Academy delivering my paintings I thought I may as well pop in on the Hockney exhibition.

I am a Friend of the Royal Academy and therefore joined a very small queue, rather than the enormous one next to it.  Hockney seems to have - despite (or who knows, maybe because of) his belligerent pro-smoking rants - become something of a national treasure.

Hockney's stance on smoking is controversial, but his work isn't.  He isn't scary in the way Hirst or Emin is.  He isn't as wacky as Grayson Perry or Gilbert and George.  He has become a painter of the English landscape.  What could be more traditional than that?

Except that Hockney's landscapes are strange things.  They are very colourful for one thing: kaleidoscopically colourful.  And many of them are huge, made up of a patchwork of canvases painted on the spot.  Some are very oddly stylised, though the bulk of them are, just as oddly, very conservative.  I kept being reminded of someone else's work and realised after a while that it was David Gentleman of all people.  But in a world of very arch, tongue-in-cheek art, it is refreshing to see someone just pursue their enthusiasms in paint.  And you can hardly fault Hockney's work rate.

The show features some very early work - two paintings from 1956.  They are very much of their time, but I liked them.  You would be doing very well to recognise them as Hockney's though.  They were very sombre, limited in colour and heavy with painted texture.  Both features telegraph poles - an element that is oddly absent from Hockney's present day landscapes.

The things I liked most were the charcoal drawings, which is ironic in a show so full of colour.  They didn't seem quite so eager to please.  I had had enough of orange and pink by the time I left, but those charcoal drawings will stay with me I think.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Summer show lottery

I went into the studio this afternoon to put the finishing touches to a painting I was working on and to get my two pieces labelled and wrapped to take into the Royal Academy tomorrow.  I have entered two paintings into the Summer Show.  Who knows if they will get in or not.  These things are a bit of a lottery.

Or so we tell ourselves when we fail. . .

Friday, 23 March 2012

Painting and writing

As I explained the other day, I have been reunited with my paintings and illustration artwork now that we have moved and all our stuff is out of storage.  It has rekindled my desire to paint.  Though of course this is a bit of a distraction to my actual job as a writer.

I was never trained as a writer.  I wrote at school of course - as we all did - but everything else about the craft I have absorbed from the things I have read.  But I did train as an artist and I think that there are some overlaps.

I think I work in a similar, haphazard way when I do both.  When I paint, I like to chase back and forth, painting, scraping away, painting again.  I like the texture this gives to the surface.  And I think I do the same when I write a book - writing great swathes I know will not appear, but without which the book would not be the same.

I also want to push my paintings to the point of destruction.  I want to feel like I have explored every avenue and I certainly have that aim as a writer.  I don't want to repeat myself.  As an illustrator there is a necessary element of repetition because an art director is choosing you because of your body of work and does not want something weirdly different.  Having never settled on a style I felt entirely happy with I always found that a constraint.

I suppose there is an element of this with writing, but there is so much more freedom in writing that I have never found it stifled my creativity or my enthusiasm.  Writing is more like illustration in that there is an expectation from your publisher about what the finished result will look like, just as there is in illustration from the commissioning designer.  When I paint, even I'm not sure how it will turn out.  That's what I like about it.  I want to exceed my own expectations when I paint, and when I write.

Having said that, I'm after clarity when I paint and when I write.  That's not to say I don't enjoy ambiguity, but I want that ambiguity to be intentional, not the product of some kind of inconsistency or timidity.  I want the right tone, the right colour, the right mark, the right word.  The achieving of that is the   thing that excites me.

Above are two iPhone photos of a couple of painting's I have been doing recently.  They are of the Grand Canal in Venice at night.  I have been doing some half-hearted things lately, scared to take them beyond a point where they were just  pleasing, semi-abstract set of colours and textures.  But I was keen that I finished these; that I solved any problems as best as I could.

With painting and writing there comes a point when you have to stop endlessly deferring and equivocating and say, 'OK, that's it - that's the best I could do at this time.'

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Blue dress

I did do some colour illustrations for newspapers back in the 1990s.  This is an illustration I did for the Saturday Telegraph here in the UK.  Working for a Saturday or Sunday paper was always a little more relaxed.  An illustration for a daily paper will often involve very tight deadlines, but working for a weekend paper, you might just get a whole day - or even two.

There is so much time in book publishing.  It is still one of the things I find most frustrating about it.  It is so slow.  But I was equally frustrated with editorial illustration in having to produce work with so little chance to add any finesse to the idea or the drawing.

So often I felt that if I had only had another hour or two I would have been able to do something much better.   This illustration was one of the few examples where I felt that, all in all, given the time restraints, I had done a pretty good job.  It was illustrating a piece about interviews with prisoners on death row.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


I dug this old illustration out of a folio recently.  It shows that the issue of phone-hacking - now a rather large news item here in the UK - has been around for quite some time.

I did this for the Wall Street Journal some time in the late 1990s.  Mobile phone technology is not the only thing to have advanced in the meantime.  When I did this, I had to fax the rough to their offices on New York and then FedEx the artwork.

We lived in Norfolk at the time, in a rural location up a rough track that even the locals often did not realise led to houses.  It was remarkable that I managed to courier things to New York I suppose, but the process would be so much easier now of course.  I would simply be able to scan the artwork myself and deliver it via the internet.

Having said that, I long for a cheap A3 scanner to come on the market.  The massive climb in price from A4 to A3 is huge and I don't do enough illustration work now to justify the expense.  Even at The Economist, when I worked there in the 90s, the cartoonists had to work smaller than A4 to accommodate the size of their scanner!

The illustration also comes from an age when most illustrations for newspapers were still in black and white.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Those who dream by day

I have been listening to an audiobook of Edgar Allan Poe short stories over the last week or so - on the train, wandering round the supermarket and so on.  I had thought I had read all of Poe's stories at least once over my life, but if I have ever read The Angel of the Odd I had totally forgotten it (and that seems unlikely).  What a strange story that is - even by Poe's standards.  And it reminded me of what an impact Poe made on me when I first read his stories.

I have several compendiums of Poe stories.  I don't know when I bought my first, but I think this one - the one illustrated with the amusing title of The Portable Poe was the first (my most recent is a Bloomsbury edition with a foreword by Neil Gaiman).  It says inside that this old edition was published in 1977 and 1979.  I could have bought it around either date.

I had already read some of his stories in books I had borrowed from libraries.  I was particularly keen to read the stories Roger Corman had adapted for movies - The Masque of the Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher and so on, and, of course, found them to be very different.

I occasionally meet children at events who have read Poe and I am always impressed.  The language can often be very florid and difficult.  Poe can be almost wilfully convoluted - although he can also be surprisingly - shockingly - 'modern' in the way he leaps into the action without warning or explanation.  And in amongst the rich decoration are some truly horrific scenes.  The scene in The Black Cat for instance when the narrator spitefully removes one of his cat's eyes with a pen knife is horrible, as are the final moments of Berenice when the narrators obsession with his beautiful cousin's teeth reaches its grisly conclusion.

I think Poe is at his best when he is writing about obsession.  He often begins his stories - first person narratives in the main - by mentioning madness or compulsion.  Whether it is observed, as in The Fall of the House of Usher, or experienced by the narrator, as in The Tell-tale Heart, mental instability is a constant theme in his stories.  When you read Poe, it feels as though you are being allowed glimpse into a genuinely disturbed mind.  But maybe all creativity is irrational.  It can certain feel that way sometimes.

In Eleanora, Poe makes a seductive link between madness and creativity:

Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence - whether much that is glorious - whether all that is profound - does not spring from disease of thought - from moods of mind exalted at the expense of general intellect.  Those who dream by day are cognisant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Speak up for libraries

I went to London yesterday to a rally in support of public libraries. We met at the Central Hall, Westminster and there was a pretty healthy turnout -  hundreds of people listened to speeches on a week day when many of the professionals concerned are at work and in some cases fearful of standing out in a time of job cuts.  It was good to see publishers like Mills and Boons and Hot Key Books in attendance.

Children's authors were well represented.  Alan Gibbons is a children's author and tireless campaigner for libraries and he chaired the event.  Philip Ardagh spoke.  Fiona Dunbar, Candy Gourlay, Lucy Coats, Mary Hooper, Gillian Cross were there (and I apologise if I have missed anyone).  Lots of librarians too, obviously.  The relationship between librarians and children's authors is a very obvious one - librarians often host events and they look after things like the Summer Reading Challenge and administer many of the awards in children's fiction - but everybody who is interested in books, in whatever form they are delivered, should be interested in a healthy library system.

Kate Mosse seemed to be the only writer of adult fiction there - and made a very good speech by the way.  Why were there not as many writers of adult fiction as there were of children's fiction?  And writers of non-fiction should surely be very concerned about the attack on libraries.  A big name historian or two would have been good.

This is not just an issue for writers though.  It is certainly not an issue about Public Lending Rights - whilst welcome and important, PLR is not the financial lure some politicians or journalists seem to think it is.  Self interest does motivate me in my support of libraries.  I want to grow old(er) in a civilised Britain and public libraries are part of a civilised country.  A healthy society benefits everyone in it.  Education is a key part of that.  Culture is a key part of that.  Hope is a key part of that.  Public libraries were an optimistic invention.  Every closure is an act of heart-breaking pessimism.

As I travelled home I thought to myself that all kinds of people from so many different walks of life and professions have relied on public libraries at some point in their career.  They were crucial - absolutely crucial - to my development as a writer, but they were equally crucial to my development as an illustrator, as I would get books out of the library solely based on the illustrations.  I would look through art books I could not afford for hours on end - and I know I am not the only one.  Library closures should concern illustrators and painters and designers and film-makers.  This is not just about the written word.  This about pictures too.  And music.  And film and television.

Libraries are a vital public service, yes.  Librarians - because we are speaking up for librarians as much as libraries - are vital too.  A library without a librarian is a book depository.  Libraries are a crucial part of the community - particularly for the old and for the young, for those on low incomes, for those in rural locations or areas of inner city deprivation. They provide classes and courses, information and access to the internet.  But they are much more than.  They are places to dream.  They are launchpads for the imagination.  They need to be nurtured, not closed or starved of funding.  Books changed my life, and when I was a boy, that meant library books.

Bookshops have books too, of course.  Amazon has books.  But a library is different for the simple reason that in a library the books are provided to the reader free of charge.  Only people with lots of money think that doesn't matter.  It does matter.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Summer shows

I have been framing up some paintings old and new in the last few weeks.  I am entering the Royal Academy Summer Show this year and I am also doing the Cambridge Open Studios again.  I will probably enter a couple more open shows and I will be taking part in Chris and Jo Riddell's open house exhibition in Brighton in May.

A lot of my work has been in storage while we rented in our last house and it has been really enjoyable to discover that much of it was better than I remembered it being.  I am a very harsh critic of my own work - you have to be to get any better - but that can sometimes spill over into a debilitating lack of confidence or worth.  The 'What's the point?' demon is sitting on the shoulder of all creative people I think - but painters are particularly susceptible to its taunts.  But today I feel pretty positive.

I will post the new work as it happens and I'll let you know how I get on at these open shows.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

More from that blog tour

Today I am at the Book Addicted Girl blog, writing about Mary Shelley as monster-maker.  Few writers get to create a myth, but Mary did that. She created not only a monster that would capture the imaginations of generation after generation of readers and movie-goers, but she conjured up an enduring symbol of the dark side of man's search for knowledge that seems to be perpetually relevant..

Yesterday I was at The Pewter Wolf talking about Frankenstein inspired movies.  I have spoken many times in praise of editors.  The amount of errors and ugly phrases in these blog posts speak of the haste with which I wrote them and also explains why I won't be self-publishing any time soon.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

On tour with Frankenstein

I am on a blog tour at the moment to mark the publication of Mister Creecher in paperback.  Yesterday I was a guest at Bookzone4Boys talking about how Frankenstein has been a presence in my life ever since I first saw the James Whale/Boris Karloff movie way back in the 1970s.

Today I am at Bart's Bookshelf talking about the 'real' Frankenstein.

A big thank you to all the blogs that have allowed me to come and step in for the day and also to my publicist at Bloomsbury, Ian Lamb, for setting the whole thing up.  There is a button at the top left of my blog that will take you to a Bloomsbury site detailing the blog tour.

These blog posts have also been collected together and printed at the end of the paperback edition of Mister Creecher along with an author's note about the text and some discussion points for teachers.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

My book day

Happy World Book Day one and all.  I hope you have had a good one.  Today is all the more special for me because Mister Creecher is out in paperback here in the UK published by Bloomsbury.