Monday, 20 November 2006

Nengajo approaches

It'll soon be time to organise some new year greetings, as is the custom in Japan. Over the last few years I've tended to follow the Chinese animal calendar with images, next year will be the Year of the Boar (often misinterpreted as pig). This (Dog) year I copped out and used an illustration from one of my books, but here's what I came up with in previous years.



Saturday, 4 November 2006

Studio Tour

For anyone who fancies a peek at my work studio , I've just posted some snapshots to The Dust of Everyday Life blog, the off-duty ramblings of my illustrator friends at Picture Book Artists. Now all is revealed...

Thursday, 2 November 2006

Avian Assault

Well, travels over, back home in Japan.

It's our first trip into town to do some shopping. We get out the station, climb the stairs to the busy city street, and WHAM!

Something grabs me on the head.

It was a crow. It took me right from behind - it must have singled me out from all the myriad people on the busy street (this was the middle of Shibuya!) and tally ho down he swoops. Groped my head with both claws then flew off to a nearby tree.

I wasn't hurt, but bloody hell! First time that's ever happened.

The question is why me?. Did my non-Japaneseness stand out too much in the crowd? (Shibuya is hardly short of foreigners). Did it mistake the thin spot on the top of my head for food? (hardly!). Was I it's deadly rival in a past life?

My missus has her own theory. She's convinced I must have been giving off some kind of "attack me please" aura that the crow picked up on. Granted, I was in a particularly dreamy mood when we left the station, but hardly anything worthy of assault and battery. Maybe I need to think more in terms of "aura defence strategy". Blimey! a man can't even walk down the street in an vacant stupor without being attacked by Corvus Corone.

Actually I have another theory, altogether more palatable. Before we left for our trip to Europe I began a half-idea for a picture book story about a boy raised by crows. I think this incident was the crow reminding me to finish the story.

Sure enough, I spent the train journey home scribbling away at my "crow-boy" idea. Who knows, I might get it published and dedicate it to "old Carrion-kun, without whom this book would never have come to be"....

Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Canal side view

The last word on Amsterdam - during our all too brief stopover the only chance I had to sketch was this quicky from our hotel window.

Saturday, 28 October 2006

Publishing Doldrums

The UK was a busy trip for us, four days in Lichfield to see the family, a couple of nights in Oxford, and finally five days in London before heading back to Japan. I wrapped things up with a meeting with my children's book agent in London. Naturally I wanted to hear some good news that would encourage me to come running back to the old country, but all was gloom and doom.

"In 40 years in the publishing business I've never known it so bad for illustrators" I was told. She even suggested if I return to the UK I should consider taking a regular job just to get by. Great, just what I needed to hear.

As an example she described a meeting she had with one of the biggest publishers in the country, and asked how many picture books they released a year. "Between twenty five and thirty" was the answer, less than half of what they would have produced, say fifteen years ago. Of those thirty, how many were from new writers and artists (i.e. people previously unsigned to them) - "just two or three".

Why is this? Firstly it's the collapse of the library system in the UK. With libraries closing down everywhere the business has become hinged on retail sales, books have a shorter shelf-life, many are pulped early with no chance to develop a long reputation, everything hinges on easy-to-sell material.

Second is the decline of independent bookshops and the massive domination of chain outlets. HMV owned Waterstones, having bought up it's biggest rival Ottokars, has now declared that it will no longer stock hard cover picture books in it's stores, only paperback. This giant bookstore chain now represents 60% of all retail outlets in the UK. And yet the choice of books Waterstones sells are picked by a tiny 6-man team, marketing people who look for the most profitable titles.

Publishers therefore have to please the bookshops by concentrating on books they can sell easily, placing all their hopes on well known established creators, or new books that reflect the transient mood of the moment. There just isn't any room for anyone else.

My agent also bemoaned the ever-decreasing print runs and the lack of international sales because America isn't buying rights. So even if authors do get their books published on royalties it's extremely difficult to earn a living out of them. The books are no longer on the shelves within months of being released, sometimes pulped before the year is out. How are artists expected to earn royalties on books if the books themselves no longer exist?

Not everyone I spoke too was that pessimistic, but the general trend does seem to be one of despondency for children's illustrators. And yet this is the path I've determined to take. Having had 20 years sidetracked as a commercial illustrator in Japan I'm now finding myself focused more and more on children's books for the Western market, I just have to grit my teeth and hope that I've something to offer that others cannot deliver. Someone tell me it's not really that bad!

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Willem Van der Velde

One of the highlights of the trip to Amsterdam was finally getting to visit the Rijksmuseum. This was my second visit to the city, but only now was I able to get to the museum. I was particularly hoping to see some of Rembrandt's fabulous etchings on the second floor, but the room was closed for renovation. Just my bloody luck! Nevertheless this was more than made up for by a discovery in the ground floor exhibition tracing the background to Holland's seventeenth century "Golden Age".

As an illustrator the most fabulous works in the whole museum for me were two enormous pen-and-ink wash drawings of sea battles by Willem Van der Velde. The two drawings were at least a metre wide each, and had an incredible level of detail of the ships involved.

Here's just one small detail from one of the pictures, The Battle of Livorno. It's not a mezzotint or engraving, but freehand pen lines and sepia wash on panel. The detail just took my breathe away.

Here's the whole picture:

Background information on this and two other ink drawings by Van der Velde are on the Rijksmuseum website.

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

The Dick Bruna Huis in Utrecht

I'm posting this from a hotel room in Amsterdam, as the missus, daughter and I are at the beginning of a 2 week break in Europe. We've three days here in Holland then on to the UK.

Today we visited the Dick Bruna House in Utrecht, ostensibly to appease our 3 year old daughter, a big Miffy fan, but also to satisfy our own curiosity.

The museum House stands opposite the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, a fairly compact building converted from a former mental health institution (or so the staff told me). The whole place is painted white inside, which gives maximum effect to the powerful graphic simplicity of Bruna's work... not to mention Miffy.

That iconic symbol of Dutch graphic design dominates the ground floor. A golden statue of the eternally youthful rabbit welcomes visitors, with books, interactive computer games and other activities for young children in the rooms beyond. Our daughter was in her element, which gave me plenty of time to watch the film documentary on Bruna and be inspired by the fascinating gallery of his graphic design work on the upper floor. (There's a rather inadequate virtual tour on their website).

I have to admit I was slow to pick up on Bruna's genius. I knew him mainly for Miffy and not much else until comparatively recently, when I saw a book covering the full range of his earlier posters and book covers from the 1950's and 60's. Seeing the work here in poster form however knocked me out with it's powerful simplicity and design. I was deeply impressed - if only I'd been more aware of this kind of work when I was commissioned for all those Japanese posters in the 1990's! I've learned a lot of lessons today, not least the proudly traditional way Bruna works - it's not technique that matters in the end, it's what you do with the techniques you have, whether it's using the latest technology or doing paper cutouts by hand. Results matter, not methods.

I was amazed by the deliberate simplification of design, stripping things down to the most minimal of suggestions, his limited palette of colours, his book cover designs are amazing exercises in "less is more".

Moreover insights into Bruna's lifestyle really made an impression. There's a lot about him that makes me think that deep down most artists (or graphic artists at least) are the same - he sticks to a daily ritual, he procrastinates before beginning work (don't we all!), he passes all his drawings to his astute wife for approval before finishing (I do exactly the same with my better half), he lives to work on his pictures and is relatively disinterested in money. He knows his world and he's a master of presenting it in what seems to be a fresh manner with every book. Basically it's because he's a perfectionist, he gives his best every time.

All in all an inspiring visit to this little museum. I highly recommend it to anyone passing through the area.

Monday, 25 September 2006

Temple of the Seven Golden Camels

A slightly different world to mine, in the sense that it's a blog about creating cartoons and animation by Mark Kennedy, who's worked for many of the big US studios. Temple of the Seven Golden Camels
What really attracted me to this blog are the excellent links to tutorial pdf's and sites covering all aspects of making pictures. Even if you've been in the business a good many years like myself, it's always useful to "go back to school" on occasion.

Sunday, 17 September 2006

It's been a while....

Yes it's been a hectic summer, hence the lack of posts here. Family visiting, deadlines, and not a holiday in sight. Oh well, at least I have the consolation knowing that by being freelance I can travel off-season rather than having to fight through the crowds escaping the humidity of Japanese summers.

There's more pix, posts and perambles in the pipeline, watch this space.

Friday, 21 July 2006

New Scanner

Finally I've got myself a brand new scanner (newly released Epson f-650). So here are some recent doodles from my pocket sketchbook... it whiles away the time on the train when I have to go into town.

Monday, 10 July 2006

Finally I'm back

The past few weeks I've been completely involved with a picture book deadline, hence the silence on the blog[. However it's all in the post now and finally life begins to return to a less frenetic pace. The book The Boat in the Tree is written by Canadian author Tim Wynne-Jones, and will be released by Front Street in the US next Spring. I can't really show much at the moment but here are a few sneak previews. Apologies for scan streaks - my scanner has just broken down - I'm hanging on to get one of the new Epson F-650's, which are about to hit the shops.

Wednesday, 21 June 2006

Some Illustrators

Things are desperately hectic right now as I'm approaching the end of a picture book deadline, hence the lack of posts. I'll have a lot more to say on the subject once it's all sent off, but for now here are a few links to some interesting illustrator sites:

Jaime Zollars
Art Candy
Jillian Tamaki Illustration

(Sigh)... There's so much talent around!

Tuesday, 6 June 2006

Japan a nation of copyists?

From yesterday's Japan Today:

"Monday, June 5, 2006 at 15:11 EDT
TOKYO — The government decided Monday to cancel its recent award to painter Yoshihiko Wada after a selection committee judged earlier in the day he copies paintings of noted Italian artist Alberto Sughi.

Wada, 66, who was given the award this spring, has denied doing any copying, but the committee determined that his works are copies after "careful deliberations" based on statements by both Wada and Sughi, member Tadayasu Sakai said. More than 10 products with close similarities with Sughi's works were put on display in Wada's personal art exhibition that became a major reason the Japanese painter was given the government award."

Alberto Sughi's "Piano Bar, Italia" (1996). (Courtesy of Alberto Sughi's Web site)

Yoshihiko Wada's "Muso" (Reverie) (2004), from his catalog.

Alberto Sughi gives his own view on the scandal in his Absolute Arts Blog

Illustration isn't the only genre that gets ripped off in Japan.

Tuesday, 30 May 2006

The demise of technique

Finally catching up with things after the exhibition. Here's another illustration blog,ILLUSTRATION ART, a sharply observed insight on the lost craft of technique.

It got me thinking. (Here we go, another grumble...)

It's been suggested that the two world wars basically destroyed the skills of finish and technique for illustrators, (you know, the "craft" part of Arts & Crafts), though the 20th Century was pretty much of a helter-skelter for creativity even without two titanic struggles in the middle. I think it has more to do with the rise of sliced bread, photography, and Andy Warhol's "everyone will be famous for 15 minutes" but I won't delve into sociology here too deeply. Suffice to say that by the time I was at college in the late 1970's tight academic drawings were frowned on by my tutors, I was encouraged to "loosen up", "be more expressionate".....

Maybe they were right at the time, I did loosen up, and developed a shorthand children's style that got me work, but I still regret now not having a stronger disciplined training in technique and observation, which at the time I really needed. Most of my meagre skills I honed under the demanding pressures of working in the real world after graduation. When I show my work to publishers in the UK today I often hear them bemoaning how "younger graduates don't have these kind of drawing skills any more...", so things obviously haven't changed much.

I tell myself that techniques have changed, the discipline of illustration has evolved in new directions, with new materials, demanding different skills. Not many people would want to return to strict Victorian conservatism in art, but I sometimes wonder whether the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Some of those skills seem to have been lost forever.

What I particularly worry about is another more insidious trend that seems to characterise too much illustration today (especially in Japan) - the growing popularity of "sampling" (or, as they used to call it in my house "ripping-off"!). By that I mean the wholesale copying of style, or plundering of old images.

Copying Style - the re-hash of old 50's and 60's styles without any personal input from the illustrator, a souless veneer of technique slapped on a mediocre idea to give the impression of trendiness. Shockingly just such a re-hash 50's style copy illustration is being used to promote sales of this year's "Illustration File" sourcebook in Japan. It's an unforgiveable stylistic rip-off!!

Plundering Images - the digital collaging of other people's out-of-copyright work in some attractive juxtaposition and calling it "original artwork". - "Oy! That's not illustration, it's graphic design!"

In the USA lobbyists are about to pass new legislation that strips copyright protection of orphaned works (copyrighted works where the copyright owner cannot be found), making it easier than ever to "sample" other's work, cut and paste, and get away with it.(A campaign against the bill is being promoted by The Illustrators' Partnership)

Whichever case, it's the blatant re-moulding of old work re-launched for a generation that doesn't know or care about the original source. I see it every day I get on the train into Tokyo, (I'll try and remember to post some examples...) and it bugs me.

Computers have made it so easy to copy and re-package. The general trend is "hey, anyone can be an artist". I won't argue with that. Anyone really can be an "artist", for art is after all in the eye of the beholder. But illustration is a much more professional business, which is being undermined by a lowering of technical standards and fees. The bottom line is - if you don't have the skills you shouldn't be doing the job.

The old saying "there's nothing new under the sun" has always been true with illustration, you can never come up with a truely original concept, everything has it's precedants. However there's a big difference between being "inspired" by other's work, and simply stealing it to repackage as your own.

And on that note I put a smile back on my face and get back to work...

Saturday, 20 May 2006

Exhibition Closes

Today the exhibition at Space Yui finally ended after a very hectic week. I can't say exactly how many people came to the show, 117 people signed the guest book, but many others left without signing, so perhaps something in the region of 150-170 visitors in total perhaps.

If anyone who attended or helped to promote the show is reading this, a very big THANKYOU!

For me personally the exhibition has been a great success. This was the first time I've held a one-man show since 2002, and it was in one of my favourite Tokyo galleries. The illustrations were somewhat of a break from my usual style, although this is something that has been simmering away for a very long time indeed. Thanks to the publishers Hyoronsha, finally I was given the right project, with the inspiring text of Hans Christian Andersen and a free hand to interpret for a "mature" readership. I was let loose to do almost anything I wanted within the realm of the text.

And boy, what inspiring writing! It was for me as if the flood gates were suddenly opened, and the words on the page electrified my imagination. It was as if Andersen himself had raised the stakes, and thrown down the gauntlet - "rise to the challenge Shelley!" I was commanded. And so I did. It just goes to prove the point - the better the text, the better the illustrations. I don't make any claims that the work in this show is to everyone's taste, but for me at least I feel I've broken new ground within my own work. The fact that the show consisted of work for a single project also gave it a strong continuity.

The creative fraternity has an understandable tendancy to pigeonhole artists, and for many years my reputation in Japan has hinged on colourful bold commercial work on the one hand, and intuitive warm children's illustration on the other. Although I love both of these genres, with this exhibition I wanted to make a clear statement that there is another side to my technique, a style that challenges my technical ability and my vision. I believe the message hit home. I don't usually exhibit artbook from every book I illustrate, but these four volumes were a very clear exception. They simply HAD to be exhibited.

Thankyou again to everyone who helped to make this show such a memorable event.

Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Exhibition opening shots

A big thank you to everyone who came down to the launch party for my exhibition at Space Yui. Unfortunately not many photos were taken, but here are a few of the guests on the night!

Hyoronsha editors Chihomi Okamoto (l) and Junko Takeshita (r), with the translator of the Andersen books Yoichi Nagashima, who was opportunely in Tokyo from Denmark.

Surprise guest - Nagano Prefecture Governor Yasuo Tanaka!

Super Material Producer Kano Hamabatake and Illustrator Koji Ishikawa.

Author/Illustrator Naomi Kojima

Illustrators Ranko Tsuda, Sachiko Yamamoto and game soft designer Shunsuke Yamamoto.

Wifey as the sexy hostess.

Yours truely in party spirit.

Thereafter things started to get very busy and no-one thought to take any more photos. Oh well, the memory will always be there! Around 40 guests dropped in altogether for the reception through the evening, thankyou everyone!

Friday, 12 May 2006

Andersen Exhibition

From Monday I'm exhibiting almost 40 illustrations from my four volume series of Hans Christian Andersen tales, published by Hyoronsha in Japan (organizing this show is one reason why I've not been posting much to the blog lately!) With stories ranging from The Shadow to The Little Mermaid, the books were published to coincide with the bicentenary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen in 2005, translated by Professor Yoichi Nagashima of Copenhagen University.

If you're in Tokyo please drop in to the Gallery Space Yui, the show runs from 15th - 20th May, 11.00am-7.00pm.

If Tokyo's a bit unreachable, you can see the books and some of the illustrations on my website. Just click on the bookcovers.

Monday, 8 May 2006


And here are a couple of the animal characters. As they only came out as stitch patterns I'd like to see the artwork put to some use. Maybe I could find a way to squeeze them into a book one day!

Tree illustration

I've not posted much in the way of artwork, so here's something you won't find on my website.

It's the background image for a series of stitch pattern animals I made for sewing software company Janome. The actual characters were only ever released as stitching patterns so the original artwork has never been reproduced anywhere.

Admittedly very "Rackham" in flavour, one reason I've not put it on my website!

Mervyn Peake

Recently I've been reading Malcom Yorke's fascinating biography of author/illustrator Mervyn Peake (1911-1968), one of my illustration 'heroes'.

In 1947 Peake was interviewed on BBC Radio and waxed lyrical on the subject of book illustration. His ideas are so close to my own opinions on the subject I can't resist quoting the great man's words here:

For a book illustrator "above all things there must be the power to slide into another man's soul. The power to be identified with author, character and atmosphere... It is fatiguing, exacting work. Fatiguing not only because if one sets oneself a high standard the very technique sucks up one's energy, but fatiguing also because of the imaginative expenditure required if one illustrates, in the full meaning of the word."

Peake warns against taking the text at face value, producing "literal drawings which do not interpret or transmute the words into another medium, but merely repeat what the author has just said... (such drawings) underline the surface of the story or poem. They make no attempt to capture the 'colour' of the writing.

"One might say that books have different smells. Wuthering Heights smells different from Moby Dick, Green Mansions smells different from Tristram Shandy. The book of Job, smells different - very different - from The Fall of the House of Usher. It is for the illustrator to make his drawings have the same smell as the book he is illustrating. Most celebrated book illustrators impose their celebrated techniques upon whatever book they are illustrating, graft upon it as it were their famous mannerisms to the discomfiture of the fastidious reader... At the same time I find it essentially insensitive, however beautiful the book production may be, to couple fine works of literature with the alien and haphazard burgeoning of the finest artist - haphazard in the sense that they are not interpretations of the text, but manifestations of the artist's personality... In book illustration the artist must not only synchronize all the aesthetic elements with which the pure painter has to juggle, but he must have, over and above this, the power to identify himself with another personality - that of the author he is interpreting., and also with the mood of the book. He must have, in other words, not only an imagination but a pliable one - a wide one, one that is sensitive to the overtones of music and words, that miraculous coinage. He must slay his own ego in order to relive. He must have the chameleon's power to take on the colour of the leaf he dwells on".

Here Here!

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Coelacanth Diaries

Domestic and work matters have occupied so much of my time I've not had chance to blog much lately. Things shall settle soon I hope. In the meantime here's another fine illustrator's blog I found Coelacanth Diaries

Saturday, 15 April 2006

John Nez Illustration: Champagne & Tulips

Well back to business, here's the blog of Seattle based children's illustrator John Nez, a long-time cyber colleague.John Nez Illustration: Champagne & Tulips

The world really is getting to be a smaller place when I can call someone a friend, though they may live the other side of the world and we may never have met in person. Thanks to the internet I believe I know more people in North America now than I do in the UK.

Friday, 14 April 2006

Hakone photos

The architecture was an amazing crossover of Victorian Western design and traditional Japanese, with a dash of China thrown in for good measure. It reminded more of Shanghai than Japan.

The surrounding parks and garden were beautiful - winding pathways, waterfalls, a watermill, cherry blossom... and the ubiquitous carp.

Appearance of the bride.

My daughter Seren spies on the rehearsals.

It was a simple, but elegant service. The vicar(?) was a Brit, and gave a sermon in stumbling Japanese that no one could understand, but which seemed to be all about "love". God barely got a mention, unsurprising in this heartland of Shintoism.

We were a small crowd, but included the bride's grandparents (Seren's great-grandparents) who came all the way up from Takamatsu in Shikoku to attend.

Water god.

I'll spare you the endless family groupings and smiling faces. I only wish we were there longer with time for me to sketch.

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Hakone wedding

Now here's somewhere that really is in the middle of nowhere. Last weekend was spent in Fujiya Hotel, Hakone National Park's oldest western-style hotel.
The whole family was there to celebrate my sister-in-law's wedding, which took place in the hotel chapel. Half way up the side of a long-dormant volcano, the scenery is fabulously beautiful. After a nervous climb up a jerky single-track mountain railway I just had time to scribble the architypal clean-cut bell boy as we checked in and the view out of our room window.
The walls were lined with photos of famous former guests, ranging from Albert Einstein to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The groom and his bride stayed in the 'Helen Keller' room (yes I know the couple are not supposed to meet before the wedding, but sssh! This is Japan, such rules are flexible).

Overall it's a fine location and had me itching to paint. Instead I had to pull on the suit and tie, and concentrate on the serious business of my wife's sister's marriage.

If I had to complain about anything it would be the rip-off restaurants. 1,200 yen for a beer - extortion! And only two pieces of toast and a dab of scrambled egg at breakfast - how stingy can you get! However all was made up at the wedding banquet, which was a feast, and as I'm the only one who drinks alcohol (though I'm no boozer) I ended up with constant refills of champagne all afternoon. Slept like a baby on the long train home to Yokohama. That's the spirit!

Saturday, 8 April 2006

Middle of Nowhere

Here's another children's illustrator's blog from the UK I just came across. Lots of images to warm the cockles of an old ex-pat's heart and remind him of old merrie England

Middle of Nowhere

Middle of nowhere? Looks more like the middle of Oxfordshire to me, a place I'm actually thinking of moving to if I ever leave Japan.

What? leave Japan? Well, my daughter is approaching school age, my family back home are not getting any younger, and I have been in Tokyo/Yokohama for 20 years now, long enough perhaps, so I'm toying with the idea of flying "home" to roost. Since I made the big decision to slow down with commercial illustration and concentrate on children's books as my primary source of work I'm finding more and more of my clients are in the West rather than local, so it might be a good time. The missus thinks it's a good idea.

Why Oxfordshire? It's half way between London (where clients lie) and Staffordshire where my parents are. Also Oxford has a lot of writers and artists, several of whom I know, so I'm tempted.

Tuesday, 4 April 2006

..... the end product

..... and this is how she appeared in the final story.

Yolanda sketches

More doodles on the train. It takes just half an hour to get into Shibuya (central Tokyo) from my area, but I try to utilise the time as best I can, often by working out sketch ideas for current jobs. Here's some quickly jot ideas for an evil hag character in Jenny Nimmo's "The Blue Boa", which I recently illustrated.

Wednesday, 29 March 2006

Train sketches

Wherever I go I always carry in my bag a small A-5 size sketchbook for scribbling ideas, doodling or sketching when I'm out and about. I panic if I don't have paper and pen close at hand, as Murphy's law goes flashes of inspiration always come when I don't have any paper, then are forgotten.

Most of the time the only chance I get to really use the book is if I get a seat on the train during my increasingly rare trips into central Tokyo.

Here's something recent - it's not often I get chance to draw a Westerner on the train sitting in front of me. I love these fleeting chances to draw people, never sure when they're going to get off, or someone block the view.

His newspaper was in Spanish, which was even rarer to see around here.

Tuesday, 28 March 2006


(This is another post adapted from a previously published essay)

It's time to have a rant, strap yourselves in, I'm going to talk about PRIDE. Pride in my profession, pride in being an illustrator.

It strikes me that illustration isn't getting the kind of recognition it really deserves, especially in my country of birth the UK. Over in Blighty I hear horror tales of crumbling standards, plummeting fees and dastardly clients. One old illustrator friend has upped and left London as being too expensive. "Plasterers and plumbers can charge twice as much as I'm able to achieve in the UK" he says - and this is someone famous. Well known children's illustrators say to me "don't come back! There's no work, you're better off in Japan!"

Well things are not that rosy for illustration in Japan either, but at least artists are respected in this country. In the UK is it true that illustration is getting a bum deal nowadays?

In one sense illustration has always had a bum deal, whenever it's compared against "fine" art. In general it can be argued that Britain's creative heritage is built on a literary tradition, on the written word rather than the painted image. Illustration, which was born from this literary heritage, is one of the greatest cultural gifts the UK has to offer, yet all too often it's run down or dismissed.

Every time I go back to the UK I hear the never ending appeal of my father, who sums up the general attitude of the older generation when he says "this illustration lark is all very well I suppose, and we all have to earn a crust, but come on John, when are you going to do some proper pictures?" (i.e. a nice picturesque landscape he can hang on the wall). I suspect many illustrators in the UK have similar stories.

Alright, so this is my dad talking (bless his heart), not some art critic. But is the establishment any better? I'm reminded of the Arthur Rackham retrospective held at the Dulwich Gallery in London a couple of years ago. In the Foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Desmond Shawe-Taylor succinctly tells us "Arthur Rackham is probably more famous than any British artist of his generation; yet there has not been an exhibition devoted to his work in this country for thirty years. This may be because Rackham is regarded as a mere illustrator, a Jack of all Trades, or as childish taste; what is certain is that to some minds Rackham is 'not quite an artist'...".

Nevertheless the exhibition still had a disproportionately large section devoted to Rackham's unpublished and personal paintings, almost as if the organisers were paying lip service to those very "minds" that dismiss Rackham as a "mere illustrator". I wonder whether by showing a large number of his non-illustration works they hoped to make him somehow qualify as a "real" artist?

To top it all, if it's not bad enough having illustration being portrayed as somehow "inferior", illustrators themselves are guilty of denying their own profession! I remember years ago being at a talk given by Maurice Sendak, where in answer to my question regarding his illustration work he said he hated being called an "illustrator". Perhaps the connotations of the word were unsavoury? I know a London based illustrator who, when asked what he does for a living always tells people he's a "painter and decorator".

Why? What's WRONG with being an illustrator?

I'm an illustrator, and I love it, I truely do. I wouldn't want to do anything else in the world (my missus would probably say "couldn't" rather than "wouldn't", but there you go...). I regard myself and others of my ilk as practitioners of a rich heritage of pen and ink art dating back from before Hogarth. I'm proud of what I do, certainly it's nothing to hide!

Sure there are bad illustrators and unskilled wannabes in every country, as well as the cheesey, the crass and the blatant rip-off, but these shouldn't detract from the good stuff. Essentially this is a highly skilled and demanding profession, where talent should be encouraged, rewarded and praised. Using the analogy of the music business (which in some respects can be similar), in the same way that almost anyone can pick up a guitar and make a noise, but it takes some talent to create an anthem, with illustration anyone can draw a picture, but it takes skill and inspiration to reach out to people. You don't see many hailed like pop stars though do you!

I don't see evidence of illustration-bashing in Japan because the dividing lines between illustration and "fine art" are blurred and interchangeable. Some illustrators have even had museums devoted to their work. Most definately no-one is ashamed of calling themselves an illustrator.

Monday, 27 March 2006

Losing lines

One thing I always have to be careful of in illustration is having line details swamped when it comes to adding colour. For example this pic. I actually prefer the B/W pen and ink underdrawing to the finished art.

Publish Post

The colour version is how it appeared in the final book. It's an illustration to Hans Andersen's story "The Flea and the Professor".

Saturday, 25 March 2006

Local elections

Local elections are in progress as I write.

For those who may not be familiar with this curious phenomenon in Japan, polling for votes here largely consists of driving around the local area in white vans with enormous speakers mounted on top, blaring out at ear splitting volume (roughly translated) "This is the Democratic Party (or whatever), vote for Yoshida Taro! (or whoever). Yoshida Taro, your Democratic Party candidate! Yoroshiku onegai shimasu!". Young(ish) smiling women wearing white gloves wave frantically out of the windows, often, in these suburbs, to streets empty apart from the odd startled cat. Curiously the candidate is rarely in sight.

I've always found the total disregard for noise pollution in Japan more than a bit annoying, whether it's the bgm soundtracks blasted out at scenic locations in the country and on beaches, or the cacophany of noise deafening shoppers at any electronics store in town. But it's particularly aggrevating when potential politicians use the same methods to gain votes, our future law-makers. It just seems to say - hey, don't expect any big changes if I get voted in.

Well, like it or not, this is the system. As a foreign passport holder I don't have the vote here, despite 20 years in Japan. So nomatter how frantically they wave or bombard my ears I feel more affinity with the poor local cats.

Tuesday, 21 March 2006


Cynthia Leitch Smith has listed interviews with some of the speakers at the forthcoming SCBWI Conference at the Bologna Book Fair cynsations.

Monday, 20 March 2006

Early Influences

(this post abridged from a previously published essay)

I've been sketching ever since I can remember, looking back now in honest truth I don't believe I could have followed any other path except illustration. I was pretty dreamy about everything else at school apart from English and History, so by the time it came to a career decision it was pretty well determined which direction I would take.

As a young child I had limited access to children's books, the only reading matter I remember in the house were cheap weekly comics, Rupert the Bear annuals and on special occasions my mother's old volumes of collected fairy tales which she'd retained from her own childhood in the 1930's. These latter were generally locked away and rarely shown, so to me were like mysterious volumes full of ancient, beautifully drawn images. I didn't know it at the time, but these drawings by Golden Age illustrators were later to prove an enormous influence on me.

I'd occupy myself happily alone filling up sketchbooks with animals, or of galleons and WWII aircraft dogfights between Spitfires and Messerschmidts, the staple diet of adolescent boys in the late 1960's. Around the age of ten I discovered my first serious artistic influence - Jose Maria Jorge, an Argentinian illustrator specialising in realistic action paintings who used to (and I believe still does) draw B/W strips for the DC Thompson "Commando" comic series in the UK. I would lovingly pour over Jorge's accurate renditions of WWII aircraft in titles such as "Aces High" and "Battle Squadron" and struggle to emulate his detailed pen and ink line technique.

Once I discovered the joys of the local library other artists began to make an impression, largely through book illustrations, notably Edward Ardizzone, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Shepard (Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh etc) and Quentin Blake. At the same time as a bi-product of my interest in 17th and 18th Century history I became interested in period engravings, and was particularly seized by the wonderful bouncing, vibrant line of Thomas Rowlandson, who's always been one of the most important influences on my work. Also I would pore over the work of James Gillray, and epic Napoleonic paintings by Louis-Francois Lejeune, and P. J. de Loutherbourg, although these were more inspirational than influential on my own work.

At school in the 1970's the staff discovered I could draw, I was under some pressure to follow the path of "real" painting (as opposed to that nasty inferior commercial graphics business) though all my instincts pushed me towards illustration. Then while on holiday in Cornwall at the impressionable age of 15 I discovered the work of Arthur Rackham, whose work made a colossal impression on me. In fact it was a re-discovery really, as I'd already seen Rackham's work in my mothers old Fairytale collections when I was younger. But now I was mesmerised by Rackham's sinuous lines and sepia tones and sucked into his pictures, which appeared to be windows into another universe. From that point on I was determined to be a children's book illustrator.

Fast forward to Art College in 1977. This was the time of punk rock and all the iconography that went with it. On a social level Manchester in particular was a great enlightenment, the music was buzzing, new challenging graphic images, yet my strongest artistic influences remained unswervedly in the past. Of the many artists I discovered in the four years I studied illustration at Bournville and Manchester my favorites were Aubrey Beardsley, Edmund Dulac, Egon Schiele, William Heath Robinson, Mervyn Peake, and Ralph Steadman. Steadman is the only one of those "illustration icons" who was still alive and I actually had the pleasure to meet in person.

Also, I shouldn't forget children's book illustrator Tony Ross my course head at Manchester, who shook me out of a dangerous obsession with Edwardian illustrators and encouraged me to work in a more "modern" style.

By 1983 I was a professional illustrator in my own right. After setting up the art cooperative Facade Studios I shared rooms with fellow illustrators Jane Ray and Willie Ryan, as well as my old friend designer Andy Royston, we all tended to rub influences on each other. Reflecting the tight deadlines for magazines and book covers that formed my staple source of income, modern illustrators replaced those of the past as my chief influences - artists such as Paul Sample (the comic illustrator not the painter), and in particular the Tintin comics by 'Hergé' (real name Georges Remi). In children's books I was particularly overwhelmed by the work of Errol le Cain - a decorative picture book artist of immense talent, and Michael Foreman's wonderful use of colour.

The Japan connection grew from a fascination with Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Most of my "heroes" of illustration - Rackham, Beardsley, Heath Robinson etc owed a strong debt to Japanese art; it was by researching their influences that I became caught up in the same art form. For a long while I was intoxicated with Harunobu, Utamaro, Sharaku and Hokusai. Interest in Japanese art became an obsession that eventually led me to leave London and move to Tokyo in 1987.

In Japan, a new culture and a new market led to a burst of experimentation in my work. Fresh styles and techniques based on scratched lines resembling woodcuts and vigorous freely applied gouache paintings, but in the end I settled into a dynamic commercial style that returned to my first love - pen and ink. This time however drawn directly on coated paper with little or no underdrawing - a technique prompted partly by shodo and sumi-e.

In recent years I can add to the list such people as Czech fantasy artist Albin Brunovsky, almost forgotten names like Sidney Sime, and myriad Japanese illustrators, of whom I'll write about later.

Saturday, 18 March 2006


There's a lot of hooha at the moment about the way copyright protection for artwork is being eroded in the US. This is mainly over proposed legislation that will strip copyright protection from "orphan" works, i.e. copyrighted artwork where the owner of copyright cannot be traced. The proposed legislation would enable anyone to reproduce a piece of artwork for free by claiming they can't find the copyright owner. Not only does it threaten the copyright of artists, it creates a rival market of "free" old artwork.

This isn't the place to go into great detail of the ins and outs, however the Illustrator's Partnership of America is running a worthy campaign against the legislation.

At first I thought "ah so what, that's America, I'm in Japan", but then it dawned on me that this legislation actually effects artists all over the world, in fact our very distance from the US would make us vulnerable to copyright infringement. "Out of sight, out of mind" so to speak - anyone could claim in the US that they "found" my picture, couldn't trace me, and I would have little way to demand recompense. Even if I won a court case the bill proposes a flat compensation fee, maximum payout being, frankly, a joke.

I'm not anti-American, on the contrary some of my most trusted clients are in the States and I have many friends there. However I'm appaulled by the increasing tendency towards "dog eat dog", with the powerful getting stronger and the weaker getting weaker, which I rarely see in Japan or the UK. A kind of "stomp on the other guy before they stomp on you" mentality of protectionism, might is right, one step out of line and you've a law suit on your hands.

Here's a very interesting comic put together to explain US copyright in simple terms and the harrowing traumas faced by documentary film makers.

To all appearances copyright in the US seems screwed up at both ends of the scale. On the one hand you have the "rights monsters" as mentioned in the comic where corporate companies assert that nobody nowhere can use even a pinch of their "property" without being bankrupted with a hefty fine, while on the opposite extreme new legislation aims to strip copyright protection from artists and other individuals.

Wednesday, 15 March 2006

So why Blog?

I actually had a "Journal" page on my website for a couple of years, a kind of hand-done blog, but as I used to translate everything into Japanese as well as English (assisted by long-suffering wife), and as I'm no great shakes at html either the whole thing became a monsterous chore after a while. Add a few deadlines into the mix and the end result was - no posts for months on end, so I've taken down the link.

This is a lot more like it though, easy to include images, and upload any time. Veteran bloggers will have heard all this before though, so I'll shut up until I've got something to say. Having learned my lesson I'll skip on the Japanese for now!

Sunday, 12 March 2006

First post

Alright, so I've finally been tempted to have a go at a blog. Once I've learned how all this works I'll be posting away like crazy no doubt, but for now, here's a recent illustration. It's the cover to the Japanese edition of "The Blue Boa", the third in the Charlie Bone series of novels by Jenny Nimmo. Published by Tokuma Shoten in Tokyo.