Johann and the Green Drawing Book

Illustration graduate Johann Rohl is spending a month living here at Ty Isaf, working in the studio on his own projects, and on a commission we’re producing collaboratively. I’m his mentor during his time here, though in reality I find there’s much to be appreciated and learned from the ways he applies himself to problems set. He draws beautifully, and on his desk is a green-bound book filled with pencil images.

Clive: Tell me about the book. It’s not just any old book off an art-supplier’s shelves, is it?

Johann: It’s a hardbound sketchbook I acquired at the end of my time at Cambridge School of Art, made collaboratively with my friend Toby Rampton. Toby is a bookbinder and a very talented illustrator who I went to uni with. His sketchbooks are beautiful objects in their own right. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to look at sketchbooks the same way since seeing his. By ‘collaboratively’ I mean I supplied the paper and linen for the cover and Toby did most of the labour. He even sliced into his middle finger, right into the nail; trimming the block of pages for me. So blood really went into the making of this book, though I’m not sure about sweat and tears. That sketchbook is a sort of testament to Toby’s craft, to teaching me it and to some of my creative breakthroughs done on location in the museums of Cambridge.

Clive: I love the green linen cover. I’ve noticed that you pay a lot of attention to the things around you, to forms and textures, and you’re appreciative of things well made. Have you always had this eye for detail and for good design? Can you account for it?

Johann: I love things well made. In a world of the disposable, there isn’t much importance placed on craftsmanship in our society. I come from a family that has a real appreciation for craftsmanship. I’ve grown up with things like pots and little crooked wooden stools, things you can’t get at Ikea. Witch balls at my aunty’s house. Stuff with character and soul. Things made with attention to detail, built to last a long time and to wear with use, but in a way that enhances and adds depth with age.

My grandparents came from nothing. They never bought things on credit and had to save money when they wanted to buy a piece of furniture or a household appliance. They moved into their first house when they were about my age. They had nothing to sit on, and so my grandma went over the road to the Co-op and asked if she could have the wooden boxes that the oranges came in. She took the boxes home and upholstered them using straw and cloth, and that was that. Furniture!  There was a make-do-and-mend attitude back then which I admire.

Form and function, colour and texture, these are all qualities that I appreciate. They give me pleasure, but they also influence my practice, and so I try to surround myself with things like that.

Clive: Where were the drawings in this sketch-book made? I recognise many of the objects as Mexican clay Dia de los Muertos figurines.

Johann: Most of the drawings were made in the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Cambridge. Most of the Dia de los Muertos stuff is in a small section of the museum that I just about exhausted in drawing terms. It’s a modest collection, but it was enough to inspire me and fuel my desire to go off and look further into folk art and learn more about it. There are also drawings of Inuit art in the green sketchbook, and Greek statues from the Museum of Classical Archaeology.

Clive: Your mark-making in this book is extremely direct. There’s no fucking about with sketchiness, no faint lines trialled on the page and then adjusted and worked over. And theres no erasing. It’s as though there’s a line of unbroken energy going direct from the object to your eye and down through your hand to the pencil and page. Beautiful. Is this the way you’ve always worked, or have you aspired to it and made it so?

Johann: Having the confidence to commit to my lines the way that I do has taken years. Years to realise just how interesting it can be to make marks in ways that are sympathetic to the thing I’m drawing. When I started Art College I was ignorant of mark-making and approached it in a limited way. I’d use a mechanical pencil fitted with HB 00.7mm graphite for all of my drawings, and I’d make pictures with no depth, no difference in tone or texture and no difference in quality of line. Limited in terms of expression.

I draw very differently now. I put myself in the mindset of exploring something for the first time, like a child. I try and role-play the experience of seeing something as it is, as it really is, without any preconceptions of what I think it should look like. When I’m drawing something that I’m interested in recreating, I bring myself closer to it by condensing the feeling or the texture into a line or mark. I guess it’s like empathy, in a way. I try to channel the ‘feeling’ of the object from my eye to my mind and out through my mark-making, so that I’m connecting with the world around me in a different way. A lot of the time I draw what I think something should look like, and it takes working through it over and over to get to something more honest and interesting. But then sometimes I don’t have to put in quite so much effort, and I nail it in one.

Clive: You work in extremely attractive and mesmerising ways. There are the observational sketchbooks, like the green linen one, but also the project work-books, in which you draw largely in miniature. They’re fascinating to look at.

You make the books and then draw in them, and that undoubtedly invests them with a kind of concentrated energy. Is the making of a book a crucial process to your preparation for what goes inside it?

Johann: I guess it’s having more control of the project, being able to decide which format is most appropriate for it. It probably isn’t a crucial process, though it does invest work-books with a kind of ‘concentrated energy’. I like to be able to show my work in a book made with my own hands.

Clive: The third process in which you produce drawings, is probably the most unique one, and moreover the one that appeals most to me because it has some of the same obsessional aspects of my own liking for drawing and cutting-out.

You make hundreds of meticulously pencil-rendered images that are details of larger ideas… fragments, if you will… and then you cut them out and store them in transparent folders. They look like extraordinary, pale jigsaw puzzles waiting to be assembled. You play with these fragments, assembling them into potential compositions, until you have the material ready to begin a final work. In this way, like my own process of making maquettes, you have a dense methodology before ever you get to a gessoed board, which is the ground you favour most for your finished works. Tell me about how you came to work this way. Did it evolve from small beginnings, or did you see something somewhere that gave you the idea?

Below: cut elements for Johann’s project, Pomona.

Johann: My ‘process’ has been quite a recent development. It started towards the end of my degree. It was a strange time where all my course mates had finished, and a lot of my housemates were moving out. Yet I still had work to do. The work I needed to resubmit didn’t have to be amazing because my marks were going to be capped at 40%, so it really didn’t matter. The pressure was off. Instead of doing a bit of extra work for it I started a new project from scratch which was The Company of Wolves, which you’ve written about previously. (See HERE and HERE.)

I gorged myself on HughesWalking the Dog and started to express myself in a way that was much more liberating, away from the eyes of my peers. I committed myself to sheets of A4 but decided that if something went wrong that I would just glue more paper over the top of the mistake and I would draw over that. I made loads of mistakes. Made loads of cut outs that I could place on to the image as an alternative. I liked the potential this offered so that if I wanted the wolf’s mouth to look more savage and slavery I could exaggerate it and then put it over the top, or if I wanted to see what the wolf’s hand was like underneath his skin I could do that on another piece of paper and overlay that if I felt like it. I never glued the pieces over the top, though. I liked being able to play with the placement of these separate pieces of paper. That was a real breakthrough and the start of a really exciting way of working. I don’t know where it came from, or what or who inspired it, but it’s become a fundamental part of the way I work now, and I love it.

Clive: The project we’re working on requires that both our hands will be evident in some of the completed artworks. This is a first for both of us and has taken some adjustment. That we appreciate each others work clearly paved the way for the project, but it’s nevertheless a leap of faith for two artists to produce images collaboratively. (Sarah Parvin, who commissioned this, was enormously supportive of the notion of you and I working so closely, so all credit to her for her encouragement.) I feel very much at ease in the studio in your company, but frankly I couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone else. I’ve worked collaboratively with creatives who have skills other than my own; poets, writers, composers and film-makers. But the current project is significantly different, and has been a learning curve for both of us. Do you have any thoughts to offer on this, on the pros and cons? (Please be candid. I can take it!)

Below: elements made by Clive and Johann. Who made which? Hard to tell.

Johann: It’s definitely been a learning curve! I’m not very good at letting people see my work in its early stages, or see me working for that matter. I’m incredibly self conscious and insecure, as much as I hate to admit it. Putting your ideas out there, your rough drawings to be seen by another, can be very exposing and leave you feeling quite vulnerable. But I think because there’s a lot of trust and respect between us, it’s not even an issue. We ‘get’ each other, and we appreciate each others work. We can be supportive when things are going well, and constructive when something isn’t quite working. We each want the same thing for the other, which is to help and push and be where we want to be creatively, and that’s incredibly enriching for both of us.

Clive: Well now you’ve made me well up, which is definitely the right place to stop.

The Bad Mother and the Weak Father

Maquettes  for my project with Simon Lewin of St. Jude’s Prints. Simon has been producing occasional publications under the ‘Random Spectacular’ title for quite a while. However, this year he’s going all out to expand the imprint with a series of exciting projects, one of which is to produce a picture-book that I’ve wanted to make for a long time. ‘Hansel & Gretel’ is going to be quite dark in tone. Definitely not one for the children. As is usually my way with projects, I’ve built maquettes of  the characters to help me create the images. Here are the Bad Mother and the Weak Father. She is as sour as vinegar, and he is careworn to the point of being rendered mute by her vitriol. One day she’s going to push him too far!

The tree is by Johann Rohl, currently working with me in the studio on a collaborative project.

Below: earlier maquettes of The Bad Mother

Things can end badly for bad mothers!

Tom Bromwell: conversation with a puppet maker


Above: The Harbinger

Tom Bromwell makes puppets. He gained a First in BA Fine Art at Cardiff School of Art and an MA at Dartington/Falmouth. He currently works at The Art Shop and Chapel galleries in Abergavenny.

Clive: So what happened after your BA and MA?

Tom: To all intents and purposes I gave up practicing. I became rather disillusioned with it all. I even closed my website.

The Trickster

Clive: Can you explain further?

Tom: My previous artwork had taken a very intellectual direction, and had increasingly focused on the philosophical and theoretical side of art. However this began to destroy the pleasure in it for me. So I found work in other areas of the arts, including research and administration. I’m about to start a PHD in the History of Art as a result of my research work on Apocalyptic visions and interwar art.

The Blackened One

Clive: The artist Philippa Robbins showed me photographs of glove-puppets you’d made, which is how I came to contact you. How did this interest come about?

Tom: I’ve only started making puppets in the past year, prompted by Pauline Griffiths of the Art Shop Gallery, and I’ve found it’s brought back my enjoyment in making. I’ve always had a strong interest in theatre, though I struggled to reconcile it with my past practice. Perhaps I was too self-conscious. But somehow, and unexpectedly, the puppets have bridged the gap. I’m continuing to make them, and finding my ideas are developing as I gain greater familiarity with the processes. I’ve been giving puppet performances for children in the Art Shop & Chapel.

Clive: Paul Klee made glove-puppets for his son Felix, and together they gave performances. The Klee puppets are quite roughly made, but each has an undeniable presence.

The Wanderer

Tom: I see my puppets as riffing on archetypal characters and forms, and yes they are inspired by the sense of wonder I experienced on first seeing Klee’s puppets. His coarse technique combined with found objects accentuated the personality of his creations. Had they been refined and highly finished, I think the immediacy of them would have been lost. They would have been more anonymous and forbidding – and less a product of imagination. Yet made as they are, they revel in their status as crafted objects.

Clive: You use one of your puppets, Abel, as your Facebook profile image. Is it a self-portrait?

Abel

Tom: I’ve avoided using images of myself for online profiles for a number of years. I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with them. The Facebook puppet is the one I most identify with, the one onto which I’ve projected some of my uncertainties and insecurities. The simple design is inspired by the sense of bewilderment I think we’ve all known on occasion.

Clive: I’m interested in the names of your puppet characters. Tell me about them, and why you chose them.

Tom: Abel and Rebecca are old-testament names, and the characters represent facets of my personality. Abel embodies my more negative, paranoid side. He’s oblivious to his destiny in the bible to be a ‘victim’, and just puts his head down to get on with his work, only to end up being murdered by his brother. Lets be honest, Abel is basically there just to move the plot along! I think my sense of being an innocent cog is best represented by him! Rebecca on the other hand is both strength and kindness – things that I aspire to.

Polt

Other names have their origin in bits of philosophy. The Trickster (aka The Nameless One) is a bit of a wordsmith. Semiotics and Derrida’s concept of différance played a part developing the character. His name changes from performance to performance (his name really does differ and defer!), suggesting the characters’ awareness to how arbitrary names and definitions really are.

Polt is an abridgement of Poltergeist, but it also conveys something else in the sound of the word. The plosive sound is almost onomatopoeic. Like a hard blow, it sounds forceful. The name and the puppet, with it’s shocked expression, seem to fit each other perfectly. And while Polt might sound po-faced, he’s not really so bad!

Rebecca

Clive: Tom, tell me about the performances. How do you prepare for them?

Tom: The performances can be underpinned by science, philosophy or suchlike, and the stories often focus on a single aspect of one of the characters. I am not the sort of person who normally does things spontaneously, so I usually aim for an underlying structure from which I can play with ideas or materials. I encourage audience interaction to explore the potential embodied in the narrative.

I shall post information of Tom’s next performances at the Chapel Gallery when I have the dates

TomBromwell

Tom Bromwell

Afterword

I’ve been having a spot of trouble at WordPress edit today, and have had to post this piece for a second time, losing in the process one of the comments. Luckily I’d saved it, and have pasted it below, together with my reply.

From Cosima Lukashevich:

Submitted on 2015/08/26 at 5:34 am
Its fascinating to me to hear how and why artist make. It seems that one can get lost in the maze of the thinking mind, and that path cycles round and round. So to physically make, to create, is a relief and a positive direction outward. The living energy of creativity bursts forward… in Tom’s puppets… towards the lively arts of theatre in ‘character forms’. (aka puppets.)

His puppets are only half of the story. It would be very interesting to see a performance of them!

From Clive Hicks-Jenkins:

Submitted on 2015/08/26 at 5:59 am | In reply to Cosima Lukashevich.
Hello Cosima. Yes, it is indeed interesting that a performance art has facilitated Tom rediscovering his pleasure in the act of making he’d somehow lost after his MA and BA. It was perceptive of Pauline Griffiths to point him in the direction of making puppets. And yes, I’d agree that this is only half the story. Puppets need to be seen in action. Tom’s are brimming with potential.

Avatar

I’m presently collaborating with illustration graduate, Johann Rohl, on a commission to make an ‘avatar’ for a friend’s website. The brief has been fairly elaborate, and requires a creation that will regularly change her appearance. To this end the avatar is to be realised as a ‘maquette’ of the type that I regularly make and use as compositional aids. Indeed there will be several maquettes in changes of costume to facilitate the range of roles this avatar will be required to assume, and it’s likely that the process will be ongoing, with further maquettes added when needed. Here is just a small handful of the many sketches, together with a just-started maquette. You’ll notice that like the Sleeping Princess of fairy-tale, she has yet to awaken.

16th Century ruff and stomacher.

The Regency brings high-waisted gowns and elaborately plumed and be-ribboned hats.

Veiled headress of the Middle Ages.

Above and below: a pantomime Columbine of the 19th Century, her ringlets crowned with roses.

The early stages of a trial maquette.

Although these initial sketches are all by me, Johann and I will collaborate on the final renderings.

Ben’s Beast: ‘Man Slain by a Tiger’

Over at the Penfold Press in Selby, Daniel Bugg is working away on a test piece in the run-up to beginning our collaboration on the ambitious, fourteen-print series based on the medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But instead of making a Gawain test print, Dan and I opted to produce a print of what had originally been a very small drawing I’d made as a birthday gift for my friend Ben Koppel.

In 18th-century India, the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, commissioned the making of an automaton representing an incident in which a man had been attacked and killed by a tiger. It’s thought that the ‘toy’ was an expression of Tipu Sultan’s hatred for the British, and it was discovered and requisitioned by the East India troops when they stormed his Summer Palace in the capital in 1799. Tipu’s Tiger, as it’s since become known, is now in the collection of the V&A.

The gruesome incident was also commemorated in a rather jaunty Staffordshire group called The Death of Munrow, and it’s this vivid ceramic that was my inspiration behind the drawing made for Ben. In the Staffordshire piece the man is identified as ‘Munrow’, and shown in the uniform of an army officer.

However, it’s believed that the historic event commemorated in the Staffordshire group, was  the death in 1792 of Hugh Munro, a civilian. He was the son of General Sir Hector Munro, who had commanded a division during Sir Eyre Coote’s victory at the Battle of Porto Novo in 1781, when Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan’s father, was defeated with a loss of 10,000 men. The General’s son, visiting India, was attacked and killed by a tiger on 22 December 1792 while hunting, and it seems that Tipu’s Tiger, and later The Death of Munrow, may have been a conflating of Tipu Sultan’s hatred of General Sir Hector, with the death of the General’s son some eleven years after the Battle of Porto Novo.

A few weeks ago I started making the separations for the print, working in lithographic crayon and paint on drafting-film and TrueGrain.

Below: pencil guide.

Below: lithographic crayon on TrueGrain, a drafting-film with a granulated quality that’s akin to lithography stone.

From my separations, Dan made the screens ready for printing, and began the process of assembling the print. Here are some of the proofs made as he’s tried various colours.

Below: a lemony yellow lends a pleasingly toy-like quality to the image.

Above: a warmer yellow, and an adjusted blue, red and pink, printed before the final, black pass.

Below: an olive green better harmonises the print.

Sombre shadow makes the image deeper and the mood more elegiac.

A rich and harmonic image, with the yellow, warmed, and the green not unduly pulling the eye.

These will soon be arriving in the post for me to look over. When Dan and I have agreed the way forward, he’ll begin the job of making a final proof, and then editioning.

The Making of Gringolet: part 2

The finished maquette.

There are thirty separate parts that make up the maquette, including the bars and cams at the back of it.

Of course there is none of the stretch and compression of real flesh. The card is unyielding. This is what I celebrate in the maquettes by frequently showing their angularities and segmentations in the paintings I make, but also fight against by finding ever-increasingly ingenious ways to make plausible movement. I both celebrate the flattening out and awkwardness, and continue to tinker with it, to extend the possibilities of the maquettes, and it’s probably the tension between these two that pleases me most. I want them to be real and not real at the same time. Convincing, and unconvincing. Puppets are always at their best when they are being puppets, and not getting too close to being the real things they imitate.

It’s complicated. But then all the best things are!

And the technique really comes into its own in my search for expressive movement.

The Making of Gringolet: part 1

Gawain’s horse is named in the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as Gringolet. I’m making a maquette of him in preparation for my Penfold Press series of fourteen editioned prints based on the poem.

I’ve spent more time than usual on this maquette, as I was looking for an elegant sense of movement in the horse. I’m not yet sure whether that’s a quality I’ll transfer to the prints, but I feel the maquette will be more useful to me in the long term if I can invest it with grace.

I begin by constructing a paper pattern to the scale of the planned maquette.

When all the details of construction and movement repertoire have been worked out, I transfer the component shapes to coloured paper and begin rendering in pencil.

The rendered papers are glued to card, trimmed and fitted with brads on the backs. Holes are made where required to receive the brads. When maquettes are assembled, these attachment-points don’t show on the fronts of them.

Gradually, piece by piece, Gringolet appears.