Learning to draw changed my life

As a student at Jacob Kramer College of Art in Leeds, we had a most intimidating life drawing tutor in Laimonis Mierins. Cutting an intimidating figure dressed in black with silver hair, Lem would scare, bully, cajole and coax his students to be brave. If we didn’t take drawing seriously, he’d threaten us all with a tommy gun that was left over booty from the Second World War. Yes, he really did.

He started us off using pencil; soft and forgiving, then charcoal; sooty and pliable, but graduated—slowly, mind—to using the most unforgiving of media: pen.  One of the toughest mediums to draw with, ink is the ultimate in mark-making; no room for error, but what errors you make have to be incorporated and believable.

In this era of Instagram gratification, I still like the discipline of looking hard, committing and interpreting life into line. This drawing of the train station in Porto took a bit of time, gave me a few scares but rewarded my fragile patience, every detail burnt into the memory.

I worked with one of our designers at Turn Key, Brian, to add another dimension to the drawing by adding colour digitally. I gave him free reign to interpret the drawing how he saw fit. There’s two versions here, one without the lifework and one with it. I love each equally, the abstract one works for me as the artist who drew it, the lifework inserted in my imagination. The line and colour version works best for people who’ve not seen the original I think.

The image was submitted to an exhibition of other designer works to celebrate 30 years of Thompson Brand Partners. I was particularly pleased how the drawing skills I learnt all those years ago could still deliver in an engaging and contemporary way.

Lem would be proud I think.



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The Tower of London

The Tower of London is one of those places that everyone’s been to as a kid. So when we had a request from our weekend guests Paul and Carol to go there, I couldn’t resist it!

It was bound to be super busy but what the hell, it had to be done. We were blessed with amazing weather which made everything look luminous. Of course it’s very touristy but that aside, it’s very well presented and for a history geek like me, it’s the closest thing to heaven you’ll get. Of course for some people it was the closest thing to hell.



The Tower is still officially the headquarters of the Royal Armouries (with the full collection up in Leeds of course) and is chock full of impressive arms and armour, including this exquisite detailing on Henry VIII’s quite voluminous suit.

Ancient doorways with history steeped patina lead to infamous courtyards featuring murder, torture, executions and, er, ravens.


Breastplates a go-go. Must have been quite uncomfortable and chafed somewhat.


This medieval stained glass is reported to be the last thing Henry VI saw before he was murdered.


Beautiful detailing belies the true nature of the job its required to do.


Solid gold crowns sit atop William the Conqueror’s impressive white tower, built just after the Battle of Hastings, a proto power play if ever there was one.


Swords. Lots of swords.


Up until relatively recently, the royal mint was based in the Tower of London harking back to times when the monarchy needed hard currency to fight wars and keep the peasants under control (a bit like these days).


Nice art commissions dot the site too with the famous menagerie of animals that were kept there represented as chicken wires sculptures.


Vivid cannon detail belies an energetic creative streak in the casting designers.  Who knew?


Stunning contrast – ancient and modern in stark relief.


If you didn’t believe me about Henry VI, here’s the proof…kind of.


Loving the detailing and craftsmanship on another of Henry VIII’s suits.


In many of the towers there is ancient graffiti left by prisoners awaiting their fate in either the torture chamber or the executioner’s block.

Named after the Tower or actually its towers, mmm. Not sure, any ideas?


Blood and the shard. There’s something poignantly beautiful happening at The Tower of London…


Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

The evolving installation by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper, will be unveiled on 5 August 2014; one hundred years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the First World War.

Entitled ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, the installation is being created in the Tower’s famous dry moat. It will continue to grow throughout the summer until the moat is filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies, each poppy representing a British or Colonial military fatality during the war.

The poppies will encircle the Tower, creating not only a spectacular display, but also an inspiring setting for learning activities, as well as providing a location for personal reflection. The scale of the installation reflects the magnitude of such an important centenary, creating a powerful visual commemoration.

The last poppy will symbolically be planted on 11 November 2014

– See more at: http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/stories/firstworldwar/TheTowerofLondonRemembers#sthash.hxSoeBfc.dpuf

Pantone’s colour of the year 2013…


…is Emerald.


Pantone do this every year. They pick the most bizarre colour in their vast array of shades to be the upcoming colour of next year. They predict it will dominate the catwalk and be the go-to colour for designers and fashionistas. Except last year’s colour (Tangerine in case you’d forgot) wasn’t exactly the must-have Pantone swatch colour of 2012.

I expect this is more about a hook for the PR company to get the Pantone story out there. After all, I’m writing about it and it’s the kind of story journalists like.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don’t like Emerald but the descriptors that surround the colour above have the accompanying sounds of barrels being scraped. I mean, luminous and universally appealing? Not in Hull it’s not where green is an unlucky colour with the seafaring city. Good job I don’t live in Hull…


London 2012 Stamps

Like everyone, I’ve been caught up in the whirl of the most amazing Olympic Games I have seen in my lifetime. There are many, many things that have caught my imagination from the imaginative application of the controversial branding to the outstanding performances from Team GB, in particular the Yorkshire contingent.

I definitely feel like I should have tried harder to get down and see it in the flesh but the BBC coverage was so good, I genuinely felt like I was there without the hassle of trying to get home at midnight to an over priced hotel room in the wrong part of town.

I’ve written before about stamps and I have to say The Royal Mail‘s decision to produce a stamp for each gold medal winner was inspired. To top it all the gold post boxes were a touch of PR genius. The stamps themselves aren’t the best design job in the world – perhaps they were a bit of rush job – but the idea is lovely and what better way to get people talking about stamps and postage again after a tough period for the postage business.

Here’s a few of them, starting with my favourite gold medal win of them all, Leeds’ Nicola Adams first ever women’s boxing gold.

Get stuffed in West Leeds

As part of our local Festival I love West Leeds there was the opportunity to have a stuffed animal living with you in your home for a week. There was something about this idea that I liked and I when I saw the list of animals on offer, I really fancied the barn owl. So I applied to the Get Stuffed project and a couple of weeks later a barn owl was delivered to our house.

The lovely wife and difficult daughter were quite frankly weirded out by the whole thing and looked at me like I was deranged as I set him up in the conservatory, cruelly allowing him a view of the trees without actually screeching in them. He (we think he’s a he but not sure) is a magnificent specimen set in a beautiful pose showing off the size of his wings and his comparatively small body. I christened him Leodis – the old roman name for Leeds, a city that features owls prominently on its coat of arms.

I was determined to integrate him into my life and planned a few visits during the week that would create a nice story to tell as part of the project. There is an exhibition planned at the beginning of the festival in July – worth keeping an eye out for. In the meantime, here’s a few sneak peeks of what Leodis got up to during his stay…

Our Monarch as a Pantone swatch

I liked this cheeky celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and Pantone‘s 60 years of helping designers and printers get the colours right every time. It was produced by ad agency Leo Burnett in London – I must say I would have liked to get my hands on a swatch.

Wonder if the actual colour of the frock Her Majesty wore on the day is in there?

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Me and my big mouth


As we’re getting near the end of the year, I’m trying to round up a few stray posts that I thought you may have missed. This post recounts a rather memorable hour or two in the genteel surroundings of Ilkley’s Kings Hall.

After a lot of effort, I managed to blag a free ticket for the Ilkley Literature Festival to see John Cooper Clarke (in mitigation, I thought it was sold out). You may have seen a version of this post on Culture Vultures, but I’ve been thinking about The Bard of Salford a bit recently. And I’ve chuckled to myself about some of his lines, so I thought it worth a re-visit.

I first encountered JCC at Leeds University Refectory in 1979 as part of a punk poet triple bill which included Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah (I think) and back then, he was at the forefront of shaking everything up: if musicians can tear up the musical rulebook, then why can’t writers and poets do the same? This ethos underpinned everything he did at the time and as far as I can tell, everything since then. It was a weird evening for a young art student from Bramley I can tell you, but it was the beginning of a journey for me.

These days, JCC’s work packs less of a punch because there is so much of this kind of writing out there being performed and it’s easy to forget what a visceral thrill his work was back in the late seventies and early eighties. We were easily shocked back then. JCC was the complete package: stick thin demeanor, sunglasses all the time, huge vocabulary of swearwords and an impeccable working class background from Salford.

I saw him live a couple of times and over the years, always loved his work but kind of lost touch with his newer work. When I saw that he was appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival this year, I got it into my head that I had to go see him. After re-acquainting myself with some of his greatest hits, I headed across to Ilkley to see what’s become of him.

His act has developed from the relentless machine gun delivery of poetry of old into a more relaxed, conversational – almost stand-up comedy act. At first the slow pace of this is hard to get used to but his genuinely funny stories and one liners add light and shade to his act and do allow the poems to shine.

He’s as gloriously potty-mouthed as he always was and there was plenty for the Ilkley crowd to laugh about too. One particular location-based gag around the requirement to wear head-gear when visiting Ilkley Moor being ‘Otley Disputed went down a storm and we were in his hands from there on in.

Delivering only a handful of poems and lots of anecdotes, it seemed like this was a show that had been cut in half. The show started at 7.30, was finished with the encore by 8.45 and seemed to be just getting going – but that’s a small criticism. The old adage of leaving ‘em wanting more was never truer this evening.

When JCC did let rip with some of his well-known poems – ‘Hire Car’, ‘Beasley Street’ and the symmetrically superb ‘Beasley Boulevard’ he was really on form. A couple of new poems included a hilarious diatribe against U2’s frontman called ‘Bongo’s Trousers’ and a tickly chested ‘Guest List’ (JCC hadn’t been well, ladies and gentlemen, but he was here, for us all, laughing through the tears).

The performance was also being signed for deaf people and the signer on stage deserves an award for what has to the fastest signing I’ve ever seen. Although I couldn’t be sure that she was keeping up, it looked pretty sharp.

As the audience filed out, there were a lot of delighted faces, clearly not sure what to expect but very pleasantly surprised. Although I was captivated by the show, I would have liked to have seen more poems and I suspect that this was more about JCC getting caught out with the timings of an early, shorter show than anything else.

One reviewer recently insisted JCC had to decide whether he was a stand-up or a poet. I don’t agree. Both can work together if the balance is right. Although I would have dearly loved to see him perform ‘Kung Fu International’, ‘I married a monster from outer space’, ‘Evidently chickentown’ or even ‘Twat’, that gives me another reason to go see him again when he comes to Yorkshire again.

By the way, the title of this post refers to the first JCC album I ever bought on vinyl when I was at Jacob Kramer College of Art in Leeds. The album cover is at the top of the post and although a ‘compilation’ of sorts, it was truly an eye opener for me.


Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of 9/11. You won’t thank me for telling you that as by now you’ll have seen enough commemorative material to last until the next tenth anniversary.

For me, 9/11 still manages to shock and move me like it did ten years ago. The visceral power of the images and emotion of the stories of that fateful day has not been lost over the past decade. The pain is still raw in New York and this translates across the Atlantic quite readily – I’ve been searching for a suitable post to mark the anniversary and I think I’ve found it.

Pentagram are a world-famous design company and they produce specially printed materials to promote themselves and these are always pretty special. Here’s what they created to commemorate the tenth 9/11 anniversary, it’s stunning.

Starting in 1978, Judith Turner began photographing the twin towers of the recently completed World Trade Center.

Turner, whose iconic images helped to establish the reputations of the generation of postwar modernist architects that included Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey and Peter Eisenman, was taken with the structural simplicity and abstract beauty of architect Minoru Yamasaki’s masterwork. Turner returned to the World Trade Center repeatedly over the next decade, conducting a personal project to document the towers’ elemental forms against the sky and in the surface reflections of surrounding buildings.

To mark the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center, 23 of these images have been published for the first time in Pentagram Papers 41: WTC. The suite of images is accompanied by a preface by legendary tightrope artist Philippe Petit. (On August 7, 1974, Petit walked a high wire illegally stretched between the twin towers, a feat chronicled in his book To Reach the Clouds, the basis of the 2008 Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire, as well as an upcoming feature film, The Walk.)

The Pentagram Papers series has been privately published since 1974 for the firm’s friends and colleagues. For this special edition, a limited number of copies are available for $20 each, with all proceeds to be donated to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Contact info@pentagram.com for details.

Footnote: Although I visited New York a couple of times before 9/11, I never went up WTC. Both times I went, work colleagues implored me to do it ‘because we live her and never have the time’. Both times I ran out of time and never went to the top. I visited New York a few weeks after 9/11 and surveying the hole in the ground that was Ground Zero, wished I’d found the time to go to the top of the magnificent towers.