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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Letraset Action Transfers

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You know when you see something and you’re instantly transferred to another time?

Yeah, that thing.

Rub down transfers (those of you who are young please bear with me) took many form over the years. Professional lettering, decals on models and the long-lost art of panorama rub down transfers. It sounds the most bonkers idea in the world but as kids we would get these sets of pre printed background onto which we would creatively apply transfers.

I know, mental.

All of our favourite characters were drafted into action: Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds, Tarzan, Planet of the Apes, Space:1999 or Star Trek. Mundane commercial art-based backgrounds were provided on a fold out piece of card and it was our job to carefully apply transfers on to the background. This was fraught with difficulty of course. If you used a pencil that was too sharp it created an indent in the plastic that would result in a broken ape arm or a displaced phaser. Over time we cultivated rounded, blunt pencils that transferred the image flawlessly on to the backdrop careful not to ruin the gold dusted, magical transfer.

Brought up on comics, this gave me the freedom to imagine what it might be like to create our own stories. OK it was very limited, but we got a taste for it. Action Transfers (a Waddingtons games brand) was a birthday or Christmas staple, never the first thing to play with but always one for later, when the excitement had died down. It was odd that we could always tell they weren’t drawn by our favourite artists or even vaguely look like the characters we knew and loved but somehow it didn’t matter. The technology was rudimentary but we worked with it, there was nothing else to do.

Later when I trained as graphic designer, the technology of course had moved on and we were using transfers for high end typography using skills that have pretty much vanished.

Little did I know that as a fledgling designer I’d be using rub down skills honed under the bed covers, by torchlight, on a council estate in Leeds?

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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My apes obsession is well documented on this blog and I make no apologies for the adulation in this post. When I first saw Planet of the Apes on TV in the seventies I was actually coming to the simian party pretty late. Little did I know at that time that there were five movies that had already preceded the television series.

Boy was I in for a treat.

The TV series was cancelled in the first season due to poor audience figures in the US although it was a smash hit in the UK. Apes mania hit the UK in the mid to late seventies. I know. That sounds like a ridiculous statement but it was true. Apes were everywhere: TV, live performances, games, models, games, clothing. It was a real teenybopper phenomenon. Or at least that the way this 12 year old remembers it.

Then came the re-runs of the movies in the cinemas. Imagine these days multiplexes running movies that were five years old?/ Of course this was just before the age of VHS and an age before streaming and on demand. It actually seems weird just writing about how antiquated and in control the film and TV studios were in those days. But the films were mind-blowing to me at once adult and violent but at the same time familiar and vivid thanks to Galen, Burke and Virdon in the TV series.

 

 

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The movies are patchy of course ranging from the taut sixties sci fi of the original with Charlton Heston to increasingly low budgets leading to diminishing returns. I read recently that each ape movie played to society’s fears in each ear and it’s true, they tackle nuclear war, racism, slavery, liberalism, vivisection and all out trepidation for our future.

Tim Burton rebooted the franchise badly a few years ago (how did one of my favourite directors get that so badly wrong) but the recent back to basics approach with the movies is golden. Rise of The Planet of the Apes just appeared with no fanfare, almost like the studio was embarrassed by it but it was a huge success, paving the way for this years’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Technology in movie making has meant that we now have Andy Serkis motion capture apes as opposed to John Chamber’s outstanding make up for actors. I love both and at the time we marvelled at the make up and now we don’t even notice that the apes are all CGI, which is testament to the creativity and skills at play. Incidentally, John Chambers also created disguise kits for the CIA as well as Cornelius’s muzzle, I’d like to see CGI do that…but maybe there’s an entire movie franchise in that idea.

I always think a director has you in the palm of his hand when you are rooting for the apes and not the humans and this is what happens in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. There are lots of nods and winks to the old movies (the main orang-utan is called Maurice, a loving nod to Maurice Colman who played Dr Zaius…apologies, I could go on) but the main thrust of the movie is decidedly modern and of its time. Fast, visceral, epic and engaging — this is a summer blockbuster for the masses but doesn’t flinch from delivering hefty moralistic messaging for both apes and men.

Of course the sequel is set up perfectly and I’m sure they are storyboarding as we speak and Andy Serkis is suiting up and you know what?

I can’t wait.

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Notebook

I love a good notebook.

And this one is no exception.

I’ve added it to my collection and yes, I have started using it.

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The Lancaster bomber

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The second world war loomed large in our house growing up. Thinking about it, I was born just twenty years after the war finished and although my dad was too young to fight in it (he did national service in Libya) he was obsessed by all things military. In truth, I think most of the country was still a little bit obsessed by the war and its long shadows, still creating darkness twenty years on.

For me personally, this translated in to a deep fascination of the machinery of war. Writing that it does sound completely bonkers and obsessing over everything man created to help him kill his fellow-man does sound like the first stage of a seriously deranged personality. But we were all at it. Planes, tanks, ships, submarines, guns, uniforms—every aspect of the kit of war was minutely observed and collected. Scrapbooks, model kits, films, books, magazines. These days it would be bona fide OCD, but back then it was normal.

Every detail was scrutinised and oddly there were no residual difficulties collecting and studying our old enemies—in fact, the Germans and Japanese had more kudos, the passing years allowing more than a grudging respect for their superior kit and machinery. British gear was unglamorous and got the job done, reflecting our threadbare resources perhaps and of course American machinery was supremely glamorous and flashy.

But we did have our icons and one of those was the Avro Lancaster bomber. Immortalised by the famous Dambusters raid, the Lancaster caught our imagination. The film perpetuated the myth and the brave chaps dropping bouncing bombs, behind enemy lines, against the odds, all played to our fertile imaginations. Of course we loved the rakish Spitfire and its never say die Battle of Britain pilots, but there was something of the yeoman about the Lancaster. It was the heaviest bomber ever built and compared to its ugly predecessors it looked stylish and imposing.

Of course, we easily brushed under the carpet the true nature of the Lancaster: its ability to deliver the heaviest payload of bombs due to its long, unobstructed bomb bay, the 12,000 lb blockbuster bombs that could—and would—level entire neighbourhoods.

The perspective of time has left us with a peculiar relationship with the Lancaster bomber. It’s still a much-loved, iconic aeroplane that is closely associated with our pride in our air force and the part it played in shortening the second world war. But to modern tastes, Bomber Command‘s controversial tactics of targeting civilian targets makes us wring our hands and get all squeamish about what happened.

Standing underneath a real Lancaster bomber earlier this week at the RAF Museum was something I’ve never done in my life (a lifelong ambition) and, listening to the guided tour, the true nature of the machine became clear. A proud and noble construction, a design classic, boys own stuff, over 100 sorties each balancing life and death on a knife-edge, delivering death and destruction. It’s easy for me to marvel at the fabric of the plane itself—I know the parts intimately after building countless Airfix model kits, the fiddly gun turrets, the clear plastic canopies that if glue got on them would be milkily opaque and of no use to the gunners. It’s also easy to admire the bravery of the crew, who statistically were more likely to die than an infantryman in the trenches of World War 1.

It was with mixed feelings we left the cavernous bomber hall, housing the death delivering giants. All of them childhood heroes in a way; iconic shapes, familiar, glamorous. A realisation of the true nature of the beasts, but still the childhood adulation, this time tempered with respect and humility.

 

 

Futuristic Retro

I’m loving the styling of the new Nikon Df, it’s both retro and futuristic at the same time. Interesting to see that they are using the tag line ‘fall in love with photography again’. The 35mm SLR styling is clearly more than a nod to photographers of a certain age – i.e. me – who cut their teeth on film based SLR photography and kind of miss it. The price point is clearly positioning the camera in the ‘well off boy’s toys’ bracket too at an eye watering £2,400. It looks beautiful though…

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The aluminium and black styling looks effortlessly stylish and the crisp lines and detailing takes me right back to my early days with a camera in hand. My very first SLR camera was a Ricoh KR10, which was one of the first all black models. I do remember coveting the far more expensive (and therefore out of my price range) Pentax K1000, which had the traditional silver/black finish. I remember my parents buying me the Ricoh for Art College at the princely sum of £110, which back in 1980 was a lot of money, but as far as our budget could stretch. When I look at what cameras cost these days, £110 was quite a lot of money (that reminds me: I must phone my dad, remind him about it and thank him, again).

 

You can see the styling of the latest Nikon harks back to a cleaner, straighter aesthetic evident in the Pentax K1000. It’s nice to see design going full circle (just like skirt lengths or trouser widths I guess) and although a lot of revisions is due to designer whim,  classic and timeless design never really goes out of fashion.

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Interesting to see below how my old KR10 isn’t quite as beautiful as the Pentax (although it was camera of the year I might add rather protectively) but the styling and proportions aren’t perfect. The black looked uber cool at the time where most of the cameras were ironically black and silver.

I still loved that camera, mind – it took some of the best photographs of my life and was built to last: it had a reliability and heft in the hand that was reassuring and was virtually bulletproof. The Ricoh KR10 sparked a lifelong interest in image making which continues to this day.

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From kettle bells to rope and beyond…

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Earlier this year I started a training regimen that was quite frankly a shock to my system. After years of relative inactivity, I embarked on a new adventure into what I hoped would result in a fitter me.

I’ve been hard at it, at least twice a week for past few months and I have to say it is making a difference. People are saying I look different and although I don’t see the gradual improvements myself, I can definitely say it’s an improving picture! My PT sessions continue to be strenuous and never seem to get any easier and I guess if they did, then Philip (my personal trainer) wouldn’t be doing his job would he? Recovery times have definitely improved and where I struggled to drive my car after the first sessions, I’m now more or less fully recovered after a day or so.

After embarking on this regimen, I bought a Nike Fuel band and this has really helped me to stay focused on achieving my goals on a day-to-day basis. This neat gadget tells you how active you’ve been by using an accelerometer to measure the movement of your body, which it turns into fuel points for you to accrue. It’s very motivational and combined with the training, it’s helped me keep momentum. As it stands right now, I’m on a 61 day unbeaten run where I’ve hit my goals every day.

I’ve even bought my own boxing gloves and wraps, such is my pugilistic enthusiasm for weekly boxing pad sessions. Your own gloves make a huge difference in boxing as the gym gloves are ill-fitting and smell really bad. The wraps go under the gloves and they give you the confidence to hit the pads hard without hurting your wrists. The gloves, although entry-level training affairs are great too, well padded and impressively branded by Everlast.

If you’d have told me in January that I’d have my own boxing gloves and I was quantifying my exercise using a wrist device, I’d have thought you mad!

The key driver for me has been the trainings sessions, with each session different and seemingly getting harder than the last. There’s a marked difference for me when I go to the gym alone, left to my own devices I have a good workout but never push myself to the very limit. It’s certainly not in my psyche to drive myself to the edge and over it as I see in other people. I fully accept I need spurring on and I’m completely fine with that. Augmenting training sessions with mini workouts suits me just fine at the moment due to my current lifestyle.

I said at the outset I just wanted to get fit and I think I’m on the journey there with some way to go. I’d like to think by the time I hit 50 in December this year, I’ll be even further down the track. Watch this space…

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