Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Around the table with...David Wyatt.

Born in 1968, David Wyatt was raised in West Sussex, studied art in Reading, and began his professional career illustrating comics while he was still in his teens. After a short stint touring with a rock band, he moved to Dartmoor and returned to painting full-time, specializing in illustrations for fantasy books for both children and adults. He is best known as the illustrator of "Peter Pan in Scarlet" (the authorized Peter Pan sequel), and of the "Larklight" series by author Philip Reeve, but he has also illustrated books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Brian Jacques, Terry Dreary, Katherine Langrish, and many others. David lives in a small village at the edge of Dartmoor, and is a keen lutist, cyclist, tango dancer, and wanderer of the moors. For more information, please visit his website and blog.

Howard, David, Rex and Tilly.

H - So, David, thank you for coming. 
D - I noticed in your last post there was a spelling mistake: grape-growling.
R - That's not a mistake. That's how the Vandeborre Bacchus Tarot describes Bacchas, as the Roman god of grape-growling.
H - What is grape-growling?
R – Being horribly drunk.
H - 'Horribly' drunk?
R - Yes, horribly. Grape-growling is an 18th century phrase for being outrageously drunk….
H - Good word. Now, let’s start. At the end of our post, a posse ad esse, two weeks ago, we had a Comment from an Anonymous reader asking questions about where inspiration comes from.
D - That was me. I was Anonymous! I was trying to glean some insights!
H - Really?
D – Well, no, not really.
H – Okay, I'm a little confused…were you Anonymous or not?
D - No, I am not anonymous. My name is David Wyatt!
H – Right. I’m even more confused. Let’s get back to some semblance of, er, some semblance of something: The Comment, whom-so-ever it was made by, posed the question: ‘Where does inspiration come from?’ When you do your own drawings and paintings, David, as opposed to when you are illustrating a book, can you describe the way that inspiration comes to you? Does the process of finding inspiration follow any kind of pattern?
D - It does at the moment, and it is mostly based on wandering around Dartmoor, looking at the landscape. I get hundreds of ideas, all the time. They tend to bubble around in my subconscious for a while, and then they just come out.... 
The Gidleigh Goat.
H – Is it that you see an inspiring scene – a picturesque old tree, for example, or a crumbling stone wall --  and then the idea for a painting comes into your mind? I am thinking, in particular, of your picture Gidleigh Goat. I love that one!
D - He's part of a series of 'local characters'. Each of the paintings is inspired by a certain rock or gate, or the way light falls on a hill. Something about those scenes sparked something in me; these strange ideas occur to me, and then I have to draw them. It's almost a form of therapy for me, rather than a commercial venture like book illustration. It’s for my own amusement, really.
H – So the image appears full-blown in your mind when you see a scene in the physical world that sparks your imagination?  
D - Yes, often, especially with the Dartmoor related ones. It's like, bang, and there's the idea. Sometimes, then, I'll need to work out the technical layout or whatever, but basically the idea comes straight away.
H - Would you say, then, that inspiration is a thing that comes from outside you, from the land or whatever it is you're looking at, or is it something that comes from within you, a bit of your imagination that is just waiting to be sparked off?”   
Care for a Biscuit?
D – A bit of both, I think. I see something, and then something deep within me responds to it. With the 'local characters' series, it's also like I'm creating a story -- each picture is telling a story. Each character has a background, a life. They are stories that just haven’t been written yet. 
R - I know you're a fan of Frank Frazetta, David. Frazetta was once commissioned to paint a piece of book cover art, and then a book was written based on the painting!  Perhaps that could happen to you?
D - That would be lovely! 
H - Who’s Frank Rozetta?
R - What? Who’s Frank Rozetta? Howard, my friend, don’t write down that you don’t know who Frank Frazetta is, because people will physically attack you. 
H – Okay, okay. So who is he?
R - David can answer that question. 
D - No, Rex, you brought him up, you answer.
R – Frank Frazetta died last year, and he was God. He started the whole genre of fantasy illustration…
D - He started off the genre of sword-and-sorcery illustrations, Rex, not fantasy as a whole.
R – Look at his illustrations for the Conan series! The man was genius!
H – Well now I feel like I’ve stumbled into a Frank Frazetta Anonymous meeting! Dave, you used to work in comics, is that true?
D - Yes, I did start out in comics, drawing for 2000 AD back in the '80s. I loved comics when I was growing up, and I wanted to be a comic book illustrator. And I was, when I was 16, but it turned out that I wasn’t that good at it.
R - You’re so modest, Dave. 
H - Unlike you, Rex....
D - No, no, it's true! I really wasn't very good.
H – How could you be a bad comics illustrator when you're such a good book illustrator?
Peter Pan in Scarlet Cover.
D – Well, at that time, comics had suddenly gone to a whole new level of being, in terms of writing, and imagery…
R – Yes, colour had just taken off.
D – The early '80s was like a golden age for comics, and I wasn’t up to the job. 
H - Do you mean speed-wise? Rex and I have talked about the necessity for speed in drawing comics, and he has an amazing ability to knock anything off.
R - You make me sound like a thief, Howard!
D – No, it wasn't the speed. I can draw pretty quickly. In retrospect, I think the problem was that I needed to find my own style. At that age, I kept looking at other artists that I liked—at 19th century painters as well as modern book illustrators and comic artists—and I was trying to absorb their styles and ways of working. It was only later on that I discovered my own way. Maybe I just needed more time to do that.
H – Terri [my wife] was talking about that exact subject recently on her 'Drawing Board' blog, sparked by something that Didier Graffet said when he sat 'Around the table' with us last month....  

D - Yes, I remember reading the Didier interview, and Terri’s post about it. My take on the subject of influence is that I was obsessed with technique and style when I was young, and this dominated how I worked. It was almost like I was trying to 'channel' the technique of these other artists. I was obsessed with getting things perfect. Eventually I realised that, in truth, you could give any of the artists I admired a burnt twig to draw with and they would each come up with something different and brilliant. Not because of their dazzling technique, but because they were simply expressing themselves. I realised that the way you make a mark on paper is, and has to be, specific to you. You can add all sorts of technique, but that's just the icing on the cake, really. It took a while for me to understand that once all the technique was stripped away, the art came from them, from inside them.

Illustration from the Ballad of Old Goat and Heron. 
H - So at some point you discovered your own way of drawing?

D - Yes. It's hard to pin down exactly when that occurred. You don’t wake up one day and suddenly think: I've got it! This is the way forward! I still ‘channel’ things, bits of technique I've learned from the work of other artists, but now it gets mixed up in my own creative soup. When I was young, I was  spending too much time thinking: How would so-and-so do this? Like Didier said, sometimes you have to avoid looking at other work to avoid being too influenced.
H - Rex, don't you have any questions you’d like to ask David? 
R – Yes, in fact, I do have a question. David, what was it like to move to a village where some of the artists who influenced you when you were younger are now your neighbors? I'm thinking of Alan Lee and Brian Froud, for example. There is a saying that you should never meet your idols because they are bound to disappoint you. So how do you find it, living here?
D - I think if I had come here when I was twenty, I would have been overwhelmed. I don’t feel oppressed by other talent now, though. When I was younger, I thought: What’s the point in doing anything? After hundreds of years of amazing art, and all these brilliant modern artists, what is the point in me doing anything? But now I know that everybody goes through this. I talk with the artists that I admire and they all have the same grumbles as me; we're not alien in terms of our experiences, and they are only human. I have stuff inside me that has to come out, and that has to come out in my own style. Rather than feeling oppressed by all the great art out there, I'm glad now to think that there is a long line, a long tradition, in British illustration, and that I am a minnow in that river and happy to swim along.
Illustration from Philip Reeve's Larklight
H – Having reached this point of success as a painter and illustrator, do you still find ways to challenge yourself? In terms of learning new techniques, for example?
D - What surprises me is that just as you think you have seen and done it all, there is always something to discover: a new artist, a new approach, an entirely fresh idea that you haven’t seen done a thousand times before. I never get bored with looking at art. There is always something I can respond to, in my own way. I tend to compete with myself, though, rather than other artists. I look at my work and think to myself, for example: I can draw that hand better. I don’t rest on my laurels, I keep trying to move forward -- but it doesn't feel like such a huge mountain now. It's a pleasant journey.
R – It seems to me that there comes a point, as an artist, when you know that you're able to represent things proficiently, in a technical sense, and from that point onwards the only thing that matters is how you personally interpret those things...which is the aspect of art-making that comes from your soul or your spirit. Does that make sense to you, Dave?
D - Yes. You may know that you have drawn a nose slightly wrong, but you realise that it doesn’t matter. It is more about the basic idea you're trying to express, rather than worrying about whether or not you have the skill to express it. 
H – Another thing that Terri has been writing about on her blog is that there are different stages in an artist's life: first you are an apprentice, and then a journeyman, and then eventually, for the persevering few, a master. This comes from medieval craft and trade guilds, and we don’t have those concepts much now -- but I think they can be important, so that you have an idea of where you're at on your journey. Knowing which stage of life you're in helps you to know, in a sense, what you should be concerned about with your art.
The Throne.
D – But it's difficult to be self-aware like that, Howard. It's not like the old days when there were actually apprenticeships in these things. You get a few years at college and then you're thrown out into the real world. You have to somehow find work, or you starve. But that sink-or-swim process can be useful in its own right. When I first started out, I was doing well one minute, and then suddenly I’d think: Oh no, where is the next job coming from? It taught me how to work, and work hard, and that's half the battle.
H - I think that what you've just described is, in many ways, the 'apprenticeship stage' in our modern world! But it's the underlying concept I’m talking about, the philosophical concept of the 'artistic journey' as a narrative of change. You start as an apprentice, copying others; and then there comes a time when you have to go out on your own as the journeyman, and find your own style; and then, at some point, hopefully, you become a master of your art.
D – In retrospect, you can probably look back and fit different parts of your career into those neat categories -- but in reality, I think there are probably bits of all those characters -- apprentice, journeyman, and master -- in us all the time.
H - Well, we’re out of time now, and we're out of croissants. What’s your favorite song, Dave?
D - It's Smenco Horo, by the Irish band Planxty.
H - Okay, let’s spin that tune... 


  1. Came over here via Terri's blog. Just want to say that I love what you're doing with this interview series, and with your blog as a whole.

    - Jon (from Los Angeles)

  2. Enjoyed the interview very much. And the song rocks! When it first started I was sure it was Greek or Bulgarian.... interesting, I'm off to google Planxty.

  3. Great interview! lovely to find more out about the man behind the fabulous art....