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.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Around the table with...Alan Lee. Part 2

H – Alan, you could have been a gallery artist, but you chose to go into illustration instead. Your art is almost always linked to stories: to text by authors like Rosemary Sutcliff or J.R.R. Tolkien, or to Greek, Celtic, and Arthurian myth. When you're not illustrating a particular text, do you still view your individual pictures as telling a story? You talked about capturing the essence of a landscape. Does this 'essence' always tell a story?
A - I think so, yes. When I draw something, I try to build some kind of history into it. Drawing an object that has a certain amount of wear and tear or rust; or a tree that is damaged. I love trying to render not just the object, but what it has been through.
H - So you are trying to capture time, in a way?
A – Yes. For instance, when you're drawing an old tree, you’re finding the story of that particular tree, where a limb may have been chopped off at one point, and the bark has grown around the wound. . . or a willow has grown so top-heavy that it has fallen and the trunk is lying on the ground, and the branches have started to shoot up again. You're drawing what you're seeing in front of you, but you are also drawing something that has been there for a hundred years or so. . .and I just find that fascinating. I spend quite a bit of time in my garden, just looking at trees. I spend a lot of time day-dreaming, actually. Sitting on a river bank, and drawing the river, or a bit of tree where a flood has come and lifted it up so you see the roots. And I just love that. It's almost like an excavation of the landscape.
H – One of the reasons that I like the Devonian landscape is that it has a sense of what I would call 'process' going on in it: you see the roots of the trees in the banks, gripping layers of earth and stone accumulated over time; it’s really magical. I can’t define why, it just seems magical. I guess it’s because crumbling walls and gnarled roots lead to the places of the imagination. In shamanic practice, there is that idea of finding a hole in the ground down which you travel into the spirit world or the depths of the psyche. Those holes provide access to a level of imagination and consciousness....
R - The lower world.
H - Yes, the lower world. 
A - There are certain places that I keep going back to. There's a stretch of river, not far from where Brian Froud lives, that I keep going back to. There was one little tree that had fallen, and some shoots that had started to come up from it, and I photographed it, and did some drawings of it. Then I went back five years later, and those little shoots had become saplings. Then five years later, they were trees. I have been drawing that particular tree, that meter square area over the course of 30-odd years.
H - It’s like a time-lapse illustration!
A – Yes! I can get really happy just looking at a weed or a sapling  growing in a crack in a wall....
H - Me too. There is a sense that life just ... is. It will always find some way to exist.
A - It's nature's momentum towards diversity and growth.
R – Well, if I see little bits of weed in a wall, I just pull them out. They make me really angry! Like graffiti.
H – So weeds are nature’s graffiti, eh, Rex?
R – Yes, and it's wrong! It's entirely wrong.
A - You can stay out of my garden then!
H - Getting back to the relationship of art to landscape:  Alan, you’ve spent a lot of time in New Zealand over the past several years. Has that started to affect your work? Is your art still rooted in Devon, or is it being influenced by the new landscape?
A - The strange thing about being in New Zealand: It's a strikingly beautiful landscape, particularly the South Island with its mountains, and I’ve been photographing a lot, and putting those landscapes into the films, but I haven’t been inspired to do any watercolours based on the New Zealand landscape.
H - Is that because you don’t have the time, due to rigours of the film schedule?
A - It's not only that; it's also to do with the medium. Watercolour is such an English thing, perfect for capturing the wet and sodden, and clouds scudding across the sky. . . but I find that cameras are much better at capturing New Zealand.
H - Watercolour is your main painting medium?
A – Yes. The other mediums I like to work in are pencil and charcoal – but I find they don’t really work for capturing New Zealand either. British hedgerows, for example, are so rich and diverse, but in New Zealand a hedge is just one kind of plant that’s been put there by farmers as a wind block. There are wonderful views and forests in New Zealand. . .but there is something so rich about the landscape here in Devon, where I know the history. People have walked down these same paths for thousands of years.
H – I used to travel a great deal with my theatre company, and I find that when I travel I change a lot. I am a very different person when I go to France; and another different person when I go to Spain. Perhaps that's because I am an actor, and I just transform into someone else. I exist in different ways within different cultures. So it’s interesting to me that you don’t go to New Zealand and say: “I’m determined to paint in watercolours, even if the medium doesn’t work here.” Using a camera seems to allow you to find a different part of yourself to explore.
H - Have you ever tried oil painting?
A - I've tried oil and acrylics. I find my automatic process makes me treat them as if they were watercolours --
R - I can see how that would be problematic!
A -  -- so I tend to work quite thinly and build up in washes. But I love oil painting. I do have a bit of a problem with the smell. I get quite giddy.
R - That’s all part of the process.
A - The interesting thing is that watercolour would generally be thought of as more immediate, and temporary, whereas oil would be reserved for a major painting. So you might do an initial sketch in watercolour and then paint in oil. But I do it the other way 'round quite often: I’ll do a sketch in oil for a watercolour painting. And the reason is that very often I find myself drawn into the same habits; I’ll reach automatically for the same colours, whether its oil paint or watercolour, and then I'll go through the same process each time, so they tend to end up the same. In order to find a way of getting to something different, starting off with a rough sketch in oil -- where you work out the various tones and composition -- gives you a model you can work from in watercolour. 
H - So, if you start with a medium that you don’t use all the time, that automatically makes different ideas come out? 
A – Yeah, it adds a kind of uncontrollable random factor. . . which is certainly present anyway in watercolour, to a large extent, which is what I like about it. It’s a kind of conversation with the medium, rather than forcing the medium to obey your will and conform to the image you have in your mind. With watercolour, you put on a pool of colour and splash water into it, and it will flow in a particular way that suggests the next action. . . so there is that intuitive automatic element that I like. But still, being able to break habits is a good thing to do occasionally. So sometimes I’ll do a rough in Photoshop, for example.
H - That was the next question that I was going to ask, because another topic that has been coming up in our conversations is about artists working directly on computer. Do you do that?
A - Yes I do, particularly if I'm working on a film. In film, you're dealing with photographic elements, so there just doesn’t seem to be any point in producing a watercolour painting, which would then need to be turned into digital form anyway. So when I was working on Lord of the Rings, I picked up Photoshop. It was a very steep learning curve, because I'd never owned a computer, or even sent an email.
H - And you found you were happy with it?
A - Yes, I picked it up very quickly. Mainly because I was doing it all day, every day, for about three years.
R – Wow. Very proficient.
A - And I quite enjoy it. I enjoy the way that you can change things without committing to anything, which appeals to my indecisive nature. You can put on an extra layer, then take it off. It is also a nice way of doing a rough that is going to end up as a watercolour, so you can arrive at something that is slightly out of your comfort zone. Then when you do apply the skills of watercolour, it is just that little bit different, and fresher.
R – I want to introduce a new subject, and I know it's one you'll like. What about tango, Alan? Are you still dancing out in New Zealand?
A - Yes, very much so. It’s a huge part of my life now.
R – When you were talking earlier about story and myth, I was wondering if you relate tango to these things -- because Argentinian tango is a very improvisational dance form, isn’t it? Do you find you are telling a story when you dance with a partner. . .or am I just being fanciful?
A – There is a storytelling element in there. The tango form is a little like the blues in that you have a kind of structure. It’s not as rigid as twelve bar, but it's very much a storytelling medium -- and there’s an element of call-and-response, and a particular arc in the musical form, that suggest a story. It's about being in the moment, with the music; and responding to your partner, and the particular feeling and momentum in her body in any one moment. It’s a very concentrated thing; you can’t think about anything else while you are doing it. If you try to hold a conversation, it just kind of falls apart. The music was what really drew me into tango. Everyone knows a few of the more popular tango classics, but once you get into it, there’s such a rich field. It’s astonishing, this kind of miraculous musical form that developed in a very small locality: two cities on either side of the River Plate, in Argentina and Urugauy. It started in the 1880s or '90s, and there are all kinds of mysteries, myths and stories, about how tango started and developed. It was first of all considered really low-life, almost reptilian. Something to be avoided and not talked about. And then it became this word wide phenomena. . .and I could go on talking about tango forever. . . . 
R - I knew you enjoyed it. As an artist, everything feeds one’s art, doesn’t it? I'd assumed that was the case with you and tango, and you have just very eloquently shown me that I was right. It’s exactly what I'd imagined, that sort of trance-like state that you achieve when you dance.
A - Yes, but its also to do with movement. I try to get that into my pictures: a sense of movement, something flowing through. A while ago, I realised how much I'd been drawing dancing figures in the corners of my sketchbooks for years before I discovered tango!
H – It seems that tango combines two things in your art that we have touched on in this chat: First, you've talked about drawing a tree and having that sense of oneness and essence, and you clearly find in tango too. You've also talked about trying to draw swirling eddies in a stream, trying to capture that movement. It is almost like that oneness and movement has come off the page and into your life in the form of tango. You are famous around here now probably as much for your love of tango as for your art….
R - I’d say notorious.
A - Notorious? That sounds good to me.
H - Alan Lee, notorious for your love of tango! That seems like a good place to end, I think. Thank you, Alan.
A - Thank you.

Alan Lee.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Around the table with...Alan Lee. Part 1

Alan Lee was born in Middlesex in 1947, studied at the Ealing College of Art, and worked as an illustrator in London before moving to Devon in 1975. He is known the world over for his illustrations for J.R.R. Tolkien's books, as well as for Faeries (with Brian Froud), Castles (with David Day),  Merlin Dreams (with Peter Dickinson), Black Ships Before Tory (with Rosemary Sutcliffe, for which he won the Kate Greenway Medal) and The Mabinogion. He is also a film designer, having worked on such films as Legend, Erik the Viking, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (for which he won an Academy Award), and, currently, The Hobbit.  When he's not on a film set, Alan works from an old stone barn in a small village on Dartmoor. His other interests include tango, playing blues guitar, and long walks through the countryside.

       H - Hello, Alan! Thank you for joining us today.
A - Hello to you both. It’s a pleasure.
H - I’d like to start today by talking about the relationship between art and landscape. It's a theme that has surfaced in many of our “Around the Table' chats -- and it's one that seems especially relevant to your art, much of which appears to be very influenced by the Devonian landscape. How conscious are you of that influence, and did it develop when you moved from London to Devon?
A – Yes, when I moved from London to Devon, it was, as much as for any other reason, to get closer to landscape. As a child, I lived on the edge of the green belt just outside London, so there were fields and trees and canals and rivers. It was quite an interesting area, but it was also a landscape that had the detritus of the town and factories spilling over into it: there were factories beside the canal, gasworks, pig farms and slaughter houses. When I look back at my work over the years, I can see there are certain things that keep cropping up. . .which perhaps is me trying to work my way through the landscape I'd lived close to as a child. My friends and I would go and hang out in an area where trees had been chopped down to make way for extra Council Houses. All the trees were piled up in one corner of the field, and they stayed there for about five or six years. It was a kind of a graveyard for these oaks, which seemed huge to me at the time. It became an area for our camps, and it felt like a slightly dangerous wilderness, where you always had to avoid other gangs of kids.
R – So Alan, you were in a gang?
A - No!
R – Ah, that’s a great shame. I was hoping you'd say you were! 
A - I was in a couple of ‘clubs’ though....
R - I see.
A - One was The Booby-trap Club. I was the prof., because the booby-traps were all my idea. The rest of the club just kind of hung out to watch me. 
H - Did the traps work?
A - Yes. Often they worked on me! 
H - What sort of traps were they?
A - Things like buckets of water poised above an archway...that sort of thing.
.R - Were they set up to catch rival club members?
A - No, just anyone.
R - Indiscriminate, then.
A – Yes...That landscape was very much to do with water: rivers, and gravel pit lakes, and canals. There was a canal just outside Uxbridge that was a resting place for narrow boats. We used to go down and find these boats: some were afloat, and some were sinking into the mud. They were just completely abandoned, so we would untie them and punt them 100 yards down the canal, and then abandon them again.
H – It makes me think of my own childhood. We lived in Gloucestershire and  we would run around as a gang of children, from the oldest at eleven, down to me at five. It was very rural, and our imaginations would be fired. There were still bomb craters in some of the woods leftover from the war, which would often make our games very war centered. When you talk about punting a barge down an abandoned canal, Alan, it makes me think of how children, left to their own devices, use their imaginations to create stories and adventures. 
A – When I was a child, it was just post-war, and there were Pill Boxes and Air Raid Shelters and a lot of cement and concrete ruins with collapsing walls. I guess they were kind of prototypes for the castles and stuff that I got interested in later on.
H – So when you found yourself drawn to myths and fantasy as an illustrator, was there a clear connection back to your childhood world? It sounds like it was a very fertile place, in the sense that your childhood landscape was imprinting images on you.
A - I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back, yes. Certain things that I enjoy drawing now I can relate to certain things in that early landscape. When I started to draw, most of my influences were from other painters and illustrators, so I was drawing landscape at second hand, really. The trees were Rackham trees, or trees that I had seen in paintings rather than from my own observation...and I started to feel this was a real lack in my work. Everything was too generalised, and not based on real experience. Then in 1975, after having worked for some years in London as a book cover illustrator mainly, I came down to Devon and stayed with some friends up on the moor. In the course of this one weekend, wandering around the moor, finding rivers and ancient woods, I realised that everything that I would ever want to draw was actually here. There was so much richness in the texture and forms of these fantastic trees...and I decided in the course of that weekend to come and live here. I looked at a couple of houses, found one, and made an offer on it, all in that one weekend!
H – Your encounter with the Dartmoor landscape must have been a deep, profound experience. You just knew, then, that this was where you had to be as an artist? 
A – Yes. I mean there were other reasons for moving here as well, to do with being fed up with London. Just finding the litter, noise, and dirt of London getting to me. 
R – Alan, I understand that you looked at the cottage that I'm currently living in!
A – Yes, it was on sale for £5000....
R - Wow. I think my current landlord paid a little more for it than that!
H - Did you notice an immediate change in your work when you moved down?
A – Yes. It happened pretty quickly. I just started walking, sketching, and taking photographs of the landscape. Brian Froud had moved here at the same time, and we started to work on a book about faeries. Brian was finding inspiration in the landscape too. We didn’t go walking together: he would go off in one direction and I would go off in the other. Brian would just walk and walk and walk, and then hide himself in his studio to work, but I'd take a sketchbook along with me. I found that just the act of carefully delineating the form of a tree, working directly from nature, meant that when I subsequently invented a tree it was more naturalistic. It was almost like programming those elements into my inner computer, and then releasing them. I found that to be a wonderful way of working, and elements of landscape in my pictures became more based on the particular.
H – Another question that's come up in our discussions with other artists is whether they consider their art and spirituality to be linked. I wonder if you feel there is a connection between your work and your understanding of spirituality? 
       A - It's certainly true that, somewhere along the way, a spiritual aspect to the act of drawing developed...although I’ve never really thought about it too much, never examined it too closely. But there is something that is a little like...reverence...when you are drawing from nature, paying very close attention to every little detail. I think it's about the idea of there being some kind of unifying connection. The word “spiritual,' to me, means ‘connection.’ 
H - Of yourself with...?
A - With the landscape, yes.

H – I would imagine that drawing and observing something in such close detail could be experienced as a form of meditation.
A - And what you are doing with all these disparate elements, by drawing in graphite in one medium, is embodying the unity that lies behind everything...so clouds, leaves, trees, water, they are all captured in a net of grey silvery lines. Maybe it's just metaphorical, but it feels like it is capturing something of the essence of landscape. Some kind of unifying thing behind matter.
H - So when you look at nature, there is an 'aliveness' there that you are also trying to capture in the picture...?
A - Yes! And very often it's elusive. For every good drawing that I have done, there are whole drawers full of drawings where I haven't quite captured what I was feeling or seeing. I spend quite a bit of time by the riverside, just drawing eddies of water around rocks. I find I don’t look at anything properly unless I'm drawing it. I try to really look, following every single shape, every line, every form. As much as anything else, drawing is a way of getting myself to really look at something. Drawing people is the same. It's a privilege to be able to sit and look at someone for an hour; to look closely and to work out what is happening with all those forms and shapes.
R - You’ve used some people in town as models for your illustrations, haven’t you?
H – Including me, in fact! 
 R – Yes, wasn't Howard the model for the cover of J.R.R. Tolkien's Children of Hurin? Did you draw him first before creating the painting?
A - No, I took photographs of him. It’s not my preferred way of working, but sometimes it's the most practical thing to do.
R - So you’d rather work from life?
A - Yes, I’d much rather work from life, or from my imagination. I don’t really enjoy working from a photograph and trying to recreate it. 
H - Rex, I've heard you say that you draw from your head, and you have to get the picture out quickly before it disappears.
R – Well yes, Howard, that's true, but that's specific to  creating storyboards for films. When I draw a storyboard, the director tells me what to sketch: a bunch of people around a table, for example, seen from a bird’s-eye view. . .or whatever. Then I “see” that image in my head, and it doesn’t necessarily last very long, so I need to hammer the drawing out quickly, before I lose the image. So, I don’t draw with the same focus and intensity as Alan does, unless the intensity comes from the story I’m telling. It’s not about looking at something to the nth degree, it’s just about getting the story across.
H – Do you also hold a picture in your head Alan? Or, does the picture reveal itself to you through the process of drawing? 
A – Very much the latter.  I often don’t have a clear idea of what I am going to be drawing when I start, unless it is for a very specific purpose. Most of the time, I just sit down and draw a line, and it isn’t really related to anything other than this vague feeling of movement or atmosphere. That line will lead to another, and then forms will start to appear, and figures will start to appear. I usually start things very intuitively, and sort of watch the process, almost as a spectator . . . and then at some point I have to think about what I'm creating, and consciously shape it. If I am doing something for a film or book illustration, then I'm also thinking about a lot of other factors, such as composition and story-telling.
H – Another thing we've been discussing with various artists is the difference between creating commercial work, where you've been asked to do a specific job, and one’s own personal work. I suppose it’s obvious, really, that there would be a difference -- and I don’t know why, but when we first started these discussions I was surprised by this! Clearly, as an illustrator or film designer, when someone gives you a brief and says 'I want you to draw such-and-such,' it's going to be a very different creative process than when you are drawing just for the sake of drawing.
A – Yes. And sometimes it’s harder, the more specific the brief, to actually stick to it, because one is constantly wanting to go off in other directions. I can really see this when I do book covers. In all my roughs and working drawings, you see these tentative lines in the middle of the page, trying to get to grips with the composition and subject...and around the edges of the page there are multitudinous cavorting figures and completely random and surreal things going on. Sometimes there's a relationship to the central drawing, because the margin sketches will have been sparked off by it. If I'm drawing a nose, for example, there will be an array of these huge, malformed, odd noses on these various creatures around the edges of the page. So a lot of the energy that I should be putting into the brief gets spent in this kind of doodling. 
H - I sometimes have a similar problem when devising theatre pieces. Often I'll start by having my cast play games, to see how they work together -- and then, through play, we'll begin to explore images, themes, and ideas in the piece. Almost always an idea will emerge that seems far more interesting than what we're supposed to be doing – and I’ll  spend far too much time developing it before I finally, reluctantly, put it aside. I love that part of the creative process: when an image or a theme appears that you weren’t expecting. But then, in the end, you have to put it aside and get back to the project at hand.
A - That’s the story of my life...

Come back next Friday for part 2 of this 'around the table' chat.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Coincidence or Zeitgeist? You decide! Part 2

H - Well, Rex, we have a follow-up to last week’s post, don’t we?
R – We do; and I have this pre-written statement: “While we've been writing our graphic novel, we've been using the term 'sky-fall' to describe an event which our protagonist is trying to prevent. Lo and behold, last Friday, the very day we posted ‘Coincidence or Zeitgeist? You decide!,’ the title of the next James Bond film was announced, and it was...Skyfall.” 
H - Hmm. Does that go beyond coincidence into espionage, do you think?
R – Well, yes. Yes I do.
H - Though our lawyers have pointed out that there should be an ‘allegedly’ in there somewhere. (NB: we have no lawyers.) 
R – But I think we should get some lawyers, fast! I can’t wait to be be in legal dispute with the biggest film franchise in the world. It will be fun, won’t it, Howard?
H - No!
R – Oh. Okay.
H – Last week we had some interesting comments on the subject of coincidences, which has lead to one of our many work-avoiding discussions. Claire Briant thought that perhaps mankind works in cycles and so ideas keep naturally cycling around. This made me think of Shakespeare’s plays, and how they remain relevant to audiences far removed from the audiences of his day. (Assuming, of course, that Shakespeare's plays were written by Shakespeare...but that's a conspiracy theory for another day.) I think it's because the plays examine such deep, archetypal work, in terms of themes and character, that these archetypal themes inevitably keep resurfacing throughout history. There will always be political intrigue, people who over-reach themselves or are lost in indecision at crucial moments. There will always be young lovers confused over love's passions, or separated by religious, family or social conventions.
R – Mermaid's comment highlighted mythological and historical figures being relevant in cycles. These figures become archetypal in our minds.
H – Ninnian Kinnear-Wilson (the mask-maker we used in my theatre company, Ophaboom) says that often people have an archetypal story that they live out, and almost as if they are helplessly tied to its plot -- which is why one often sees a public figure heading towards a car crash while seeming unable to stop it happening, even though the coming crash is glaringly obvious to everyone else. It's almost like they become the story, or the story becomes them! I used to wonder sometimes, whilst putting a Commedia mask on, whether those archetypes were hovering above the earth somehow, waiting for an actor to put on the mask so that they could play in the human world for a brief spell. Sometimes two actors, who had no knowledge of each other, would find the same voice or laugh or movement in a mask – which supports my idea. This links to Plato’s ideas about 'the plane of the ideals,' which has influenced our graphic novel, hasn’t it?
R - Yes. I'm reminded of my own experience of running myths until they are done....
H - Go on, then, do tell.
R - When I worked in advertising, I played out the myth of 'the ad-man fueled by alcohol and cocaine.' Everyone warned me this would end in tears, and I knew they were right, but I couldn’t let the myth go until it was finished with me.
H - Hmm. Was it the myth that you couldn’t let go of, Rex, or the cocaine and alcohol?
R - That’s a good question, Howard. Um….
H – Getting back to Comments on our last post: Katherine wrote about synchronicity. What do you know about that, Rex?
R - Didn’t Sting invent the word? 
H - No! Sting wrote a song about it, but the concept was originally Jung’s. Synchronicity is about events that seem to occur by chance but that actually having meaning when observed together. So what might be the meaning of the synchronicities that have surrounded our comic over the past weeks, then Rex?
R - I have no idea.
H - Might it be that we are on the right track with our novel?
R - Well, yes, obviously that.
H - Or that we are on the wrong track, and should abandon it and go back to our day jobs?
R - I don’t have a day job! This is my day job. So if I were to abandon it, and go back to my day job, I’d get caught in a paradox of my own design, from which I may never return!
H - Hm. Yes, there is that attraction. Anyway, below are some photos of your initial draft from over a year ago, Rex, mentioning sky-fall: partly to prove to our readers that we're not just making this all up in some crazy paranoid delusional state, and partly because it might be of interest to some of them to see some of the very first, First Draft pages of John Barleycorn Must Die

Next week, finally, as we've been promising: ’Around the Table with...Alan Lee’!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Coincidence or Zeitgeist? You decide!

        H - Rex, I understand today you wish to discuss a phenomenon that has been intriguing you since we started work on this book. Is that true?
R - Yes.
H - Well go on then.
R - Well, Howard, I’ve noticed that no sooner do we explore a subject that we are writing about, but that it appears suddenly the whole world is interested in the very same. The latest of these has occurred around our use of Henry VIII and Will Sommers in our novel. Yesterday I read on the BBC today website of a play at Hampton Court called ‘All The King’s Fools,’ which explores Henry’s relationship with his Jester, Will Sommers. There is also a new TV show, called Henry 8.0, starring Brian Blessed, as Henry, living in suburban London in the present day. 
H - And what conclusion do you draw from this, Rex?
R - Well, is it coincidence?
H - It could be...or, it could be something else.
R - Like Zeitgeist?
H - Indeed. Whether coincidence or zeitgeist, it does give us the opportunity to post a few more of your deleted scenes, showing Henry VIII and Will Sommers in a police station! 

Zeitgeist 1?

Zeitgeist 2?

Zeitgeist 3?