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.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Around the Table with...Brian & Wendy Froud Part 2

Howard, Brian, Wendy and Rex.

      B - There’s always a feeling that what we do has...purpose. It isn’t just decoration, it isn’t safe, easy, shallow stuff. It's meant to go deep. It's meant to have purpose. Nowadays that's the only way that I can work. It’s very frustrating if I try to step out of that space and try to paint something ‘normal’ for people. Then you get into a situation where someone who's commissioned a painting says something like: “We’ve changed our mind, can the faery be wearing shoes now?” And I go, “No!” And then, “Can the faery be facing the other way?” And I go, “No!” And then you realise that you keep saying "No!" -- and when you try to work out why that is, it's because art just doesn’t work that way. You can’t do anything in a painting in isolation: if the shape of a wing goes a certain way, the other aspect of the figure has to have a different form; and if I change something over here, then something over there has to change along with it.

H - It’s like pulling a string on something knotted. 

B - Yes. There is nothing casual about what I do. It all has it’s own carefully calibrated magical structure, where shape and form imparts information and feeling that actually transports you to another place, and that’s its intention.

'The Troll Witch' - Brian Froud.
R - It’s interesting to hear you say that, because for most of my life, in the film and advertising industries, I worked not in the way that you describe but in the other way, where people constantly say, "I want this, this and this," and stuff constantly comes back to you. For thirty years I didn’t give a shit, really, I just made the changes. This is the first time, working on John Barleycorn, that I'm in a project where I’ve been able to use all the principles you've been talking about, Brian. When we change things in the comic, we change them for good reasons, because something isn’t saying what we want it to say. But I’m so used to working in the old way that if Howard were to keep telling me, “I don’t like that, I want you to change it,” I’d probably do it, because I am so condition to it.

H - Fantastic! 

B - It’s a weird phenomena that because of the Internet, everybody thinks they understand images. Because we are bombarded by them, people think that they understand how they work -- but most people actually have no idea, because we're not educated in image and image-making. Whereas a Renaissance man confronted with the Internet would grasp its images more completely. There was an understanding then that when you look at an image, there's more to it than just its surface, there are also clues to complex stories and meanings embedded within it. There are symbols and signs -- everything has purpose, every proportion, every design element, nothing is casual. You can't just change things on a whim, because each element, placed together, is telling a larger story.

H - When you see an image of that kind, Brian, as an artist who knows about these symbols, you’re 'reading' the picture at a level that a lot of people aren't able to see. Often those pieces of art are the ones that people find especially fascinating, even though they can’t 'read' them properly. It’s as if there are two different levels of perception, but we're no longer trained to see them both. There is a similar thing with Shakespeare. His work is fascinating even if you know little about it, but when you study it, you go “wow,” for there is depth upon depth of metaphor and meaning that reveals itself.

Page from forthcoming book - 'Trolls."

B - Yes! So, to relate this to our work: when we produce pictures of Trolls, you’re not just looking at pictures of Trolls. I would argue that actually you are looking at a landscape...literally the landscape of Dartmoor...because all of the shapes and forms are based on rocks and roots and trees, and it’s very localised. Then beyond that, not only is it a Troll, and a landscape, it’s also the World. When you are looking at a picture in terms of magic, and magical thinking, everything is encompassed in that one picture; everything!

R - Like a universe in a grain of sand.

B - Exactly. It’s precisely that phenomena.

W - It’s interesting hearing you say that, Brian. It make so much sense, and I understand it...and yet it would be so easy to slip over into madness from that place. I’m serious, because you walk a very fine line between ‘this is important, this all makes sense’ and ‘this is chaotic madness.’

H - That’s always true of the Shaman, isn’t it? And of the Fool? Rex and I talk about the wisdom of the Fool quite a lot, and of the madness of the Shaman. It is a fine line to walk when you are dealing with these principles, treading between what is believable and what is not. When I read about magical principals, a part of me thinks: this is definitely true; and another part thinks: no, this is mad. It's like living in two worlds at once. Artists often do live in two worlds, which is why we can seem a bit mad to other people. One foot is in the real world, where we have to feed ourselves and take on practical jobs to make money, and the other foot is in the creative world, which has a different time scale and demands different things of us: that when you sit down and draw, this is what you are going to draw, and how you are going to draw. Living this way can be both liberating and distressing I find, in equal measure.

Pixie sketch - Brian Froud.
B - When I was young, it seemed so much easier. You just went for it. Youth has an arrogance. Now it’s more of a struggle, but there’s still that inner voice which, when I draw a line, goes: “No.” Rub it out, draw another. “No.” And then, suddenly, “Oh, yes!” And then I think: “Where has that come from? Why is this the right line? While all these others, which to an observer would probably seem to be the same, were wrong?” Now that we’ve finished Troll project, I can’t figure out what to do next. My duty as an artist is to try to articulate something truthful, and that truthfulness has to be real, yet I'm dealing in an area that people think isn't real. But, in fact, it's really, really real.

H - It’s a sort of 'greater truth in fiction' thing, isn’t it?

B - Yes.

H - When you talk about the lines, and changing a line, of course the lines that you rejected might be the right lines for something else at some other time...

B - Yes.

H - ...so you are trying to find the right line for what you are doing now.

W - That’s almost mad thinking, though -- because what are you going to do, save all those lines?

H - Yes, in a little line bank!

B - That's what it’s all about, being able to step into a magical space as you create. We all know that feeling, when you are writing or drawing and there is a flow. You just step right into that magical space where it's all going well.

H - That’s where we are trying to get to, isn’t it?

B - It’s a moment of grace, and you just want it all the time. When I am not in those moments, I think: why can’t I get there? Sometimes, when things go wrong in life (and often there are a lot of things that go wrong in a row), I think that you just need to be jogged along by an inch, that somehow you’re out of sync and you just need to step back into sync, and then everything just works.

R - It's a bit like the way airliners are actually slightly off-course 90% of the time, and must keep making minor readjustments in order to get to their destinations.

W - Don’t tell me that!

H - Don’t worry, the pilots are aware of it.

W - Good.

R - Some of them aren’t, Howard; some of them aren’t! 

W - Oh, dear!

R - The trick of the magician, of course, is that when you're off-course and you know it, you’re still relaxed about it. You recognise that the universe will get you back on course again; all you have to do is relax, and you will get back.

Troll and Maiden - Wendy Froud.
W - Yes, but also I think it’s important that when you are on course, when you do have that moment of grace, that you recognise it. You can then refer back to those moments sometimes, and that will also help you to get back on course. You think, 'I’m getting close,' because you can feel it, and that memory is like a compass.

R - I can’t do what you just described, Wendy.

W- Really?

R - I've tried and I can't, so I find it easier just to wait for the bang, and then get back there.

H - Talking about being off-course in terms of art, there was a whole scene in John Barleycorn that only came about because we went down a blind alley and hit a dead end. That scene is now really important to the plot, but had we not gone down and hit the brick wall, we wouldn’t have discovered it. Do you have those kinds of experiences?

W - Yes, occasionally. For this book we did, very much so.

B - There’s magic where the magician tries to bend the universe to his Will, and there's magic where you become the servant, in a sense, of the Will of the universe. And when you accept that, you have to ‘go with the flow’ -- but then there comes a point where you do need to apply your Will. What I believe is that mistakes are always going to be made, so is there not a way of pretending that you meant them all along? Because that just flips everything around. What if this mistake isn’t a mistake? And if it isn’t a mistake, what is it telling me that gives me another point of view?

Flying Faery - Wendy Froud.

H - Which is another magical principle: flipping something on its head. Like the Fool does. It was Thomas Eddison, I think, who famously said, after failing for the hundredth time to invent a working light bulb: “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found a hundred ways not to do it.” That is a really good principle for artists. It's something that Geoff and I teach students of Commedia: you kind of can’t make a mistake, as long as you learn from it, and even, sometimes, incorporate it into the work. What if actually it wasn’t a mistake? What if actually it was the best thing you could do? Then, if you inject it with belief, it often becomes something really good. Not always…sometimes it’s still terrible! 

R - I’ll vouch for that!

H - Can I return to something that Brian said earlier? You were talking about your Troll pictures, and that they are not just pictures of Trolls, but also of landscape and, in particular, of Dartmoor. We had a very interesting ‘Around the Table With’ discussion with Alan Lee a while ago, and we were talking about how much his work has been influenced by Dartmoor. Alan said that after moving here from London, he started to really study nature properly, so that rather than just trying to represent trees from his imagination, or by copying Rackham, he started looking at real trees, and his art changed. Did you have a similar experience when you moved to Devon?  Because your work is kind of rooted in the land.

Green Man - Brian Froud.
B - Literally rooted! I have no imagination! Everything that I do is real, it’s based on reality. Years and years ago, when I first went to America and I was Guest of Honour at a World Fantasy Convention, I had been looking at American fantasy art, and before I arrived, I was convinced there wasn’t a single tree in America. But when I got to San Fransisco, the first thing that I saw was this wonderful tree! So I asked these young American artists, what are you doing, why are you not looking at your own landscape? You’re just looking at other people’s art, which has no relation to your own life. Look at where you are! Look at the land, and it will inform what you do. So when I first came here to Dartmoor, it was the same for me as it was for Alan. It really impacted my art. I looked at these rocks and these trees, and they were just so magnificent. I wasn’t then, and am still not, interested in traditional landscape painting though. I had an emotional response to the landscape, and it always seemed to involve some sense of spirit, and soul, and the land's inner life. I’ve always wanted to know what it is like on the inside of it all. It’s all about the interiors; everything I do is about an interior thing. That was when Trolls and Faeries really came to the fore in my paintings.One of the things that I've noticed in my new Troll pictures is how much I've been inspired by the old Devon hedgerows...which are being destroyed all over the place, all this ancient hedging with these old trees planted on top of the stone walling so that the vegetation all grows up gnarled together over years and years...and now they’re being chopped down! How can they do that?!! A hedgerow is a special, unique, magical space, and you’ve just destroyed it! So some of what I’m doing is almost like a paean to a landscape that’s going.

H - That makes me think of something that Terri often talks about, which is landscape and spirit being very connected. One of the themes in John Barleycorn is the idea that the connection to the archetypes, to myth, have been removed from our world. It is this removal which allows us to say, “Let’s get rid of these trees, because they are in the way,” rather than “This is a magical space, we’d best preserve it.” The world has become very pragmatic. We've lost that sense that when we see a landscape there is more than just solid ground here, there is the spirituality that comes out of it. At times is seems like we are getting rid of a very special dimension of human existence.

W - That’s why we do what we do, and that’s especially why we’ve done this particular book. Our hope is that people will way, “But I do need this, and I need to go out and experience the land myself.” 

Sitting Pretty - Wendy Froud.
H - When you try to make life just this grey, flat thing, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t function, because humans aren’t two dimensional; we actually live most of our lives in our perceptions of things. Another magical principle: it’s all about perception and belief. You can believe the most unbelievable things, and they are true for you, and events seem to conform to that belief. At times it seems to me that there isn’t an ‘objective’ reality, it’s what we all make of it. We don’t actually see what is out there, we are creating it all from electrical signals in a totally pitch black part of our brain.

W - And that’s so amazing.      

H - So I think that what we are trying to do as artists is to wake people up! It used to be: Wake up to this because it’s good! Now it’s more: Wake up to this because it’s disappearing, and once it’s gone there won’t be anything to wake up to! It reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi. "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, and charged people $1.50 to see the trees...."  That’s what is going to happen if we don’t do something!

R - Howard, that seems like a good note to stop on. 

W - But we’re just getting going. We could talk forever!

R - Well, we can talk forever, but we won’t be able to put it out on the blog then.....

H - Rex, for once, you are correct. Brian, Wendy, thank you.

Brian Froud - Troll spotting!


  1. what a beautiful piece of magic to start the day with thank you! now, it's time to head back to the drawing board take up my pencil, sharpen it to the very finest point & draw with focused intent with all my heart & everything I have learned here pushed into that line...

  2. I love the discussion about the thin line between wisdom/inspiration and madness in the arts, looked at in a mythic/shamanic context. It reminds me of the earlier discussion with Rima Staines...and it's fascinating how certain threads run though all of the Around the Table talks. Thanks for posting this conversation, and giving us a chance to join in with our responses. Pass the coffee pot, please.

  3. Wonderful discussion. Thanks!

  4. amazing again guys! There are some real gems in there to ponder... I'm discovering that interviews with artists are so much more fascinating when the questions are being asked by artists as well!

  5. Wonderful stuff, thank you so much for this. I agree totally that we're losing something really important because we've lost our deep connection to the land, and you're right, having cut ourselves off, it's so much easier to say "let's cut down that forest, let's put a highway through here," because we don't realise how much we NEED it. We don't 'feel' the land anymore. And as people have left their homelands, the lands of their ancestors, that disconnection has become even greater, and so has allowed for even greater destruction, and exploitation of other parts of the world.

  6. Oh my, this conversation has been wonderful! I especially relate to the land affecting our work. It wasn't until I moved away from the deserts of Arizona into the forests of the American Pacific Northwest that I found I could finally paint and draw the world I see. My own adopted landscape has had a profound influence on my work. I will be rereading this interview - so many poignant statements. Thanks to all of you for sharing.

  7. Hi, would it be possible to save and share on facebook the image of brian troll spotting?

    1. Thanks for asking. We can’t grant you permission to use any of Brian and Wendy’s art or photographs, you would have to ask permission from them as they hold the copyright. The photo of Brian Troll spotting was originally published on their blog, the World of Froud. We suggest asking permission from them in the comments section of that blog.

    2. Their blog is called The Realm of Froud (the World of Froud is their website) and here's a link: http://realmoffroud.blogspot.co.uk/

      It's easier to reach them through the blog, which Wendy writes, rather than the website, which is run by someone else.

  8. Triffic! I've accidentally stumbled down a fantasyish lane myself, so extra inspiring to hear what Wendy and Brian have to say about that, and may I add a belated Hurrah! for the return of Mr Barleycorn and his necessary demise.

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    I happy to find many good point here in the post, writing is simply great, thank you for the blog.

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