Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Orson Welles with a paint brush: The impact of meeting the amazing John Watkiss-part 2 of 3

London's sooty brown and grey buildings wore golden halos in the long summer evenings.
Patches of pavement would swarm with happy crowds of standing drinkers marking the locations of pubs, like bees densely gathered around the entrances to hives.

It was a magical time for me, full of hope and excitement of what the future might hold.
In the narrow streets of Soho was a doorway in a building on Great Marlborough Street that was just like any other, but twenty years on the impact of what lay beyond is still with me.
It's as vivid now as it was when I climbed the narrow stairs, worked my way through some offices and stood in front a small, innocuous door.
An intense character ushered me inside.
Lighthearted one second, deadly serious the next, the twenty seven year old artist had something of the 1960's pop star about him, with his immaculate tight fitting suit, narrow tie and shiny beatle boots.

The room had few windows, but light seemed to pour in from everywhere.
I looked around in an attempt to take in the experience.
The walls were festooned with red chalk drawings of nudes, and anatomical studies, and sketches in oil.

Straight onto the wall. No fumbling around, no second chances, just confident, joyful expressions of life glowing all around me. You could have told me Leonardo had returned and drawn them and I would have believed you.
Draped figures and nudes glowed with life. If they weren't painted straight onto the wall I would easily have believed they'd been stolen from the National Gallery.
The pics below are a couple of random samples of John's handiwork, since I don't have pics of the old Magic Box studio...

At one end the whole wall opened up on a utopian scene of native people collecting and carrying baskets of all kinds of fruit. Behind them a lush valley stretched out beyond, inviting you to join them in their idyllic existence.
I looked up and saw cherubs floating about the ceiling, ascending toward the heavens.

Two guys about my age, or a bit older, were drawing figures and anatomical studies.
Not as good as the stuff on the walls, but honest and enviably fine none the less.

Propped up on a radiator was a stolen Frans Hals portrait, with its fresh, vigorous brushstrokes, a bit like the laughing cavalier.
Until I learned it had been painted that morning while waiting for a job to arrive.

And then the drawers were opened.
Out came great sheets of wonder.
There were pastel paintings of shirtless workers and fruit gatherers, the light catching large forms and intricate details.
There were watercolors of country scenes serene and subtle in their muted tones.
Cityscapes of greys, each with its own mood. There was drama and nuance of every kind here.

Out came a very large sheet with a detailed drawing of a man artfully posed, but without his skin on. It was a spectacular anatomical drawing that took my breath away. You could follow the muscles of the forearms down to their tendons, and see how they passed through splits in other tendons of the fingers to terminate in their attachments at the farthest tiny bones of the fingers.
And it was the same across the whole body. Muscles, tendons, bones and cartilage drawn with intricate detail and accuracy.

He asked me with obvious pleasure if this wasn't what I expected to find in a storyboard studio.

My mind was reeling. I asked him where his models would stand while he painted and drew all these marvelous things.

The other guys lowered their pencils and looked over while John delivered the bomb that could mess with a person's head forever.
'Oh, I just make them all up.'

My jaw dropped visibly. Clearly I wasn't the first person that happened to, and they all seemed to enjoy the reaction.

'But, like that one,' I asked, pointing to a difficultly foreshortened pose, 'with such an unusual angle, how can you draw that without looking? You must have a photo at least?'

'Nope. Just what's in here.' he said, tapping what was clearly no ordinary head.

I must have seemed doubtful, because at that moment he sat down and grabbed a pen and I watched it magically dance across a sheet of paper leaving pure magic behind. The pen tip traced patterns in the air just above the surface, leaving just a few scattered dots on the page.
Then a few straight lines appeared, then organic curving contours, each one driven to its destination with forceful conviction.
It became a torso, twisted and stretching upwards, but I knew it had become visible on the paper to John the moment he picked up his pen.

Then he flipped the page and did another.
Then a head. Then a head from a very awkward angle. The kind of angle it would be hard to get right even if you were staring a model in the face.

After the first couple, done in silence to deepen the impact, John explained as he drew a couple more.
'See, these dots lie on each side of the frontal bones, these on the zygomatic arches, and these trace a line down the front of the face highlighting only key points you refer to when you're doing these parts here, for instance. And then you simply connect these points, being careful to observe this curve here, which always travels in this direction, and these planes which must always remain exactly the same relative to these points here...'

And so it went on.

'And this knowledge is what makes it possible to draw these storyboards of women climbing about on rocks, from all these interesting angles and viewpoints, without getting bogged down with hunting for, or being limited by a lack of the right photo reference. You can be quick and efficient. All you need is to be armed with the right knowledge.
You can be fast and sure, but acquiring this knowledge takes time.'

I was stunned. Speechless. My mind had very clearly been blown. Something that happened quite regularly in this little room on Great Marlborough Street I was certain.
In a few minutes I had not only learned more, but I'd been left more inspired than from all four years of art school.
Not one teacher had ever once picked up a pencil and demonstrated anything.
What they offered was vague and nebulous encouragement for any enthusiasm you had.
But certainly no sense of direction.

Now I'd learned that knowledge was the key. With it you could do great things.
And I was hungry to learn.

John looked over my work diagnostically, told me what to forget about and gave me a few pointers to work on first, then I'd come back and he'd see how I did, and take it from there.

Forget about finish - focus on structure. Learn it, and learn it well.


What an opportunity. I was going to soak up as much as I could. I made it my business never to be told the same thing twice, while I thoroughly absorbed every word of advice that came my way.

I wasn't sure how far I could take this with my normal sized brain, but I was determined to find out.

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