Wednesday, January 13, 2010

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

Pulling human remains out of your desk drawer every time you aren't too busy at work is one great way to get noticed on the job!
I had added purple plasticine teeth to the mouldering skull since it didn't have any.

I'd moved through a couple of storyboard companies as London moved towards a recession in 1990, to end up working full time for an ad agency on the edge of Kensington Gardens.
I found stability there while my knowledge could grow.

John was teaching life drawing and anatomy one night a week on the edge of Regent's park in a fantastic old building called the Diorama, where he had a little painting studio.
He painted buried inside some ornamental hybrid of an old Victorian asylum and a giant greenhouse.
I didn't miss a single session, 26 in all, and soaked up everything I could, practicing in all my spare time both at work and at home. My mission was not to have to be told anything twice.
I learned about proportion, direction, volume, mass, anatomy, synthesis of one shape into another, flow, feeling and all sorts of other things besides.

John's a terrific and very generous teacher.
He sees analytically and shows you just enough that you don't know, to keep you moving enthusiastically in the right direction to achieve the most benefit.
If you were able to soak up every last bit of everything he knows, he'd happily show you.

I'd rush across Kensington Gardens from work in my lunch break for frantic sketching sessions of the sculptures in the Victoria and Albert Museum, since there weren't too many nudes posed casually on the street.
I'd study fellow passengers riding the tube on the way to work. The way you do it is to trace over them in your mind, the big shapes first, then working down to the details, and then recreate the experience on paper when you get to work before the memory fades.

I'm sure there were a few people who must have noticed my unwavering stares, although I did try my best to glance about a bit while I was at it!
I didn't completely abandon attempts to develop surface technique with markers, since I'd likely have been out of a job in that case.

But during those few years I made frequent visits to John's magical painting studio where I'd sit for portraits (he'd just about drop everything to work on his portrait painting skills) in exchange for handy hints and critiques, and sneak peeks at whatever comic book or painting he was up to now.
I always could hardly wait to see what was new.
It was the range and variety, along with the rigorous background in classical drawing that just kept me coming back for more. Even the loosest scribbly frantic pen and ink work was clearly grounded, and guided by knowledge under the inspiration of the moment.

His dream was to run a school or academy. He came close, getting into talks with the Prince's Trust, but nothing ever came of it.

After a few years I took what I learned and moved for a while to Hong Kong. We crossed paths again years later in Los Angeles where he was blowing everyone's socks off at Disney painting large inspirational panels for the artists who were working on Tarzan.

A whole floor was taken up with his breathtaking cinematic panels. I think seeing them all stretched out down miles of corridors has been the single most stunning encounter with his stupendous creative output.
I'd always thought I must have seen the best of it by now: I was always wrong!

It blew everyone away. And this is a bunch of artists at Disney we're talking about.
They're no strangers to great stuff on the walls there.

©disney enterprises
About one sixth of the large 3 foot long visual development paintings for Tarzan

He made hundreds of drawings breaking down the figure into semi-abstracted shapes to develop the look of Tarzan for the animators.

So why 'Orson Welles with a paint brush' for a title?
Hollywood loves the one sentence summary. And with all the skills and knowledge you could get sidetracked with by John's work, I think his focus on cinematic composition, drama and engagement always drives the work.
A quick look at these storyboards drawn for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow will show you what I mean...
He's brought this dynamic composition to everything from comic books to murals to decorative paintings, using oils, acrylic, watercolors, markers, and pencils. And whether it's a comic or an epic painting, you can be sure the resulting art will be worthy of the name 'fine'.

I later studied film language and worked extensively with directors who appreciated my range of skills.
Bringing both film directing and drawing skills to the table has proved popular with ad agency creative directors, many of who like to simply throw scripts my way and then look over my roughs before I finish everything.
For my storyboarding career I owe a huge debt of gratitude to John who really set my learning on the right path at a young enough age to be driven by boundless enthusiasm. Might as well have all that energy working for you in a positive and useful direction than floundering about in a sea of uncertainty!

Since then I've also branched out into the world of sculpture, which of course is what this blog is really all about!

I always quite fancy the idea that somewhere, nestled in a grimy old building in Great Marlborough Street, there's a bunch of people working away at who-knows-what, surrounded on every side by exquisite drawings and paintings.
I like to imagine myself one day returning to that small room where it all started, just to stand there for a moment and again breathe in the atmosphere.
I never will of course, since seeing it all painted over would be more than I could stand.
© disney enterprises, inc
Click the above pic to see more visual development for Disney...

I hope you enjoy the few examples here, and explore these links to see more...
There's a few books you can get through John's website if you feel so inclined!
More paintings here.

Click the pic below to see the art that sold the concept of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes to studio execs...


Rick Fairlamb said...

I had a very similar experience to you having come to London in 1989 and got an in-house job in Saatchi's.
I was invited to John's Studio 'Magic Box' and it's fair to say my life changed after seeing his amazing work. I was lucky enough to have been taught the figure and the skeleton from an amazing artist named Barbara
Stone in the North East but nothing prepares you for
John, he's a one off. I also attended the Diorama for
figure drawing and it was as you said, incredibly inspiring. Like you. I also went to draw in the V&A and still do when I can.
I presently work in London doing Storyboards and Concepts for Ad companies, Games and Books.

I reckon we are both very lucky to have been around when John Watkiss
was teaching at that time. Do younger artists have similar opportunities
now? I'm not so sure.

Rick Fairlamb

Steve sculpts critters said...

Thanks Rick, I've never met an artist who's brushed up against John without insisting it inspired them and improved their game.
Love your stuff (I was just nosing around on your site).
I was just asking Meridee the other day if young kids straight out of college get anything like the education we got working around pro's in studios, and in my case particularly around John.
I surely value the education I got after leaving art school way higher than the one I got at art school, that's for sure!

Rick Fairlamb said...

Much agreed Steve! I reckon our education really starts after college.
Love your sculptures, full of character and energy. It's inspiring to see the direction you've gone in.
Thanks for looking at my site. Although I paint digitally these days, I still draw traditionally and always remember stuff I got from John.
I have a little anatomy doodle he whipped up in the pub with a red crayon...beautiful! Have you checked out his Walking Dead stuff he's done recently? Cheers,Rick