Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Notes from Shaun Tan & Quentin Blake in Conversation, a Comica event hosted by Paul Gravett

A big thank you to Paul Gravett and Comica for getting two great artist-illustrators, Shaun Tan and Quentin Blake, who had never previously met, to talk together in public this evening in London.
I'm sure there'll be other fuller records of this interesting meeting with its unexpected bonus of a joint live drawing session.
Here are just a few things that grabbed me, which I want to get down while it's all still fresh.

What interests Quentin Blake in the process of drawing is finding out what he's drawing will look like.   "You'll have fun or trouble with this one"  is a thought he likes to have when he starts, avoiding easy, formulaic answers.

Both Shaun Tan and Quentin are happy to alter even their final drawing if needed.
They also both talked about the problem of a drawing being "too good".  Shaun has even sandpapered over a painting that feels too slick, too real. Likewise Quentin said, the important thing is not to get to the answer too easily.  You have to believe in it as a drawing, and if it's too real, too polished, perhaps it's harder to believe.  (This by the way, reminds me of something Matisse said about a painting needing to have a chink in it, some corner or bit that was troublesome, something not quite right that could give you a path into looking at it.)

Shaun nevertheless fights what he feels is his natural tendency to be too controlled.  He likes to work on a messed up surface - using collage, some colour or paint dribbles to break it up a bit.  The trouble with the computer, he says, is that you don't get suprised by accidents in the way you can drag a palette knife laden with paint and find something surprising emerge.  That said, he has to work digitally at some point for things like his film work. The real ideas start for Shaun when he 'stumbles over his own consciousness' at some point after all the emails, and worries about artistic failure (!) , visualizing things in tiny thumbnails, the smaller the freer.  He then blows them up on a light box, being too scared, he says, to work large...After working on it some length of time - he'll start to be convinced by it .  There's a certain stage of work when the conviction comes, a kind of leap of faith.   It's not there at the outset.

Quentin Blake talked about there being a lot of acting in drawing. And like an actor you can identify with your characters while maintaining a certain detachment, even if you are grimacing or growling.

Shaun standing, Quentin sitting to draw
Both started out studying English literature at university, and in Shaun's case, art history and theory but it was the apprenticeship,  the 'doing', getting small drawing commissions, both from aged 16 that taught them the most about drawing.  

For Shaun drawing is an emotional thing.  He focuses on it feeling right. He can intellectualize about it afterwards.   Words, Shaun Tan says, have a set speed (he had a nice image of the the movement from words, like throwing pebbles into a still pool, that he didn't want for The Lost Thing) The wordless visual sequence in Blake's Clown or Tan's The Arrival, means the pace can be slower, so your eyes can bounce back, move around the page, at your own pace.

Another advantage to not being too realistic, removing certain descriptive details - is that it allows for more open-ended readings.   Shaun was touched by one interpretation of his book The Arrival,  about an immigrant arriving in an unfamiliar country.  One boy told him he read it as about going to school.  So the trope of immigration can also be about transition.   That open endedness is fine.

Shaun joked that from his uneventful life in the studio he can struggle with people facing situations that he would never want to face in real life.  Similar Quentin said the people he draws are active to make up for his own laziness (!).

Lazy?  Well I'd say both Shaun Tan and Quentin Blake worked hard this evening,  talking about their process, actively drawing a few subjects the audience gave them at random, and signing books for a long line of admiring illustrators and comic book creators.

Shaun Tan and Quentin Blake starting off on the subject of 'Disguise'

Quentin's interpretation left and Shaun's right of 'Gluttony' (sorry the angle's not great!)