Balls

Almost at the end of two weeks of a fabulous Olympic Games. There is wall-to-wall coverage so I’ll not add too much to the Olympic noise. The inner cynicism with which I approached the event has been squished under thousands of happy feet. I have loved the event, the change in atmosphere in the country has been amazing and the sporting success of Great Britain’s competitors is just thrilling. So proud. And Boris was left dangling on wire to increase my TV glee.

Thinking of sport every day reminded me of some sports guides I designed covers for at Pan Macmillan – a few Olympic Games ago. As a general publisher rather than a sports specialist Pan’s approach was to go for the individual sport’s governing body endorsement as their USP. And a unified graphic brand identity was called for. I wanted to avoid sports personality imagery as it always throws up ego/permission/vetting issues. And they would date sooner. After a period of deliberation on concept the editor enquired about my creative intentions. “Balls”, was my response. Though sometimes abrupt, this time my answer was simply factual. We had LTA Tennis, SRA/WSRA Squash and PGA Golf. Now I have been involved in a lot of series over my time and I had become aware of some of the potential pitfalls if you don’t plan ahead. I needed to know which other sports might be coming down the pipeline . . . “Possibly Rugby, not Football and maybe Cricket,” the editor assured me. “So all ball sports”, I probed. “Yes, definitely no others”, came the reassurance I needed.

Now confident I turned my attention to specific. I declined the photographic option for the balls as the close-ups would need to be perfect. And this was pre-Photoshop times (gasps, I’m turning grey!) and such things as post-production retouching were very expensive. I wanted hyper-realistic artwork of the ball for each sport. Now you all know I have a taste for the best in illustration and I dislike weak airbrush work. Too often I saw work from people for whom the slick effect took hold before the basic skills were mastered. The results would tend to look as though a balloon had been stretched over the subject. And when only the best will do (most times then. Ed.) it called for the masterly eye of Chris Moore as my illustrator of choice. An Olympic Champion with an airbrush. What makes it so good is his acute observation, the skill of the initial drawing and the expertise to use a regular brush afterwards.  This gives the texture that breathes life into the finished work. Chris is one of the finest Sci-Fi artists of all time. This time it was pure technique. Perfect results every time. And a pleasure to deal with.

So the type was added. I should confess I would do it differently today, (If in doubt, use Goudy). And I had the after-thought of rotating the squash ball through 90 degrees for a little visual wit. We polished off the job and moved on to yet more of Pan’s prodigious list. All was fine. Well, fine for a while. Our series of official sports guides went well. Then the editor commissioned a new title which, of course, needed a cover. These were all going to be ball sports right? “So what is the new title?” I enquired willingly. “Swimming” was the reply.

Some days are less about design and more about escapology.

Nick Hornby

Arsenal. They had a seemingly impossible first leg deficit of 4-0 to AC Milan to overcome and I wanted to see them do it. 3-0 up at halftime . . . It was true Roy of the Rovers stuff. Or, to younger viewers Nick Hornby stuff. Hornby is an obssessive Arsenal fan and eloquently articulates the terrain of football and the nature of fandom in Fever Pitch. I had distanced myself from Chelsea for some time because of crowd violence. Hornby expressed the nature of being a thinking fan in a sport plagued by hooligism and it resonated with me as a reader.

The cover design of Fever Pitch was by Ian Craig. And jolly good it was too.

My involvement was in the late 90s, with Nick Hornby’s editor Liz Knights, as a client at Gollancz and the cover of High Fidelity in particular. The hardback jacket had a blue high-contast face on it. It wasn’t too hot, to be honest, but it had a high recognition factor and my task was to use it but bring more to the party for the paperback. I spent much of my youth in record shops and loved Nick’s account and his personal writing style (Sweet man to meet though we didn’t get to know each other well). I added a vinyl record, dub-stylee, and played with the type, adding selective varnishes. Little more to say except that was liked and sold very well. A happy tale thus far . . 


I worked with Liz on trying to establish the Indigo imprint of Gollancz, with Hornby as the flagship. We worked together through her battle with that foul stalker, cancer. Despite extraordinary valiance, the malign disease claimed her. Without Liz the imprint struggled on for a while. Hornby’s new novel was delivered yet I was hearing nothing about the crucial jacket design briefing. Concerned, I asked for a meeting to discuss it. O Dear. Through the glass security door I saw the brief being hurriedly written en route to the meeting. It read ‘Hornbyesque’.

With a working title of Father & Son it tells of the relationship of an adult playing down his age and a rather grown up boy ~ hence my proposed design motif:

Sadly, it was rejected. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say. They went with another design group and the book’s final title was About a Boy. Now retired art director, George Sharpe, called to express concern when a remarkably similar idea coincidentally turned up from the same stable on Tony Parson’s first novel. I just let it go, it’s just an idea, right . . ?

A tale of former glories and ‘We wuz robbed‘. But, as Arsene Wenger might say, ‘You can’t win them all, even if you play your best game‘.

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Dick Francis

You cannot live in a rural community, as I do, without observing what an all-encompassing interest horses are to many. Not only racing but riding, owning, grooming, breeding and showing. The equestrian fan is totally absorbed by their pastime. Quite an industry too. It’s not my specialst subject – only ridden twice, once on the Guinness Estate as a guest (good), the other in Algeria (bad). Amazing creatures though. Equine athletes. Limited expertise here. Must say I prefer Delacroix to Stubbs. But do check this stunning volume, Horses by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Jean-Louis Gouraud. The sheer beauty of the animal does not escape me. Also the fertilizer is very impressive for the garden.

And I do enjoy reading a good thriller . . .

. . . Who could not help but be gripped by the extraordinary events at Newbury Race Course last weekend? In the viewers’ enclosure several of the race horses suddenly became extremely distressed. And two died instantly. Ghastly, even on the radio. Possible cause is suspected to be an electric shock from an under-turf source. Not only was it an attention-grabbing news item but I was struck by how many reporters said the event was ‘like a Dick Francis novel’.

A select few authors become synonymous with a sport. Norman Mailer on boxing leaps to mind, but more often than not it is sport as a major strand of popular culture that inspires the novelist, rather than sport per se. Short story writers, however, do favour the activity. But I digress. So you see why I value great writers so highly – for their skill and craft eludes me.

Dick Francis was a serious achiever in British National Hunt racing before he started writing about that world. He won over 350 races, becoming champion jockey  just as British National Hunt racing, in the 1956 Grand Nationalwhen the horse inexplicably fell when close to winning the race. Wikipedia just told me that bit. ’56 is the year I acquired a hyphen.

At Pan Books Dick Francis sales were cantering along nicely. But the feeling was that he should be read beyond his devoted fans in the horse-racing fraternity. “Whether you followed the gee-gees or not they are a good read” they said. And we need covers for his books that stretch his appeal to include them. I was skeptical (the description of jockeys as dwarves dressed as clowns always tickled me) but gave it a shot. I read a few. They were right. He writes at quite a clip. Fast paced, accessible, one sitting reads. All made credible by his wealth of insider knowledge. So the challenge was to package his novels without overt equine imagery to keep the thriller appeal wide as possible. OK marketing peeps.

 

The design shown is about nefarious deeds with counterfeit vintage wine against a racing backdrop. I designed two dozen or so with photographer Colin Thomas. A few are shown above.

A graphic design snippet for you: See the bubbles on the meniscus? When photographing drinks you need to be able to control the bubbles. Especially with wine. Too many will appear oxidized. Too few looks flat. And, whilst there is some settled wisdom, opinions differ on the ideal size and number with the wine producer. An air-filled syringe is a time consuming option and as bubbles burst they splash colour on the perfect glass. Solution: you can buy plastic bubbles in unlimited configurations to drop into liquids. They pick up the colour by reflection. Life before PhotoShop.

Thrillers are often referred to as ‘electric’. Maybe that was the cause of the Newbury tragedy? Time, and Clare Balding, will tell.

Will they ever find Proof?

Art Students

Class photo (tagged): http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=351986&l=2f7dde0b17&id=100000772157570

 Project work: Alistair Nimmo, Jordan Rogers, Jamie Bradford, Claire Knight

 BA (Hons) Illustration, University of Plymouth Blog

I was an art student once and, over the years, I have delivered the odd lecture, set some projects and frequently been engaged as External Assessor/Moderator at Art Schools. They have had various guises as Institutes, Colleges and Schools. Many are now part of a University, some were UK, some in New York and one was even Royal. But whatever the nom de guerrethey are all basically art schools. The home of wisdom for, and the nurturing of, students of Visual Communication.

And, expecting a minor flurry of contradictions, they are not fundamentally different from my sojourn at Brighton Polytechnic, now a University. An energetic seaside town awash at the time with such talents as Michael HodgsonJulian Powell-TuckHelen ChadwickRaymond BriggsRob O’ConnorCharlie HookerJohn Kippin, and Dick Jewell.

For this art student it was both a lifetime ago and just yesterday. Two weeks ago I stepped into University of Plymouth and half expected John Lord (my long-suffering tutor back in Brighton) to loom over me with that big red beard and chase me up for an unfinished project!

On a cold Monday morning the University’s Head of Illustration, Ashley Potter, had called me to help out with a problem. 45 First Year Illustration students were booked into a week-long project (they call it a module) to introduce them to type and layout. Unexpectedly there was no tutor and it began the next morning. “OK, I’ll help.” Eek!

I hurriedly assembled images for an introductory lecture for two key questions the students would need answers to, “What is typography?” And “Who the hell is this bloke?“. Through the door, lights out, showtime. 45 young faces, a mixture of the eager, shy, curious, sceptical, anxious and interested. And just one hour to show and tell. 60 minutes to hopefully raise their sights yet put the subject within their reach. Then a live crash course in how the institution set its modules. Ashley smoothed the path expertly and we all cracked on with it.

They had a whole heap of questions about the project. In fact it was in danger of becoming a bit of an avalanche so, after checking that it wouldn’t ruffle any feathers, I modified the inherited brief a little so they could focus on the core of the work. Meeting constantly in groups or individually over the next few days I got to know them, and where they work.

My experience was just one week with first year illustration students. Bearing that in mind, these are the impressions of the University I came away with. Campus is a few minutes walk from the railway station and very central so it felt an integral part of the city of Plymouth. Though densely populated its aspect is open and organised. It was busy. Facilities appeared very good, from what I saw, and working spaces were pleasant. The canteen pasta bake did not kill me – in fact it wasn’t bad at all! There was a steady buzz of activity. I really enjoyed the principal exhibition, in the foyer, Dominion by Angela Cockayne & Philip Hoare. 

First Year Illustration impressed me. As a large group of developing young adults they are undergoing fresh influences, change and all sorts of pressures. But, in at the deep end, with a stranger  temporarily at the helm, they were terrific. They were open and fun. A little distracted at times but they still, mostly, got the project completed. I am not one to be phased by a student earnestly attending a critique with a drawn-on curly moustache! A few had English as their second language and many were soft-spoken and shy. Yet they were comfortable in teams and work groups and became increasingly articulate as nerves subsided. Generally the attendance was good. They took software in their stride but I would like to have seen them use the Library a little more, they will find that so rewarding.

Did they have concerns about fees, accommodation, friendships, health, love and politics? Undoubtedly. Did it stop them enjoying their drawing, their designs, their lives? No. They were involved with the course and engaged with each other and the staff. They were on it.

Look at some of the project work above. And then those young faces. These great people played with the project constructively, were lively to work with and produced some surprising results. And made me feel pretty welcome. Good work.

What is, or was, your time at art school like?

Cecilia Bartoli

Italy at its very finest. Emiligia Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria in June. I have been lucky enough to be taken along as a pal and support vehicle driver by Greg Hart who is competing in the Modena Centro Ore Classic, Edizione 5a. Greg is racing a 1964 Lotus Elan and winning nearly every event until the diff is killed by an over-zealous marshall at a hill start. The particular moment I want to take you to is a break in a road race stage at an unfeasibly beautiful restaurant in the Umbrian countryside. There is languid heat and hurried linguini for lunch (the race cars tend to arrive at food stops earlier than a Mercedes Van full of equipment and tools! Outside are parked the highly-strung petrol-fed stallions. I am beside a Ferrari 275 GTB. A mechanic listens closely, like a surgeon to the tick-over of its V12 engine. That engine has 300 Horse Power before it ever sees a spanner. A low brooding rumble. Hold that thought . . .

 
London a few years earlier, working at Decca as Creative Director. Shaking up classical music packaging a bit. The Partners had laid great ground-work on the design front. In-house art director, Ann Bradbeer, in particular, is embracing our drive for more adventurous commissioning of photography and illustration. I am enjoying bringing in good creatives like David Smart who went on to spend so many successful years there. But I am having to spend much too time throwing open the windows on working practice, scaring the natives and re-organizing my departments; Art, Editorial & Production. Missing more hands-on creative work.

A challenge presents itself and I need to get away from dull desk work. Rossini Arias. I confess I am not big on Opera. Mostly too overblown for my puritan tastes. But one Opera singer moves me. A lot. She is a mezzo-soprano called Cecilia Bartoli.

You need to work around some pretty major egos in book publishing. But you gingerly hotfoot in a whole new field of coals and eggshells with the maestros in Classical Music. Prima donnas and prima uomos get their tags from that world after all. Vladimir Ashkenazy was an exception, as was Cecilia Bartoli. It frustrated me to see such characters under a blanket of convention. Subsumed beneath stiff DJs for the men and the woman decorated like some upholstered baroque confection. But, as with many conventions, stepping into new territory can be a risky business. 

We set up a morning photo-session in the Blackfriars studio of ace photographer Tony McGeeTV-AM turned up as the Press Office had tipped them off about us using a high-flyer fashion photographer. But a quick interview and I shooed them away before the session. That dealt with Tony and I talk. On the wall behind us is a print by Robert Freeman, the shot for the With The Beatles album. I still covert it. We chatted about keeping the session relaxed and seeing if we could ease away from some of the formality of an opera CD. What we didn’t want was to impose any false trendy veneer but extract something from the artist’s look when we met her. 

And our artist arrived. Wow. Having worked with a lot of models and being married to my lovely wife, Sandy Nightingale, it takes quite a bit for a woman’s looks to take breath away. Picture Cecilia in her leather jacket and a white T-Shirt. That’ll do it.

Two minutes discussion and we agreed we must shoot her in her own clothes. Thankfully she agreed. Just a beautiful young singer. Perfect serendipity. More traditional shots as insurance which were used on the CD. Marketing took fright. Maybe, at that time, it would have looked too much of a stunt to use the leather-jacket shot on Arias, but we got the leather shot and it made to the poster. And it got talked about. She was getting all the attention she deserved. 

 So what about the Ferrari? Did she arrive in one? No, a black cab. But I need to describe something very special to you. 

 As we took the costume shots I wanted to ease more vitality into the images and I asked her if you would possibly sing. Just a little for animation. And she did. So softly but the latent power was beyond words. Well beyond my words. The hairs are going up on the back of my neck as I recall it. Such a sense of limitless power, life, passion – everything. So close, just the other side of Tony’s lens. All at such low volume.

 

And the nearest I can get to describing it is my memory of standing next to that Ferrari in Umbria. Purring. Stationary. With the potent certainty that a mere breath on the throttle would unleash unlimited, almost frightening power.