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 . . .

Dick Francis. . . 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.

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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

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

 Project work, from left: 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?