Galileo & Mick Brownfield

A lunar eclipse occurs when Sun, Earth and Moon are in a perfect alignment, right? Well three things came together recently and there is some fugitive sendipity, some tangential connection between them so I thought I would take out my iQuill and see if I can resolve them.

You know the way that sometimes history can brush your soul for a moment as you realise a major figure from the past stood where just where you are now standing? It doesn’t always happen. My history teacher at school certainly never prompted it. David Starkey doesn’t do it for me either. Mary Beard and Joann Fletcher can. I digress . . .

There was a glorious full moon on Dartmoor recently. It was huge and heavy. My wife, Sandy and I stared at it, in the garden and in awe. By chance, a day or so later, I came across this sketch by Galileo.

I adore it. So now I must try not to gush but aside from the simple beauty of the page was the impact of the likeness – we see the exact same moon as Galileo Galilei, 1564 – 1642. Today we often see science portrayed as a sterile, cold activity (and The Man in the White Suit is a favourite film of mine) yet there is something in this sketch that speaks of simple humanity, curiosity and wonder. It’s moving. OK, I gushed. Blame the phase of the moon.

The second body to share my orbit was just last week when Mick Brownfield appeared on Facebook out of the blue. We have worked together a couple of times. He is a big cheese (like the moon). Remember those great Heinken ads? Advertising boys and girls love his work just as much as editorial does. His work is amongst the best contemporary illustration and has, well, just always been there. He seems full of that blend of youthful enthusiasm and slight melancholy I feel like that myself on many a day. The coincidence? Well you might ask. The talented Mr Brownfield’s work graced the first Pan paperback of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in it’s modest beginings. Neither of us has a copy of it – anyone? Mick has a host a utterly fab visual references to space and sci-fi in his mighty portfolio. (I wish now I had given him a more open brief. Sorry Mick.) In particular he has great affinity for the lighter-side of SF and popular culture. The wide-eyed optimism of the public appetite for early space travel, the comic-book super-powered heroes – the fun. And we share a pleasure in the space tin-toy. That mad clash between leading edge technology reproduced in gaudy print on feeble materials driven by clockwork. And, curse it, he has a collection that puts my minor shelf to shame. And Brownfield artwork now brightens up my Facebook stream. Which is nice.

And the third body? Well it was this. Last Thursday I visited the lively exhibition of 1st and 2nd year Illustration students at Plymouth University where I teach. I had a good chat with David Smart about research amongst University staff. I had often thought, just on the back-burner, that the research for Visual Communication/Graphics/Illustration was Fine Art. In some ways maybe it is but I was interested to learn that effectively it is a commitment to continuing education/exploration by staff and the sharing of that knowledge. I must admit it got me thinking. Over the hot weekend, as I mowed our grass, I found myself joining the dots from Galileo’s sketches of the moon back to Egyptian portrayals of the Sun and Moon. To romantic painters’ emotional use of Moon and Stars. The sinister symbolism of the necromancers. To Georges Méliès‘ chaotic film predictions. To Dan Dare and the paintings of Chesley Bonestell that exited me so much as a boy (and still do). The paintings of Robert Rauschenberg. And on to Hubble and digital photography and Star Trek and a creeping, lingering question of whether the power of the illustrators’ imaginings of the heavens will be lost? Replaced by photographic images of such high resolution they raise questions about time itself. Does regular exposure to CGI mean we will lose our sense of wonder? I already have with films that hire scriptwriters who do not match the scope of Asimov, Alfred Bester, Ursula le Guinn and Philip K. Dick. Art Directors need great writers.

Will all those young illustration students find the opportunities they need for their work? Do we celebrate our wealth of living illustration talent enough? Where are the retrospective exhibitions of Mick Brownfield, Chris Moore, Ian Miller, Chris Foss, Brian Sanders? A list I shall abort and leave it for a dissertation one day – it can only lead me into trouble here! And they all do way more than sci-fi. The Leyendecker and Rockwell‘s of out time?

Time for a major exhibition of the artists who have excited our imaginations and envisioned our futures? And we too, like Galileo, can look at the stars. And wonder.

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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.

Salman Rushdie

But there was trouble again for the author.

It turned out that Director Deepa Mehta chose the island location over India or Pakistan, where the story is set, to avoid religious protests. Iran had objected to Sri Lanka’s Premier and filming came to an abrupt halt. You will recall Iran’s former leader Ayatollah Kohmeini was the source of the misguided (potty) Fatwa on Rushie for The Satanic Verses. I have never believed the author sought controversy or intended offence. He is an exceptional writer who sets his work in complex societies he knows well. He was a soft target for zealotry.

I leave this well-worn topic and return to more innocent times, at Stanley Studios, London SW10, as I set about designing the original paperback cover for Midnight’s Children. Not for the first time Pan’s commitment to the significance of the book was to be reflected in the point-size of the typeface. The trouble with a brief of ‘Big Author + Big Title’ is that it can be a typographical blunt instrument. But Sonny Mehta‘s unerring literary judgement had picked another great. In fact he saw it as a possible Booker Prize winner. So the task was to work with it and bring some character to bear. Devouring the tome hungrily in my West London flat I found there was a feast on offer. I was particularly struck by the doctor who when visiting a young woman is confronted by female family members protecting her modesty with a sheet. The sheet has a carefully placed hole through which only local examination of the immediate medical problem is possible. Over time the various local areas build an overall picture for the doctor who has gradually fallen in love with her. The film-maker’s must have had a such an amazing time with such rich narrative.

Potential bestsellers on the mass-market list at Pan Books (parent to the Picador imprint) endured relentless pressure, in cover briefs, to parade 70s film-poster style collages of heroes and helicopters exploding or some such chaos. It was clearly dated even then and I fought the good fight for better graphics where I could. On Picador we worked to develop ways to set the mood and entice interest with the visuals in subtler, but no less effective ways. Midnight’s Children was seen to have huge sales potential yet its target audience is inclined to more nuanced sensibilities. (Read between the lines people, work with me here) As some scribbled notes on the inside of the hardback edition reveal (just unearthed from a box emptied to fill yet another new bookshelf) the ‘just before midnight’ clock hands were my first idea but survived scrutiny. The execution would provide the character. I would handle the type differently now but remain happy with my apparently perverse choice of Ian Pollock to create for me the pealing paint/ faded opulence wall. He was widely celebrated for his brilliantly bizarre, idiosyncratic characters at that time. And we incorporated one big peel in case it won the Booker Prize. In that space I could announce its triumph and avoid a Daz-style corner flash. And if it didn’t, well it’s a peeling bit. The illustrator gave me the original painting (shown) and that recently emerged from another box.

I keep reading that blog posts should be kept short. Shame. Because coincidentaly that was the title of his next novel. I took the painted wall route again with the cover. This time with ‘Shame‘ as graffiti, in Urdu I recall and Salman popped in to Stanley Studios to write it for me. Hard to imagine within a few years he would be in hiding.

Sonny Mehta left London for New York. I left Pan (well it was important for me!). Salman Rushdie went to Penguin with The Satanic Verses. Midnight’s Childen went on to win the ‘Booker of Bookers’ in 1993. Time sure keeps moving after midnight . . .

Can’t wait to see the film of Midnight’s Children. Or whatever else turns up in boxes come to think of it.