London, earlier this year. The man in the distance was taking photos, like me.
Have you ever wished you could play a complicated, Egypt-themed board game incorporating elements of Cluedo / Trivial Pursuit / Snakes and Ladders / RPGs? … That’s good, because I’m making one right now.
Pyramid Dash is a project I’ve been working on with my friend Lucie for quite some time. The illustrations above are designs I’ve made for playing cards; each one represents a handy object which can be collected and used in the game. I should mention that the playing cards are but one facet of an elaborate gameplay involving an intricate, pyramid-shaped board and a range of playable characters with expansive back-stories and unique skills. Far too much, in other words, to explain in one blog post. More in the future…
Frightening: I produced this painting of an impossibly haughty looking Kenneth Williams a while ago as a birthday present for my friend Pete - I didn’t mean for it to be quite so … strange.
THE LAST WALTZ
Music by me! Prince is supposed to have played all the instruments on many of his albums - this is the same, but to lesser effect. I can’t emphasise the “lesser” bit enough. The guitar is an instrument I can play; the accordion is strictly not. I bought one, broken, a couple of years ago, and since then I’ve neither fixed it nor learned how to play it. Its sound is a little on the asthmatic side, but I managed to wheeze out a few notes.
I remember spending a long time trying to learn the chords to Jeff Buckley’s cool-sounding guitar version of the Ray Charles song Drown in My Own Tears. This is essentially a result of that; I’ll let you judge how similar it is.
Not bad for a fiver, ay? I knew when I bought this sporty number that it wasn’t the prettiest camera Polaroid had ever made, but it gets the job done - the job, in this case, being to take silly photos around London. The image above doesn’t give the best sense of it, but picture, if you will, something big and slow and old, with the size and heft of a kids’ plastic lunchbox and about the same level of aesthetic distinction, and you’ll have it. Maybe that’s unfair; at least my old lunchbox had Stingray stickers. The first thing you’d notice when picking this camera up for the first time would be the alarming and suspicion-arousing discrepancy between its size and weight. This camera has all the brittle naffness of a plastic pint glass, or anything bought from Poundland. In fact, no object of quality should weigh as little as this. That’s why the best cooking pots are made out of ludicrous and unwieldy materials like cast iron. I’m not sure how this improves the cooking, but pick one up and you’ll certainly know where your money’s gone, and, at the very least, you’ll be confident in your ability to deliver a stiff conk over the head to anyone questioning the wisdom of your pricey purchase.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. The Super Shooter was never meant as a fancy item. I paid very little for mine second hand, and when they were first sold in the mid-seventies $25 would have been a fair price. If you want a Rolls-Royceified option, take a peek at the Land SX-70, an outrageous piece of extravagance clad in leather and steel. The SX-70 is a fully functioning pop-up camera - when flat-packed, it’s about the size of a small hardback book (but, reassuringly, far heavier). Unfold it and you have an incredible stramash of daring angles and sleek panels from nowhere; it seems chaotic, but this mess somehow functions absolutely gloriously as a tool for taking photos with.
The Super Shooter is a cheap, cheerful thing by contrast, and it should be enjoyed as such. I had fun playing around with this one, and I was rather pleased with the hues from the Fuji FP 100 film. In fact, compatibility with widely available Fuji instant film is one of the best things about this style of camera; you’ll have no such luck getting Polaroid 600 film for your SX-70. I prefer this rectangular, peel-apart film anyway. You can’t watch your image developing, but it’s nice to be able to intervene in the process by controlling its temperature and duration. I’ve never been a real Polaroid devotee - give me my Pentax and some Ilford any day - but I enjoyed playing with this camera, and it’s been a nice way back into photography having done very little over the last year or so.
I first read about the textile designer Maija Isola in a book about Marimekko, the famous Finnish fashion brand. Isola was Marimekko’s most celebrated designer, and her vivid fabric prints helped the company to huge popularity in the 1960s. The bright, playful shapes of her sixties designs are her most famous, and have come to define the style of the era, but her creative range was enormous. In a lengthy career she produced a tremendous number of designs in an array of styles.
When I first saw her designs, I loved them. I’m still compelled by the broad, meandering paths of designs like Albatrossi (1967), the strange globular structures of Nooa (1961) and the rich, deep pools of magenta that make up the poppies of her famous floral print Unikko (1964). To my mind there is a special harmony to the colours and forms of her art; her designs have an idealness to them which makes them beautiful without complexity. There are photos of the Marimekko factory which show Isola’s designs being printed, and it’s wonderful to look at these pictures and witness those streams of brightly coloured fabric spooling endlessly across vast factory spaces. It’s strange, not just that such dull, grey equipment can eject something so vivid and pretty, but that something so complex―a vast, clanking bed of cogs and gears―can produce something so simple; something as plain as fabric, and as straightforwardly beautiful as Isola’s art.
Another thing we can see from those images of factory floors is that Isola was, emphatically, a commercial artist. Her work has no rarity value. It is meant to buyable, touchable, and haveable, and there is, of course, a simple pleasure in that too. The one thing we shouldn’t forget is that for all her commerce, she was a true artist with real creative practice, wonderful manual skills and a sparkling imagination.
Painting was a particularly important pastime for Isola. It was the ideal way to brighten an austere childhood in rural Thirties Finland, and it became the creative starting point for much of her professional work later in her life. She often marked out her designs onto large sheets of paper in gouache, but she worked in many other media as well. Some of her work was based on coloured paper cutouts, and some was created, unusually, with wax crayons. Her special affection for crayons is interesting, simply because we rarely think of them as something a mature artist would use. For me they have incredibly strong associations with childhood; I remember fighting for the best ones during colouring-in lessons at primary school. When I was older I often played the game of writing special crayon messages onto a blank sheet of paper; painting onto it revealed a strange negative image where the waxy residue repelled the wetness of the paint. Their brittleness, their papery wrappers, their distinctive smell and even taste are oddly memorable, but I can’t remember using them in years. Isola loved crayons even as an adult, and the gleeful pleasure of making art with something so vivid, grabbable and ready-to-use is wonderfully clear in her joyful free-spirited designs.
So much of Isola’s creative practice reminds me of the way children do art. Her natural compulsion for bright colours, her choice of materials, and even her tendency, as photos often show, to lie on the floor to draw, seem oddly kid-like. In spite of that I’ve never found her work childish at all; it is careful and thoughtful, and there is something wonderfully disciplined and systematic it too. There is an amazing balance between Isola’s carefree, instinctive approach to her art, and her precise, technically astute approach to preparing her designs for printing. She made her own extensive colour charts at a time when Pantone charts had yet to be invented, and she worked tirelessly with print engineers to make sure her designs were reproduced accurately, sometimes running as many as fifty print tests on a single design to ensure it met her demands. Isola’s way of making art was so gloriously simple and uncomplicated, and yet her knowledge and professionalism so intense that sometimes I wonder how one person could have both. But her work is full of telling contrasts. It is simple yet technical, and its childlike impulsiveness is tempered with cool, precise intellect which fascinates me whenever I look at her designs.
One day I’d like to be one of those distant relatives with eyebrow-rasingly dubious claims to Scottishness who insists, nonetheless, on turning up to weddings in celtic regalia, fully kilted out and ostentatiously besporraned to the polite embarassment of all and sundry. But for now, I tend only to use my surprising and strange one-quarter Scottishness merely as an excuse to get something going for Burns Night every year. This is an invitation card I designed for a gathering this year - I didn’t really use it in the end, but it’s quite nice I guess. I planned, ages and ages ago, to design a set of gift cards using fragments from Robert Burns poems - I didn’t, sadly, but at least there’s this.
This is a messy and not entirely good drawing I made a while back. I copied all the images from a big book of classic Life Magazine photographs and built the whole thing up by adding bits and pieces every time I found a photo I liked and thought would be good to draw.