Danny Gregory, “An Illustrated Journey”

March 19, 2013

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This 272-page paperback is almost identical in size and format to Gregory’s earlier 2008 book entitled “An Illustrated Life”. But is different on several counts. You’re not buying a re-write of the first book. First of all, the 40+ artists featured are different from the earlier book (a mere handful are the same) and secondly, it’s easier to read, with the artist’s own ‘natural’ voice coming through. Thirdly, rather than journaling in general, this is about travel journals, so it moves beyond what I call “Objective Drawing” or creating vignettes based around the people and objects that pass through our lives, but in documenting journey, what it means to document place or location, given the natural wanderlust or inner explorer that it is fundamental to many of us. Some like Giorgio Morandi stayed at home and never moved beyond his studio, another of my heroes, Euan Uglow, did the same. But that’s not the “natural” condition in which many of us live and create. Most artists, given the choice, would like to leave home.

I constantly dip into his previous book both to get inspiration and to reinforce validation. What shocked (and delighted) me originally about the book was that the text read, rather clunkily, like case studies in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Content-wise, the contributing artists all seemed to be enormously hung up on creating their own superstitions or routines around their journaling and sketching (I never do this…, I always do that…). Text-wise, it read obviously like answers to pre-set questions.  Just like the case studies in the book, I too was developing and had developed my own irrational phobias, setting “limits” for myself just like a parent quarantining or setting parameter’s for his or her child’s behavior. Endless potential and enthusiasm is one thing, but most of us need a (self-imposed) discipline to stay on The Path, especially since we are largely teaching ourselves how to ‘see’ and create.

What the two books have in common is they both display Danny Gregory’s own penchant for a querky, cartoonish, irreverent style, loose flowing penmanship with bright enthusiastic colour and dry wit, mainly in the manner in which Gregory himself sketches and journals. That said, he overcomes, in both books, his own narrow personal aesthetic by including a very wide range of artistic styles. It’s the broad sweep of personal styles which keeps me coming back for more. I particularly like the fact that Gregory replicates the global nature of the illustration/design/art work-worlds today beyond just a token one or two non-Western contributors. We need to continue this trend by looking for precedents in non-Western travel journaling such as Hiroshige, for example.

We all “like” artists who work in the same style as ourselves – that’s justifiable and understandable. But both books have thrown up for me new artists whose work I’ve either never seen before or who’ve only been shadowy figures in the background. A mark of success for both books is (a) whether you are on-message and drawing every day and (b) rushing to the Net to find out more about individual artists. The advertising exec in Gregory would like this: you need to have bought the product, not just seen the ad. The first message I’ve absolutely “got” (not just from Gregory’s books but in particular from Veronica Lawlor who features in the second book). In the case of (b), I absolutely love Peter Cusack’s biro work (though I could never myself personally draw commuters as he does) and Simonetta Capecchi (I’ve been on a panorama j’ag ever since reading how she operates). Butch Belair’s work in that book, too, keeps me nourished in the area of watercolor painting. That I don’t like more of the work in the first book is a reflection on my own personal taste; they work in a cartoon-illustration style that I’m simply personally ‘ not in to’. That’s okay, because the text is a constant font of knowledge as I make my own experiments with technique and media. In terms of this recent book, I identify most strongly with the work of Ian Sidaway (his focus on composition and lack of text), with artists like Nina Johansson and Will Freeborn providing me with inspiration watercolour-wise. But, as in the first book, it’s the text which shines through most vividly for me. I’m either surprised by what other artists do or I either nod sagely “Yes, I’ve discovered that to be true too!”.

Concepts of “travel” and “journey”

The primacy of overseas travel, international travel, travel ‘abroad’ is always going to be a given. We’ve fetishized tourism to such a degree these days that it’s hard to swim against that particular tide. And it goes beyond just eschewing international resorts where one can sit in splendid cultural isolation, being served food and drink by the natives but otherwise seeing, talking, relaxing with one’s own. Everyone acknowledges that sketching on holiday creates a different pace, like swapping a fast car for a pushbike as one travels through a landscape. Some of us are hearing messages now about “slow travel” and considering its implications for “slow sketching”. Liz Steel acknowledges (extremely well) the inner tussle between the inner tourist and the inner sketcher and the sheer exhaustion following both paths can create.

On  being there

Most artists are frankly middle-class, with well-paying jobs in the creative industries. Who we are as artists depends very much on how much we have travelled, especially overseas: it’s not just fundamental to our Curriculum Vitae, but to our networking. No matter how superficial our travel is (though as sketcher-journalers we can always take the high moral ground against photographers), it is ultimately all about oneupmanship at dinner parties. A strong argument can be made that this has always been the case. We will never go back to the Middle Ages and glorify anonymity, never signing our work. The illustrators and designers interviewed by Gregory for his books certainly reinforce this, as does the primacy of jet-setting inherent in the Urban Sketching movement. Most brownie points in that movement go to those rock stars who constantly travelling. And for very successful illustrationists and designers these days, that’s what’s involved in being part of the (global) workforce today. Have Moleskine and plane ticket, will prostitute.

But there are cracks in this argument, which Gregory has been clever enough to allow to show through. There are some married-with-kids or who work in academe who can for obvious reasons travel (in this narrow sense of international travel) less than others. I love the fact that Gregory has tapped into the vein of armchair travellers and those with limited means who swim against the tide by still “travelling” and still creating convincing travel journals, with all the inquisitiveness and creativity of someone “actually” there. Just as notions of “real” or “analogue” travel are breaking down, thanks to the Internet and Google Maps and photo galleries, so too are notions of travel documentation changing. To this extent, Andrea Joseph’s contribution is one of the book’s high points. As is Asnee Tasnaruangrong’s passing comment about sketching in retirement: “(it’s) what I do for a living, not financially, but for the joy of living.”

No matter how superficially a traveller-sketcher might document a place, there is an innate attraction in someone visiting our “place” and seeing it through their eyes. Parisian friends were appalled at my being delighted by electrical light poles there; I’m sure Bangkokians would find very strange my being completely entranced by street vendors, tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis in a recent trip there, given they just don’t exist in my own environment back home. Gregory acknowledges that we not only yearn for things foreign and unseen, but that we are also intrigued by foreigners who come to look (and journal about) us.

On text and image

What’s public and what’s private has been plaguing artists and sketchbook journalers since J.M.W.Turner (if not Da Vinci and Michelangelo before him, for example) and Gregory canvasses that dynamic in the modern era. To include or not to include text is again present, as is foreign language: scripts unfamiliar to the viewer become a half-way house of design, not “text”. Film maker Peter Greenaway has a lot to say on the contemporary struggle between text and image these days and this struggle lies at the heart of travel journalling also. The pace at which individual artists can rapidly change is exemplified in the contribution of Tommy Kane. Compare this with the Tom Kane of the earlier book. Reflect on the Tommy Kane contribution and meditate (even just for a split-second) on how the digital environment is changing our notions of text and the consumerism/consumption of our work.

I love the fact too that while many eschew photography (I travelled to Bangkok recently for a half-sketching/half-tourism holiday replacing my camera with a sketchbook, and was all the better for it – though I purloined my travelling companion’s digital camera for the occasional reference photo), Gregory presents a case study of someone who only photographs, creating massive (A2 sheets) works back in the studio, and with the help of digital software. As with Gregory’s first book, there is for us, as readers, a wide range to pick and choose from. Not just in experimenting with different media, but in approach.

On being ‘in the zone’ and research

Comedian John Cleese’s lecture on creativity completely validated what I feel while sketching and what happens, internally and externally, to the sketcher-journaler is covered well in this book. Some prepare a lot before travelling, some operate on the spur of the moment. Some touch nothing on the page once it’s done on location, others spend months tinkering with their journals after they get home. For me, this is validation and valorisation of methods I’m already using or think I might want to use. This isn’t confusing for anyone new to travel journals because the over-riding message is to ‘just do it’ and let your own personal approach flow from that. I find I’m constantly telling my own students, “This is not a race against someone else. You’re the one moving forward, at your own pace, in your own way.” I think Gregory would agree.

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