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Joe McLaren Bold and Beautiful Illustrations

April 30, 2014

Before I introduce you to todays artist, I’d just like to mention that I’m going to be away from my blog possibly for the next two weeks whilst having a small op. I’ll be back to visually entertain you when time and energy re allows but in the meantime, please feel free to browse through the back catalogue of posts on my site and visit some of the amazing artists links you can find on here too. All being well, I hope to see you all again before you know it  : ) Fishinkblog 7160 Joe McLaren 13

Moving swiftly on… Joe McLaren is an amazing artist. I’ve admired his work for quite a few years now and love his bold, scraperboard feel and it’s quirky, humourous style. Increasingly I’ve noticed ‘him’ creeping into bookshops (on book covers, that is) and through a wide variety of commissions online. I contacted Joe, to share with you, my Fishink friends, a little more about the man behind the work.

Please tell me a little about your beginnings as an illustrator.

I did my Foundation Art and Design BTEC at Cheltenham in 1999. I went there expecting to continue onto a Fine Art degree course somewhere, but I had a great tutor, Eleanor Crowe, who I’m still in touch with and who now works at Faber. She was brilliant, and she made me realise that all the preciousness and self-mythologising that seemed to be to be part of being a ‘proper artist’, and which annoyed me massively, didn’t exist in Illustration. The attraction of Illustration was that it is democratic, and quotidian and part of everyday life- it doesn’t need to exist in a magical transformative space. I went on to do a degree in Illustration at Brighton, and went from there.

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There’s a familiar bold, defined style to your work. Is this something that you ‘ strive to include’ or would you feel it’s more of a natural way of working for you ?

Much of that comes from the medium I work in: scraperboard. It’s inherently bold- there is pure black and pure white and so it invites sureness of line and clarity. Partly as well I think it comes from speed. I’m used to working quickly, after having worked for newspapers so much, where a 2-hour deadline is not unheard of. Panic is a great editor, and doubt becomes a luxury.

There’s also a friendly, subtle element of humour in your illustrations. Is this something you feel is an important addition ?

Friendliness is key I think, or at least warmth of some kind. Part of the function of illustration is to invite a reader to engage with a body of text. Text, until you take the time and trouble to read it is just coded information, so an illustration is like a friendly human hand reaching out to draw you in. What a great interpretation ! Fishinkblog 7149 Joe McLaren 2

Who would you include in a list of people who have either had some influence on your work and style ? Also given the choice is there anyone (alive or not) who you would most like to spend a day with ?

It’s incredibly hard to try and unpick all the things that have had an influence on the way I work. I can’t deny that Edward Bawden and Eric Fraser have been important to developing the way I work. As for someone to spend a day with, I have to be honest and say that I’d love another day with my brother who passed away a couple of years ago.

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What percentage of your work would you say is now commission based and how much is created out of your interest for a subject or perhaps a desire to capture a subject ?

At the moment, it’s all commission based. I’m afraid I can’t really afford to commission myself at the moment! Having said that I am hoping to have a small exhibition of my own work next year, so I am starting t think about landscapes, and perhaps the odd painting, which is exciting.

What was your most /least fav commission and why ?

My favourite was this one for David Pearson and Penguin….

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To get the rotating toad, I bought a large but surprisingly accurately sculpted rubber halloween toad, and placed it on a lazy susan, and photographed it at different angles. I think it turned out well, it was a real joy to work on and working with David is always a pleasure. Fishinkblog 7151 Joe McLaren 4

How do you go about researching a topic.. google… photographs…personal sketches on site etc ? How important is a stetchbook to your work ? Do you have a range of materials that you prefer to work with the most ? If so what are they ?

Most jobs do start with picture research. I have a huge collection of books, but nothing beats Google images if you need to remind yourself right away exactly what the plumage on a mallard looks like or something. The things I illustrate are so varied that actual drawing from life tends not to be appropriate or would take too long, but I would like to do more. I do have a sketchbook, and it tends to get cluttered up with all sorts of other things besides work, like shopping lists etc. Fishinkblog 7156 Joe McLaren 9 Fishinkblog 7154 Joe McLaren 7 Fishinkblog 7155 Joe McLaren 8

What are your future plans ? areas you’d still like to move into ?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m hoping to produce some landscape work soon for an exhibition, and I have about 12 different ideas for children’s books at different stages of development which I hope I’ll have time to finish sometime. Fishinkblog 7152 Joe McLaren 5

I noticed that you had created some more colourful work with churches and birds in gardens (a little watercoloury in feel). Was this created to move away from the bold line work you’re so well known for , or just a personal project or commission where you fancied a different approach to your more usual style ?

I did produce quite a lot of stuff like that in the mid ’00s when I used to share an annual open house exhibition in Brighton with another illustrator, Oliver Hydes. That was before I’d really discovered scraperboard, and it was the scraperboard that clients started asking for, so the other style did fall away a bit. Fishinkblog 7153 Joe McLaren 6

Your work is already a ‘ familiar face’ gracing numerous covers in the bookshops on the street and online. Did it take a long time for this area to develop, are there any particular books that you’d love to design the covers for ?

I’ve been doing book covers since 2008, which was the same year I went full-time as a freelance illustrator, and it’s been the bulk of what I’ve done since. I’ve already illustrated an edition of Alice in Wonderland for White’s Books, which was a dream come true, and I’ve just finished lots and lots of special edition covers for the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, which would have floored the 13 -year-old me! I was fully paid up member of the fan club then. I’d love to do an illustrated book about Robin Hood or King Arthur.

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I recently covered the work of Paul Bommer, who has also done some work with the ‘gentle author’ on his Spittlefields site. I wonder if you were familiar with his work, as I feel there are similarities with your illustrations too. It seems you both have a desire to draw old England and are inspired by the likes of Edward Bawden etc (and who wouldn’t be lol).

I love Paul Bommer’s work! It does recall some of the same things as some of my work, but he has this really lovely way with tone and density and humour that really reminds me of the work of John Vernon Lord, who was one of my favourite illustrators. Thanks so much Joe for your time in answering these questions and by doing so, you give us much more of an insight into what makes you the artist we find here today. Superb work and good luck with the gallery exhibition you mentioned earlier and your new role as a dad too : ) Do keep us posted re the details of the exhibition and thanks again for your honest insights.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2014 9:42 am

    Wonderful work, I love the toads in particular. It reminds me of The Curwen Press.

  2. 54paintings permalink
    May 1, 2014 1:00 pm

    Lovely work. Hope all goes well for you and the op. I shall be daring and send you this X.

    • May 1, 2014 2:29 pm

      I much appreciate your daring, and the op went fine thank you. Amazingly it was all over in just three hours and they were kicking me out of the door.. progress eh lol Hopefully it will be business as usual before we know it. I think people recoup quicker at home anyway. The dogs been training with her chicken soup recipe and she’s got it perfect now : )

  3. 54paintings permalink
    May 2, 2014 2:33 pm

    Chicken soup is crucial.Way better to be home, I was in overnight last year and just wanted to be back home asap, regardless of feeling completely rubbish!

  4. May 2, 2014 2:40 pm

    We’re simply creatures of habit, and hospitals aren’t conducive places for either sleep nor relaxation. Home works best : )


  1. the Magic of Discworld Hardbacks – Words. And artsy things.

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