Stan & Ollie – Bear-a-thought Illustration

I am excited about going to see the ‘Stan and Ollie’ film released in the United Kingdom today, which is based on the lives of the actors and comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.  It stars actors Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in the respective roles.  It reminded me of a teddy bear illustration that I did of the famous black-and-white comedy duo many years ago…
stan & ollie by michael quinlyn-nixon for blogb
Whilst working on one of my teddy bear calendar themes, in 2003, I came up with the idea of famous bears and made a list of the many characters that I like, that are very recognisable by their costume or attire.  The list was very long, but some suggestions had to be scrapped and a smaller list compiled.  One of the suggestions on the list that appealed to me was Laurel and Hardy.  I had a discussion with Jennifer A. Stephenson, my friend who kindly made the outfits and other paraphernalia for the teddy bears, and she was also drawn to the idea of Laurel and Hardy too.  

In deference to the comedy duo’s fine slapstick humour, we decided to dress them in dungarees (rather than their formal black suit and ties), but, of course, we had to include the bowler hats and their distinctive neckties.  To go along with the dungarees, we created a decorating scenario with ladders, wallpaper and paint (my father, Robert, kindly made the ladders and toolbox).  Luckily one of Jennifer’s friends, the late Pat Holmes (nee Boustead – a well-known singer in the County Durham area) was decorating her home at this time, so this proved to be the ideal place in which to create our ‘Hollywood film set’. 

As it happened, shortly after the photographs were taken and the sketches were drawn, we disassembled the scene and I slipped and spilled the whole pot of banana custard coloured paint all over the floorboards.  Pat wasn’t too annoyed, as she was planning on a carpet anyway, but she could have easily used Oliver Hardy’s famous quote and stated, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”.

I remember watching Laurel and Hardy when I was young and they always made me laugh with their funny and inoffensive humour.  Stan Laurel (b: 1890 – d:1965) was my favourite, as I loved the way he scratched his head when perplexed, but Oliver Hardy (b: 1892 – d:1957) had the most amazing face, which was full of disbelief one minute and wreathed in wonderful smiles the next.

When I was a little boy, I remember my Grandfather Lake telling me that Stan Laurel had lived in County Durham for a while, but that he had been born in Cumbria.  Both of these English counties have tributes to these two wonderful men who brought so much joy to so many people’s lives.

The illustration ‘Stan & Ollie’ was started on 18 April and completed on the 5 May 2003.

My first job in 1988…

After I graduated from Cumbria Institute of the Arts in 1987, I had to find employment to put my graphic design and art history training to work.  Back then, rather like now, jobs were rather ‘thin on the ground’ and I had to do a period of voluntary work with the Citizens Advice Bureau, whilst pursuing my first step on the elusive career ladder.  I had some temporary work for Busways in Newcastle upon Tyne, but was still looking for permanent work when my former teacher at the Institute, George Thompson, rang me and told me about a job for a graphic designer in the Scottish border town of Langholm. 
ABOVE: Me, with my thinking cap on, at my desk at Ashley Bank House (you can see some of the logo designs).

I applied for the job at The Edinburgh Woollen Mill and got an interview.  They must have been fairly impressed with my presentation and my graphic work, as I started receiving some freelance work from them; this was probably to see what my work ethic and creativity were like.  The fast-and-furious deadlines were enough to give me veritable nightmares, especially as there were no such things as e-mails and sending pdfs (not that I knew of anyway).  Everything had to be hand drawn and coloured to the best of my ability and within the set timescales.  When the work was complete it was a mad dash to the Post Office in order to post the work to them in time to meet the deadline.

After a number of months doing this home-design work, I was very grateful to be given a contract in early April 1988 and started working at Ashley Bank House (a former hotel), which was part of The Edinburgh Woollen Mill’s base in Langholm.  I later went to work at Waverley Mills, where I did a lot of the design work for the marketing department.  My time was spent creating logos for the company and P.O.S (point-of-sale) material, which was a large bulk of my work during the two-years that I worked there.

I will write some more about my first job on another blog post at a later date and include some more of the work that I did for this forward-thinking knitwear company.

Rafe – Boy’s Birth Picture

I had done a birth illustration for a baby boy called Joshua back in April 2015 and his proud Grandmother, Angela, contacted me, a few months ago, to say that Joshua had recently received a baby brother, Rafe (the original spelling for the name Ralph) and that she would like to commission me to do a birth illustration for the newest member of her family.

After doing a spot of ‘homework’ about the name Rafe, I discovered that it is an old Norse/English word, which means ‘wolf counsellor’. Angela then asked me to come up with a theme for the birth illustration. I thought ‘Peter and the Wolf’ would be a nice theme for the commission and did some research about this ‘symphonic fairy tale for children’: which is a musical composition written by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936.
On his travels, young Peter (after leaving the safety of his grandfather’s house), encounters a small bird, a cat and a duck, which journey with him on his search for his adventure. Peter and the animals are all depicted by a particular instrument i.e. the cat is set to the clarinet, the duck to the oboe and Peter’s character is set to the string section of an orchestra. As the music unfolds, the different characters can be heard throughout the piece.

I wanted to create a different look for each of the characters and did a small scamp (Scamp – a first rough or mockup) before working on a more detailed sketch with characters in place. This is probably the hardest part of the whole process for me, as it’s drawing it all out and is fairly time-consuming. However, I love the process of creating the finished illustration, as all of the hours spent scamping and sketching finally start to take on a new dimension in colour, shape and texture before one’s eyes.

I was requested to keep the main character of Peter similar to the Disney cartoon, but I did suggest that we alter his hair and the colour of his clothes, as I never like to reproduce anything exactly. The small elephant on Peter’s clothes, relates to the motif on the birth announcement card that Angela received to inform her of his birth.

I am not sure when Angela is going to present her daughter with the new picture for the new arrival, but I do hope that they will like it and the thought and effort that has gone in to it from both the client and the artist…

Stop messin’ about…

Since my childhood I can remember the saucy humour of the ‘Carry On’ movies being shown on the television. Of course the risqué humour of the script was completely lost on me (I am only understanding it now, to be honest), but the slapstick fun appealed to me. Through time the films and the actors and actresses that played in them became more and more well known to me. I always had a soft spot for the matronly Hattie Jacques and the shiny-faced Joan Sims. Peter Butterworth has to be a favourite too, along with the nostril-flaring Kenneth Williams and the bespectacled Charles Hawtrey.

kenneth-williams-by-michael-quinlyn-nixon-for-blog

On Bonfire/Guy Fawkes’ Night I saw that ‘Carry on Screaming’ was being shown on the television, so I decided to sit down and watch it, as it had been one of my favourites from childhood. It features a ghoulish brother and sister who, acquiring young females by force (with the aid of two hirsute, flat-headed monsters), turned them into shop mannequins which they sold. The dastardly deeds of the siblings, played by Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding, are eventually thwarted by the sleuthing ‘skills’ of Detective Sergeant Sidney Bung, who was played by Harry H. Corbett (looking rather like the character Sherlock Holmes).

I enjoyed the film as much as ever and surprised myself by getting some of the saucy jokes, which I had never noticed before. Whilst watching I remembered that I had drawn a quick pen and ink sketch of Kenneth Williams many years ago, so I dug it out of an old and battered file. Not really sure why I drew this quick portrait, but it could have been done during a doodling lunch hour when I worked in the newspaper industry in Carlisle.

fenella-fielding-by-michael-quinlyn-nixon-colourforblog

The movie also reminded me of meeting the panther-voiced Fenella Fielding at a party at Pinewood Studios on a gloriously sunny April day (not so many years ago). As a big fan of this actress, I was lucky enough to meet her and sit beside her for a chat. I spoke to her about the deep-red, velvet dress she wore in the film, which she seemingly had to be sewn into. She also had to wear it for the whole 6-weeks of filming as they only made one! Limited budgets on those Carry On films, it would seem. But alas, the rest of that story will have to wait for another blog post…

Poppin’ in to see Mary again…

P.L. Travers started writing about the fictional English nanny, Mary Poppins, back in 1933. Little did she realise, then, that this magical character would later inspire a Walt Disney animation movie and even later still…a hit theatrical musical by Cameron Macintosh. Strange to think that a story about a dysfunctional family, saved by the intervention of a helpful nanny, would prove to be so popular.

marypoppinsby-michael-quinlyn-nixon-for-blog

I was lucky enough to see the original London musical on the 5th March 2005, at the Prince Edward Theatre, but I have also been lucky enough to see it more recently, when I took my Mother to see it this month. It was an amazing show – so magical that it was almost like being part of the magic. It caught the spirit of my childhood, so-much-so, that I have decided to see it again this evening at The Theatre Royal, Newcastle. The show, starring Zizzi Strallen and a wonderful supporting cast, has received rave reviews and I am not the least bit surprised.

I also love the Walt Disney movie, starring the lovely Julie Andrews, that was released in British cinemas on the 23 December 1964. I wasn’t born then, but I do remember seeing it at the cinema with my parents. I loved the animation sequence with the penguins and the farmyard animals, which featured the amazing voice talents of Marnie Nixon.

When it came to choosing characters for my 2005 calendar (can it really be that long since I designed that calendar?), Mary Poppins was an outright choice for me. My good friend and teddy bear costumier, Jennifer Stephenson, created the marvellous outfit for one of my bears. I loved the work that she had put into the scarf and the cherries and flowers on her hat, bearing in mind the bear was rather small and fiddly to dress.

I featured one of my favourite scenes from the movie in my Bear-a-thought illustration; when Mary Poppins flies down towards her destination: No. 17, Cherry Tree Lane. I also wanted to give the impression of the smoky background of chimneys and part of a London skyline, which features so prominently in the movie.  It’s the part of the musical which features  classic songs such as ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and ‘Step in Time’. I also had to feature The Little Old Bird Women in a later calendar, as ‘Feed the Birds’ is my favourite song in the whole film (I think it was also Walt Disney’s favourite song too, if I am not mistaken).  

I hope you enjoyed reading this blog, I could write more but I really must fffffffllllllllyyyyyyyyyyy…

P. L. Travers (b: 9 August 1899 – d: 23 April 1996) was an Australian-born British novelist and journalist.

Potty about Beatrix…

From being a young boy my Mother’s family, the Lakes, bought me copies of the charming animal stories by Beatrix Potter, so I am very familiar with them.  I am particularly fond of Jemima Puddle-duck, Squirrel Nutkin and Hunca Munca from ‘The Tale of Two Bad Mice’. Since early childhood, I have also gathered a number of friends who also love this lady’s work, including Sara, who has a particular fondness for Mrs. Tiggy-winkle.  150-years-ago today, Beatrix Potter was born in London and in this commemorative year her characters and illustrations are being featured on Royal Mail stamps and Royal Mint fifty-pence coins.  So, it would seem an appropriate moment to mention a ‘Beatrix Potter’ inspired illustration that I was commissioned to do, whilst working in Carlisle, in April 1997.
SquirrelNutkin by Michael Quinlyn-Nixon

When I worked with Sara and many of my other friends, on such publications as Cumbria Life and the Cumbrian Gazette newspapers, I was often asked to produce illustrations for the advertisements or editorial features. On one occasion, I was asked if I could draw an illustration, which was to feature on an advertisement for a very prestigious and beautiful hotel in the Lake District – famous for the red squirrels that live in the grounds. The clients asked if I could do a red squirrel pencil or watercolour illustration on a Beatrix Potter theme. I was keen to try and immediately set to sketching some red squirrels in the delicate fashion of this famous lady that has inspired me for many years. I have in no way captured the beauty of her work (I had a very short deadline to do the illustration by, as it happens!) but at least I have tried to capture the essence of her unique style and flair.

After having seen her original watercolours work at the National Trust gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria, I can only say that some of her work was so intricate and delicate that it left me speechless. I can only hope that Beatrix Potter would smile benignly on my ‘Squirrel Nutkin’ illustration, with a look that is both kind and favourable. I hope you like it too 🙂

Helen Beatrix Potter, English writer, illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist • Born: 28 July 1866 – Died: 22 December 1943

 

NB. Please note that the picture (above) is framed and this image shows some slight distortion caused by reflections on the glass.