This incredible art was made using... a typewriter!
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
The beauty of art means you can take near enough any medium, and use it to create something that is timeless, stunning and thought-provoking.
Whether that’s paint, pencil, charcoal, chalk or clay – the possibilities are endless.
But one local artist uses typewriters to create his art.
That’s right – typewriters.
James Cook of Braintree has spent the past seven years perfecting the skill of typewriter art – with his work adored by both local art fans and Hollywood celebrities.
But how did he first discover he could even do such a thing?
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“When I was studying A Levels, we were given the task to research an artist that uses strange or unique objects to make art. That’s when I came across an American artist called Paul Smith, and soon became fascinated with his story,” explains the architecture graduate.
Born in 1921, artist Paul Smith suffered with cerebral palsy, and was unable to walk or talk for most of his life.
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“Because of his condition, he couldn’t hold a pencil - but a typewriter gave him this mechanical precision he needed to keep control when making art. As soon as I read his story, I thought I needed to give it a go.”
Fascinated by this quirky artform, James soon ventured out to his local charity shops on the hunt for a typewriter so he could get started.
“I eventually managed to find one, and to this day it’s still the same one I use for most of pieces. It’s the one I always go back to as it’s the one I learned on.”
Over the past seven years, James has amassed a collection of 30 typewriters. These range from the 1930s all the way to the late 1990s.
Using these, he has since gone on to create over a hundred drawings.
“As I was learning, it was brilliant because there were 70 years’ worth of other artists’ drawings and reference materials to use. When I was learning how to do peoples’ faces for instance, I’d go back to Paul’s work and see which symbols and characters he used to create certain details.
“It’s been a complete learning process all the way through, and it's always a challenge.”
But how does he do it?
“Normally I will start by pencilling in a silhouette of the design I’m going to work on, so I know not to travel too far. Most typewriters only take A4 paper, so if you’re doing a portrait or building, you need to make sure you’ve got enough space on the page.”
James will then start in the middle of the page, working his way out.
With some of his larger pieces, he will work on multiple sheets of paper before lining them up and piecing them together.
Seven years of practice has allowed him to perfect the technique, and he has a handful of characters and symbols he relies on to create the detail in his pieces.
“If I’m doing a portrait, I always start with the eyes as your eyes tend to be drawn to those first - and nine times out of 10, they’re the hardest facial feature to get right. I’ll use bracket symbols to do the curves of the pupils, and finish with a zero in the middle. The blank part of the zero forms the glittery part of someone’s eye – and that normally brings the picture to life.
“To do soft skin, I’ll use the @ symbol, as it has quite a large surface area. And for dimpled areas, I’ll use asterisks.”
When it comes to buildings, James relies on underscores and uppercase Is to create brickwork, underscores and forwards slashes for roofs, and the letter H to create window panes.
“You have 44 keys on a typewriter, and it’s all about how you arrange those on the paper, and how they overlap and overlay to create certain shapes. You’re working within limitations, so it’s simply a process of typing over your work to build up the ink.”
James says an A4 drawing can take anywhere between nine and 15 hours to complete, and one typewriter ink ribbon will last three portraits.
“If I was working a long day, I could spend two days on a drawing,” he adds.
His hard work has certainly paid off though, as his portraits have caught the eye of national news organisations – and even a few famous faces across the pond.
“I’m a bit of a film buff, and I thought there’s a lot of fan art on Instagram but not many people have created something using a typewriter. So I started doing portraits of cast members from one of my favourite films, Napoleon Dynamite.”
James got to work with his trusty typewriter – and it wasn’t long before he caught the attention of the cult film’s lead, Jon Heder.
“Cast members started to see my work on Instagram and sent me direct messages, saying how much they loved the portraits, so I sent them over the original drawings. They were all pretty chuffed.
“Luckily that same year, Jon Heder who plays Napoleon Dynamite was in London for Comic Con, so I went to get my print signed. I gave it to him, and he recognised me as he follows me on Instagram. He couldn’t believe it was me, so I gave him the piece.”
Following that, James later appeared on The Kelly Clarkson Show, in a segment in which he typed a portrait of Blake Shelton as a child, with Kelly having to guess who it was.
While his work has made it all the way to Hollywood, James hasn’t forgotten his roots, and is currently showcasing his work at The Wonky Wheel Gallery in Finchingfield this summer.
His exhibition, which is running all the way through July, is comprised of 30 different pieces of typewriter art, including local buildings, pet portraits, vehicles, and a few famous faces.
“The theme is basically ‘being stuck at home in lockdown’. I spent a lot of time outdoors when it was allowed, visiting notable local landmarks. Families who have manor houses in the area luckily let me visit their grounds to do my drawings, so I’d turn up with a deck chair and just get to work. Everyone went out and exercised, but my lockdown exercise was going out and creating art.”
James’ impressive collection of typewriters is also on display for all the view – with many of his works slotted in them.
“All of the works have their own stories to them, and the stories behind them are just as interesting as the artwork themselves.”
To find out more about James, visit jamescookartwork.com