How every picture tells a story

For illustrator and lecturer the joy of an illustration is that it has a story to tell – or should, at the very least, trigger some flight of fantasy in the mind of the viewer. For Russell Walker the best illustration is a combination of colour, line and imagination.

He is an ebullient, engaging figure when you meet him and his seemingly boundless energy is reflected in the stylised and quirky nature of his work. As well as being a senior lecturer at the Ipswich-based University Campus Suffolk (UCS), has spent 30 years as a professional illustrator working for such high profile clients as EMI Records, Marks & Spencer, the BBC, British Airways, Oxford University Press, Cosmopolitan Magazine and the National Children’s Museum.

The university’s new Waterfront Gallery is currently played host to a new retrospective exhibition of Russell’s work which is unique because not only are his finished illustrations on display but also his sketchbooks and ideas books, so students can see how the genesis of a piece of art comes together.

Entitled Friends and Acquaintances, the exhibition also a strong musical flavour because many of the works on show were inspired by the music that Russell was listening to when the work was being created.

On the wall next to the workbooks and test drawings is a collection of iconic album covers which represent a widespread collection of musical influences which run from David Bowie’s Heroes to Grace Jones’ Pull Up To The Bumper to the James Bond These You Only Live Twice.

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He said he suggested staging an exhibition as his last solo show was ten years ago in London and felt it would be a good thing for his students to see that their tutor can actually produce work rather than just talk to them about their work.

“My last exhibition was in 2000 at the Conningsby Gallery in London and frankly I thought it was time for another one. But, from having the idea it takes at least a year to pull an exhibition together. If truth be told, I needed another four or five months just to get everything I wanted in here but we’ve got to go with what I’ve got at present.” He said that this current exhibition showcases just over a 100 drawings but there were more he wanted to include but just needed more time to pull them all together.

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The exhibition is a retrospective drawn from all phases of a 30 year career and it is the sheer variety of his work that he wanted to demonstrate and wanted to illustrate to students how to work to a brief and yet retain a sense of identity. “It’s all about putting your own individual stamp on the work.”

He said that as he is senior lecturer on the graphic design and illustration course, he felt it was important to get some colour and illustration work in the new gallery – if only to draw comparisons between fine art and illustration, which at times appears to be two disciplines separated by a common language.

The immediate sensation which hits you when you enter the gallery is how simple and effective the images before you are. Visually the work is very strong. Simple lines and bold, intelligent use of colour, draw you in to the picture. Equally important there is a strong undercurrent of humour running through the pieces on show and also a nice subversive element which suggests that perhaps you should not take what you are seeing at face value.

It all combines to get the brain working and you can’t help creating stories and scenarios around the characters that Russell has created. He has the knack of creating characters and scenes which have that rare ability to take on a life of their own. They seem to have an existence which is independent of the picture they were created for. The fact that the majority of his work is either abstract or stylised, helps to make that leap into a fictional world beyond the gallery wall.

It also helps that the images take on a whole new life when framed up on the wall. Works which previously had only been seen within the pages of a magazine, take on a whole new life when given space to breathe within an exhibition setting. Just the act of framing and mounting the work, helps set the pictures free from their commercial origins.

Russell admits that sifting through 30 years of work was a vast undertaking which, at times threatened to take over his life. “I have been designing, illustrating, creating, inventing for years but I teach now and my job is to help a new generation to design, create and invent. He said that the key to this retrospective was not only to show the work of the artist, but to illustrate the influences on the artist and put the work in context of the time.

“When you put a retrospective together, you start at the beginning and you work your way forward. I thought that’s fine I can do that, I have some work I can put up there but that’s not enough. As an educator I have got to show the students the method by which the work arrived. “When you see most exhibitions, when you see exhibitions by Saul Bass and Paul Round you see the finished work you don’t see the mechanics, the smoke and the mirrors. If you look at it as a conjuring trick, you see the act, you hear the crowd applaud but you don’t get to see the trap-door at work. So I thought I would come up with an exhibition which takes them through the whole process. You see the finished piece of work up on the wall but I have brought my sketch books along to show how you go from having no idea, to having an idea, to developing that idea to ending up with something.” He said it was something akin to artistic archaeology.

He said that the breadth of his experience was also important because it showed that you could reflect different employers requirements and yet the work could remain identifiably yours. “It’s like being a musician. The really successful musician has to be able to come up with a huge range of material. You can’t keep reworking the same song over and over again. The same applies in the film world. The really successful film directors work with a huge range of material. Look at Spielberg. One year he’ll do Raiders of the Lost Ark, then he’ll do Schindler’s List, then there’s Jaws, then there’s Catch Me If You can, then there’s Saving private Ryan. There’s a whole range of material and subject matter there and it’s all done in different styles.

“I have been working as a professional illustrator and designer for 35 years for loads of different people – I have worked for television, books, concept ideas and by sharing that experience I am doing my job, transferring knowledge and experience from one generation to another.”

He said that teaching is something which has gone on from as long as man has existed. “In ancient societies when a youngster started making a canoe, a tribal elder would pass on the tricks of the trade. He would pass on the knowledge that he had gathered over a lifetime and the information that was originally passed to him all those years ago.”

He regarded the exhibition as an act of liberation. “How do I help unlock a young person’s brain. I do I help them gain access to their full potential, enable them to do the thing they love. How do I liberate them? Hopefully this exhibition will help and it’s a joy to do it.”

On a personal level, he did say, it was wonderful to renew his acquaintance with some favourite characters – creations like Joe Lion who comes across as a blend of Biggles and Dan Dare, mixing elements of biplane heroics with space travel technology.

Other iconic creations include arch villains The Bitch and a shady organisation called The Leaf which were part of a campaign which never got off the ground which Russell remains very fond. So much so he and the writers had an entire storyline for them all mapped out. “It was part of a commission for Chrysalis Television. They had an idea of running a little 30 second cartoon every night of the week and we had come up with two evil twins called Fricker and Freida and they would manipulate The Leaf to their evil bidding. It was around the time of The Spice Girls and Girl Power and commercially it was the right time for the girls to dominate the guys.

“Sadly the concept never got off the ground, but I really enjoyed working on it and the enthusiasm for the idea made me come up with some great designs.” He said that the colours, the design, the fonts and type-face used all combine to set the images in a time and place which is why research is important.

Fortunately not all the work went to waste as Freida’s pet poodle was re-used in an animal A-Z when he reinvented the creature as a Zeboodle – a cross between a zebra and a poodle.

n Russell Walker’s Friends And Acquaintances exhibition runs at the UCS Waterfront Gallery until December 23.

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