Wednesday, 9 February 2011


My wife and I really like the work of Paul Catherall a London-based printmaker and illustrator. I believe his work fits into and covers some of the ground we have been looking at on The Design for Visual Communication Course. I took a chance and contacted Paul and asked him if he would let me ask him some questions about his work. He said yes straight away and turned out to be a very nice chap and very accommodating. Here’s what he had to say, enjoy.

Tim: What age were you when you decided that you wanted to be an illustrator?

Paul: Emm .... I'd say .... I would say .... Emm ...., I'm stuck on the first question .... Emm .... It should be an easy one (laughter) and should be the most direct, shouldn't it?!! Well, I did sixth form and I did art A level and enjoyed it, but I can't say that I ever particularly thought that far in advance ... I think that was more to do with my age, rather than not thinking about any particular career, I just didn't think that far in advance anyway, you know, but I did an Art Foundation course, after my A levels, and I suppose then I thought, well, I'll at least pursue it, even just in further education. Realistically, I only really considered it in the third year of my degree, in which case, I would have been about 22 and again, that was probably more down to the fact that I didn't think more than a year in advance. So, I was in my third year and I thought .... well, I've gotta do something (laughter) and what am I going to do? I'm going to finish soon (laughter), so realistically then, I had more exposure of visiting illustrators coming to see us and realising that you can do it and possibly making a living out of it, but it wasn't one of those things where there was a job .... you more or less had to be free-lance, whereas, I think, years and years ago, you know, maybe in the fifties and things like that, you could get a job as a draughtsman or an illustrator in a company, or for an advertising company, or something like that, where, you know, you would do visuals and drawings, but, you know, that sort of all died out. So, yeah, last year of my degree.

Tim: At that stage, were you doing the linocutting?Paul: A little bit, On the degree (my degree was graphic design, where I specialised in illustration) and I can remember we did a little workshop in the print room - didn't do loads, but I did a bit of lino cutting then and I really enjoyed it (Yeah) but Emmm, again, you know, I think education is given to people at the wrong time (laughter)

Tim: funny enough I should have done this course (Design for Visual Communication) when I left school not when I am in my 40’s.

Paul: Well, you know, that's another thing. And even though I'm the same person, you know, at college, I enjoyed doing linocutting, but I was was still, you know, more interested in my social life and music and girls and, you know, all those things that people are interested in. So, yeah, I never really thought that seriously about it.

Tim: From what I've read about you ... you've been influenced by people like Tom Eckersley, Edward Wadsworth, Tom . I've looked into some of their work and I can see why you might have been influenced by them, but what is it that actually attracted you to their work?

Paul: People like Eckersley, Wadsworth and Purvis and Edward 'McKnight Kauffer have probably been more of an influence since I've been actually print-making, which is about thirteen years now, so this will probably answer you question in advance, but I started doing the prints, seriously, in like 1998, and previous to that, I was an illustrator, but I only did oil paintings, but when I started doing the prints, I obviously looked a lot more closely at the prints and like the classic travel posters and 20th century designers like the ones we just mentioned, and, even though I would have appreciated them when I was at college, and when I started, I began to appreciate them more from the act of printmaking and what I thought would make a good print, and simplicity of print, that's when I began to appreciate them more, so I think it's that case of .... with print you are trying to get, to a certain extent, the most effective message in the simplest terms... that's what I wanted to do with it and that's what these guys did and once you see simple images that work, and once you've tried to do simple images that work, you realise how bloody hard it is and your appreciation grows even more, you know. So, they weren't the sort of people that I was devouring at college; it came later on.

Tim: Who were you mainly interested in at college?
Paul: When I was at college, it was mainly Cezanne and a few kinda post impressionists like Gauguin and British painters like Sickert and that, again, was because it was related to the work, so that it became the style that I did and the painting that I did and they kinda related to that. What I really liked when I was in college was doing lifepainting and life drawing. I mean I would have been happy doing that all day, every day and, I'd kinda worked out that the way I painted was a little bit like bad versions of what these guys, you know it made me appreciate their stuff even more, you know. But I've always like Cezanne, always liked him.

Tim: I also read that you like Soviet propaganda stuff - is that right?
Paul: Yeah .... yeah, that's more of a thing, in terms of general striking posters and monumental aspect of the use of colour. I mean, I'm kinda lumping them in with the travel posters of Britain, as well.

Tim: We went to Budapest, last year and that was, previously, under Communist rule. There's a park there, where some clever person has put all the old Soviet statues and just stuck them there. They're amazing structures and you can take the most amazing photos and they had all these, sort of, posters there in the museums. In fact, they have a museum called The Museum of Terror. We went meant to be there for a few days, but we ended up being stuck in the ash cloud and being there for two weeks (laughter). We had to get a coach home 26 hours (laughter). They had some fantastic stuff there. They were selling these Tshirts instead of the three tenors they have THE THREE TERRORS .... so they've got like Stalin, Lenin etc (laughter).

Tim: Your book illustrations ... do you go about these in a different way, than say the posters for the Underground, or the other commissions that you do? Do you use the same medium?

Paul: It's the same effort yeah. Everything I do is linocut. In fact the book work is a commission that has to answer to a brief quite carefully. The general approach is the same, the general basis is the same. I'll get a job and I'll sit there and draw it and work out the best way that I can do it, but if I am doing something for London Transport, as opposed to doing my own print, where you can be a little bit more creative with it, then you will agonize over this and that and it's all because, you want it to look good, but, if you're doing a book cover, there are so many people who have to approve it, and so you have a tendency to be a bit staid and a bit careful, because anything you try to do that's different, that they don't want, you know that you're just going to have to do it again. I like the job of being an illustrator. I like doing stuff and for it to get 'out there' and I suppose it's a bit old-fashioned of me, but I like the fact that I trained to be an illustrator and I'm doing what people want me to do. Because you have artistic license, it allows you to do your own thing - what you want to do and you have got your own standards, But if you're answering a brief, and someone has commissioned you, then they're expecting you to do that thing which you're known for, so you've got to do it. You can't just go off and do something completely different and wacky. You've got to stick to t brief!

Tim: Yes, I noticed - you may disagree - but I looked at your work for London Underground and I looked at some of your commissioned work, say The Jubilee Campus, and they seem to be a lot more abstract. Is that because you've been given a lot more freedom, to do what you want?

Paul: There's a little bit of that. There's also a little bit of the fact that when I've tried to do stuff (say like now) or recently – like the Jubilee Campus thing - and I'm trying to do stuff that goes towards semi-abstraction, you know, just move it on a bit. So, mostly, where I get a commission now, when I can get away with it !, in that kinda new style and, you know, making something that's recognisable, but .... then great - and some people have let me do it, like the Southbank Centre, have let me do stuff like that - whereas, I still do book jackets now and they have to be a little bit more, you know, pictorial .... like old style ....

Tim: Do they ever send it back and say, you know, we don't like it?
Paul: Well, you know, the things is ... Photoshop is a great thing, you know a blessing and a nightmare, because it enables people to do what, ten years ago, they couldn't. Take for example, ten years ago, when I'd do illustrations/paintings, if I did something wrong, then I'd have to sort it out, you'd have to mask stuff off, redo it, whereas now, if someone doesn't like something in my illustration, then you know they'll ask me and say, can you take that out. For example, I literally did a book cover, which I just finished a week ago, and it's called Visions of England, and they wanted it to look like the archetypical English landscape village ....bunting ... everything kinda anything English that you could think of ..... and I put a little village postbox in the foreground, and the author and editor of the place, thought it just looked a bit too, kind of, Englishy, villagey ... they said it looked more like Postman Pat than it did of like Elgar or something like that (laughter) so they just Photoshopped it out and, on the book cover, you'd never know. I think some people would be really annoyed, but I've always distanced myself from it .... I'm not that precious about stuff that is commissioned (Right) If it's my stuff, then I am concerned about it, and you know, they're paying I'm an illustrator, and they've asked me to do something, but I realise that the art director has his say, the editor has his say and the author has his say, and the sales people have their say and you have to please everyone. And so .... (And that's difficult to do, isn't it) Some people are a bit too precious and so what I say is then "Why are you an illustrator?" You know.... "No ones' asking you to do commissions, so just do your own stuff." (Yeah) " But, if you're going to be an artiste, then just go and be an artiste, and do your own stuff."

Tim: Do you set yourself a time limit to work within when doing an illustration or does it depend on the subject?
Paul: It just depends, yeah. Cos It's really a process (Yeah). Everything takes ages, basically. Everything takes a long time. So, I always just try and work quite hard and I try and get stuff done, you know, squeeze as much out of the day as I can. But after that, it's about practicality and work ethic as much anything else.

Tim: So, say you're asked to do something like a House of Commons print, like you've done of other London landmarks, how would you begin the process? Would you take photos of it?

Paul: Yeah. Drawings? I'd always go and take photos, because it's a really long-winded process and because 89% of my stuff is landmarks/landscapes – well urban landscapes - I'll always go and take photos. However, time permitting, I'll sit there and draw. A couple times I've got some nice jobs from London Transport, and I've got a bit of time, the I'll just go and sit there for a day, as well, and draw it all. But that's a little bit of a luxury, because, again, it's so time-consuming I'm always trying to think of the time involved (Yeah) but it's a way of getting so much information and, you know, I shoot off a load of photos and then the real work begins when I get all those photos in front of me and then draw them. In fact, that's where the proper work is. When I was at college, I used to be a little bit like I would never draw from photos .... you know "That's a crime .... everything has to be from life, you know" (laugh) However, now I realise that it's great to use photos but if you use them badly, then the what you come out with will be terrible. A lot of people probably think that I go and take a photo and then turn it directly into a print, but that is something that you can never do because it looks just awful and you can tell know, people could tell. My real work is getting all the references together and then designing something from the records I've got. And, even though I might use a photo as a kind of template, an individual template, you really have to adjust everything so that it looks just right.

Tim: Is there a process where you are taking stuff away all the time from the image, as you have said in the past 'less is more’?

Paul: Yeah. You do it, and then you do it again and again and you're taking a little bit more off the image.

Tim: Until you get to the point where you're happy with it?
Paul: Yes, that's more or less exactly what I do. I draw it onto tracing paper, as a sketch, and then I trace over my first drawing, so that, all the time, I'm re-drawing my own drawing, without having to do it from scratch again. So, that's why it's so time-consuming. Yeah. (laughter) But, that's why I'll do three or four sketches on their own and then I'll analyise them and then pick the one that looks kinda right and then re-draw over that i.e trace over the bare essentials and then keep doing that. And so I generally start off with a reasonably detailed sketch and then I draw and draw and draw and then it gets tighter and tighter and tighter as time goes on and then I almost turn it, almost, into a technical drawing, so that it turns into just pure lines, where I'm just trying to simplify and just think about how I can turn it into a print and just keep paring it down, basically and even just building it up sometimes, you know ...

Tim: Has there ever been a time where you've found it very difficult to get
it to look the way you wanted it to look, you know? Have you ever felt defeated?

Paul: (Laughs) Yeah .... Mmmm

Tim: What's been the hardest illustration?
Paul: What sticks out as being the hardest one? I did St Pancras and it wasn't difficult because of the detail in the building, it was more difficult because of the overall shape of the building. People view St Pancras as a whole, so that, in their minds, they are almost seeing it in 3D. do you know what I mean? It's almost as they see it as a model. Everyone knows what St Pancras looks like. However, it is different from every single view, so that there is not really any one iconic view of it, especially because of where it is, and there's so much stuck around it and I had to get it to a point where you could really see most of the building, make it simple, and get it to be the iconic view and try and get some angles on it .... and it's really wide and tall. So, it wasn't anything to do with the detail really, it was more that it was a bit awkward to get a good angle on it (and there's too much stuff around it!). But, they're all difficult ............ I've struggled on all of them, but that's the only way to make them good. I think, if it's not a struggle, then it's not going to be good!

Tim: One of the other things I've noticed in your, is your use of colour. You use very vibrant colours. Why is that? For example, would you use a colour chart, or is it just what works well with the image ?
Paul: Yeah, I mean ..... the choice of colour is influenced by those guys I mentioned Eckersley, Wadsworth and Purvis and Mike Cowper they were really brilliant colourists, but what I like about all that stuff, about all those mid-turn-of-the-century designers, is their use of secondary colours, for example, they use lots of purples and pinks. Also lots of greys, but with lots of colours within the greys - not just flat greys – like greeny greys, blue greys .... lots of different reds too and secondary colours which are really bright. And the way those colours sit with each other, I feel, it is an art (Mmmm) and to get the balance right .... this is especially what I'm interested in .... getting the balance of colours right, because I think it's really hard.

Tim: So, you get the colours by mixing certain inks together?
Paul: Well what I used to do is that I'd have them in my head. So I'd have the line drawing in my head, drawn out and then I'd write the colour in, so that it was almost like a colour by number ... grey sky, red building ... but I'd just have it in my head and then when I'd print, I print the first colour, and say you were doing 20 prints, you'd print 20 grey skies and then you'd do the next colour by 20 and you'd adjust the colours, as you'd be going through the process. However, these days, I nearly always do a colour visual, a painted visual ... I map it out so that I. more or less, know ..... but even then, it very often changes when you do the printing, where the colours overlay.

Tim: Sometimes you've used different colours for the same illustration, why is that?

Paul: Well, it's kinda in your head, so that you have an idea of what a print should have ie a red sky. I don't know where it comes from, but it just comes to you really. I just love colour and the interaction of colour. I also love the colour depth, the flat colour and how colours work next to each other and how they create depth and illusion, you know, having a purple next to a green say ...

Tim: Your Elephant & Castle print is a bright pink and my children love that, as they associate E&C with being pink (laughter). However, say with your Canary Wharf print, it's called Canary Olive and that's not necessarily a colour that you'd associate with Canary Wharf.

Paul: Yeah, you know, I don't really know where that came from. But, you know, there's so much grey in the CW building that I suppose, in my head, I know what really works well with grey, esp if you put a few colours, the vibrant colours in there. So, it's almost like having a little colour chart in your head, as to what works with what .... I don't know. (Laughter) It's just what comes out. There's no particular message or ..... I read a review about me once where it said that I had a wry sense of humour because I put a communist red sky, in the background of the flat iron building of New York. But, of course, that didn't enter my head at all! I just thought, a red sky is going to look lovely against all those greys. And that's it ! (Laughter) It was nothing to do with making a political statement at all. It was just, basically .... what works with what? Right, OK.

Tim: Have you ever been asked to do any record sleeves?

Paul: Nope.

Tim: Is that something you'd like to do?

Paul: Def yeah. Well once I was asked to do something for the Kooks. But it was one of those silly situations where someone didn't really know what they were commissioning and they rang up my illustration agent (sounds flash having an agent, but it means bugger all !) and they were just kinda so vague about what they wanted, and also had no idea of how long something takes, they rang up on Friday and asked if they could see something by Monday (Laughter) so we just sort of said .... Forget it! I am interested in doing it and know how to do it, but I don't know if I'd be asked to do it for the style of music I like. Actually I was asked to do an illustration for Mojo once, years ago, and was asked to do one for a Franz Ferdinand review. But, I had another job on and they wanted me to do it in three days, but I just couldn't do it. So, that was that. You need time.

Tim: I'm really interested in artwork on record sleeves ....

Paul: I would have loved to have done a record sleeve in the 70s 80s.

Tim: If you had a choice, which band would you have chosen to do a sleeve for?

Paul: The Jam, I would of loved to of done the cover for Sound Effects.

At this point we went off on a tangent and started talking about our love for all things Jam, that’s the group not what you put on your toast in the morning.

Check out Paul at work @

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