1950's commercial art studio.
Here in the UK, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the term ‘commercial artist’ began transitioning into ‘graphic designer’, even though the Royal College of Art had named one of its courses ‘graphic design’ in the early 1950s. It still took years for it to filter through those many dusty commercial art studios dotted around London. I know because I worked in two of them near Fleet Street in the early sixties, where everyone referred to themselves as ‘commercial artists’. But I think the change of name occurred because the ‘commercial’ aspect of the original description was deemed rather downmarket – certainly less refined than the more continental description, where the graphic designer was not only more respected but also seen in a more serious and cerebral light.
Eventually, we all happily became ‘graphic designers’, leaving behind the old description. But, actually, on reflection, the former title is far more honest.
The commercial artist’s proposition is very straightforward: they address a client’s requirements and get paid for the service. That’s the ‘commercial’ bit. Our intelligence, imagination and artistry are the other bit.
Conversely, ‘fine’ artists grapple with their own inner issues: they are the client, so they do the rejecting. Ultimately, their work is for sale, often through an intermediary like a gallery or, increasingly these days, on the web. Unless you are fortunate, it is, for many, a precarious way to make a living, being self-employed, with overheads and no holiday pay, maternity leave or pension etc, but nevertheless, an intellectually rewarding way to live a life.
Lucian Freud in his studio.
In the 50 odd years that I have been in this business of graphic design, I have known many designers who dreamt of turning their backs on the ‘commercial world’, opting to dedicate their lives to pursuing a personal furrow, leaving behind all that frustration, hassle and compromise of dealing with clients. The difficult ones. The frighten ones. The ones who take forever to pay. Few actually ever achieve this, of course, apart from a little painting, pottery, photography, writing or any other creative pursuit at the weekend or whenever it can be squeezed in. I know because I have delved deeply into many of these areas over various periods of my life. And those of us who have sold a little of our work in galleries know that, in our heart of hearts, it’s not the real deal being part-time artists.
Jenny Saville in her studio.
In the late 1990s, illness forced me to take several months off work. Over the weeks convalescing, I started to paint again, after a ten-year gap. Each day I would work away in my studio, free from the distractions of running a company, with all its complications of money, rent, staff and clients. As the months slipped away, I became more confident, less hesitant and more intuitive in my painting. I was excited and creatively challenged – it was wonderful and, importantly, I was elated by the results of my endeavour. But, eventually, I had to return to my day job. Very quickly, all of the pressures, distractions and problems returned, and that short-lived delightful freedom, confidence and excitement ebbed away, along with my brushes, like the evening tide.
Judy Buxton in her studio.
Heart of the country: an illustration from David Gentleman’s In the Country
To my mind, you can’t ever be a free artist while keeping that commercial hat firmly on. It corrupts and saps creative energy and diminishes pure, unsullied thought. The only British designer I know who has straddled both worlds successfully is David Gentleman. But, actually, I have never viewed him as a commercial animal – clients are drawn to his work and want him, particularly his wonderful drawing and painting ability. I have often imagined that he was born holding a pencil and brush. His brilliant graphic work is not that plentiful when compared to his wealth of paintings, illustrations and engraved prints. So, if anything, David came from the other direction: as an illustrator/painter/engraver to the occasional graphic designer.
Eric Ravilious, Interior at Furlongs, 1939.
Eric Ravilious is another, but because of his close association with ‘commercial’ commissions, he is rather looked down upon by the art ‘establishment’ as being rather ‘decorative’ and lightweight (that was the view of critics on the BBC’s arts programme Front Row when reviewing last year’s retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery) – an absolute insult to his beautiful work. Consequently, his work sells at the modest end of the art establishment scale.
Above Bryan Illsley in his studio and examples of his work.
We now live in an age where the individual can self-promote globally 24/7, at the click of a button. Superb indigo and giclée printing have made the idea of limited-edition prints far easier to produce, but we all know that this method of printing is not really ‘limited’ in the true sense of fine art printing, where plates are used and then destroyed at the end of the run. But, no matter: there are now thousands of graphic designers and illustrators from around the world selling their ‘works’, ‘editions’ and ‘series’, whatever, online and yes, I am occasionally one of them.
Sandra Blow in her studio.
But to view this work as serious ‘art’ is, well, wishful thinking. At best, they are graphic designers producing graphic-design-like work but void of a client’s brief. Why do I say this? Well, when you talk to or read about a ‘fine artist’, one begins to understand the importance and necessity of being completely divorced from the ‘commercial world’. The artists I have known, and still do obsessively agonise in their search for personal expression. This is often solitary and stressful, involving living frugally with an inner self-belief when others might doubt. The journey can be very long and arduous. Often, fine artists intentionally remove themselves from our world, living in isolated places, cutting themselves off from the noise and distraction of social media.
Keith Cunningham 1955 in his studio.
You may recall last year that I helped stage a show of the work of artist Keith Cunningham. He had died in 2014 leaving behind a treasure trove of unseen paintings, spanning the mid-1950s to his death. With financial support from many of my Facebook and Blog friends (thank you all again) we were able to show his work at the Hoxton Gallery in Clerkenwell, it attracted a lot of great press, and included a visit from Frank Auerbach, a fellow student of Keith's while they were students at the RCA in the early 1950's. Happily, paintings sold during the week-long show, and Keith's widow, Bobby, had fulfilled her ambition to let people finally see her late husband work.
An example of Keith Cunningham's work from the mid-1950's
Since that show in 2016, the most amazing thing has happened. A few months back Damien Hirst viewed the remaining work and purchased the lot including sketches, notebooks and in fact anything that Keith put his hand too. Keith Cunningham was a quiet, unassuming and highly secretive man dedicated to painting, something he did every day for decades, rarely exhibiting publicly. He funded his passion by teaching 2 days a week at London College of Printing (now LCC) and taking on the occasional book jacket. He died leaving a studio packed to the ceiling with paintings, slowly gathering dust. He would have been amazed that his work now resides in a private Foundation.
Tony Kaye still at it, now living in LA, I Am A Lemon 2011
Another eccentric character is the highly acclaimed award-winning commercials director Tony Kaye. He wanted to move into the world of conceptual art. He came up with ‘hype art’ and apparently tried to hijack the opening of a Damien Hirst exhibition featuring his medical installations at the White Cube gallery. Kaye hired some siren wailing ambulances to cruise around the block to ‘hype’ the show. Another Kaye stunt was paying a homeless man to travel with him into art galleries around the world in an attempt to exhibit the chap as ‘Roger, by Tony Kaye’. Kaye said in a subsequent interview: “I was part of the BritArt, Damien Hirst thing... I got left behind.” The art establishment would have no truck with him.
Bob Crossley in his studio.
The art establishment infrastructure is fiercely protective, filled with knowledgeable curators, art historians and experts acting as keepers of the gate, along with the many West End galleries and international auction houses. The curators from this world seek out talent from the major art schools like Slade, CSM, RCA or the many artists working out of collective studio spaces. They follow, nurture and encourage their prodigies in the hope that they will blossom. Fine artists have to prove themselves in order to get that special key for access to this rarefied world of the major museums and galleries, and it requires a totally immersive, single-minded dedication to their art in order to get a look in.
Rose Wylie in her studio.
As we all know, the finished product, the artwork itself, is ultimately a ‘commercial’ proposition to be sold, often as no more than a financial investment. The major art auction houses in Britain have had some bumper sales in recent years. Just strolling around the recent Frieze London show, one could see first-hand the sheer wealth being flaunted; Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Manolo Blahnik and Issey Miyake are all there in a catwalk of opulence, not on models but punters. Most are there to find a piece of art with ‘good potential for capital growth’ on their investment. And the West End galleries are there to lure them into their bespoke lairs, furnished and designed like top-end minimalist spaces, with sartorially immaculate salesmen and women, who have no difficulty in saying “that one is £350,000” while offering you a glass of chilled Dom Perignon and a canapé. So far removed from the lives of the many thousands of solitary fine artists beavering away in their little garrets, or shared workspaces, unless you happen to be Damian, Tracey or Anish.
Above Andy Warhol the 'commercial artist' in 1944
Interestingly, Andy Warhol started out as a commercial illustrator and a very successful one at that. As Art Director Tina Fredericks of Glamour magazine noted, “He was fast, and that, in combination with intelligent, adaptable, and really good, made him an art director’s dream come true.” But he gave that up, donned a blond wig, black leather jacket, blue jeans and shades and created a new persona. He moved into the world of pop art, ironically turning a throwaway piece of commercial packaging for Brillo into an icon of 20th-century art.
Above Andy as superstar
Peter Blake working at his studio desk.
Peter Blake has always been a darling of the graphic design world ever since he produced the album cover for ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Before that, he was a Royal College of Art-trained fine artist. But today, he is even a Royal Designer for Industry, such was his illustrious brush with the design world. But I suspect with Blake, and any other fine artist, when commissioned, you don't get “I don’t like the colour”, “can you make this bigger?”, “can we have a bit of this one and that one?” or “you haven’t fulfilled the brief”. You get what you’re given. That’s how it should be if you want to remain true to yourself.
Tracey Emin, True Love Always Wins (2016).
Eddie Peake, Sweat (2016).
David Shrigley, Life Is Fantastic (2016). All three were examples of the 2016 Rio Olympics posters by fine artists.
But here's a thing that's always bugged me. When fine artists have been shoehorned into the graphics arena via the establishment (e.g. the 2012 Olympic posters and those for the more-recent 2016 Rio Olympics), the results have been highly embarrassing, with cries and protests from the graphic fraternity. These works are often presented by the art establishment, and in the case of the Rio Olympics, poster collection was unveiled at the Tate by various dignitaries, elevating the results to ‘high art’, but looking like an extremely amateurish piece of graphic design. But of course no mention of that from the protective art establishment. Indeed they praise these efforts up to the hilt and the press go along with it too.
So, it would seem that few graphic designers ever get through the quagmire of the art establishment. But for the fine artist, it’s no problem to gatecrash our world and get high praise for their work to boot.