I’m in Grade 11 at this point and it had dawned on me that I would need a portfolio by the end of Grade 12. My loose idea of the future included me popping into agencies or newspapers or graphic design studios with my large black portfolio case to see if I could get assignments. This illustration would be a start. The world didn’t care if my marks were good, even if I’d shown up on time for school. All that mattered were the sheets in my “bag”.
The assignment of the day was to get the heck out of the school and go draw something! It wasn’t as if we’d been chained to our desks, but this opportunity practically begged for some extra curricular activities. I must say that Carlos and I started out with nothing in mind. Nothing in mind but to get as quickly away from school before someone changed their mind about this idea.
Carlos had a car, but since it was a beautiful day, we lazily set out along Bloor Street. In the back of my mind was the age old question that every artist asks themselves at some point. What the hell am I going to do draw, paint…do? I certainly wasn’t a sculptor…I didn’t like photography or ceramics… I didn’t really consider myself an artist at that point.
The thing I liked most at the time was doodling cartoons. Even as a child I loved copying the Saturday cartoons and comic books for hours. You’ll notice in some of my art, there’s that same line quality that many retro comic strips used. So, as it turns out…that time wasted was actually well spent, if you get what I mean.
We continued to bumble along Bloor Street near the Annex, with Carlos aimlessly taking the odd photo of a storefront or house. I think around Bedford we spotted some houses that looked interesting…so we continued to yack, shoot and generally talk about all the things that matter most to two 19 year old boys. There was some glorious architecture in the Annex. Some of the illustrious homes of old Toronto society had now been converted into multiple unit dwellings for students and hippies. Flags for drapes and flower power signs in windows poked out beside the most proper of turreted buildings. I watched as Carlos snapped off his 36 frame roll using his little black camera. Without realizing it we ended up in Yorkville. Yorkville had a different vibe, even at that time of the day. People grouped on the sidewalk, smoking, hangin’ out. Peace signs were offered to anyone passing by. Things were just cool there.
At this point my plan for today’s assignment still hadn’t clicked for me. I was happy to oblige when Carlos suggested stepping inside a pool hall to shoot a few games. The time passed easily. The day passed easily. Too easily. With my thoughts wandering back to the purpose of the day, I thought my best shot was to use one of Carlos’s photos to sketch from. I certainly didn’t want to go back and sit on a lawn to start sketching now. The thought of panicking because I hadn’t started anything yet did not occur to me. The expectations at school were so vague, how could I fail? Carlos agreed to the plan.
The next day Carlos headed for the darkroom. Yes, kid’s that was a thing. Digital camera’s hadn’t even been dreamed of by then. The idea of having a phone that could take better photos than the camera we had…well that would have been considered pure science fiction. Hell, we didn’t even have cordless phones yet! Carlos had to take the film cartridge out of the camera then transfer the strip onto a sprocketed spool in complete darkness…
that I’m sure took some trial and error, some cursing and a moment of panic while feeling around the table to find out whether or not it had loaded. I only heard about it. The canister was then filled with developer. Timers were involved…various chemicals seemed terribly complicated. There definitely was a bit of the blind leading the blind. Carlos, jump in here man! The processed roll revealed that only 5 of the 36 frames even had an image.
The rest were either blank or black, Carlos reluctantly let me know. He was new to photography. As you can imagine, it was a tricky process back then. Moment of quiet panic as we stared at the light-table. Pondering over this development(or lack thereof), I noticed a decent shot of a Victorian home that hey! had some potential. Maybe this would be no sweat afterall.
Now, this small frame of celluloid was placed in the darkroom projector.
This part was cool. In the eerie red light the reverse image projected onto paper. If you got good at burning and dodging you could make some very cool effects. It was a lot trickier than the tools in Photoshop today. Lots of trial and error was required. ...certainly for a beginner. In the hands of a pro (so the teacher said), award winning black and white prints could be created.
Next, that sheet of paper was swished through 3 large trays of smelly chemicals, rinsed, then hung on a close line to dry. Make no mistake... At this point in time, every photographic print was produced this way...or an automated version of this.
I was kinda jealous that his project was almost over and mine hadn’t really started. But hey, that’s life. Nothing really got to me then. With a small black and white print (that I still have), I had something to work with hallelujah.
My pattern was to work at home at a wooden drafting table I had setup in the basement. It was there that I sketched and stippled for over 40 hours to create my “first” illustration. Little did I know then, but this was to become my basic way of working for the next 40 years.
Getting the shape of the building down, is the aspect that takes the most brainpower… it’s also the stage where you hate everything! The mechanical pencil was my weapon of choice to sketch, erase and sketch again, until things looked the way you want them to look. But when you exit that stage, that’s when the long hours start. Filling in line and texture using my handy Rapidograph Koh-I-Noor pen took hour upon hour of dot, dot, dot, dot dot…each dot perfectly placed to create the right shade.
This part is not stressful. In my case I put on an LP…probably the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and set down to work. This part was great. I could do it for hours….and was going to! If you don’t remember, a rapidograph (Kooh-i-Noor was the brand I had) was a fine tipped pen using an ink reservoir.
The problem was, these things were temperamental. Always clogging drying and sometimes even sending out a puddle of unexpected ink. Things often got messy. But I got into a rhythm and worked late into the night several evenings in a row. After 40 some hours of this I had the first illustration that I was really proud of.
84 Yorkville Avenue - My First Architectural Illustration
It was about this time that things fell into place for me. I started to see a direction, a career for the first time. I continued to pour this amount of effort into all my assignments. Typically the art teacher would critique everyone’s work at the front of the class. And typically there were always one or two students work that was chosen to praise. Until now, that had never been me. Now more and more I was doing great work. This felt good. It fueled my desire to do better and better work. By the time of the Graduating Student Exhibit a large amount of my work was chosen for the display. Contradictory feelings of showing-off, versus pride were new to me. As I was surveying the exhibition I overheard a conversation between my Life Drawing teacher Miss Kennedy and Still Life teacher Ms McCarthey. I heard Miss Kennedy quip “Picasso never drew a better line than that”. The drawing was made in her life class under her tutelage so she had a vested interest. But it felt good nonetheless. Was I suddenly taller? I’ll never know the context, but my ears pricked up at this. Picasso was an idol to me. She was talking about my work in the same breath as the most respected artist of my life!
A few weeks later I would sell my sketch of 84 Yorkville to my Aunt. She displayed that sketch in her parlour until she died many, many years later. I sold it for $60. Pleased that I’d made my first sale, I tucked the bills into my wallet, thinking I could buy a few new albums or something. I found other buildings with elaborate gingerbread trim that I could sketch. It was fun, but it took time. The style I was using was stipple.
This technique was not new, but it was very trendy at the time. What was great about stipple was this it reproduced easily in black and white. Tones were created with well placed groupings of dots. The technique was largely used by newspapers at the time. It was a great way to add shading, without going into a screening process. There were some really good examples that I looked up to.
But, hey, this was hours of work. I’d worked probably 60 hours all in for $60, that’s not right. It wasn’t long after that I was doing more sketches but copying them on the library copier and selling the copies. This way I could pay for my time. Hell, if Andy Warhol had shown the world that prints were good enough to hang on the walls of celebrities, then who was I to stop short. Over the years things have progressively gotten more sophisticated. Certainly scanning and reproduction and photo manipulation software have changed the industry. If back then I was able to print on canvas I sure would have! However the basics to creating my work have largely stayed the same. Strangely, now I use a quill pen, an even older piece of equipment! At the end of the day the equipment doesn't matter as much as the vision and what you do with the tools at hand. Styles come and go, but for some reason my style has stood the test of time. I guess good line work just never goes out of style. Thank you Miss Kennedy!
People love architecture...I certainly do. People tell me constantly that they like the unique way I depict the streets they love and the buildings that have been part of their lives. If my quirky style helps them connect with the streets of the city, well, my life is all the better for it.
What’s next? My new found interest in drawing is going to play a part in a lifelong love of the Toronto music scene.