Thursday, August 04, 2016

Ken Dallison: "My god… I’m two years his senior and he’s kicked my ass."

Part 2 of an abridged excerpt from my interview from last summer with Ken Dallison. Today Ken talks about his early days working in an advertising art studio in London, England during the early 1950s. We are crowdfunding a coffee table art book of Ken's work, like our successful Art of Will Davies book from last summer. Help us make a Ken Dallison book a reality - visit our Kickstarter campaign to pledge any amount.

KD: After I’d been at the advertising art studio about two years, all of a sudden a kid from my old college came in. And I saw him with his brown bag and paper and I said, "Where are you going?” He said "I’m going sketching at lunchtime." I said, "Why are you doing this?" He said, "I just like drawing buses and trains and things like that. You should come one day." So I went out with him one day. He had a dip pen and ink. And I took my HB pencils and my erasers and pad and we went out to Euston Station or someplace like that and sat down. Back then in England they had a Greyhound bus where the passengers came in and sat down of they could go up a few steps to another level and all under there was luggage compartments. It was a very cool looking bus. So we sat down to draw it.

(Above: Ken included the fondly-recalled Greyhound bus in the background of this illustration done for Car & Driver magazine, c. 1966.)

KD: So already when we started I’m drawing a line… then before you know it you’ve drawn four or five lines trying to erase out the ones you don’t want. By the time a half hour or forty-five minutes was up and I got back to the studio my friend who had these dip pens and ink - cause ink is unforgiving! - so you think about it more. So in the end the looseness - the search - has a magic about it. And my pencil drawings… when we got back the studio manager said, "Let’s have a look at what you got!" and I’m like, ‘My god… I’m two years his senior and he’s kicked my ass.’

(Above: Ken's first tentative attempt at sketching on location - which would launch his future style and subsequent career, c. 1952 - 3.)

KD: So one day my friend said, "Ken, here’s a pen. I got you a bottle of ink. Let’s go out drawing with pen and ink." And you can imagine that first day… you still want to use a pencil to get a little bit blocked in. But after a while it became what we did, and we loved Grosvener Square where the American PX and their embassy was and American soldiers could take delivery of a new car so there were American cars there. They could take delivery, drive it around, bring it home and pay no tax. So it was a very big incentive. So the circle in the square was filled with turquoise and white Crown Victoria convertibles. To English eyes you go, ‘Oh my god. That’s some car!' And it had the rainbow chrome down the side… and the panels were turquoise and they might have been the first to use whitewalls, which would get dirty pretty quick in England in that smog.

(Above: Ken Dallison illustration from the Americana '77 vintage automobile calendar, Scott Paper Co.)

KD: So we just freehand drew them in ink. To this day I have a friend who uses all those french curves and ellipse templates and he says to me, "What do you use?" and I say, "Freehand." He says, "No way! Those ellipses are freehand?" It’s all due to the street drawings in London we did back then. We sat on the curb, we didn’t even have a stool. When you get down that low and look up the side of a Ford Fairlane at that time and the headlamp would be here… and you’ve got those flares and the whitewall… I mean, we must have drawn two hundred ellipses. It’s just practice is all.

LP: Sorry; what was the name of that friend?

KD: Peter Hutton. Our work is indistinguishable. The only difference would be I came to New York and got into the big time as a little fish and got fatter and fatter looking at all the talent that was around me. It’s like if you’re into tap dancing and you’re in Des Moine, Iowa… where are you going to go? But if you’re on Broadway and you’re the same tap dancer and you’re working on a chorus line… I think that was the difference for me. I started humanizing my paintings, putting people in them. Yes I did cars but I put people around the cars.

Ken Dallison, publication & date unknown
(Above: Ken Dallison, date & publication unknown)

KD: I mean I can remember my father looking at one of my first illustrations from high school where they gave me a job to do, a Victorian house with the steps coming down and people in crinolines coming down the stairs. And my father, being the sarcastic little bugger he was, he looks at the main figure of a woman and he says, ‘Who’s this, Mussolini?’ [Ken chuckles] So forever more I had this fixation: I gotta draw women better!

(Above: Ken Dallison, date & publication unknown)

KD: I mean, let’s say this: I can draw men like I’m always at the top of my game. Women I always get a little uptight. Mussolini always comes back in my mind! [we all laugh]

Continued tomorrow.

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  1. I know the emphasis is on the bus, but in the Jazz Scene ’65 drawing, the hatted figure on the right is almost certainly Thelonious Monk. Instantly recognizable.

    1. You're right, Michael - Ken has a life-long passion for jazz music and has often slipped his favourite artists into scenes like this for his own pleasure.

  2. great stuff. love the studebaker sketch. Would Ken have been familiar or had aquaintance with Ken Adam, the movie designer who was in London in those days?

    1. I'll ask Ken when I see him again next week and reply here, Scott. :^)