Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Ken Dallison: "One day I sort of woke up and went, ‘Ken… what the friggin’ hell are you doing?' "

Last year, while doing research for our book, The Art of Will Davies, Simon and I had the great fortune of meeting legendary automotive illustrator Ken Dallison. What began as a quick visit to Ken's house to shoot a couple of Will's originals that he and his lovely wife Gwen own, and to hear a few anecdotes about Ken and Will's long friendship, became a day of storytelling during which Ken regaled us with the most entertaining and informative recollections of his own career. I think we decided that very day that if the Will Davies book was a success, we would absolutely have to do one on Ken next. If you'd like to help make that book a reality, please visit our Kickstarter page and pledge any amount. Here's Part 1 of a series of excerpts from my interview with Ken...

Ken Dallison: I went to art college in 1948. All the schools were in upheaval because the soldiers were coming home from the war.

(Above: Ken Dallison, Cycle magazine, 1967, reprinted in Illustrators 10, 1968)

Leif Peng: How old were you then?

KD: Fourteen.

LP: Fourteen? That would have meant you’d have been just starting high school if you’d been living in Canada.

KD: I was in high school… uhh… junior high school, which went up to age fourteen. In fact, if I had not had the good fortune to sit for that examination for art college, I’d have been out of school and graduated at fourteen.

LP: So at that point would they say, 'ok, time for you to learn a skilled trade' or something?

KD: No. Just go. Go out and find a job.

LP: At fourteen?

KD: Yeah. Anyway… when I went to the college I discovered there were other people out there that were not only good, but better than me. So I was like, ‘Oh shit. This isn’t going to be the joy ride I’d imagined.’ But as it progressed… we never worked in oils in the two years in the school. We worked in metal a bit, we did wood working, and the life drawing class, I enjoyed. It was a great time.

(Above: one of Ken's life drawings, done on an unfolded paper bag, glued to a board - year unknown)

KD: After two years I left art college and my main strength was lettering. I could paint the alphabet in Norman Serif with balanced kerning on every letter to such an extent I was the top student for doing san serif or whatever was required. I did go into the other classes but by that point I felt somewhat of an inferiority complex… so when I graduated I went and got a job right away doing lettering. Lucky for me, lettering was in demand.

LP: Wow! So at sixteen you were working? Where did you find a lettering job?

KD: I worked for a government office doing cartography, repairing old negatives. So they had these glass plates in the old days for the originals, and if a river changed it’s name, or a new road was put in, I would go in and do reverse lettering. I would write for example ‘River Ueze’ backwards in serif cut into the glass plate, because they used this sort of a gel film on glass… it was sort of like a soft plastic. So if you used a needle… those diamond-headed pens we have, you know, for wood engraving? That’s what we used as well. So you’d scrape the old name out - but now you’ve got to do it in italics, and all the lettering is backwards.

(Above: One of the maps Ken hand lettered on a glass plate while working at a cartography office)

Anyway, there was two year compulsory military service in England so at age eighteen I signed up. And since my workplace was sort of a military operation anyway, my boss said, ‘Do your military training and you can come back and work here if you want.’ Which meant I could live at home, I didn’t have to wear a military uniform most of the time (except for parade or something like that) so… basic training, about twelve weeks or so and I was back at my old job!

(Above: Detail of one of the maps Ken hand lettered on a glass plate while working at a cartography office)

Then one day I sort of woke up and went, ‘Ken… what the friggin’ hell are you doing? You went to two years of art school. You want to paint, you want to draw and what are you doing? You’re doing bugger-all. You’re doing this stupid backwards lettering. You’re better than that!’ So I went to look for a job in the advertising world in London. Of course my portfolio in lettering got me my first job right away. I was doing point of sale material, so if you had a little Mexican guy with a bottle of tequila and some type next to him saying ‘Mexican tequila’ there would be a label on the bottle wrapping around it, and guess who did the lettering? They had an artist do the figure and the bottle and I’d do the fade-away lettering on the bottle.

(Above: A sample aviation illustration Ken painted at age 16 or 17, while he worked professionally as a hand lettering artist)

Continued tomorrow.

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