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Junior Meets: Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe

The revered artist talks drawing, Disney and dodgy jobs


Posted: 1 October 2012
by Fiona McKim

One of Gerald's razor-sharp political cartoons

I have been drawing for as long as I can remember…
I was a chronic asthmatic as a child and spent a lot of time in my bed; I was also an only child until the age of nine so I was very solitary. Most of my time I was bedridden or in hospital and the only thing one can do when one is bedridden or hospitalised is read or draw or both. Drawing became my constant companion.

It became my way of expressing my childhood fears…
When I was a child my fears were of witches and wolves. During the war we had to go down in the cellar when Hitler was bombing flats. I used to be far more worried about wolves than I was about Hitler! i remember when I used to go to hospital there was a woman who I was convinced was a witch.

I first came to prominence in the sixties…
My work started to appear in in the Private Eye, depicting horrific Bosch-like characters. What I was doing was putting down my my fears, about the atom bomb, about war. I'ts still what I do to some extent. In general drawing is my language, my way of expressing myself.

I never thought I could make a career out of my art…
My father was in banking and he wanted me to join a bank, thinking that being an artist was a dodgy job. If he were alive today I would say “who’s got the dodgy job now!”. There was one occasion when the headmaster of a school I was at recognised my ability and suggested that I should go to St Martins art school, I remember going with my father to an interview and neither of us knew what was happening. The head said, “Okay lets have a look at your work” and I said, “I haven’t got any”. In my naivety I had turned up for an interview about my art without anything to show. The headmaster said to me, “Let this be a lesson to you in life, you never ever turn up anywhere without your portfolio.”

The Big Draw is about getting everybody involved…
Its a campaign to get people to consider drawing as a normal pursuit and not something extraordinary that only artists can do. It struck me that all of us are born with this ability as a child to draw. As a child you can sing, dance and do all of these things without embarrassment. If you ask a child to draw his holiday or his mum, within about six seconds they have done it! I have grandchildren who do exactly the same thing. What happens as they progress is they start to try and get perspective and shading, if they are doing a portrait they want to get a likeness and their efforts frustrate them and they get a lot more shy about drawing. So The Big Draw is an effort to say to people, don’t worry about perspective just enjoy yourself, just put down an abstract piece of colour if you want to.

I like to remind people about Picasso…
Who could draw brilliantly when he was about 12, straightforward depictions. Then as an adult he got bored with that because that was too easy for him and he wanted to express himself like a child, to put down thoughts immediately as children do . I say to people, whatever stage you are at in life return to it, it will certainly reward you at the end of your life when you need something to do. Have a go, don’t get too frustrated if it’s a bit wonky!

A lot of children write to me asking for advice…
Of course if you have your parents encouragement it’s a huge thing, my parents were unfortunately not encouraging, having never had an artist in the family before. I say to them all, 'keep at it'. Like any other job its really hard work, but hard work can be enjoyable, and you have to not give up. There is no doubt that making a living as an artist is a tough way of life I guess people feel they don’t need artists in the way that they need nurses and doctors and bus drivers and people who bake bread. I argue we do need them of course.

I have four grandchildren, between five and 14 years old…
It’s very tricky to decide if I would encourage them to be artists. One of my sons has become an artist. At first I was was slightly worried that I had made it look easy. It looks glamorous, it it’s really hard work to get there. So yes I would tell my grandchildren what fun it can be as an artist, but its also really difficult. Luckily they all have ideas of their own. Some of them are arty things like fashion designer but I guess life is pretty short really and you should be doing what you want to.

I think children using new technology to draw is great idea…
One has to move with the times. I used to say that I was sort of against computerised drawings because they have a computerised look. When I was a designer on Walt Disney’s Hercules I designed the Hydra, a mythical creature that when you cut off one head, two heads grow back. They made a 3D model of my drawing and regenerated it hundreds of times, which took a very long time to do. Then when it was finished it looked computerised so they had to spend a lot of money to make it look graphic again. But I would say to young people, try everything, absolutely everything. This is the new tool, and any new tool you should use it and then you can decide if you think it is as good or better or whatever. That’s what art is. If you can get down what you feel, great. Perhaps people if you can't draw to expertly you can make things work that way instead.

The Big Draw runs throughout the month of October. For more details, visit www.campaignfordrawing.org


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