BIRMINGHAM COMEDY FESTIVAL WELCOMES STEVE LILLY'S COMEDY CLASSICS
Steve Lilly is an award winning graphic artist from Birmingham. His artwork is becoming increasingly more collectible with many original pieces featuring in private collections. Right now, his order book for commissions and events stretches into next year, having recently signed an exclusive merchandising contract with the Dad’s Army Museum in Thetford. Lovers of the comedy icons of yesteryears will love his pieces to bits, and both the official Laurel and Hardy Museum and the official On The Buses fan club stock Steve’s limited edition prints, mugs and collectors cards. He also has strong ties to the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society, the Birmingham Comedy Festival and numerous other comedy related groups and fan clubs. Further a field Steve’s interpretation of Boris Karloff playing the part of Frankenstein’s Monster sits majestically in the official Karloff gallery run by direct descendants of the iconic actor.
Next month his “comedy classics” artwork will be featured as part of the Birmingham Comedy Festival so PPSF decided to have a chat with him to find out just how much time and dedication goes into each and every one of his portraits.
I have read that you started painting from a tender young age. What was it that fascinated you so much about art or was it something that just developed naturally?
My first recollection of being “struck by art” came at junior school. A couple of students were asked to create a mural of a steam train rolling through the countryside on the classroom wall. I thoroughly enjoyed the task which lasted weeks and excused me from endless, tedious lessons, and, to cap it all, I was rewarded with a book voucher…Thanks Miss Williams.
I used to sit and sketch with my Dad and enter all the colouring competitions in the local papers. One such competition left me traumatised for weeks – a colour between the lines competition in the Birmingham Evening Mail’s Chipper Club. I was over the moon when I won a trip to Dudley Zoo to meet the new attraction; a dolphin. As an animal lover, I was really enjoying the day until the promoters made me sit in a little rubber dingy, in the dolphin pool, in front of a large crowd of onlookers. I never knew dolphins could move so fast. The most terrifying part, however, was when the dolphin dived under water with me still in tow. I had no idea how deep the pool was and was convinced I was going to drown in Dudley Zoo’s dolphin enclosure in front of my Mom, Dad and a crowd of total strangers.
So you could say you dived in at the deep end. Despite such a terrifying encounter you weren’t put off and carried on developing your style. Now, your style is definitely unique in the fact that you create pencil rendered artwork. What is it about this style that fascinates you so much?
It is an ideal medium for expressing texture and detail. Although my portraits take many hours to complete and are much slower to create than a painting, there is an immediacy about the graphite medium that I love. You pick up a pencil and as soon as it touches the paper you’ve left a mark. There’s no mixing on the palette or cleaning of brushes, no waiting for paint to dry. You can get so much character and feeling from a tonal drawing. It’s a bit like watching an old black and white Universal horror movie. How atmospheric and spooky were they?
That’s right, you are quite the horror junkie, having drawn a number of iconic horror characters. That said, you have an extremely varied portfolio ranging from animals, transport, the aforementioned horror icons, music icons to comedians? Is there anything you don’t draw and how do you decide on your next piece of art?
I carry an open mind and view every work as a new adventure. New subject matter brings fresh challenges, and, unless the object of study is something I disagree with ethically, I’m happy to take on the challenge. I love natural history, especially British wildlife, so you won’t find things like country pursuits and fox hunting in my portfolio.
Often my next piece of art is chosen for me as I undertake commissioned portraits; well over half of these are for dogs. On the rare occasion I get to choose my own subject matter. It will invariably be the next piece in the Comedy Classics series. I just can’t seem to leave this subject matter alone. It keeps pulling me back in.
You have received praise from people in high places, particularly in the comedy and horror industry? Who’s praise would you say was most memorable or made you feel particularly appreciated?
I think this would be a toss of the coin between David Croft and Jeffrey Holland. I was fortunate enough to meet David at the Dad’s Army Museum shortly before he passed away. The man is a legend of British comedy. Jeff is such a great actor and genuinely nice bloke and gave me endless inspiration and encouragement when I was toiling on my Hi, De, Hi rendition (he’s also a talented artist in his own right).
A lot of your work features characters from cult vintage shows such as Dad’s Army, Laurel and Hardy, On The Buses and Hi, De, Hi. Is there still a big cult following for anything related to these shows?
Surprisingly these classics seem to have stood the test of time. Dad’s Army has its own official museum in Thetford, while Laurel and Hardy have a number of museums and numerous fan clubs throughout the world. The official On the Buses website has had over a million hits (How popular is that?). I’ve been to numerous conventions including On the Buses, Hi, De, Hi, Laurel and Hardy and Tony Hancock and they are always well attended.
I hear your first foot in the door, which lead to your first comedy drawings (Dad’s Army), was hidden in a “Trojan horse”, if you’ll pardon the pun. How did that opportunity come about?
I put a flyer on the notice board while at my “day job” stating that I worked to commission and promptly received my first paid job – A lady in one of the offices wanted a portrait of her horse. When the work was finished, she made sure it was passed round the building. I was then commissioned to create a “café warming present” by a work colleague who’s friends were opening a café in Derbyshire. It was originally named Godfrey’s and the new proprietors, being big Dad’s Army fans, decided they wanted to keep the name. I was commissioned to create a large group portrait of the Dad’s Army cast with Godfrey as the centre of attention and was given a free artistic rein. I enjoyed the job so much I wanted to do another for myself and, with the support of a local gallery, went to work on Dad’s Army mkII. Luckily for me the gallery loved the work and we agreed to do a limited edition print run from the original artwork and from these beginnings the series evolved.
Your endeavour is to capture the “expressions and mannerisms that are so characteristic of the people I am trying to portray”. Surely it must be an ordeal trying to bring out such traits in your drawings. It must be an extremely cumbersome process studying your subjects before putting pencil to paper. Could you go through the process of how you bring a character to life on paper? A fine example is your portrait of Delboy from Only Fools and Horses. In this drawing you include three completely different facial expressions and they sum him up exactly.
The first stage is the most fun. I just sit and watch hours of DVDs on my computer, studying the characters and capturing freeze frames of expressions that I think are reminiscent of the person I am to draw.
I will use DVDs almost exclusively for the reference stage as I prefer to arrive at my own expressions rather than using ready made publicity photos that have been seen over and over. Inevitably I will end up with hundreds of images that are then whittled down to just a handful. Once the final reference material is arrived at I draw up a number of thumbnail sketches for tonal and compositional experimentation. I try to ensure there are not too many dark tones next to each other and it is important to get the expression of the characters in the right place on the page so that they interact with each other and tell a story. Due to the large and intricate scale of my work I usually draw a grid across my final thumbnail then scale it up onto the final sheet, before doing the under-drawing, to make sure all the major compositional points are in the right place. For the under-drawing I lightly recreate my thumbnail to the scaled up picture. I then call on my reference material and start pencilling in details: faces, expressions, clothes, background elements etc. Once the under-drawing is in place I will know if the picture is going to work or not.
Now is the point of no return, as I make deeper, hard to erase marks. I start putting in the darkest tones with 9B and 6B soft graphite pencils to see if the dark/light balance is right, before painstakingly cross-hatching with half millimetre thick H, HB and 2B leads to bring the mid-tones and facial details out. Then I just begin building up and blending. As I work I am frequently altering little bits here and there, tweaking and deviating from the original concept. I am very slow – I pay too much attention to detail. No two pictures are the same and I draw (pardon the pun) on a range of techniques: tools range from thick graphite sticks, which can be shaved and blended into the canvas with cotton wool for large areas of dark tone, mechanical pencils with the finest of points for detailed work, putty rubbers that can be pulled into different shapes to lift out highlights, scalpels, wire wool, chalk, charcoal have all been employed at some time or other. I have even used tea bags on one picture that needed a sepia tint. Each new portrait always has some element of experimentation.
Even more cumbersome than I had thought then! As your work involves various pencil layers, do you often suddenly decide something is not right and go back to square one or does it run smoothly most of the time? Are mistakes undoable in this kind of artwork?
It’s imperative that you get the under-drawing correct before you go rushing in with a heavy hand and dark pencil so pay close attention to your reference material and you won’t go far wrong. This is the stage when mistakes can be undone as the line is only light. Once the initial drawing is done I leave it lying around for a week or so and keep looking at it until I feel happy nothing needs amending. Then it’s in with the heavier and bolder lines where mistakes are hard to rectify.
Is there anyone or anything you have tried to draw and just can’t seem to get what you intended?
I’ve been lucky so far, apart from one disaster….. fatally on the drawing board was the Carry On team. Due to my methodical approach and painstaking research, each picture takes months and months to complete. It must have been around 3 o’clock in the morning. I had finished 11 of the 12 characters and was well into Barbara Windsor, the 12th and final character, I was that tired and I accidentally spilt vodka and lime on her. I was devastated and ended up destroying it, but, as they say, “every cloud has a silver lining.” Carry On was revisited a couple of years later and I think I did a much better job of it.
I’m sure Barbara didn’t mind as she’ll have had plenty of vodka and limes spilt on her at the Queen Vic.
You said that you don’t often get to choose your projects. What would you say was the strangest request for a drawing that anyone has made to you?
Possibly John Denver with Kermit the frog perched on his shoulder, closely followed by a prototype for a shopping trolley.
As I said, you draw everything and everything. What do you have in store this year?
Regarding comedy, Allo, Allo has made it to the actual “doing it” stage but this will probably take a year to complete in between other commissioned work. My work always plays second fiddle. I’m hoping to get a smaller piece depicting James Finlayson finished in time for the Birmingham Comedy Festival. I’m starting to panic a little on this one as I’m such a slow worker. You just can’t rush these things.
You can catch the Steve Lilley’s Comedy Classics exhibition as part of the Birmingham Comedy Festival at Artfull Expression,23/24 Warstone Lane5-27 October. Opening hours: Mon to Fri 10.00 to 16.30 / Sat 10.00 to 16.00