“i swear i can draw” — peter o’toole, graphic artistBack
Peter O’Toole’s portfolio of graphic design work is presented as an accordion of perforated postcards, in a colourful printed foldover envelope. There’s a slight scratch to the thick cardstock, a vivid wash to the colours.
“It’s actually based on this,” says Peter, pulling an almost identical envelope from one of the binders full of printed ephemera piled on a table in his studio in Huddersfield. The letters drawn across the cover shout ‘Baltimore!’, and when you open it up you get a treat: an accordion of perforated postcards, with a slight scratch to the cardstock, a vivid wash to the colours, showing hand-drawn scenes of Baltimore that any tourist would be delighted to send to the folks back home. Or, to file away in a drawer and keep forever, because the whole package, produced to be torn up and sent in pieces all over the world, has been made so well it deserves to survive intact.
“I looked at that,” says Peter, “And thought, no one does that anymore. It won’t have been a big commercial job to make that back in the day. But the illustrations are such a good standard, even though it’s only for a tourist thing. It’s so well rendered.
“My friend Aidan Nolan is a really good graphic designer, and great at getting paper samples and getting the technical side right; we found stock with a similar texture, and made it so the postcards sit inside the envelope in the exact same way. It’s kind of a rip, but more of an homage.”
It’s also a celebration of five year’s work in graphic design and illustration, and a retrospective, and a nostalgia piece, even though on the day we talked Peter was still three days away from his thirtieth birthday. It might seem too soon for a career retrospective, but Peter’s work, boldly drawn in limited colours and half-tones, consistently evokes the past anyway. So why not his own?
Besides, when he had the idea, the postcard set wasn’t meant to be a retrospective. His career’s rapid ascent meant that, by the time he came to make it, he had so much meaningful, quality work that it couldn’t be anything else. That it marked five years since Peter jacked in gardening to draw full time only made it sweeter.
“I had the plan to do it as something to send out to clients, and maybe sell a few, about three years ago,” says Peter. “But I had a feeling something big was around the corner. I’m glad I waited, because now I can put the adidas work in, I can put in the work for Clarks, for Mundial.”
Whenever Peter mentions working with adidas, he seems to mentally pinch himself; Peter is the rare person who knows how it feels to slip his feet into a pair of adidas Originals, made in collaboration with adidas collector Quote, bearing his design, his name, and even his face. But an important point of the postcard set is that it includes something of everything: the newer work hasn’t edged out the old, because the older work is all part of the process that made Peter who he is today, and who he is becoming.
“When I was at art college my favourite illustrators were all in their late-thirties or early-forties,” he says. “So I always thought there was no way I’d be doing any decent jobs until I was forty. I literally told my mum that. Don’t have any expectations. Things are going to be slow until I’m forty, but when I am, I’ll be working for loads of cool clients. But in the last five years I have completely exceeded my expectations about a million times.”
Peter calls it ‘the process’, and is unsentimental about what it has taken to get him to a point where, in front of around a hundred people crammed into Byram’s Arcade, he can outline an achievable path to follow for the young creatives of Huddersfield. Peter was speaking at Wilson’s Republic, a design networking event instigated by Darren Evans of design agency The Engine Room, to raise the profile of the creative work going on in the town.
“Huddersfield’s a great place for working,” says Peter; lower Pennine fog obscures our view, over his shoulder, of Victoria Tower on Castle Hill, but you can always see it in his logo for Dixon’s Milk Ices, sticking out of the ice cream cornet, disguised as a 99 Flake. Peter’s studio is shared with around half a dozen others on the top floor of Bates Mill, across from the university and the sculptural concrete excitement of the indoor market, and it’s a loft straight out of some Berlin/Brooklyn dream. Whitewashed bare brick walls, enormous windows, huge desks; and cabinets full of wrestling figures and Lego. You might think it doesn’t belong in Huddersfield, until you consider the hundred people who attended the Wilson’s Republic event to hear Peter and graphic artist Anna Mullin speak; then Huddersfield becomes exactly the place for it.
“That’s what Darren’s all about with Wilson’s Republic,” says Peter. “Everyone thinks you have to go to Manchester or Sheffield, but when there’s so much talent in Huddersfield, why not celebrate it here? I’m not a great public speaker so I was quite nervous, but it went well.
“I talked about my process, from drawing as a kid — I literally showed drawings I did when I was a kid. Then stuff I did at uni, like making little magazines and leaving them in coffee shops. We’d get pages of A3 paper and fold them over and stick sketches on them, and I’d get my mum to photocopy 100 of them, double sided, staple them with a long-arm stapler then stamp and number them so they looked limited edition. A really raw level.
“I showed them how I went from there to using acrylic paints, then to collages and to digital. Some of the collages I did would take two weeks, putting them together with tweezers, so for deadlines I had to learn to use a computer. There were a lot of students at the event and the feedback I got was that it helped them see how to get from A to B, how I got to the point where I’m working for adidas, working for Clarks, and how they could do it too.
“That’s what it’s all about. Anybody can show off their best stuff, stand up there and say ‘Look how good I am, I did this’ — but that’s not helping anyone. You need to help people.”
Peter’s own help came from two unlikely sources. The first: a guy at his gardening job who wanted him sacked.
“It was this one guy who was trying to get me sacked,” says Peter. “Constantly. I had a wage coming in monthly, I didn’t have to worry, I could have probably done it for the rest of my life. But it got to the point with this guy where I thought: I don’t have to work with you.
“I thought: I can draw. I swear I can draw. I don’t need to work with you, I can draw! And I decided, bollocks to it, I’m going to take that leap. The way I looked at it, I could get good at picking weeds out of gravel at eight in the morning by doing it every day; but because I thought I was pretty good at drawing, if I did that every single day, how much more could my drawing improve?
“So I sacked my job off and started doing that. It was scary. It was the recession, 2009. I’d just started renting and now I had to fend for myself. The money wasn’t great, especially in the early years, but you either sink or swim, and there was no way I was sinking.”
The second was a photo-retouching job, in London, that Peter didn’t get anyway.
“After I quit my job I went to London for a job opportunity. It was at Happy Finish, one of the best photo retouching companies in the world, and instead of people with a photography background, a guy I knew wanted illustrators to try out because we have a different way of thinking. So I went down for a week and he asked me how I rated myself on Photoshop out of ten, and I said six. He gave me a trial and he said: you’re a none.
“He told me to go back up north, read a Photoshop bible back to front, and come back at him in six months. I didn’t ever get the job, but I learned so much from not getting that job, that helped me become an illustrator.
“Figuring out how to use Photoshop properly was big, where one shortcut can save an hour a day. Like the rotator tool. When I found the rotator tool in Photoshop, my life became brilliant. I had so much more free time; you just press and it spins in two seconds. There are certain milestones in your actual work, but there are also milestones in how you work.
“Another thing I took away was the machines they were using. I’d been working on a crap PC with a mouse; it was naive, but you just don’t realise. They wouldn’t let me use a mouse, they were all using tablets. I came back home and went straight from PC to Mac, bought a tablet, and just having the right materials meant I rocketed through the next three years.
“I always remember, my mum’s friend at work had a kid who went to art college but didn’t want to do it anymore, so one Christmas my mum bought all these art materials from her second hand: drawing boards, loads of markers, it was like a treasure trove. Some of the markers didn’t even work, but it was the best Christmas present I ever had, because for the next few years I was trying all these things out and experimenting and doing new work. I’m always learning still, but those were some big leaps for me.”
If the image of the dedicated young Peter earnestly grafting at his second hand drawing board with the top from a running-out marker wedged in the corner of his mouth sounds too Hovis to be true, take a look at Peter’s work and how it fits into the overall picture. You could call his work retro, but it’s hard to single out one detail or element to explain why; Peter himself says he’s “got a thing about nostalgia,” and that’s a better word than retro, because his work doesn’t look old-fashioned like that word suggests, not for a moment. Peter O’Toole’s illustrations and graphics look timeless because they don’t imitate styles from back in the day, they’re the product of endless study of the technique and craft that went into producing those styles back in the day, back when there were standards.
“I always struggled to find a style,” says Peter. “I was always being told I needed a style to get signed by agents. You need consistency, so an agency knows what they’re going to get. Everyone I knew had a style and I never had one, and it took me ages to figure out.
“I really love going to second hand markets, and I love the quality of old prints.” Peter picks up an old advert for a Stanley knife. “This is a printed advert from the 1950s. In the forties and earlier adverts were mainly text, then from the sixties it’s mainly photos. But this specific era was about illustration. White paper, red and black. That’s only three colours, but it stands out. And then here it looks like a different shade because it’s half-tone. I began to use textures to make it look like old paper, using minimal colours to make my work stand out like this does, and” — he clicks his fingers — “I had a style. Just through nostalgia, through admiring this kind of work; not mimicking it, but being inspired by how it was done.”
As Yorkshiremen of a similar age, our talk obviously turned to the retro-painted buses that have been turning heads on the local highways and byways, not because the Yorkshire Rider logo and colour scheme — which Peter copped for some ‘Yorkshire Roughriders’ stickers — looks old fashioned or unusual, but because it looks good. The matte green and cream, the red block logo and letters; whoever designed it got it dead right, and to admire it isn’t all nostalgia: a lot is appreciation.
“There is part of me that thinks they just did it right back in the day,” says Peter. “You see buildings go up now and they’re done in a couple of months. You feel like it’s just going to blow down in the wind. But you see some of the stone buildings that are still standing, especially in Huddersfield, they were made to last. And I think that happens with design as well.
“With that Stanley knife advert, they probably used two colours because it was a lot cheaper, and it was probably a rushed job for somebody. But the draughtsmanship is much better than you get now. And with clothes, there has been a resurgence in vintage and union made clothes, and it’s all because it has lasted; I’ve got adidas trainers from the seventies and early eighties that I can still wear today because they were made right.
“I just feel like everything is rushed now. Everything is overnight, people want overnight success, people don’t want to work for anything. It’s like we’re talking about, ‘back in my day…’ — but it wasn’t even my day! It was my grandad’s day!”
It’s likely that some of the stuff that has seeped into Peter’s perception actually is his granddad’s or grandma’s.
“My grandma’s a massive hoarder,” he says. “She has dresses from the fifties that she hasn’t worn since the fifties. My dad is a massive hoarder, and I’m a massive hoarder. Except I try to hoard stuff that is useful for my work. So that’s my excuse, that I’m hoarding for work.”
Around us in Peter’s studio are the shelves of eighties Lego toys, Sega Megadrive games and wrestling figures that he needs the excuse for, but if you’re talking about evoking an atmosphere, the excuse isn’t needed. The mill is a family mill; the two brothers who run it took it over from their dad, who took it over from his dad. An old factory catalogue from the 1950s has a photo of the room that is now Peter’s studio, filled with machines. And Peter’s toys, like many toys, are a family story, that starts at Huddersfield market and carries on through eBay.
“Every week me and my brother would go to the market with my mum or my nan, and we’d get a new wrestling figure. But we used to get so hyper when we watched wrestling and fight, so my mum literally sold all our figures back to the woman we bought them off. I’ve never forgiven her! When I got older I started to pick one up here, one there, and then I just thought, you know what? I’m going to buy them all back. So I spent six months last year getting them all cheap off eBay.”
That was last year’s project; the last few months have been about scouring boxes of Lego for unusual bricks, then going online to identify the set they came from, download the instructions, and search eBay for the missing bricks needed.
“It’s just because of the beauty of the internet,” says Peter. “It was all in my mum’s attic, and some of the sets haven’t been built in thirty years, but now with the internet I can restore them to old glory.”
We don’t know what it says about the internet that one of its primary uses, as soon as we held the world wide web at our fingertips, was to get straight on eBay and start trawling for the Transformers toys our neighbours had when we were kids. “For me it’s about going back to a time when I had no responsibilities and didn’t have to worry about anything,” says Peter, “I enjoyed that period of my life, and I want to show my kid what it was like when he’s old enough.”
The internet’s great for making nostalgia real, but also for keeping in touch with subculture that might otherwise be hid. Peter’s time as a teenage football casual didn’t last, but something did.
“My friends had older brothers who followed football, so they started going and I basically copied them; it was that time when you’re trying to find yourself but you also want to be part of something,” he says. “And once I got out of it I took two things away with me. One was jackets. And the other was trainers. I have not stopped wearing or buying adidias since.”
Or following the culture online, where Facebook groups for adidas collectors have thousands of members; where Peter could see what they were missing.
“I really wanted to do a poster based on vintage adidas. I’d seen bits and bats and things that just didn’t impress me, and every time I see something that I reckon I can do better, I will try and prove I can do it better. If I can’t then fair enough; if I see someone’s work and it’s amazing and there’s no way I could do better then I give them the props and leave it. But I decided to do this poster in my spare time. That’s it, hanging there.”
It’s shoe after shoe after shoe, in rows, the classic adidas City series, laid out like an old Subbuteo football club colours poster and dominated by three repeating stripes, the one constant among the kaleidoscope of colourways and shapes.
“It was very much right place, right time,” says Peter. “Collectors saw it on Facebook and they were buying prints from me left, right and centre. They were sharing it everywhere, and within a week I had a hundred friend requests from all over the world. And it clicked in my head: this is how you get more followers of what you do — by doing good work.
“I got an email from adidas asking if I wanted to go in for a chat. Part of me thought I was going to get sued. But they’d actually seen that I had a bit about me, they liked the artwork, and while they didn’t make any promises I haven’t stopped working for them since.
“The trainer” — the adidas Consortium x Quote x Peter O’Toole ZX 420 Quotoole, to give it its full title — “came along through a separate book project I was doing with a friend in Germany called Quote, who has a crazy collection of adidas trainers. Very specific years, models, types; he picked fifty and was writing about them, and I was illustrating them. Right at the last minute adidas asked if we wanted to design a trainer. And I said, ‘Can I have my face on it?’ And they said yes. I mean, I would have done it anyway.”
Adidas are Peter’s pinch client, as in, he struggles not to pinch himself when he remembers they’re a client. “They’re my dream client,” he says. “I don’t ever want to be the guy who used to work for adidas. I always want to be the guy who is working for adidas.”
That brought us back to Peter’s five-year career retrospective, and how he’ll follow it up in another five years.
“Five years ago I couldn’t have imagined any of this,” he says. “I had a son five months ago, and I still just can’t imagine it; the last five years have been an absolute whirlwind. Even the last two years.
“In the next five years my style might change a bit; I’ll improve a lot more. To be honest my hands are killing at the moment from drawing every day, so I might have to get one of those robotic hands that you control with your mind.
“I can only imagine what the next five years are going to bring. If I still keep working as hard as I do, and I know how hard I work… the harder you work the more you get. I feel like I work harder than anyone else who is in my game. And if someone does work harder than me, then I’ll go out of my way to work even harder than them. I’m confident that things will come if I carry on doing it; it’s all about consistency, it’s all about the long run.
“I don’t want to be a flash in the pan, and I don’t want to disappear after two years. I’m going to be doing this in one capacity or another for the rest of my life, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 30