“there’s something about this landscape that’s instilled in you for life.” — tom duxbury, illustratorBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
One magical day, a four-year old boy named Tom Duxbury drew a picture of the sea and the sky, and from that moment on he was an artist.
The other children in his primary school class also drew the sea and the sky that day. Most of us can remember a time when we drew our houses and families and pets – seas, skies, and birds in the air, shaped like drunken Vs, which is a brilliant way to introduce an impressionable human being to the alphabet. Most of us have dipped our once miniature fingers into paint and spelt out experimental versions of our given names, or traced the shapes of leaves onto wax paper, or coloured outside the lines, off the page, and onto the floor.
But for Tom Duxbury, aged four, there were no drunken V’s, no waxed paper. There was only the sky and the sea, blue, blue, blue, blue as blue can be. A strip of blue sky and a strip of blue sea.
We’re not sure if it’s in the British curriculum to teach perspective drawing to four year olds, but on an extraordinary day, Tom’s teaching assistant did.
“Tom, look at the horizon,’ she said kindly, pointing at the strips of blue on the page. ‘Tell me — where does the sky meet the sea?’
Clearly this teaching assistant was not a fan of abstract expressionism, but it was a good question anyways. For as four-year-old Tom looked at the sky, and looked at the sea – all that wonderful BLUENESS – he discovered tone; he discovered how the colour blue really FELT. It was at that moment, in the strange dreamy non-space between sky and sea, that Tom Duxbury became an artist.
Tom grew up in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside, “Near a place called Skipton, but a bit closer to Bingley.” When he’s not in Sheffield working as an artworker — “that’s when I see people, which is healthy,” he says, laughing — Tom is spending time with his family and illustrating book covers in a room in his house in Chesterfield.
“You can’t take the boy out of Yorkshire,” he tells us. “There’s something about this landscape that’s instilled in you for life.”
We’ve met Tom at a bar in the West end of the city centre. He’s arrived precisely on time, wearing a relaxed, off-red striped shirt and expertly-tied, tan leather shoes. Tom looks like he has walked here out of an Edwardian painting, but his style is exceptionally now. He has a thoughtful, polite demeanour, with a dark intellectual temper that we instantly warm to.
At twenty-six, Tom has created book covers for Vintage Classics, drawn chapter headings for A Little History of Science, and recently illustrated a book for Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate. His distinctive style — created using his modern application of linocutting — feels something like repurposed nostalgia. His illustrations have an enchanting, uncanny, storybook-sentimentality that makes us want to drown in an inkwell and be revived in the darkly romantic milieu as a brushstroke or pattern.
“Well at Uni, I failed the book cover module,” Tom says with a laugh. “But I have such a love of narratives. What I’ve identified through years of tearing apart my creative process is that I need a story, and the challenge of making a story appear in one image is an amazing concept.”
Tom isn’t really an art school kid, at least not in the Brooklyn Lager (but only by the can)-drinking, pink-neon-light-sculpture, ironically tacky sunglass-wearing sort of way. While he speaks highly of his foundation year at Leeds College of Art (“one of the best years of my life, really”), his illustration degree at Brighton introduced him to a loud, busy art world that lacked the lustrous appeal of the quiet romance of a pen, pad, and his imagination.
“I had quite a love and hate affair with Brighton,” he says, and then pauses for a moment, thinking through his words. “Well, I am quite introspective. I just want to go and draw. It’s all very reflective — it’s why I create things. I didn’t do too well at the end of my degree, because my work did come from such a deep place that it felt crude that some London tutor could come down and stick a mark on something that was incredibly personal to me. You know, we had this show in Shoreditch and it was just uuuuuuber cool,” he laughs, before adding. “I’m not really that cool.
“I did love it, but I always knew exactly where I stood in the pecking order of artistry. People were pandering for high marks and to be in the London galleries where they thought they should be going. For a long time I didn’t have much self belief, and then I put two fingers up,” (he demonstrates how it looked), “and said to myself that I’m just going to do what I’ve always known. So after Brighton I came back up to the hills and the nature that I’ve always been in love with, and I’ve just revelled in it. I know what my inspiration is, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Tom’s graphic, strong style is characteristic of linocutting — a printmaking technique using sculpted linoleum that was associated with the modern Vorticist movement at the beginning of the 20th century.
“My first problem was falling in love with a process that was so dated,” Tom says. “The sculptural process of lino printing is so integral to my image-making technique, because you can express so much in it. Because you’re carving,” he draws a closed fist slowly along the table, “it just feels like you’re putting all your emotion into it.
“I used to make really rubbish linoprints all the time, and almost gave up on it. At uni you experiment a lot, and in my early work it felt like there was always some element to the linocutting process in it, and I couldn’t see that changing. When I was a poor student I didn’t have enough colours to do a full-colour print process, so I’d print each one in black and then edit it in Photoshop. By doing that the aesthetic seems a lot bolder, a lot stronger, a lot brighter, more detailed – I basically eradicated the texture marks. I’m sick to death with photoshopped texture added in.
“The original process of creating a linoprint is quite time-consuming – it’s very hard to register things, to just put it in a press and get it to match up. A lot of people who use lino tend to use very few colours because the more you add on the more difficult it is to look good or get right. Because I’m working in a new, modern way I can have as many colours as I want, but I love the idea that you can only say so much in a few colours. It’s a beautiful challenge.
“How do I go about doing it?” Tom repeats our question back to us. “I mean, how do you go about beginning to feel a landscape? But it just seems so natural to just pick up a pen and sculpt,” he picks an imagined V-gouge, a linocutting tool, up off the table and presses it against invisible linoleum. “It feels very natural to weave, and stop, and cut”.
He stops his hand in the air, and is if he just remembered, reaches for three books from his bag: Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard, A Little History of Science by William Bynum, and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday by Carol Ann Duffy. All the books have front covers by Tom Duxbury.
“Every day I create these things that I call movements,” he says, pointing at a series of orange lines that follow a roadway on one cover, “which are just the raw elements you can see here. Just drawing, line work, and patterns. It’s got no objects in it, and that’s what I’ve grown to understand my images are made up of. My movements are like my alphabet of words.
“I like to sit down with a pencil and a pad and draw – that’s the beginning stage. And then I get felt tips, like I’m a kid, and draw. It’s all about motion – it captures things you can see, things you can’t see, things moving. Patterns, pattern in nature. I just let my hand go completely free,” he draws invisible lines into the air, “so like, just the rhythms in the trees. I just sit down and lose it a bit and think if I’m there,” he points at the lonely-looking figure on the cover of Seldom Seen, “and I’m in this cold, wintery landscape, how would I be feeling?”
Tom has been trying to understand the feeling of a landscape ever since he was a four year old boy, around the same time he discovered the feeling of the colour blue. There’s only so much you can cram onto a piece of paper, but how it can make you feel seems endless, at least in Tom’s world. His wanderings have taken him now to a room in a country house next to a river, where this twenty-six year old man lives a contemporary life of romance, gathering public praise for his work. And then he goes for a walk, with a pencil, and a sketchbook.
“When I had my book signing with Carol Ann Duffy in December in Leicester Square, it was crazy,” Tom says. “The head curator of the Royal Collection was talking to me and she was all fabulous and amazing, but it doesn’t really phase me because I don’t stop being that boy in the woods drawing.” He pauses, and looks out the window. “I don’t know how I feel about it. It doesn’t really change anything.
“People were talking about my artwork like it was something they hadn’t seen before, and that was really nice to hear, because I just shut myself away from the world and create; I don’t necessarily care what other people think. But to have people say something you’re doing is distinctive is humbling, and really lovely.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Sheffield, issue 3