Ian Miller is a British artist, illustrator and writer best known for his macabre sensibility, and surreal, quirkily-etched Gothic style. He is a graduate of St Martin’s School of Art Painting Faculty, and is noted for his detailed book, magazine, and graphic novel illustrations, including covers for books by H.P. Lovecraft, contributions to David Day's Tolkien-inspired compendiums, work for various Games Workshop-published fantasy gaming periodicals, role-playing and war gaming books and supplements, including popular Warhammer titles. His experience also extends to feature films such as Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards and Coolworld, and pre-production and production work on numerous short films and highly successful movies including ‘Shrek’.
- What aspects of your childhood inspired your artistic creativity?
My mother worked for one of the leading theatrical costumiers in London during the early part of the fifties; so I was, from the outset, caught up in the most intimate workings of the Illusion Machine. My toy chests overflowed with the cast offs and oddments from a score of film and theatre productions. I was receptive to everything that was weird and wonderful. Fact and fiction were not in contention. Strange worlds could still be reached through the backs of cupboards, if you knew where to look. Bubble gum was made from Everglades swamp water - that was a fact. I remember, whilst travelling to Manchester on a steam train, seeing a herd of headless cows from the carriage window. When I mentioned it to the other occupants of the carriage, they just smiled, and said such things where commonplace in the North of England.
- Your work is meticulous, highly detailed, dark and often humorous. What creative works inspired you or first drew you to your preferred forms of artistic expression?
Most everything, if truth be known. We are bombarded by detail wherever we look. I have always had an enquiring mind, and for me, making marks seemed like an appropriate response (making sense of, if you will). I used whatever tools were to hand; and by elimination, found the ones that best suited my needs. I do not think I set out with any preconceptions about how I wanted to express myself as an artist, nor how I should achieve that. I studied painting at Art School, but seldom went near a canvas. I think I got lost in seven years of Art History and Theory and always found myself painting like, after, or in the manner of, some other person or school. Etching and dip pens felt more like me, a more direct conduit to expression if you will. That said, however, I have a wide remit and my studio is cluttered with a plethora of large images and constructions. I started off at St Martin’s in the Sculpture Department and switched to painting in the second year. I think of this as a slow meander to God knows where? But I’m still drawing; so, “Huzzah!” for that.
- Tell us about your learning process, and particularly how your work evolved as a result of it.
First, magic colouring books - you added water and the colours magically appeared. My father bought them in London somewhere. After this, twelve coloured pencils with a different colour each end. It was my sixth birthday. The vivid quality of the colours was startling; and even now, all these years on, I can still remember the excitement they aroused in me. Their arrival prompted my ‘Ancient Egyptian Phase‘. Frontality, hieroglyphic pillars, pyramids, and Ancient Egyptians was all that mattered. It must have been the desert yellow that started it. But whatever the reason, sand, asps, striped towels, palm trees and pyramids, filled the pages of my drawing books until every one of those twelve pencils was all used up. That was a very sad day for me. Then school, and those bloody awful powder paints, and small yard brooms they passed off as paint brushes. I remember I used to paint papier-mâché buns with the paint then eat them. I seem to remember I liked brown paper bags as well.
I took up etching in my first year at Art School and flirted on and off with the process for the next seven years of study. Needless to say, I was wholly intrigued by the process, but eternally frustrated by the difficulties of securing time on an etching press. The printing facilities at St Martin’s School of Art in the late sixties were not brilliant, and always heavily oversubscribed. This was a real shame because the staff and technicians were really very good. In any event, I came across one of my friends drawing with a Rotring Rapidograph and after trying one out myself, knew I’d stumbled on the solution to my problem.
The drawing point of the technical pen, although different in so many ways from that of an etching needle, provided a precise substitute. Although every image was now an edition of one, it did allow me to create the type of line work I wanted; and most importantly, when I wanted. This was a sheer joy. Admittedly, the mono line quality of these pens imposed limitations; but they were clean and efficient tools, and I found I quickly compensated for any shortfalls. In fact, building up surfaces / veneers, was so much easier and so much faster that my image production quadrupled. Laying down one pattern of lines on top of another, for so many years, in all manner of configurations and permutations, was perhaps the perfect preparation for understanding and manipulating the levels feature in Photoshop. Some might say, “What about working a knitting machine?” and I would have to say, “Yes, but I prefer the former.”
- Of the work you’ve created, do you have a favourite? If so, why this particular work?
I do not have a fixed favourite. Mood dictates ‘favourite’ and, for the most part, all I see are the shortfalls in my imagery. That said, I always view this as a healthy state of mind, because it motivates me to try harder. My favourite painting is Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough in the National Gallery. I love this image in any mood.
‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ ~ Walt Whitman
- Tell us about The Broken Diary.
The Broken Diary is a natural extension of my working practise, a necessary development. I have always loved storytelling, and picked the right tool and vehicle for the job. Transposing my thoughts and images into words is always an exciting process. I was inspired many years ago by Alfred Kubin’s book, The Other Side. The Broken Diary is a real life diary, juxtaposed against a twisting tale of delusion, dream and nightmare. Perhaps they are one and the same thing?
It was a very generic process. There were no real constraints. All things were possible. I’m now reworking a theatre project, which nearly made it to the London stage some years back, called The Shingle Dance for an animation project/film in the Netherlands. I also adapted it for opera, but the lighthouse collapsed in the Shetlands. Third time lucky, maybe?
- You are a writer and artist who successfully applied imaginative skills to several creative outlets, including graphic novels and feature films. Tell us about any challenges you have faced with the adaptation of your work.
The creative imperative, in my view, is to push constantly at the boundaries of one’s practise, beyond the comfort zones, if you will. I try hard to do this. I do not always succeed, but I do try. I find the process of image making hard, and always have done. Sometimes I’m astonished I found a way through, despite a lifetime of application.
A tale about Hollywood?
It was whilst my wife and I were wandering penniless around San Francisco in 1974 /5, that Ralph (Bakshi) tracked me down via London and New York, and offered me a job working on his film, Wizards in Los Angeles. At that time, the working title for the film, as I recall, was War Wizards. This hunt was prompted by Ralph having seen a Gormenghast Castle image I had created for Pan Books some months earlier. After our frugal time in the old Gaylord Hotel near Union Square, where the lift threatened to die every day, and the event of the week was the free doughnuts and coffee on Sunday mornings, West Hollywood was a startling contrast. Although the scenery was not so good, the material gains were quite dramatic - in short, a fairytale transformation.
Seeing my work enhanced and animated was astonishing, as was interacting with so many talented people in the Bakshi studios. Ralph allowed me immense freedom of expression; and I worked all the better for it, I think. Such licence is rarely given or found. My association with Ralph was a dynamic, and never to be forgotten experience. Sometimes, I liken it to trench warfare for the artists. You lived ever second of it - whizz, bangs, screams, and all. It was sometimes exhausting; but it was never ever boring, or middle of the road.
- Where do Orange Monkeys come from, and why are they so dangerous?
They pop into your head when you’re dreaming. Some people dangle them in cocktails by their tails and giggle a lot. I suspect that that pisses them off, big time. I swore I’d never say a thing, if they left me in peace. Even the spiders are frightened of them. Just pray they never visit you in your dreams.
- What do you find most rewarding in the creative process, and how do you overcome that which you find challenging?
By taking a very deep breath, three in fact; and saying mantra style, “I can do this,” as many times as it takes to get me moving. I remind myself I have served my time and that I have the skills and discipline to follow through. The magic comes through application. The experience is always different, tantalizing even. There is always so much to learn, so much to hone and perfect, then there is magic.
- You have worked on popular films such as Shrek. What aspirations, or reservations, do you have regarding the continuing application of your work to film and television?
My last stint working on a film was in Vancouver. It was a wee bit ‘humourless and sweat shop’. I went to work on development imagery, and everything was being pushed to finish from the very start. I did not feel it was an environment I could function well in. I left early. I have no problem with applying my work to film or any other medium. As I mentioned earlier, I’m adapting a script and imagery for an animation project. Wonderful stuff, if we get the funding. I’ll be working with some superb and talented people. It doesn’t get any better than that. I love the vital interaction these situations throw up, and I am always open to suggestions and offers. If somebody thinks I can contribute something useful, then why not give it a go?
- Who, do you imagine, would be your ideal client?
Somebody who trusts me to do what I do well, pays an equitable fee, has a sense of humour, and sees beyond the pound or dollar signs associated with the project. Whether you attach a small or big ‘A’ to the word art that is what I try to do. I care a great deal about the process of image making.
- Tell us a little about any good art you’ve seen recently, and good books you’ve read.
The Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition at Tate Modern is a superb exhibition in my opinion. I hope to see it several more times before it finishes. I loved the Mira Schendel show, also at Tate modern, and the Lowry at Tate Britain, a month or so back.
Books: The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, Berlin Letters by Robert Walser, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. I’m about to start reading What is Madness? by Darian Leader, and War and Cinema by Paul Virilio, if the madness doesn’t take me first.
- What other interests do you have?
Walking, sailing, staring at the sky, and talking to rabbits and dogs. Also, planning my next move in the search for my long-lost green sock, with the orange windmills on it - last seen by the ornamental lake, in Victoria Park, Rangoon.
- Where can we find you and your work?