World famous, multi-award winning founder of Tank Girl and Gorillaz, Jamie Hewlett is one of the finest artists Britain has ever produced. Unbelievably, his 2016 show ‘The Suggestionists’ at the Saatchi Gallery was his first ever actual exhibition.
Was the Saatchi show something you’ve always wanted to do?
I’d never done an exhibition, ever! There was a period probably 10 years ago where everybody I knew who was an artist were doing exhibitions every other week in a basement gallery with a DJ and crate of Red Stripe. I don’t think I’ve ever had something that I’ve wanted to exhibit because all the stuff I’ve been doing for the past 20 years was done for a purpose – it was a comic strip or it was for Gorillaz or the Chinese Opera – it was bespoke for that and I couldn’t see a reason to exhibit it.
So how did you come up with the ideas for The Suggestionists if it was your first ever show – you must have wanted to do something different?
I spent two years trying to think what to do – when you can do whatever you want to do, you don’t know what to do! It’s a nightmare. I guess because I’ve been conditioned to having some kind of brief or some kind of deadline or story to tell, I needed to find something like that. The night I met my wife she offered me a tarot reading and I really enjoyed it – it was fascinating and wasn’t like anything I’d imagined. I bought Jodorowsky’s book, The Way Of The Tarot and in it he talks about each of the 22 characters in the deck and the hidden details, mathematical structure and colour schemes and it’s very rigid. I was looking at the cards thinking that it was nothing to do with what he was saying. I found that a little bit annoying and then I realised then that I had my idea, I’d just copy every detail and include every hidden meaning and I’d draw the tarot. So I drew The Emperor. I wanted to do them as single pieces of artwork without using computers or anything like that, back to the way I used to draw. I did it for six months with Indian Ink and watercolour. Then I went on holiday to France to a place covered in pine trees and one evening the sun was very low and all the pine trees were throwing shadows and taking on these strange characters. I started drawing them and became obsessed, I drew as many as I could while I was there and photographed the rest and drew when I got home. Then I was also thinking about erotic movie posters which have had in my head for a long time based on my love of Saul Bass, Russ Meyer, Oz Magazine and exploitation movies, I love that kind of stuff. I like the suggestive quality of those posters as opposed to the modern day pornography that you see everywhere. Then I had three projects that were all connected because the tarot is about suggestion, the pine trees suggest many different things to you as you look at them and the movie posters are all about suggesting something erotic.
It must have been nice for you to have the freedom to paint what you want?
People hate it when you don’t do the same thing again and again. I’ve just reached the point where I’m starting to consider myself as an artist, the whole point of being an artist is to do new things, you don’t want to be drawing the same thing for the rest of my life. If I was going to do that I’d be working at DC Comics, but I didn’t take that job. I’m always interested in trying different things. If I am doing the same thing then it has to move forward, otherwise it’s not very interesting for me and I want to challenge myself a little bit. This is painting drawing from inspiration and photography.
I remember being in your studio once in Shepherds Bush and all the pencils were on your desk in colour order and sharpened – are you still like that? Is that just a procrastination tactic?
I am a little bit anal when it comes to my surroundings. I put that down to the fact that there’s quite a lot of chaos in my head that I’m trying to put into neat structures and if my environment is a complete mess then I can’t cope. It might come from my graphics background – I studied graphics at art college and that’s something I’ve been trying to break out from for years and be a bit more messy. Working at comic book size is very precise so you have to be tidy.
I was working at Santa’s Ghetto one year and there were some Gorillaz story boards that you’d done. There wasn’t a hint of an eraser mark or an out of place line. How are you so precise?
Oh I never use a rubber… [laughs] I think with those is that when you’re directing animation and you have to work with 10 animators you have to delegate and you have to let go, and that’s something I find very hard to do because I literally want to draw every frame, but I can’t because there are 29 frames per second. I used to try and make the story boards as clear as possible, instead of doing very loose sketches so the animators knew what to do. I am quite clean with my drawing, you are right, I’m quite clinical. There must have some rubber marks though!
Have you ever been to ComiCon?
I’ve been invited to the San Diego one for the last four years in a row. I don’t know though, it freaks me out a little bit, you’ll have all the CosPlay kids there. I’m not really involved in comics any more and I don’t even really read them anymore. Sometimes I’ll find myself wandering into Forbidden Planet and have a look. There are certain artists that I like, I was quite into the work of Ashley Wood for a while, but I’ve not kept up to date really. I did get recognised by someone who worked there – he was very polite about it! I’m not really part of that world anymore, but it is an amazing art form and I love it. There are some incredible comic artists, but I left it so long ago I don’t think I really have a place there anymore. If I came back I would probably do something that wasn’t very good.
Photo: Tom Medwell