Q&A with Paul Bommer

Q. Tell me about your route into illustration?
A. Well I have always drawn since earliest memory really, always been drawing, and as a child I imagined it was something I was going to do a as a career, but then family pressures intervened and it wasn’t an option or a job. My father and three of my siblings were all engineers so I followed that route for a while and did an engineering degree. I worked in it for three years but I knew as soon as I started that I loathed it and was saving money while I was there to get me to Art College. So after three years I got out and did a fine art degree in painting at the National College of Art and Design, NCAD, in Dublin. When I returned to London I did a number of small jobs and had a studio on the side. At that time I was really trying to be a painter and then discovered that computers were a way of getting this stuff across much faster and this led to illustration. That was fine in the beginning, but then I began to feel that digital work killed the spirit of what I wished to create. I think that’s when printing came in, about 5 or 6 years ago. I looked into screen printing in London and found a studio, the Print Club in Dalston, which is where I started. I've been increasingly moving away from illustration since then (editorial or commercial illustrations in particular) into something more like fine art.

Q. Is that Fine Art?
A. Well, I don’t really know to be honest. I think printmaking straddles that, it’s quite a grey area. Lots of artists use printmaking, but somehow it’s still considered the poor cousin and not really respected like ‘unique’ pieces. Editioned work is generally thought of as a little bit lower than unique pieces, but not entirely. You can have prints that cost thousands and one offs, like mono prints, and then you can go right down to posters and flyers that are mass produced, and booklets. Print is a really broad church.

Q. I first saw your work in the Guardian magazine?
A. You probably did, I used to work for them quite often.

Q. When was that?
A. I used to work for the Guardian quite regularly before I moved up to Norfolk, so that would have been about five or six years ago. I did a weekly piece for them for a while and lots of covers for the supplements over time. They made a lot of redundancies at one point and moved their offices from Farringdon to Kings Cross and all the people who had commissioned me were let go. I didn’t really pursue it, I could have made fresh contacts, but there were always waves of new illustrators coming in and I decided I didn’t like the stress and pressure of commercial editorial illustration. I did enjoy the challenge of working within a brief and having certain constrains, but the work dried up and my enthusiasm for it dried up as well.

Q. Tell me about your process?
A. There are two strands. If I’m working for a commissioned piece the process involves creating roughs for approval and then final artwork. When I’m working on my own pieces I just work endlessly out of notebooks, I’m now on about 160. I’ve been using those since art college and
that’s over twenty years ago. I just work and work on ideas all the time and I try not to censor too much even though a lot of the ideas don’t necessarily make the grade as they wouldn’t always translate as an art piece or as a print. Different sorts of media suit different things, it may be something that has a limited audience and a painting or a mono print or a small edition might suit that better. Other imagery, like the tattooed sailors for instance, prove more popular and it’s okay to do bigger editions of those.

Q. So how does a picture come out of the notebook/sketchbook into the world, how does that process happen?
A. I often just do a very random scribble in the notebook, it may only be the size of a postage stamp, very small, and I will then scan that in and blow it up towards the size of print I’ve intended. I usually work in 3 sizes: A3, B2 (fifty by seventy cm) and mini (twenty cm square). As they get blown up certain things have to change, marks that just don’t work when they’re larger and so I work them up in the studio on the light box using technical drawing pens generally. The process is ongoing, I don’t just draw one thing, it starts out as something small and it grows piecemeal. I tend not to draw things as one image but in parts and then composite it together in Photoshop.

Q. Let's talk tiles, how did you come to be doing these?
A. I’ve always loved Delft tiles, I think even as a kid I was aware of them and just loved that look. Blue and white has always been very popular and it still is. A few years ago I had an exhibition in a Georgian house in Spitalfields and as a nod to the area and to the history of the house I did paintings that looked like Delft tiles (they were paintings on mdf boards and used crackle glazes to create the effect). I made 120 of those and they were all related to a website called ‘Spitalfields Life’ which I knew the author of and which dealt with that area particularly and its history. So I was referencing things that had been featured by the Gentle Author on that website, mentioning local manufacturers, artists, buildings and the churches there, etc. I was trying to reference the history in all its broad scale. They sold really well, but a lot of people didn’t get the fact that they weren’t real tiles and I got a lot of people asking if I would do ceramic tiles they could use in their bathrooms, hearth places, etc. I began a very slow process of exploring that and first of all started using transfers on shop bought tiles which I found very unsatisfactory. I did onglaze painting on premade tiles and eventually I just found the only way to get the look and feel of a genuine delft tile was to actually create the tile yourself and to paint it as it would have been done originally. Basically it took me about three or four years, intermittently as it definitely wasn’t the main focus of my work. I still use transfers for some sorts of tile making, but for the traditional blue and white delft tiles, I found the best thing was to go back to basics.

Q. So they’re like a mini painting?
A. They are. Each one is hand painted. Sometimes I use a template, called a spons, this is an image drawn on parchment which then has holes pricked in it through which you 'pounce' charcoal dust to leave an image on the tile that you can follow. Even if you use the same
template many times over you will always get slightly different end results, which is very pleasing.

Q. Let's talk tattoos... Do you have any?
A. Well, I’ve got a couple of small tattoos…

Q. We’ll have a look at those later... So you’ve used tattoos quite a bit in your work or its influenced your work?
A. Yes that’s right, it really comes more from a fascination with symbolism than it does with tattoos exactly. I liked the way tattoos had meanings. Nowadays you can get anything you like, if there’s a singer you like, etc., but at one time it was associated with a lower class of people, criminals or sailors say, and everything had a meaning, things like tears or dice. They had significance and I like the idea of things reduced down to a symbol. That’s why I have a fascination with playing cards and pub signs as well, all that sort of thing. It is all related. Tattoos work really well in a print because there’s the idea of having a story within a story. You can have a print about something large, a figure maybe, and within that figure there can be other stories. And it hasn’t always been tattoos, I did some work for the London Guildhall who were having an exhibition of treasures held by the various trade guilds. The artwork showed a Guildhall Aldermen with these objects embroidered in gold thread onto his coat. So it was lots of small pieces, icons, within a larger piece. There was a lot to digest visually.

Q. What’s that art called? That includes pub signs, fairground images, it’s got a name?
A. I think that would be termed folk or popular art.

Q. How did you find out about Print to the People?
A. It was through meeting you, in fact. You came along to one of my first exhibitions in Norwich, at what was The Bell Jar in Upper St Giles Street and a week later I met you again at Get Stuffed Christmas Market at Stew. Before Print to the People came along Stew was the centre of printmaking in Norwich.

Q. And you’ve had some work produced through them?
A. I have indeed. I have had some tote bags, posters and prints produced there and have been part of both the Year in Print project and P2TP's 2017 Calendar. So an ongoing relationship there and one I would definitely like to continue.

Q. There’s a lot of humour in your work, has that made you happy?
A. It does when people get what I do. I made a decision a few years ago to do what I like to do and not tailor it to an audience. So I’m always slightly surprised and very delighted when people like or respond to my work.

Q. Where do you find inspiration?
A. All over the place really, it’s difficult to say. I am influenced a lot by history and by nature. Although nature is so perfect I don’t attempt to try to imitate it, but I am inspired by it. I have
quite a medieval view of the world where you try to encapsulate or distil the essence of nature. I don’t really try to show landscapes.

Q. Do you collect anything?
A. Yes I do. I collect random ceramic pieces, jugs and vessels mostly. I’m very fond of them. The other things I collect are playing cards and tarot cards.

Q. Do you do readings?
A. No I don’t sadly. I was raised Catholic and taught they were a sin, they were evil (I don't still believe this!) but it’s the appeal of reductive symbolism that can be seen on lots of different levels. The pictures show one thing but may mean another and within one image there will be lots of disparate elements.

Q. How do you get past creative blocks?
A. When I feel them approaching I’m now more aware of them. There’s some work you can do when you’re not feeling so bright, sort of ‘donkey’ work. It’s good to do something else if you’re struggling with creative things and I find it's best to put down your pens and get away from it for a while. If you just carry on working relentlessly I think you burn out and that’s happened to me a number of times. So if I have a block I take a break.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’ve just finished a body of commissioned work and now I’m really trying to focus on what I’m going to do for next year, for the foreseeable. I’m trying to plan a different way of working where I focus more on creating the work I want to produce and exploring different techniques within printmaking, mark making and painting. I think what I’m really trying to do is find the the fun in it again. Not just the fun that comes across on the paper, but the enjoyment of the creative process itself, which can get so easily lost. That’s my main focus and I’m looking forward to next year and have momentarily stopped working in preparation for that. I'm laying out in front of me things that I could do and working out how best to proceed with that.

Q. Where do you sell your work?
A. I sell my work on my own Big Cartel online shop, and I also sell it through a number of galleries online and across the country. I’m having a pre-Christmas selling exhibition at the end of November, A Winter's Tale, at Nunns Yard in Norwich.

Q. What new medium would you like to try?
A. I’d like to explore intaglio etching, and wood block, which I think are related, that sort of direct impress printmaking. Different sorts of print media suggest different sorts of images. Risography, because it’s generally a simpler process, makes me think of pamphlets and posters, that sort of thing, a broader, more popular kind of avenue. Screenprinting and wood cut or intaglio would be higher end, more limited. All sorts of things to explore. I’d like to do more letterpress as well but I haven’t thought of a project that could really use that to best advantage.

Q. What artist do you admire?
A. I have current favourites, but over time there have been lots of artists whose works I have admired and they have been absorbed into what I do as influences. I’d say that Edward Bawden is still a massive influence and I like the levity, humour and invention of his earlier work particularly, which I think is slightly overlooked and Edward Lear, I love his drawings a lot. There’s also a Czech illustrator called Jiri Salamoun, I’ve got a couple of his pieces here that are from the sixties, film posters, and I really love his work because he just rips up all the conventions and isn't worried about issues of perspective or making sense, scale, that sort of thing. In a way it reminds me again of that medieval approach even though it’s very much art of the sixties. He’s still around now in his eighties or nineties.

Q. What is your favourite Bowie song?