“Painting and art for me is a means of showing the world a vision which I have seen with my mind not with my eyes – which I use merely as a means of perception. I call this ‘Mindsight’.
– John Watkiss
John Watkiss – considered by the comics community as very much an “artist’s artist” – has had an impressive career in the fields of illustration and comics. Down the years he has worked for director Derek Jarman, Saatchi & Saatchi, Ridley Scott Associates, Francis Ford Coppola, Dreamworks, Twentieth Century Fox and Disney. His development art includes work on Sherlock Holmes, Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow and concept art for The Walking Dead.
His most recent comics projects include Surgeon X for Image Comics, but he has also worked for DC/Vertigo and his graphic novel Ring of Roses, published initially by Dark Horse Comics, is regarded as a hugely important work in the field of graphic storytelling.
Born in 1961, his career began in London, where he worked as a portrait painter, illustrator and an instructor of fine art and anatomy at the Royal College of Art, Ballet Stage and Fashion Design, the Museum of the Moving Image in London, and Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation.
John graduated from Brighton Polytechnic with a BA First Class Honours in Fine Art and Illustration and was immediately head hunted by the prestigious advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, to work as a storyboard artist. While there, he also found time in the evenings to finance his own painting studio space in the eclectic arts complex “The Diorama” in London’s Regents Park area, later patronised by Lady Sainsbury, who bought one of Watkiss’ portraits, now in her private collection.
He produced enough fine art work to have his first one-man exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall in autumn 1984, following on from David Hockney. This exhibition brought him into contact with film director Derek Jarman, who proposed that they collaborate on a short, controversial experimental film, Imagining October, a dreamlike meditation on art and politics in the final years of the Cold War, in which John also appeared on screen.
(Produced for the London Film Festival in 1984, the Tate notes it was the same year that Jarman was invited with a group of British filmmakers to visit Moscow, where he presented his film, The Tempest. Throughout the trip, Jarman furtively wandered off into the streets of Moscow to shoot footage of the city with his Super-8 camera. His gritty, haunting images document fleeting moments of pre-Perestroika Russia very seldom recorded by Western filmmakers at the time).
John produced and composed paintings of five life size soldier models for the short film, which were inter-cut with footage in Moscow over a short period of two days. After its debut in 2014 it was banned for its anti capitalist undertones, although it has been shown in recent years, including at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2012.
Whilst at The Diorama, John began teaching anatomy and life class to a cross section of London media society – fine artists, animators, and sculptors. Among them was animation director, Richard Williams, (whose credits include Who Framed Roger Rabbit).
Derek Jarman also put Caravaggio star, Nigel Terry through the rigour of John’s training to orientate him to play the central part of the Venetian painter in his film, released in 1986 and consider by some as perhaps his most mainstream film.
John’s fans will no doubt enjoy this unofficial “Levi” ad in which he appears, poking fun at the art world…
During the mid-1980s, John moved away from advertising and experimental art and into the world of comics and graphic novels, with early work for ACME Press (Kiss of Death and The Last Kiss). He made his US debut at DC with a pre-Vertigo issue of The Sandman, which was followed by Ring of Roses, written by concept artist and creative consultant Das Petrtou. Iinitially published by Dark Horse Comics as a four-issue series (each issue selling out within a week of going on sale) it was most re-published in 2015 as a collection by Titan Comics.
The story is set in London in 1991, but in an alternate reality where the Catholic Church is incredibly powerful, to the point of limiting science and technology to levels similar to World War Two. A group of priests go missing in London shortly before the arrival of Pope John Paul XXIX, causing some extreme security measures, including the lockdown of the city. Samuel Waterhouse, a lawyer, is recruited by the Church to investigate, since his brother is among the missing, and quickly finds he is out of his league…
The success of Ring of Roses was followed by two issues of Conan The Barbarian for Marvel Comics in 1993 and a four-issue James Bond book for Dark Horse, followed by four issues of Vertigo’s Sandman Mystery Theatre, followed by a three-issue run on Conan the Adventurer for Marvel. he also illustrated a three-part Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight story for DC.
In 1984, John had worked with director Francis Ford Coppola on a film involving CGI for the first time, meeting Scooby Doo producer John Dorman, who suggested he go and work in Hollywood, but he didn’t make the move until 1995, working initially as a film development artist on the animated feature Tarzan for Walt Disney Features in Burbank. John’s 250 cinemascope paintings gave the green light for the making of the movie. He was also called on to design the character of Tarzan and on the strength of his achievement was asked to give workshops on theoretical construction to the world’s oldest and greatest animators.
At Disney he also worked on features such as Emperor’s New Grove, Atlantis, Treasure Planet and, finally, Don Quixote in 1999. He also worked on some development projects at Fox Animation Studios in Arizona during the same period, and at Nickelodeon cartoon network series.
Moving away from animation, John worked as a key frame concept artist on the Dino De Laurentis production storyboard work for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in 2003, which was released the following year.
Given his film work during the period it’s perhaps no surprise that after drawing six issues of John Jakes’ Mullkon Empire for Tekno Comix in 1995, his comics work was sporadic, limited to a handful of fill-ins for DC over the next 10 years. But in 2005, he returned to Vertigo for the 12-part series Only Deadman, followed by the eight-part series, Trigger.
In 2006 John worked with Harry Potter executive producer, Lionel Wigram. His storyboard work set the atmosphere and tone, enabling the further development and making of the film Sherlock Holmes, directed, by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law.
Regarded rightly as an independent but very private visionary, John’s more recent credits include storyboard work for the TV series of the comic The Walking Dead and Image Comics’ Surgeon X, launched in 2016. A collected edition will be released in May 2017.
UPDATE, January 2017: John Watkiss died in January 2017, after a long illness. He was 55. You can read our news item on tributes to both him and his work here
• John Watkiss Official Web Site: www.johnwatkissfineart.com
• Books by John Watkiss on amazon.co.uk (using this link supports downthetubes, thank you)
• John Watkiss: 10 Steps to Improve Your Figure Drawing
(This article originally appeared in ImagineFX issue 94)
All art © respective creators/ companies