For the first time ever, the life and astonishing career of the late comic artist and illustrator John Watkiss is being celebrated in illustrators, from Book Palace Books, and editor Peter Richardson has kindly given us permission to share his thoughts on this very special issue…
Packed with contributions from friends and colleagues, with a foreword by Neil Gaiman, illustrators Issue 38 presents the story of the man whose work captivates moviegoers, comic readers and lovers of fine art.
From Sandman comics to promotional art for TV series such as The Walking Dead and from collaborations with film director Derek Jarman to helping to launch Disney’s Tarzan, along with a host of other activities, this will be an issue you will treasure.
Over to Peter…
Celebrating the work of John Watkiss
It was some ten years ago that I was contacted by a publisher to edit a new magazine, on the strength of some blogs that I had written (in the vain hopes of promoting a graphic novel I was working on). To draw attention to the project, I wrote about some truly great artists and began to acquire a bit of a following. On the strength of these postings, I was flattered to be asked to create a title dedicated to some of the greatest illustrators the world has seen – and illustrators was born.
Since then, we have managed to assemble a team of doughty old farts, who despite being in a parlous state of disrepair collaborate to produce the only journal of its kind devoted to this subject.
Issue 38 of Illustrators Quarterly has just been published and it is devoted to the art of John Watkiss, who I first had the privilege of encountering when he was a 19 year-old student and I was a part-time lecturer at Brighton Art College back in 1982.
John was a complete one-off. He was an exceptional talent – the like of which had not been seen before-or since, for that matter.
The son of a Stoke-on-Trent miner, he was entirely self-taught – having discovered a book by George Bridgman on drawing the human form when he was still a nipper, by the time he was thirteen he had memorised every bone and muscle in the human body. He could draw like a Renaissance Master from imagination and watching him perform was captivating.
He was as opinionated as he was talented and had zero-tolerance for the bull-shittery that infested art colleges, even back in the 1980s. As a draughtsman, he was streets ahead of his contemporaries as well as the teaching staff. For John, Brighton was just a stage in an ongoing journey.
As a result he wasn’t popular with many of the tutors and it was these polarising aspects of his talent and personality that were to create challenges for him throughout his career.
I was determined to run a feature on John in illustrators, and in the Spring of 2013, my publisher and I met up with him after he had returned from the United States, having run out of bridges to burn over there. Over lunch at a Chinese restaurant, he regaled us with a three-hour narration of his career, encompassing work with Derek Jarman, his creation of a life-drawing school at the Regent’s Park Diorama, graphic novels with Neil Gaiman, work with Francis Ford Coppola, his arrival in Hollywood, where he created such stunning concept art for the Disney movie, Tarzan, that the whole of the top floor of the Disney studio played host to his giant-sized paintings; murals for the Ford Motor Museum, more movie concept work for Harry Potter director Lionel Wigram – the list of achievements went on and on…
Sadly, his life had endured more than its share of ups and downs – his exile from Disney, followed by the death of his wife had taken its toll. He had returned to the UK and was living, once again in Brighton – his work at the time we met up seemed mainly centred around creating visuals for The Walking Dead.
We determined to go to press with his story once we had received the all-important visuals from John.
Sadly, the image files never arrived – the project was put on ice. Four years later, John died – the last year of his life being devoted to an incredible outpouring of paintings as he raced against the cancer that was to prematurely terminate his career at the age of 55. Beyond a devoted circle of family, friends and colleagues his story remained untold.
Now, finally, we have got the story out and published, with the assistance of friends and collectors, we have been able to access superb reproductions of his jaw-dropping art.
I would seriously recommend that you acquire a copy of this particular issue – I don’t often rave on about illustrators… but I am making an exception on this occasion.
Author: Foreword by Neil Gaiman
Artist: John Watkiss
Publisher: Book Palace Books, June 2022
Number of pages: 96
Format: Soft Cover; Full Colour illustrations
Size: 9″ x 11″ (216mm x 280mm)
• For more about illustrators please visit illustratorsquarterly.com (links to Book Palace Books) – including highly-recommended The Art of Frank Bellamy and The Art of John M Burns