the artist as cyclist - nick higgins

binda and girardengo

the late dennis creffield, commissioned by the south bank board in 1987 to draw every cathedral in england, set off from brighton in a campervan, waking early each day to ensure the minimum of audience participation while he drew. creffield had became a member of the so-called borough group, while attending david bomberg's classes at london's borough polytechnic, along with such luminaries as leon kossoff and frank auerbach. bomberg's teachings encouraged his students to seek the 'spirit in the mass', a philosophy wholly embraced by creffield in each and every one of his cathedral drawings.

these charcoal masterpieces were exhibited in the winchester gallery in 1987 and camden arts centre in 1990 before embarking upon a tour of 13 other venues. his images were not what you'd call 'prissy' or even 'comfortable'; to quote from the guardian newspaper's obituary "Canterbury Cathedral is rendered as a series of sparse dashed lines, Durham Cathedral is barely visible in a smog of charcoal clouds. the catalogue for the exhibition is a treasured possession of mine. if i could draw that well, that's how i'd want to draw.

it is the mark of a true artist that, within reason, no matter the commision or the self-appointed subject matter, he or she has the ability to observe facets of which the 'ordinary' man or woman in the street is aware, but simultaneously 'unaware'. in other words, ' the spirit in the mass.' it's an ability that could be legitimately applied to illustrator nick higgins, recently appreciated in these very pixels by way of my review of his laurence king publication'racing bicycles - the illustrated story of road cycling'. creffield had the benefit of bomberg's eccentric teaching methods; was nick the result of academia or is he a self-made man?

early cyclists

"I am trained, I studied illustration at St Martin's. I did start late though, in that i didn't draw until I was in my twenties. Most people seem to believe it's something that you do as a child or never at all, but I learned late."

it would be unfair to categorise dennis creffield's career simply on the basis of one series of drawings, no matter how superb those may have been. subsequent commissions followed to draw the houses of parliament, to tour welsh and english castles as well as french cathedrals, while his paintings rivalled those of roy oxlade, yet another who learned at the brush of bomberg. however, in the absence of direct commissions, each and every artist exists at the behest of his or her own visual predilections. in this particular case, the subject matter concerned the racing bicycle, but of all the wealth of topics available, why bicycles?

"I am an illustrator most of the time, and as such, work in the service of a subject, rather than just creating artwork that satisfies me in some way. I am usually commissioned, and work on subject matter that is given to me; book jackets, magazine articles, portraits etc. This time however, I chose a subject that interested me, that i was passionate about, and was charmed by. That makes it harder, when you have an emotional connection with what you're working on. I think you care so much more about getting it right, and have so much more to say."

campagnolo delta brakes

one of the main quandaries facing any artist, is that of stylistic intent; not every subject lends itself to a similar treatment. it's quite likely that, had dennis creffield been commissioned to draw council housing schemes, his approach to the subject may have proved entirely different. or had the commission insisted upon oil on canvas, rather than black charcoal on white paper, the subsequent exhibition would surely have taken on an altogether differing persona. yet, in the case of the 'true' artist, the latter's identity shines through whichever medium is employed. in the case of nick higgins, there's a delightful contradiction in the illustrations featured in 'racing bicycles'; some are loose in concept, some edging more towards the technically precise. are those two styles fighting each other?

"I have always varied between different styles. It can be a problem, in that people never quite know what they'll get from me, but I think that can also be a strength. I can offer a response suitable to the material I'm illustrating. In the book, I was sometimes telling stories, which suit a looser, more painterly presentation, and sometimes illustrating componentry, which I wanted to be technically correct. I think makes a more interesting book if it varies in approach over 127 pages.

early cyclist

it would, no doubt, be something of an uphill challenge to describe bicycle componentry in the less than technically applicable media of oil paint, gouache or watercolour. if you have even a modest comprehension of the mechanics of artistic rendering, i'm sure you can see from where i'm coming. the paragon of bicycle component illustration is surely french artist, daniel rebour, who filled the years from 1945 until his retirement in the early 1980s with meticulous renderings of all manner of bicycle bits, a style of which some of nick's illustrations are reminiscent. was rebour's work an influence?

"I only discovered them when I was well on my way through making the book. I admire them greatly. I think we meet in the middle. He approached from a highly technical direction, while I come from a looser illustrative origin."

many a contemporary publication offers a distinct separation between narrative and illustration. the standard approach would be, as nick has alluded above, for an illustrator to be commissioned by either the author or the publisher, to enhance the finished publication by a series of appropriate drawings or paintings. this might be a collaborative effort, such as that recently seen with guy andrews and laura quick, but more frequently, the two disciplines work independently of each other. nick's 'racing bicycles' places the reader in something of a quandary: is this a book of illustrations with accompanying words, or the latter accompanied with suitable text?


"It was the first time I've supplied text, apart from some very short, comic-style pieces that I made some time ago. The origin of the book was my fascination with the stories of bicycle racing, so the writing is important. I do think it was generous of the publisher to let me take on the writing, and I've been very gratified that it has been well received.
"I really hope that it's read as well as being looked at. People always ask 'Who is it aimed at", and i felt that there are so many people taking up cycling these days, that there was room to tell these stories and present those team kits again, but I had to avoid the obvious, or at least add something to the familiar. And to be a bit opinionated, making the text a bit more personal. There are many straightforward collections of cycling facts and figures; I wanted this to be less formal."

thewashingmachinepost began life in the mid-1990s, long before the word 'weblog' had been coined and subsequently contracted to the word 'blog'. at that point in time, i considered the post to be a bona-fide website; anyone who referred to it as a 'blog' was given short shrift, or a withering stare. i often wonder whether the same applies to those who consider themselves 'artists' or 'illustrators'. and in real-life, is there any appreciable difference other than the relative scales which each inhabits? for instance, it strikes me that nick's paintings of the riders of yesteryear would feature well on large canvases. are they indeed of such dimensions? can any of the book's contents be acquired in print format?

fignon & lemond

"They are all about A2 size, mainly acrylic on paper. A few of them are bigger, A1; large bikes. I have had prints made, and showed them at 'Look Mum No Hands', and currently some hang in Seabass Cycles in Peckham. I haven't got it together to open a printshop yet, but really I suppose I ought to."

it's quite possible that dennis creffield was a strong advocate of charcoal as an ideal means of picture making; much of bomberg's teachings favoured just such a medium. however, no doubt it was percieved as the ideal medium with which to depict those substantial monuments to religion. it well behoves the contemporary artist to be flexible and competent enough to work in several differing means of artistic expression. does nick have any favoured media amongst those which he appears to be a consummate practitioner? oils, pen and ink, gouache?"

"I used to use enamels, and could do some lovely things with them. They are very 'active'. I started using them because I love Sidney Nolan's work, but I stopped using them because my wife hated the smell. I use acrylics instead now. i love to work with Bic biros. I have just discovered Posca pens as well, very opaque, wet felt tips. Like paint, but easier to carry around. The beginnings of the book were in a series of pencil portraits I undertook of, every winner of the Tour de France. Which reminds me, it needs updating!"


the work of the illustrator is more greatly appreciated nowadays, rather than simply being regarded as something of a second-class citizen. but the notion of the illustrator being the sole author is relatively uncommon. now that nick has 'broken the ice' so to speak, can we look forward to a 'racing bicycles ii'?

"Good question! I sort of made Racing Bicycles quite comprehensive: places, people, bikes, jerseys. I didn't leave myself much to cover. I thought perhaps I could do a book about football, mostly because I don't care about it at all, and could bang it out quickly. I think it might be a first-time writer thing, not defining a tight concept to work through, but tackling the whole subject. Having said that, I'm satisfied with the 'encyclopaedic' feel of Racing Bicycles. It has had a very good reception so far, so i certainly hope there are more to come!" | racing bicycles

saturday 11 august 2018

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................