Today’s podcast guest is Caricature Artist Kevin Wells. Kevin who is also known as Squiggle King has always been a compulsive doodler. When he was 30 he became a London cabbie and for the first time in his adult life, he had more control over his time and decided to get an art education.

Ep Podcast 103 Caricature Artist Kevin Wells aka Squiggle King

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He did an A level in Art and Design at his local college, followed by a part-time Fine Art Degree course. At his degree show in 2005, he was selected the winner of the Windsor and Newton Watts prize, which led to him becoming the first artist in residence at the Watts Gallery in Compton. This began a long association with a gallery, where as well as having a solo show there in 2006, he led drawing and painting workshops with schools and groups from the local community. In 2015, he was elected a member of the prestigious Society of graphic fine art, or the drawing society with whom he now exhibits regularly.

Dickens Caricature

© Kevin Wells

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When did you start to draw? Were you an early starter?

I’ve always drawn ever since I was a child.

Did you go to art school? Or are you self-taught?

Well, a bit of both really, I did go to art school, but not till I was in my 30s.

I always wanted to do art, but I think I had some sort of crazy sort of stubborn Street when I was 16, left school and worked for BT, but then did an apprenticeship there. But I regretted not going to art school, but then life carried on. Then I changed jobs and became a London black cab driver. Suddenly, I had more control over my time. So I went to art school, a local college and did an A level art there.

While I was there, someone said, mentioned a part-time Fine Art degree course at Farnham, what used to be the Surrey Institute of Art Design. So I thought, You know what, I’m gonna give it a go. I applied for that and got a place and then did five years there, which was fantastic, really. But they don’t really teach you how to make out there. It’s more about changing the way you think about things. It makes you look at the world and differently, and that’s what I did. But it’s the people you meet there more than anything that’s really useful. You meet some great people, people who are friends for life, and people who think similarly to you. It’s an environment that really helps your creativity really, It certainly did with me.

When you were working as a cab driver were you sketching while you waited for people?

Yes, I always doodled, but when I went to art school, you suddenly start keeping sketchbooks. When I first went I bought a nice big A3 sketchbook and you get too scared to draw in it because it’s a big expensive thing and you don’t want to spoil it. So then I had an old ring-bound sketchbook which I’d had for years and it was already drawn in. So I started carrying that around with me. I just doodling in it in biros. You see someone, you start drawing them, they walk off, but then I’d just carry on the drawing and finish it, as I imagine what they look like. That was the basis of my work really these Biro cartoony doodles really.

What drew you in particular to portraiture?

I don’t know why I just like drawing people, it’s more fun I think. Focus on one thing, and become better at it. And that’s what I like to draw. When you go to going to art school, they don’t try and sort of make you draw specific things. But they make you question why you’re doing things and what you’re doing. I was quite stubborn and carried on doing the same thing. And eventually, they accept that’s what you’re going to do. There’s no point banging their heads against the wall trying to change you. But I’ve always drawn people even when I was right back at primary school. I was the person who drew people, there’s another guy who did animals and someone else who did everything else. I tried to do funny drawings as well. Being quite shy it was a good way of breaking the ice.

How did you arrive at your ‘caricature’ style, would you call it caricature?

I do draw caricatures. The artists I admire also do that sort of work. If you go back to people like Otto Dix and George Grosz their drawings were very caricature-like, but I wouldn’t say they were caricatures necessarily. It is more Expressionist. I am doing caricatures at the moment and my work is always been quite cartoony. So I’m exaggerating features so they are a bit grotesque, really.

They were even more grotesque when I was at college. My sketchbook drawings are horrible really, very visceral. A lot of people don’t say you shouldn’t rub out your lines when you draw. I don’t really do that. If you draw an eye in the wrong place, then rub it out and move it that’s fine. But when you’re using biro or pen and ink, you can’t change it. So it makes you draw in a different way.

Did you caricature your tutors?

I got in trouble for a caricature that I didn’t do a long time ago when I was at college with BT. I was drawing the lecturers when we’re in the classes and people loved them. So I got a reputation for doing it. Then someone else did a caricature of someone from our group. It wasn’t a very good one. So I was quite insulted by this, but he thought I’d done it.

With a caricature how can you distort features and it still looks like the person?

I don’t know, I do wish I knew the secret. It either works or it doesn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. I think if I thought about it or analyse it too much, then you lose the magic as it is completely intuitive. I just draw it how I see it, and hopefully, it’s gonna work.

Sylvia Von Harden Caricature

© Kevin Wells

What is it you see in a particular person that makes you want to draw them?

Some people just have to be drawn like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson who are in the news and quite in at the time. You want to draw them. Sometimes. It’s just someone that you’re just attracted to draw, they’ve just got a really good face. Someone like Clint Eastwood, you just have to draw them when you see them. Sometimes people are not very easy to caricature, but it’s nice to push yourself to try. Good looking people are very difficult to draw sometimes. But I like to like to have a go at that.

Do you do a quick sketch first?

I go straight in and it either works or it doesn’t. Sometimes you know it’s not working. So you just put it to one side, I might come back to it another time.

You seem to work in a variety of different dry mediums, but do you have a particular favourite?

I change my medium, but the moment I draw with colouring pencils – Faber Castell Polychromos. I can rub them out a bit so I can move things around. It’s a bit like a clay sculpture, you can move the features around and play with it. And I think the fact you do that gives the drawing more character anyway, it gives it a different quality.

A year ago, I was drawing with a very dark pencil. It says Steidler 8B. t’s got a very high carbon content. It’s really dark pencil. Then I was using watercolour and paints. But then I was watching the portrait Artists of the Year on Sky. The guy won it last year, Curtis Holder drew with colouring pencils. His style was quite squiggly, which is quite like what my drawing style is like. So I think I found some Korean pencils that are stolen from the Harvester. I did a few drawings with them and it worked. So I looked around and the Faber Castell seemed good. And I’m really going enjoying using those at the moment.

You work on a toned background, like a buff paper. Is that right?

Yes, I do sometimes. It’s a bit lazy, isn’t it? Because if you start with a white sheet of paper, it’s quite intimidating, isn’t it? I think artists talk about that don’t they, because of the white space they’re scared to make the first mark. And it’s a lot harder work. If you’ve got a toned background, you’ve already got that mid-tone, it’s much easier. I started staining paper as well. I make up some coffee, stain the paper leave it to dry and it gives an interesting texture to work with. It just makes the drawing more interesting, I think and gives it a bit more character. My daughter bought me a brown paper drawing pad about a year ago. And that’s when I started using the brown paper. And I just enjoyed working that way. I try to mix it up really. So it’s not always the same. Sometimes drawings are on white paper and then sometimes it’s brown, sometimes a bit of toned paper, and envelopes. If it’s something that’s got markings on it already, it adds something to the drawing.

Do you do this full-time, for a living, or do you do it alongside another job?

I don’t do it for a living. I wish I did wish. But I draw as often as I can. When you’re working and you’ve got family life and everything you have to try and fit it in when you can. That’s probably why I draw quickly because you try and get as much done in a short period of time. ideally, I like to draw every day, even if it’s just a little doodle on an envelope or something. When I get days off, I try and make sure I sit down and do a drawing or a couple of drawings. I do work quite quickly. Generally, I would say one of those portrait drawings is between one and four hours. That’s probably as much as I spend on one of those drawings. But obviously, I have created drawings where I’ve spent a prolonged period on it over several days or a couple of weeks or whatever. But generally speaking, one to four hours is the time I spent on those drawings that I posted on Instagram.

I know that you are a fan of art books. Are there a few favourites in particular that have inspired you, or that you can recommend?

I love Ralph Steadman’s work and I got a few of them got them second-hand, because art books are really expensive, aren’t they? Yeah. I do collect them. So Ralph Steadman book “I Leonardo” I remember it used to be in the local library. I used to get it out all the time and just look at the amazing drawings. It’s because he wrote a book about Leonardo Da Vinci called I Leonardo as if he was Leonardo telling the story. But the images in there are incredible, the drawings are absolutely beautiful. So I managed to get a copy of that a couple of years ago, and that’s been a big inspiration to me. I love that. And there’s another book. There’s a New York, Illustrator and character designer called Peter De Seve he had a book out called Sketchy Past. I really wanted this book and I couldn’t get it for ages. It was always sold out instantly. But I’m actually getting a copy of that. His drawings are just incredible. He was a character design designer on all the Ice Age movies. He does a lot of covers for The New Yorker and stuff like that. So he’s an amazing artist, I recommend looking at his stuff.

The first art book I ever got when I was 16 was Disney Animation, the illusion of life. It was £30 which was a lot of money then I was only earning £40 a week. It’s written by two of the original Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston

Did you copy those when you were 16? You know, to practice I mean?

Yeah, I tried to emulate the style of things I think that’s how you learn. That’s how I learned to draw, going looking at other people’s art and then trying to draw like that. And then you eventually move on from it and try and do stuff that looks like you’ve done it. I used to love the political cartoons in the newspapers and I used to try and draw like them. There was a cartoonist called Charles Gryphon, and I used to love his talk about the 80s, the Thatcher years. He did really beautiful caricatures and pen and ink cross-hatching. I loved trying to draw like him. And obviously Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe. And Ronald Searle.

Do you ever find that a drawing just isn’t working? And how do you get over that hurdle when that happens?

You have some days when nothing’s going to work. So you put it to one side. And either never look at it again. Or I might look at it and think oh, you know, it wasn’t too bad and develop it. But usually, if it’s not working, it gets binned. And then I start another one. The best way I find is if it’s not working, start another drawing. And if that’s not working, start on another drawing. If that’s not working, it’s not your day. Try again tomorrow. That’s how it works with me.

Do you ever find procrastination to be a problem? How do you make yourself work even when you don’t feel like it?

It is a problem that sometimes you just don’t feel like doing it, do you? You can always make excuses for everything. But with social media, there’s a lot of imagery out there isn’t there. So if you see something odd and think I might draw that sometime, just save it on your iPad or whatever. Try and have it so you’ve always got an image you can go to when you’re in that situation. It’s nice to have two or three things that you want to draw but haven’t drawn yet. So just store things so that you have a few ideas that you haven’t started yet.

Whenever you draw someone famous and tag them, do they ever come back to you?

I did a drawing earlier in the year from a programme called Most Haunted. There’s a character on that I think it’s Fred Back, he was a demonologist. I did a drawing of him. And I did a drawing of him and tagged him. He got really annoyed. He said, Why have you made me look like Fagin? I’m not.

So we spoke earlier about how much time you spend drawing? Do you think that pencil miles are the key to improvement?

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. 100%. Yeah. It’s that 100,000 hours thing. The golfer Arnold Palmer said It’s really strange. The more I practice, the luckier I get. It’s the same sort of thing.

What’s your own favourite piece of art you have ever created and why?

That’s a difficult one. Because in my mind that what I’m working on, at that moment is going to be the best thing I’ve ever done. And it kind of has to be your favourite thing, doesn’t it? For it to work.

I think the work I’m most proud of was the work I produced for my degree show. It’s actually more of a body of work than an individual piece of work because it kind of came out of nowhere. It worked quite well, because I got to the end of my five year degree show. It was February of last year, and I didn’t have any work for my degree show. And I was getting quite stressed. Because it meant so much to me, I put a lot of pressure on myself. And I really didn’t know what I was going to do. So I think, I can’t believe this. I’ve been here five years, and I’m gonna fail my degree show. So I went to a tutorial and it was quite clear, I was in a bit of a bad place with my art.

The tutor was talking about what he’d been doing. He’d been getting these canvases, big canvases and making grounds on them and then using the grounds to suggest things to him and making paintings. So I came home and I had the sheet of paper someone had written some notes about the tutorial on a piece of paper. I read through it and I thought, right, I’m going to use this instruction manual. So I went to B&Q (hardware store) and bought some sheets of MDF and had them cut in half so they could fit in the cab. And I laid them all around the garden and threw paint at them for about three or four weeks. Just to start making the abstract marks. So I made about 12 abstract paintings. They worked quite well as abstract paintings, which I’d never done before. And I thought well, what do I do now? So I brought them in, lay them on the floor and doodled over them in a stream of consciousness-like Biro figures. And they really worked. It’s hard to visualise them, but they really worked as well. And they went down very well. So it worked. Inspiration is born of desperation.

Some of them sold and they actually won a prize. So I was quite pleased about that.

abstracts with drawings

© Kevin Wells

What would you say is the best way for a novice artist to develop their own unique style?

I think, don’t stress about that, because the style will find you in a way really. If you just make enough work, then style’s something that happens organically, isn’t it? I know, it’s not a great word. But it’s like handwriting isn’t it, it’s not something you consciously try to do. If you make enough work, eventually style will come. Look at as much art as you can, really, and do as much as you can take. Don’t try and copy other artists. I think people do to start with trying to be Picasso on Monday and Rembrandt on Tuesday. But you just look at as many artists as you can and do as much work as you can you’ll find that you come out of that process and your style will evolve.

Willem de Kooning Caricature

© Kevin Wells

Do you have any other tips that you could share with our listeners, to improve their drawing skills?

Just draw as much as possible really, and sketchbooks are a really, really good way, I Listening to this earlier podcast, Chris Riddell was talking about secret sketchbooks, I think if you’ve got a sketch where it’s yours and you’re not drawing for somebody else to look at, I think you’re freer. And you experiment. It certainly works for me. I’ve got lots of sketchbooks just doodling in biro. I think that’s a really good way to develop, you try things in there and you become more proficient at it.

When you use your sketchbooks are you doing that from life?

It’s a bit of everything really? Yes, I draw from life. But the characters in my sketchbook that is like fleeting encounters, you see them for like two seconds. So you draw as much as you can, and then you make the rest up? I think sitting in front of the TV with a sketchbook is a really good way of practising drawing. Because everything’s moving around like you’re capturing a moment. Then you can make up the rest or move on to something else.

Sometimes I just started drawing like a stream of consciousness thing. You pick up a piece of paper and you make a mark. Then you just make something out of it. You draw completely out of your head as well. Sometimes I just make faces up to be completely free.

What has been the highlight of your creative journey so far?

A couple of things. During lockdown, I had nothing going on so I went on Twitter, which I hadn’t done for a long time. Martin Rowson, The Guardian cartoonist, writer and poet had a Michael Gove drawing challenge. I’d drawn a picture of Michael Gove already election night off the TV so I posted that on and it got loads of likes and retweets. Then the next week he put up a draw Desmond Swayne competition. I didn’t know Desmond Swayne was, but he’s a Tory MP. So I drew him and then entered into the drawing challenge. And won, So he said a fine book and a pair of underpants that he’d graffitied on. And I got to meet Martin as a result of it too.

And the other thing. I was talking about my degree show a few minutes ago, I put my drawings up at the degree show and one of the paintings won the Watts prize, I don’t know if you know the Watts Gallery gallery in Compton, new Guilford? That led to me being the first artist in residence at the gallery.

Where can our listeners find out a bit more about you?

If you enjoy the podcast you can support us by buying us a coffee. We want to make a coffee froth moustache. Thank you!

Kofi buy us a coffee

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