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Graphic Shorthands for Elemental Forces: an Interview with Peter Diamond

Sun, Sep 17, 17 / James BDP

On occasion of the release of 'The Wind in the Willows' we sent our intern Dave to have a quick chat with Peter Diamond. Read it after the jump.


Hansel & Gretel- Grimm's Illuminated Fairy Tales (2015/ 2016)

'Grimm's Illuminated Fairy Tales' Peter Diamond (2015/2016)


Dave: Hi Peter, or do you prefer Pete?

Peter: I don’t.

Are you ever confused with Peter Diamond the MIT economist?


Well you have your work cut out to finish up higher than him on search engine results.  Does this motivate you in your work?

I don’t ever expect to overtake a Nobel Laureate in the search rankings, but I did beat out a jazz man named Peter Diamond years ago, and it felt good. He won’t sell me his domain name though, which feels bad.


from 'Klimt: The Golden Painter' Peter Diamond (2015)

So what motivates you?

It’s nearly always about the work for me, trying to make it the best it possibly can be. In addition to trying to close that gap between where I am trying to go and where I currently am, I’m often motivated to work harder by seeing other artists leaving me in the dust. When it’s not about that, it’s the need for money that motivates.

You're competitive then?

Definitely. It’s not the competitiveness of athletics, of victory and loss. But I definitely measure myself against what I see as the very best work, past and present, and always aim as high as possible. I don’t see much to be gained in setting my sights lower, I want to maintain that sense of forward drive that comes from wanting your next piece to be better than your last, or that other artist’s last.


'Featherweight' Peter Diamond (2015)

How does a Canadian end up living in Austria?

Love. My wife is Austrian, we met in Canada and she brought me home to where the living’s easy.

And you’re a full time illustrator?

Yes. As full as a dad’s time can be, that is.

Oh, you have kids?

Two boys. 5yrs and 2mo.

That must be a handful. What’s their favourite drawing of yours?

I got a cheap DTG T-shirt print of one of my drawings for my eldest and he loves it, I have to think that’s his favorite.


'Stairway To Edo' Peter Diamond (2013)


And what's your favourite drawing of theirs? 

My eldest did a watercolor for me for Father’s Day this year and I love it. Abstract Expressionism isn’t normally my thing but I love when my boy does it.


'Untitled' James Diamond (2017)


That's great! Can you think of a particular painting or drawing that has stayed with you since you were a kid?

There are so many. Looking at an image can pull me back to where and when I first (or most strongly) connected with it with remarkable clarity. That’s not to say I can recall place names and dates with confidence, but I feel like I am there, and then, again. So many images do that it’s impossible to pick one.

Ah come on Peter, that's a cop out. Give us at least one. First that comes to mind. (and what it reminds you of?) 

There really is no first to mind, it’s a whole flood of things. There’s no way to pick something representative, but one of the easiest to point out is Stan Sakai’s cover for the Usagi Yojimbo trade paperback #3. That book was the first thing I ever saved up money to buy for myself, and I still love it. I remember being smitten by it in the comics shop, proudly buying it and keeping it in its little bag for years, I don’t think anything else I had at that age has survived but it's in good shape. 


Usagi Yojimbo trade paperback #3


Do you do anything else asides from drawing?

Not much. I used to play a lot of music but haven’t done much of that since having kids. It’s a cliché isn’t it? I do teach a little as well, though, if that counts. There's a small institute here in Vienna called illuskills and I teach there a few times a year.

What’s the first rule of illustration you teach to your students?

Clean your brushes. (I mostly teach ink drawing)

And what’s the most common mistake they make?

Besides not cleaning the brushes, a really common misconception I have seen in my students is the idea that at some point artists learn to bring what’s it in their head on to the paper. They can get very disheartened that what’s in their mind’s eye is so different from what’s on the page, and I try to convey that the two things will never match, and they shouldn’t set that as the bar for success.

Is that what "style" is?

In a way. How you navigate that gap between vision and execution definitely plays a big role in the emergence of style.


'Sapphire Tiger' Peter Diamond (2014)


Speaking of style, your work has a Japanese vibe to it. How did that happen?

I get this question a lot, and I often feel like it’s something I should defend. All I can really say (beyond to point out that classic Japanese woodblock illustration is just mind-blowingly awesome and has a certain track record of reformatting the visual brains of Western artists upon contact) is that when I discovered Japanese ukiyo-e it provided great answers to some drawing problems I was wrestling with for the first time.

Flattening space, harnessing pure black, and graphic shorthands for elemental forces were among the things I wanted to do but had no sense of how to manage. I think I had some very ingrained reflexes of naturalistic space, and a certain timidity with color. A kind of pedantic approach almost. The Japanese illustrations and tattoos I encountered blew that all apart, and they’ve left their mark for sure.

I know now that the lessons were there all along in my own artistic heritage, the Medieval art of Britain and Ireland being closest to me. I looked past that stuff at the time though, and have only now come back around to it with appreciation for its brilliance.


Magician Tenjiku Tokubei Riding A Giant Toad
'Utagawa Kuniyoshi' (c. 1825-30)


Can you show us an example of medieval art that would demonstrate what you just told us?

I think this piece from the Douce Apocalypse is a pretty good one to look at. Those rippling clouds show up elsewhere in the book too, and are a great vision of the sky opening up. There’s a lovely graphic impact of those storms/ rains/ winds shooting down from the clouds. You don’t know precisely what they are but you know it’s not good. What I love best though is the way the earth swallows up the people and buildings. Rendering the chasms and sinking earth in a naturalistic way doesn’t seem even to have been considered, and it works so well. When I look back at this stuff, I think the Renaissance swept away some amazing stuff from Western art in the process of bringing in its advancements. 


The Douce Apocalypse (c.1270-1272, London)
Collection of Boldeian Library, Ms Douce 180

Your work and the way you talk about it makes you seem like a very thoughtful person. So why do you like Hockey?

I love this question. There is so much fascinating, weird, atavistic stuff going on in sports. I think people as a whole (or maybe just men?) have some deep-seated attractions to things that are tribalistic, superstitious, and either violent or otherwise brutal. And I’m really intrigued by the way we tend to see the different means people have of escaping into these things as so unrelated and incompatible.

People who lose themselves in role-playing-games where they imagine themselves part of a band of warrior elves questing after a magic sceptre, and people who lose themselves in a sporting tournament where they imagine themselves part of a band of warriors called The Blackhawks questing after a silver cup with reputedly magical powers, see themselves as in completely different worlds. But to me the two worlds are more alike than they are different.


'Endangered Enforcer' Peter Diamond (2016)


Do you put more weight on the strictly visual aspects of the illustration (the composition, the colour palette, etc) or on the concept behind it? Is one more important than the other?

They both have to harmonise for the work to really sing. Having said that, my approach to meaning in my work is more open-ended than in the case of your pure conceptual illustrator. I nurse a kind of ambiguity in my images; while I set certain confines of mood and concept within the image, I need to leave room for questions and open connections, I don’t like to be prescriptive.

I think I am more at home showing people where to look than telling them what to see, so the formal qualities of the image are really important to me. The composition and color especially, are absolutely central.


'Little Nemo at the Slumberland Café' Peter Diamond (2014)


So with The Wind in the Willows you've talked about trying to convey both the fun, cuddly nature of the characters and the sadness of Toad’s addiction. How does this inform the composition of the piece?

I don’t know if sadness is the right word. I wanted to build something of Toad’s chaos, the instability or discomfort of his frayed wiring, into the piece.

First and foremost this happens through the negative space of the composition. The way the car stabs downwards has a very strong negative, destructive connotation. But because it doesn’t have a clear, obvious environmental cue like a road or grass or whatever, you don’t really have a sense of where it is in space. We could be above, looking down as he speeds over a road, or we could be seeing him plunge off a cliff. The background could be dust, it could be cloud.

Additionally, the way his bulging eyes anchor the composition keeps you coming back to them. There are lots of little implied lines and vectors leading you around the picture, but you’ll always end up back on those eyes. A little off-center, as euphoric as they are vacant, the hope is that it makes you just a little uncomfortable.


'The Wind in the Willows' Peter Diamond (2017)

You’ve mentioned also that it was a tough piece for you to draw. What were the most challenging aspects of it?

It was a bit of a fussy composition to start with, but I often do that to myself. The real trouble came from the abstract background of black swirls it started with. It took a great deal of fighting with that before I accepted that it was throwing everything else off. That was the first primary hurdle, and I went through a good dozen failed colour schemes before I just chopped it out.

After that, once I finally settled on the simple sepia/red, the image kept demanding more details. The little tweed textures, more hedge debris, the flesh inside Toad’s mouth, a bunch of little things I realised were indispensable only once I had already torn down and rebuilt the thing and was well ready to call it a day.


'The Wind In The Willows' concept drawing - Peter Diamond (2015)

But you’re glad you didn't?

Yes. This one is special to me. I’ve lost any ability by now to judge how it appears to anyone else, but my own compass tells me this one is a keeper.

Well it’s a really striking poster. Congratulations.


Finally, how do I go about getting my hands on that amazing t-shirt you posted on your Instagram?

I will be opening pre-orders shortly, and you can sign up to get early access by email. It’s going to be a very small edition and pre-order spots are limited, so I’d advise that route for sure. Otherwise you can follow me on Facebook and watch for the public announcement.

That’s the same design my son loves, by the way. But these ones are screen printed so they’ll be even better. 


Nice. I will do that! Well thank you Peter. It’s been most lovely chatting to you.

Likewise, thank you!