I got to hang out with David McKee for almost two hours!!! He's very interesting and incredibly kind. I interviewed him for Write Away for an hour, and then when I thought he'd be wanting to move on, I switched off the recorder, but we got talking about painting and it went on for much longer. So this interview is very long already, but sorry to leave out the last bit! If you ever get a chance to spend time with this guy, go for it. Unlike most Brits, I didn't grow up with Mr Benn, and I got to know McKee's work through another illustrator I hugely admire, Satoshi Kitamura. Kitamura is very much influenced by McKee's work and they're close friends and send frequent letters to each other and to their editor at Anderson, Klaus Flugge. You can see my blog post here about an exhibition of both their painted envelopes (and one of mine!) at the Tokyo Post Office Museum in June 2007.
I've hardly ever done any interviews, so my questions were kind of lame, and I got so caught up in what he was saying, I totally forgot to look at my questions sheet. But I think McKee's used to that and he gently filled in the gaps. He'd just come from lunch with Flugge (who's his best friend as well as his editor) so he was in a good mood.
3 March, 2009, at the Illustration Cupboard
Do you have any particular favourite paintings in this exhibition?
There are a lot of tables. I don’t live permanently in one place, I live permanently in at least three places at a time, and I was asked once where my real home was. And at that time, the first thing I said was, that my real home was probably the car, because I was always in the car from one to the other and they said they thought that was rather sad. And I thought about it later, and I thought, no, my home is actually my worktable. Because when I’m working, I can be so into the work that I lose absolute reference to where I am. So I suddenly think, oh, I’ll nip down to the art shop, but the art shop in my mind is the art shop of a different city; I look up and I realise I can’t, because I’m not in that city, it’s a different art shop I have to go to. If I’m here, I might say, oh, I’ll go to London Graphics and get some material.
So I realise that my home is the table. Some years ago I actually wrote a poem to one table I’ve got, which has travelled with me a lot. Called ‘Sweet Table’, the poem was.
Can you remember how the poem goes?
It’s a pity I don’t have it with me. No, I can’t quote it off and I wouldn’t want to misquote it. Because it goes on a little bit. But the idea is that it’s the table which has supported everything, I mean, my emotions when I’m sad, the work that I’ve done. It’s suffered when I’ve upset colours, or coffee, or if my ill-directed knife sometimes cuts the table. And yet, it goes on supporting me and everything that I do, and that which I value. And the things in a lot of these paintings are tables, treated in different ways. This [painting] is a kiss, for example, but it could quite easily have been a table, the way the shape works. This is a table with a sweetie jar on it.
I was wondering about that. It’s almost a primitive piece of artwork with a bit of Elmer in the middle.
Yeah, it’s sort of fairly primitive. This one is called ‘Dear David’, because there’s a letter on it… But it’s the abstractness of it, which interests me most. The painting is the thing in the end, not the thing which is being painted. So it’s the textures, the colours, obviously the rhythms and the emotions, all the ways things work together. The colours are always very important to me, but they’re important to me in probably everything that I do.
Do you base your colour palettes on what you see around you, or do you have palettes in your head you like to use?
It’s probably a mixture of both. I could be, you know, taking photographs of the backs of people walking in the street because there’s suddenly something in their colour and decoration that I want to hang on to, and I make notes in sketchbooks about things.
Do you keep colour sketchbooks?
Yes, both. A sketchbook will have notes in it, which are colour notes. When I’m travelling, I might have a book that’s only colours. But if I’m travelling, I’ll usually have more than one book going at a time, a larger and a smaller. But the book I always carry, which is in my pocket now, there’s colour notes in it.
Do you write down the paint name, or…
No, I mean, it’s actual colour, I use colours direct! I use colours in different ways. In my bag there… Satoshi [Kitamura] gave me a Japanese palette; the colours are solid in the china. Sometimes it’s even just, lick my finger and put it on the palette and put the notes down with that. I’ve also got children’s crayons, which I carry for colour. But it’s not just the colour which is interesting; it’s how the subject becomes the painting. Sometimes it moves away from that, but that shows, I mean, you’ve lost the table, it’s just a painting, in a way.
Did you start with a bright pink base, or was that painted on top?
That was probably drawn in red and scratched in… there’s some yellow… They get worked on quite a lot. The outside on that one looks like, I can’t remember now, to be truthful; it’s been through so many changes to get to those particular colours. I can be influenced by colours that I see in the street, but also by colours that I see in somebody else’s painting, or a photograph, or a piece of publicity. I can love the way Matisse uses that blue, or that magenta, next to each other, and think, it would be nice to do it in this way.
Do you do a lot of under painting and carefully think through it, or do you just keep painting until you felt it was right?
A lot of it I know will be worked over and worked back into. But often things, like in this one, actually change quite a bit. The curtain wasn’t there before; the inside-outside feeling wasn’t so strong; and then I put the decoration on the wall to bring it forward, as though we’re looking through that window at that landscape, which is, at the same time, is just an abstract.
Do you mix sand or anything into the paint?
Yes, it would be sand, pollyfilla, and sometimes bits of other things mixed in. Like, it might be string, orbits of paper, or cloth filled with colours to give certain kinds of texture. I enjoy that physical process of painting as well. And I’m not very worried about the idea of what colours are, as we seem to perceive them on first glance; if we talk about the portrait there, for instance, with that turquoise-y blue face; it doesn’t worry me at all to do that colour face for that person. It feels right for the painting.
What about that one over there? That’s quite realistic, the portrait of the woman?
With the black lips? You find it realistic? That’s interesting you call it that…
More than your other pieces.
Well, yeah, the proportions… I think it was just a straightforward doing it. Case of something I saw. It doesn’t worry me about changing from one thing to another. I started painting in one way, and suddenly you notice things in the painting, which take you in different directions.
It’s a case of finding things that are in there. I feel that every canvas has got every possible image you want in it, and all you got to do is find ONE! You know, out of all those possible ones. And it’s like every blank sheet of paper, you’ve got only those twenty-six letters, but all the stories that are in that blank piece of paper! By putting those letters down, you just got to get the right story to come out. That’s all the magic of it, that’s what I love about stories. And some of the paintings have an implication of a story behind that, because of the title, but there isn’t really, it’s just a painting. But stories away from paintings are another thing which fascinate me. When it arrives in your head, and you know it’s a good one and the hair stands up on the back of your neck, you know. And the same thing happens when you put a line down the paper, that excitement of it just happening, in front of you, and you being part of it is wonderful.
Have you made any paintings where something in one painting has sparked off another?
That does happen sometimes, but it’s not like… Picasso, apparently would take a paintings up to a certain level. And then sometimes he would bring two or three others up to the same level, because he was at a point of possibly going different directions. So he would take one in one direction and one in another. That sort of thing doesn’t happen, but themes certainly happen. Bicycles come up quite often in my paintings. I’ve got loads of gouaches of bicycles treated in different ways – or cyclists, or tricycles. I’ve used a bicycle a lot, I love cycling; there’s something fascinating about that mixture of man and machine. It’s such an efficient machine, when you consider the amount of weight that it has to carry, and itself, it weighs nothing. It carries it so efficiently, so amazing.
I notice the ones in the back look very influenced by Picasso, possibly Leger.
Those are gouaches, a series of card players. The sort of principles of Cubism, of different viewpoints at the same time are the kinds of things, which I use in illustration very often. You know, I’ll twist…
Your perspectives are fabulous.
Yeah, I’m quite happy with that. The reason it looks that way is the use of the black, which gives it that kind of feel, with the bright colours.
Did you cut them to size, or just find a bunch of wood…
No, I have pieces of card, they’re lying there and I just work on them.
How did you come to those sort of wonky perspectives you do, did you sort of have to fight against it, and ‘unlearn’ how to draw a bit, or did you always do it like that?
No, at art college we did measured perspective and all that…
I know Satoshi Kitamura really likes using that as well, that sort of multi-directional perspective.
Yeah, several things did it: I loved medieval battle scenes, where they would lie the armies down in different directions. I have three children and I found that, if I was reading a book, we’d be on the floor, say. (You know, we weren’t very rich, so we didn’t have chairs.) I’d be reading the book from the normal reader’s position. And the children would be one left, one right, and one in front of me, all looking at the same page and understanding the image perfectly. At that point, I thought, this is ridiculous; I can draw from the different directions at the same time. And it gave me lots of extra space to play with. So it arose largely because of that. It also arose because other illustrators in the past have done similar kinds of things. Also I like naïve painters a lot, and they’ll do things like that. And Persian miniatures, where the perspective of people in particular, if they’re more important, they’re larger, even if they’re further away. So it’s just using a different kind of logic.
They like the flat colour fields that you do.
Yeah, looking inside of buildings, just taking a section across, all that sort of stuff played into it. I don’t know if I did it before the first Mr Benn, before 1967, I may have done it in books before, but it was fairly early that I was already doing that.
And the flat colour fields, I mean, Elmer is very much a pattern…
Yeah, well, Elmer’s a different thing, and it’s quite an intricate technique that I use with that; it’s a fairly painty technique that I use with that; I draw it, then I’ll use liquid acrylics on the background, which gives a kind of unity for your colour theme that you’re going to work to.
Then I’ll work with gouache, then I’ll work with coloured crayons to give gradations to the end of leaves.
I’d give all the background a base colour. The sky, I’d go right across, the trees, everything; in fact, I’d go right across the whole sheet. In fact, Elmer would not be painted; he’d stay so as the colours and the white would remain pure. And finally, after the crayon, I’d use a pencil to emphasise the line. So it’s not really like line and wash, it’s all the painting and then the line, in a way, it goes to and fro.
Do you like doing the children’s book work, or do you prefer the freedom of this painting or…
Well, the painting calls me, in a way, through quite a physical thing, that need to paint. The children’s books, yeah, I love illustrating them. I usually do two a year. But the last couple of years I’ve been a bit short on books, partly because my partner’s been ill and I’ve been much more in Paris, where I don’t have a very big working space. And it’s been a bit complicated for working. But things have fallen back into place again now, so hopefully we’ll get on to do work.
Is that Bakhtina?
I was wondering about her! Because there are so many envelopes in the exhibition [‘Efuto’, a 2007 exhibition of hundreds of painted envelopes by McKee, Kitamura and others at the Tokyo Post Office Museum] that you’ve addressed to her. It’s very romantic to think of getting that many painted letters!
I sent her one this morning!
Did you? Where did you meet her?
Twelve years ago, in Paris. I actually saw her the year before. She was in a gallery of African art. I like African art, and I’d bought one or two pieces before. There was something in the gallery that attracted me and then I saw Bakhta at the back of the gallery, and I thought, eh, that lady is too dangerous for me. And so I didn’t go in. A year later, I went by again, and there was another object. This time I went in and immediately asked her if she wanted a coffee and it was a click, it was great. And it still is great.
And she got these letters! Does she keep them in a special place?
Well, yeah, I think there are about three big photograph albums now.
Do you write a lot of letters to people, or just to Satoshi, Bakhta and Klaus?
No, there are other people I write to. When I write, yes, Klaus, also…
He looks very grand on some of his envelopes! Coming through the clouds in glory… [both laugh]
Yeah, the envelopes was something, I think the first envelopes I did were very early ones. I moved to Devon… let’s think; Chuck is now forty-four… oh, it must’ve been 46 years ago, something like that, could’ve even been slightly more… Before that, in London I was painting, but I was also doing cartoons for newspapers and magazines.
Yeah, and Reader’s Digest and other things like that. I was very friendly at the time with Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman and there was Frank Dickens and Barry Fantoni was around…
Did you all get together at times?
Yes, especially with Ralph a lot, I got together. And when I moved to Devon, I think Ralph and Gerry were probably the first two I sent any kinds of envelopes. They were mildly decorated or had decorated writing, or I drew extra stamps, or things like that. And later it developed a bit more. It went quiet for a while, and then I saw that Folon had also done envelopes.
[Jean-Michel] Folon, an illustrator. He was very cult at a certain time. In fact, I think he died last year. And he did some nice stuff for Olivetti and things like that. You’d probably like his work. He was also, I think, influenced by [Saul] Steinberg and so on, like most of us. Steinberg and André François were the big things. But it’s funny, I used to absolutely adore Paul Klee. And the more I drew like Paul Klee and looked at his drawing, the more I drew like Steinberg! So I knew that Steinberg had looked pretty much at Paul Klee. But there have been so many influences. Going back to art college, Brueghel and Rembrandt and people like that. It was not very long ago, when I was looking through one of my books, and I noticed the way that the figures related to each other, especially the movement within their world, not conscious of the reader, so to speak. And things – the running and so on – I thought, actually, I was more influenced by Brueghel than I realised. You find out those things.
Some of these colour palettes are very Brueghel, I mean, the earth tones…
Yeah, and of course Rembrandt, with that feel of paint. The actual painty-ness of his stuff is just wonderful.
This almost looks a bit Kandinsky, this one over here. The colour play.
Yeah, it does a bit, doesn’t it? It was actually a sky which was very extraordinary, in Nice. And I must’ve made a sketch, and then emphasised it when I did it. And now it’s become very abstract.
There’s not as much under painting on that one as the others.
Yes, sometimes they come very direct. I did a big painting in Nice. I saw three Japanese girls on the beach and, from up above, I drew the backs of these three girls. I knew what I wanted to do with it and I started, I painted it – put the painting in – on the intention that of that being under painting. But as I did it, it was so much those three girls that I just had to leave it, as it was, I couldn’t bring it up to where I’d been thinking it was going to go. Suddenly they were there, and I thought, I can’t do that.
In this case, if you look at it, and think of this as hills in the background; And this is the bay with the lights of the Promenade des Anglaises. So you’re looking across. But it’s the abstractness of it. I wasn’t going to put that one in, it’s so different. But then I thought, ah, there’s variety anyway, put that in as well. I’m quite happy about changing; I don’t see why I should be expected to paint always in the same manner. [Laughs.] That’s the fun, you know.
Are you moving from Nice? I heard something about it on the radio [BBC Radio 4, Midweek].
No, I’m not moving from Nice. I had two apartments in Nice: a big one on the promenade where I lived, and then I had a smaller one back from the promenade, where I painted. And the small one I bought, and the big one I was renting, and the rent was very expensive. And because we hadn’t been down there, because my partner was ill, I thought, well, it’s silly paying a lot of rent and not being there, and I can sleep among my paintings without any trouble, you know. I’ve got a bed there. So it’s fine.
Are there a lot of other painters in Nice that you know?
No, I know one or two.
So it’s more London and Paris?
No, well, I don’t know a lot of painters. I know some illustrators, more, I guess. I know a few painters but not an immense amount.
I know this is your first exhibition of your paintings in the UK.
For a while. No, I used to exhibit many years ago.
Oh, okay, ‘cause that how John Huddy’s advertising it…
Yeah, well, it’s the first one-man, like this.
Okay, do you exhibit when you’re in France, or abroad?
Well, last year was in Zurich, and I think the one before was in the north of Italy. I never sort of pushed the idea of painting in… Also, I hadn’t felt the need to exhibit and I suddenly felt, I would actually like to see stuff up in a different situation. And London, moving away completely, was a completely different situation. So this show came up.
Do you find that when you’re abroad, you get more ideas? You’re known for finding ‘the remarkable in the familiar’, and if you walk down a street, it’s always a different street. Do you find it’s just the same painting when you’re home in a familiar environment; when you’re abroad, do you find extra things that excite you, or not really?
Yeah… once I’m painting, I think it’s only me and the canvas, really. I might adjust it for light, or find it different for the way the table that I’ve got colours on are different. And one might annoy me because it’s not the other one… but I must admit, the light in Nice is fabulous.
I went to Nice last summer and I was expecting vivid colours and it’s not, it’s very washed out actually…
Yeah, try going …not in summer. In summer you also get that heat light…
It’s very white…
Yeah. But the intensity of the light… What you do get because of that, you’ll notice tree trunks are absolutely black against it. You think, how can that be a black tree trunk?! And it isn’t of course, just because the light is doing that.
We went to Arles and the rock formations are amazing.
Arles I know well, in fact, I’ve got in-laws, so to speak. Bakhta’s family lives not far from there.
I saw those rock formations and that’s the first time I thought, ah, okay, this would be a good place to paint.
Yeah, she has family there, so we go there quite a bit and the whole area there is good, and down to the coast and things. France is great, 'cause it’s so varied, and there’s a lot of space. And England is fabulous as well. I come from the country, obviously, from the West Country. And I’ve still got that in me, really, whenever I need it, I just call on it.
What are the little things you especially like… for me, in London, it’s things like the chimney pots and the railings and things that really stand out. Are there bits that really stick out to you?
No, I don’t think so. I think Dartmoor has got just that primitiveness which is extraordinary. And the patchwork fields.
I like your endpapers for Mr Benn, the one with Mr Benn in Dartmoor prison.
Oh, well and that is very Devon. Yes, as a student in Plymouth, I used to live with another student, Jeff Clements, who’s a fine binder. In fact, he’s one of the fine binders. We shared a place with a fisherman in the Barbican. And that was very influential, that feeling of the back streets and the cobbles, on the drawing of Mr Benn in the early books. And even the costume shop; there was a second-hand shop – it wasn’t a costume shop – between the Barbican and the art college, so we passed it all the time. There were always lots of things in the window which never seem to change, and very dusty. And there was no interest in selling if you asked the price. And we always thought, this must be a front for something, because there was no idea of money, rather like the costume shop in Mr Benn. Then I used to paint quite early in the morning and get up early before going into college. I used to go into college with the cleaners, because every time you printed a colour on the litho machine, you had to pay 6p. I could print a colour and clean up and clean the stone and everything before anyone came into college. I’m sure they realised what I was doing, but they’d be sensitive enough to realise why I was doing it.
When you were at London College of Printing, did you use their equipment?
No, I was there only for a day a week as an instructor. It was one of the day-a-week teaching that I did from time to time. I think that ended in 1969. Forty years ago! That was when I started to draw and write the films, I just needed all the time I could get, I couldn’t have a day a week.
You’ve been doing some more film work recently, haven’t you?
In ’69 I started writing the Benn films, they were produced in ’70, then I made one or two one-off films for the Save the Children fund. And during that time we met with Leo Nielson, who was the animator. And in ’79, the three of us – Clive Juster, who was the editor on Mr Benn and the other films, and Leo and myself – set up King Rollo films. And that then went to things like Towser with Tony [Ross] and Victor [and] Maria.
Was that still based in the shed or did you have a studio by that point?
[Laughs.] No, well, we had a place we rented with all our stuff in. But it was our money, I mean, we were running on high risk and I think we’ve run on it ever since.
So what are you working on now?
Well, I’ve been trying to work on a book for quite awhile now [laughs]. I’ve started it already, I think, four times. The highest number of pages I got up to was nine before I restarted it. Because I’m just not satisfied with the way it’s going, but it’s partly because I haven’t got that normal work rhythm going at the moment. I’ve been painting quite a bit, drawing other stuff. As far as the films are concerned, I don’t do much now. There are still some things to do. We split the company so that Clive and I then kept working on the rights and Leo is now production. He’s taken that completely over to himself. But the name still says it’s King Rollo films. So it’s a mixed bag that I do, ‘cause sometimes I’m writing for other people and all the Spot films I storyboarded and wrote… There were quite a lot of films.
But I guess the thing I like about painting, as opposed to films, is the fact that it’s up to me. I’m not looking for a mass audience. If one person likes it and one person’s painted it, perhaps that’s all the painting’s going to get. If you’re doing a film, or if you’re doing a book which is perhaps closer, because at least the original part I’m on my own. You’re conscious that there’s a bigger audience out there. And that isn’t only affecting what you’re doing, but the way it affects you. In that, a book is teamwork in that it starts with me, then it goes to the publisher, it goes to the printer, the binder, the distributor… but the last person in the team is the reader. If you haven’t got a reader, then it doesn’t matter how good the story is, what the hell! So readers are very important to books, so you’re obviously affected a bit, how you produce those. You are conscious that there is a reader.
I’m just curious, have you ever had a workshop day with Satoshi, have you ever sat together and painted with him?
No, we’ve sent stuff to each other, like our letters and things. Well, outdoors, yeah, I think we once went down to the countryside and both drew. And there have been one or two other times – a jazz concert, when both of us would be listening to jazz and both drawing. But it’s not really collaborating… I’ve collaborated a bit with Tony Ross, who’s very funny. And very talented as well. I’m not too much of a collaborator. But with Satoshi, the envelope story that we did was a nice collaboration.
Oh! There’s a story?
There’s one which is called Dear Satoshi, Dear David. We actually never finished it. I drew an envelope, then I wrote inside ‘Dear Satoshi’, then I just wrote a page of the story. Then Satoshi drew and envelope and wrote the next page of the story. And I think we went up to, we must’ve done about sixteen of these. I’ve got a sort of printout of it up to now. But Satoshi is much better at keeping things under control than I am. But it was left for him to play. He might pick, it up again… yeah, that was fun, because we were both drawing the same thing. And also, you do something, then the other guy does it, and it goes this way and that way, and it’s not always easy – hopefully – for the other person. It’s a bit like playing tennis: ‘right, react to this one’.
I did something like that with a friend in comics. Speaking of which, I know Mr Benn was a comic once, but I’ve never seen it. Is it ever going to come back?
If it does, it might come back in film form. The original ones, they’re talking about making very short Mr Benns. But I don’t know if they’ll do that. My granddaughter, she’s twelve, draws like an angel. She draws bande dessinée – comics – and she does a course on it as well. She draws all the time, and she has such concentration. She works with a friend; between them they write the story, and then Amelie draws it.
Have you ever been influenced by the bande dessinée tradition?
Oh, yes! In fact, there was a Mr Benn I wanted to do in comic form, called Super Ben. But I actually never did the book. The idea was slightly… not anti-green, but where everybody had their plants and their trees and their terraces, and Mr Baddie had produced something to spray that would make these things grow, so the plants took over the city and it all got out of hand. And Mr Benn comes in and brings things back to balance. But I never did that one.
I’ve also got another book, a story, with very few works. It’s called The Mask. I hope I’ll do that sometime. Some of that will use certain comic techniques to move from one to the other. I had a bit of blockage on the book, and I saw a certain film … oh, what’s the one after Pulp Fiction… Jackie Brown! That was a fabulous film. There were things in it where all you see is a kitchen door – it’s a comic – and the voices come from the kitchen door like writing. Or you cut to the stylus of the gramophone player, or his fingers … no, that was in Pulp Fiction, the fingers. And where the guy gets killed in the boot, where he pulls away, close-up, then you pull back, back, back to a very long shot where the car goes around into the park, and in the distance it’s opened up and he’s shot… They’re all bande dessinée techniques, and it was some of the close-up stuff that made me suddenly realise what I needed in the book. So at some point, if I ever get around to it, we’ll see if that works. The colour’s already sort of sorting into place.
I have one or two books I really want to do before it’s too late. But time goes by so fast! It’s hard, as you get older, to run at the same pace. And I run fairly fast even now. But there are so many extras… like extra letters that come in. They say, if you can’t paint when you’re a student, you can’t paint. Because then you don’t have all the weight of the world on your back. And the distractions of, in a way, a certain kind of success. It’s lovely, charities write to you and ask you to donate something for an auction and all that. It’s very flattering and you’re happy to do it, but actually, just finding something and wrapping it and going to the post and sending it off… all those things. And fan mail, which has to be answered. I don’t have e-mail. I don’t use a computer and all that stuff. And I love e-mail. Since e-mail, I guess less fan mail. Everyone wants to tap in on the machine and get a quick ‘oh, hi there!’ coming back to them. So I actually get less letters now. So I love e-mail!
[Laughs.] That’s brilliant!
Yeah, I’m told it’s a negative reason to like e-mail, but it’s certainly positive for me. But all that sort of day-to-day business, just like everyone growing up, paying your taxes and all the bits of pieces of paperwork, and trying to get the plumber in. When you’re a student, none of that sort of stuff happens, it’s just absolutely morning-to-night The Thing. And it still is, but you have to fit in that other stuff as well. And also, there are other things I do want to do, and gradually I seem to be painting more, which is the way it should be. For the time, perhaps, then suddenly perhaps I’ll just be writing. Anyway, what works out works out. And another book more or less, the world’s still going to be turning around anyway.
Interview for Write Away