Born in Maidenhead in 1963, Dave is an illustrator, painter, writer, film director and all-round creative dynamo. An accomplished jazz pianist, Dave produces images of a world where freeform jazz makes perfect sense and all the animals talk with a strange accent. Well known for his work with author Neil Gaiman, the two collaborated most recently on the film Mirrormask.
Asked about how he became an ‘Artist’, Dave McKean gives an interesting preface to his answer: “I’ve never thought of myself as an ‘Artist’,” he says. It’s not so much the art that worries him, it’s the capital A – it seems to claim too much, even for the man behind comic book legends including Sandman and Violent Cases.
“I draw and paint, make photographs, films and music, and I write occasionally.” But he’s not an ‘Artist’. For Dave, that lofty title is reserved for the likes of Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and Francis Bacon. “They created the language that I, and hundreds of others, try to use.”
Dave’s ambition is to make those languages come alive, to tell stories and to investigate experience. “I’m happy using these established ways of making images and pushing them,” he says. “Applying them to storytelling, and using them to explain and explore my interests.”
Gaining Some kind of foundation
Dave grew up in a village several miles from Maidenhead, a
place, which is, in turn, some miles from
But sadly, this was to be a short-lived influence. “He was stuck in a job that he was very good at, came with great responsibility for a large staff, but which utterly stifled any creativity in him, and ultimately killed him I think.” There’s nothing like stress and frustration to shorten the natural life span. “This lesson I learned when I was 12.”
Before this: “We went to the Tate, and I got to see Max Ernst’s paintings for the first time, these left a big impression.” Dave follows this melancholic tone with a flash of colour, “I loved all the stuff boys love.” That meant comics, “especially American comics, the weirder the better.” It also meant film, especially horror and sci-fi. This love extended to illustrations for magazines including Amazing Stories and later, New Worlds. For a while Patrick Woodroffe, Roger Dean, Philip Castle and Chris Foss all helped shape young Dave’s imagination, “And much of this stuff has settled in my brain as some sort of foundation.”
Although life in Maidenhead wasn’t hugely fast-pacedl, Dave had music to keep him company. An accomplished pianist, “I played keyboards in various jazz-rock bands around the area, so we played at the Bracknell Jazz Festival.” An event, which, for no good reason, conjures up images of hipsters smoking woodbines by an orangey lantern light.
Dave had narrowed his direction down to two things: art or music. “So I went to art school and assumed I could keep on playing in clubs until the early hours and still get into college by 9am with my brain intact.” Not surprisingly, that didn’t work out: “Music took a back seat, and has become my private therapy.”
Maybe it is in the ‘back seat’, but from its place there Dave’s love of music offers a constant reprieve: “It’s been great to start working with film, mostly because I’ve rediscovered sound and music. Some of my best recent creative experiences have been putting the soundtracks together for my short films.”
Dave studied at the Berkshire College of Art and Design. In his four years there, one lesson stands out as being the toughest: “The hardest lesson was just to open up. To listen. To look out into the world and try to be receptive.” We’re so used to building defences against the world, it can be hard to take an honest look. But the rewards are plentiful: “As soon as I lowered my guard, a whole world of extraordinary work flooded in.”
For this Dave has his teachers to thank: “Malcolm Hatton, who taught design, but also ran a company and gave me real work, with real briefs and deadlines; Jim Kane, who brought a hard professionalism to the course; George Glenny, who was my chaotic, inspiring drawing and semiotics teacher.” The best lessons were, Dave confesses, conducted over a pint.
The biggest advance during those college days though was one of paradigm: “From the world of the literal to that of the abstract.” Ralph Steadman opened the door a chink and after him came the likes of Jim Dine, Egon Schiele, Edgar Degas. And then came a realisation: “That this was the unique element in drawing. Paint as a painter, not trying to be photographic, or realistic, but just beautifully painterly.”
Having come to know these great artists and illustrators, it was time to part company again: “Matt Mahurin, Marshall Arisman, Bill Sienkiewicz, Russell Mills; all had to go if I was ever to find my own voice.”
“I’ve always been interested in ideas more than technique.” This, says Dave, goes back to George Glenny, “Before drawing anything we had to have a clear idea of what we were trying to achieve.” This involved writing a personal brief: “So to this day, I still write personal briefs for myself. I still need to be clear in my own mind what I’m doing.”
This may explain some of the depth which characterises Dave’s work. “Techniques may change and go in and out of fashion, but ideas are always worth exploring and re-interpreting,” he adds. If your gaze is rewarded with more than reflected light, if that reflected light is carrying ideas with it, you have something special going on.
Some of Dave’s best-known work has been created in tandem
with long-time collaborator Neil Gaiman. The two first met in
Borderline turned out to be a time-waster but, “Neil had written a story called Violent Cases, and we’d become friends.” So the two hooked up, and while Borderline crashed and burned, Violent Cases was already in production for Escape, and was later published by Titan Books.
Neil wasn’t one for letting the grass grow under his feet. He landed the two of them an interview with Dick Giordano and Karen Berger at DC Comics. “To this day,” Dave admits, “I don’t know whether we had a proper appointment to see them or whether it was just a Neil blag.” Either way, the result was Black Orchid. “They were wonderfully full-on days in 1986-1989, and we never questioned it all too much. We both just worked flat out.”
Outside looking in
By 1990, Dave had begun to realise he wasn’t a perfect fit at DC: “I felt that I needed to create my own projects as well.” It had been fun for a while, but now was the time to make a move: “So long as we lunatics were in charge of asylum I was happy to be an inmate, as soon as the guards regained control, I had to escape.” In the end, Dave confesses, “I’m much happier on the outside looking in.”
Following this theme, Dave proceeded with a number of influential projects through the 90s, notably Cages, a 10-issue graphic novel on the subject of creativity. There were also CD covers, books of photography and animation. They always had that outside-looking-in feel to them: “I’m not interested in stories about fairies and goblins because I’m just not a believer.”
What strikes Dave as important is how we read the world. “I’m fascinated by the way the brain works, and the way we construct versions of the world for ourselves; belief systems, memories, interpretations.” This goes on all the time, in our own heads, and we’re very often unaware of the it: “There is so much weirdness about the world, and our place in it, already, I don’t see the need to create all the supernatural stuff.”
Since the McKean approach is cerebral: “Each job, or personal project, is different and needs its own solution.” But he’s a great believer in method: “I always sketch ideas in notebooks, I need to draw things on paper first. I always try and be clear about what I’m trying to say, and make sure the image at least opens a door to possible interpretations.”
This isn’t deliberate David Lynch style obscurantism on
Dave’s part: “I don’t want to make images that need an accompanying book of
solutions to the puzzle. I prefer
images that are, to a large degree,
self-explanatory.” It’s important for the opening statement to be clear: “After that, the image dictates what medium I use.” And the meaning of the piece becomes a dialogue.
“Obviously, once it’s done, it heads out into the real world and takes on another life entirely, but I need to make sure that foundations are strong and clearly thought through.” On that basis, alternative solutions will be all the more profound. “I’m happy if there are elements that linger, and don’t reveal themselves completely,” concludes Dave. “I’m happy for there to be plenty of room for people to draw their own conclusions.”