“I see art and design as the same,” says Sir Peter Blake. “You often get graphic designers who desire to be painters, and painters who attempt graphic design. The unusual circumstances of my training means I respect them both equally.”
Over his 60-year career, the 82-year-old graphic designer and artist has struck a unifying balance between the two mediums. He has made his mark through watercolour illustrations, paintings that helped to kick-start Pop art, record sleeve artworks for The Beatles, Oasis and Eric Clapton, and now, a multi-coloured piece of moving public art – a “dazzled” commuter ferry on the River Mersey in Liverpool.
Blake’s interest in both art forms stems from his education – he studied graphic design at Gravesend School of Art in 1945, then painting at the Royal College of Art in 1953.
“I have a background where I’m familiar with things that most painters wouldn’t be concerned about – my craft was Roman lettering,” Blake says. “I think that’s why I‘ve been interested in doing both.”
His degrees were interrupted in 1951 by a three-year stint in the national service, where he worked as a teleprinter operator in the RAF.
“I don’t think this influenced my design work,” he says. “But I think the experience probably changed me. I’d been pretty shy as a young man – then suddenly you’re living in a hut with 30 other men from all walks of life.”
Whether inadvertently or not, there’s a certain outlandishness to Blake’s work – take his Everybody Razzle Dazzle ferry as an example, which employs the use of 22 colours.
“One of the big breakthroughs I originally made as a Pop artist was to blatantly use very bright colour,” Blake says. “The use of red, yellow and blues in enamel paint.
“There’s a juxtaposition of that range of colour,” he says. “It’s eye-catching and cheerful – Eduardo Paolozzi’s mosaics for Tottenham Court Road Tube station is a good example. And in the ferry’s case, I’d hope it would enhance travelling on it.”
Having designed patterns ranging from 12-inch record sleeves to a 46m-long ferry, Blake is open to artistic variation – and the use of all mediums. He has completed album artwork, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band included, by collage, has created bronze sculpture work and painted watercolour illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. As an artist, he has undertaken everything from painting and lettering to collage and sculpture.
“It’s a matter of changing tools,” Blake says. “If I’m working on a painting for eight hours, that’s hard work and quite laborious. Then I come home from the studio and sit and cut stuff out in preparation for a collage – it’s the contrast of going from one medium to another.”
Blake is taking this process “to the extreme” at the moment, with a project concerned with “ways of making”, he says. He has taken a line – “From a finger bowl, a primrose grew” – from Dylan Thomas’ radio drama Under Milk Wood, which he plans to portray artistically through different mediums.
“The line doesn’t relate to anything,” Blake says. “It’s very complete on its own, and poetic. I’ve taken a series of photos of a primrose in a bowl and am demonstrating it in every medium I can possibly think of – from etching and sculpture to lenticular and 3D printing.”
This multi-faceted project was sparked by a visit to a school where he saw all the art students working on a computer, rather than by traditional tactile methods.
“Nobody was drawing or painting,” Blake says. “My interest is in covering all the different ways of working in an age where some of them are dying out.”
Because, he says, digital resources for creating graphics are just “one more tool” to add to a toolset. “I’ve embraced it,” Blake says. “The Everybody Razzle Dazzle ferry was designed on a computer by a company called Dark Matter with my direction. It’s a perfectly valid tool, but the Dylan Thomas project is about calling up old skills and seeing if you can still do them.”
And through expanding the forms in which design can appear, Blake also hopes to make art more accessible – hence why he’s turned a piece of transport into artwork. “With the ferry, what I wanted was something that I hope the public would generally enjoy rather than just an exclusive group of art lovers,” he says. “I think we’re getting there.”
Despite encouraging the use of all artistic forms, it’s back to basics when it comes to Blake’s favourite projects. “I enjoyed working on the record covers as a whole,” he says. “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, Paul Weller’s Stanley Road, a few penguin book covers in the 1950s and all kinds of covers for the Sunday Times are among my favourites. I enjoyed Stanley Road the most – Paul Weller as a little boy holding a photo of himself as a grown up is a nice, surreal idea. I would like to do something for Bob Dylan.”
Blake names his influences as Andy Warhol – “His graphics, rather than his later works” -, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and magic realism.
And as one of the founding fathers of Pop art, Blake’s own work has of course helped to set the grounding for graphic design – but he’s modest about it. “Maybe there’s been a general inspiration from a group of people to a younger group of people,” Blake says. “But it’s not for me to say who I’ve inspired.”