Friday, 30 May 2014

Let's Talk: Tom Bancroft

 by  Poppy Field  I

Tom Bancroft cannot recall the defining moment when both he and his twin brother Tony decided to pursue careers as illustrators. Rather, Tom describes a series of ‘tiny light bulbs’.
Tom Bancroft at his animation desk. Photo courtesy of the artist. 
As children, Tom’s drawings were inspired by the Marvel comic books, the Peanuts comic strip and Mad magazine. He and his brother adored watching Ray Harryhausen’s fantasy films and Star Wars. Later, during their teenage years, the twins devoured art books, learning basic drawing principles and copying the work of artists they admired. In college, they discovered stop motion when a friend made a clay animation short film on a Super 8 Camera. That summer, the three students collaborated on a project, leading to Tom and Tony's enrollment at the California Institute of the Arts to study Character Animation. Here they continued to add to their artistic foundation before being hired to work at Disney during their sophomore year!
At this time, an illustrator’s success at Disney was determined by their ability to master drawing, performance and animation. Tom’s very first job was as an assistant clean-up artist to Mark Henn, well known for characters such as Jasmine, Belle and Young Simba. From the beginning, Tom made it clear that he hoped to progress to animation but moving up at Disney required working on tiny snippets of film, in the hopes of a better and bigger scene the next time.
Drawn as a graduation present for a family friend. Photo courtesy of the artist. 
Soon enough, Tom’s opportunity arrived when Mark Henn was working on ‘The Rescuers Down Under’. In one scene, the character McLeech kicks a pot of boiling water in rage. Mark’s original close-up of the lower half of McLeech’s body failed to please the directors so he gave Tom the chance to redesign it. One week and six different animation designs later, Tom had his foot in the door!
As a first time Supervising Animator, on Disney’s ‘Mulan’, Tom was assigned the character of Mushu the dragon. Although a huge challenge, and with other animators and clean up artists to oversee, Tom remembers this as a ‘dream assignment’. Mushu’s part in the film grew and grew. Recognition came in the form of nominations for an Annie and a Ruben award. Even now, Tom cites Mushu as his greatest creative achievement. And while he hopes to one day surpass this, Tom remains content regardless.
Photo courtesy of the artist. 
Working on an animated film requires a great deal of interaction and communication between different departments. For each sequence, there are multiple meetings held between the heads of each animation department and the directors. Even in the very early stages of animation, each shot is analyzed to identify any potential problems! However, on a day-to-day basis, an animator can easily pop over to the layout department to discuss matters like the dynamic between a pan layout and character.    
Tom’s passion for comic books, comic strips and literary illustrations has provided a springboard for his career, allowing him to develop in multiple directions. In his younger years, experimentation with these meant that Tom didn’t finish every project. More recently however, he has made the conscious decision to bring every project to completion and get it ‘out in the world’. Tom’s rapidly growing fan base is a testament to this.  

Yet, for many years Tom didn’t interact with his fans. Not during the decade spent at Disney, nor the seven subsequent years co-running an animation development and illustration studio in Nashville. Furthermore, to be an animator and not live in Los Angeles is to be ‘unknown’. So Tom has turned to the internet. With profiles on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Deviant Art, Tom dutifully posts sketches, creates T-shirts designs and responds to as many commission requests as possible. And while he regularly receives invitations to deliver lectures, speak at schools and animation studios as well as freelance opportunities, it is the ‘interaction, especially with fellow artists,’ that Tom truly enjoys.
T-Shirt design for a contest with the theme 'Retro Future'. Photo courtesy of the artist. 
Although Tom’s character design depends entirely on its purpose and patron, his approach always begins in the gathering of as much reference material as possible. Imagine he is designing a beagle dog character. First, he will use an online search engine to collect images of real beagles from as many different angles as possible. After gaining an understanding of their anatomy and natural poses, Tom begins to sketch. He might design between five and eight dogs, each with different shapes and proportions. Then, depending on the beagle character’s personality and place in the narrative, Tom will refine his focus and develop just one of these initial sketches. Following a few final tweaks, Tom creates an ink or graphite final drawing to scan into Photoshop. Then a colour model can be made.   
'Sad Beagle'. Photo courtesy of the artist. 
While these pencil and paper drawings account for about 90% of Tom’s work, he is open to try entirely digital animation. Especially as scanning a stack of drawings is ‘not pleasurable’!  Realistically, Tom knows digitalization is the future for animators. He and many of his contemporaries ‘hate, complain about and fight’ this… but they also have to be ‘sane’. Today, Tom will tell any young animator to master both traditional as well as computer graphic animation tools. 
For those aspiring animators seeking advice, Tom champions the belief that one must first concentrate on drawing skills before learning colour, painting and rendering. He explains that this is at the heart even of modern art: ‘knowing what to leave out… is just as important as what you put in.’ It is for this reason Tom is frustrated that many art schools don’t focus on the foundation of drawing. Tom’s own journey continues as he learns to draw better and ‘better every day’. Once dubbed as ‘Disney’ in style, Tom’s artistic voice has strengthened such that, regardless of the subject, his characters are instantly recognisable. This is particularly true for his female characters for which Tom has created a formula of sorts. These figures have been affectionately dubbed as ‘Bancroft Girls’ by fans.
Photo courtesy of the artist. 
Tom also loves to teach. It all began when he created some video-based lessons following his design books ‘Creating Characters with Personality’ and ‘Character Mentor.  Today, this takes the form of Taught By a Pro, an online collaboration with Richard Lanham. Similar to digiQualia, Taught By a Pro invites renowned animators, comic artists and illustrators to teach in their areas of specialisation.  Subjects include comic strips, comic books, character design, animation, illustration, and video game concept art, among other things. 
Alongside writing a third instructional book on character design, Tom is the Head of Character Design for the series ‘Superbook’. Aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Tom has created character designs for seasons two and three. Yet, Tom somehow finds the time for freelance work and to update his web comic ‘Outnumbered’ every Monday. Semi-autobiographical in nature, this features one man’s journey in the world of women… more specifically his wife and four daughters!
'Outnumbered' posted on April 14th 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist. 
But what about the future? Tom is adamant that he has not, and never will, stop learning.  Furthermore, in recognition of his own artistic mentors, Tom hopes to continue supporting younger artists through Taught By a Pro. And, he is also working on his very own animated feature film. With an outline already drafted, this is just beginning to move forward - so watch this space!

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Society of Portrait Sculptors' 51st Annual Exhibition - FACE 2014

 by  Poppy Field  I

Earlier this week, The Society of Portrait Sculptors unveiled their 51st Annual Exhibition.

Fondly known as FACE 2014, the show features recent works by 55 contemporary sculptors. Some of these exhibitors are society members; others were selected from open submissions originating as far afield as America, Australia, China, continental Europe, Mongolia and Scandinavia.

Photo by Bayasgalan Batmagnai.

Held at the SladmoreContemporary, London’s leading contemporary sculpture gallery, speeches were delivered by society president Etienne Millner and Professor David Ekserdjian. Millner was quick to pinpoint FACE 2014’s purpose as: ‘to make portrait sculpture more accessible and to highlight its strengths as a means of conveying likeness’.  

With six notable works by young sculptors it really does seem that there is an increasing interest in portraiture. This is an art form that Millner affirms ‘has emerged unscathed from the arid years of abstraction and conceptual art’.

Etienne Millner sculpting Vice Admiral Sir Donald Gosling KCVO. Bronze. Photo by Angelo Plantamura and provided by the artist.

Millner is a sculptor of remarkable distinction. He championed figurativism even when it was ‘largely rejected in favour of abstraction’ and his works can be found in numerous public and private collections. These include: the National Portrait Gallery; Harris Manchester College, Oxford; Wellington College; Goodwood House; Weston Foundation; Longford Castle; Daily Mail; London Borough of Ealing and The Museum of The Negev, Israel.

It is therefore unsurprising that patrons regularly consult Millner and his associates when commissioning sculptures. So, to exhibit at The Society of Portrait Sculptors’ Annual Exhibition, unique in theme and prestige, provides select sculptors with an opportunity to demonstrate their skill such that they might be put forward for large-scale monumental projects as well as private ones.

Then there are the prizes.

Louisa Forbes with her relief sculpture Mother and Child. Lead. Photo by James Larcombe.

Louisa Forbes has two works included in the show. It was for her ‘self-explanatory’ Mother and Child that she was awarded the Olin Stones Prize for relief sculpture. Identifiable by her loose yet delicate modelling, Louisa is drawn to classical subjects and consciously references religion and mythology in her works. Her other sculpture, The Pythia, a smaller than life-size bronze head, was inspired by William Golding’s The Double Tongue.

This year, for the second time, Domenica de Ferranti won the Tiranti Prize. Domenica’s career has gone from strength to strength since she first received the prize in 2009. Working from her south London studio, Domenica’s current challenge is to figure out how she might best transport a life-size bronze commission to its patrons in South Africa!

Canoe by Domenica de Ferranti. Plaster, to be cast in bronze. Photo provided by the artist.

However, it was Domenica’s outstanding plaster portrait, Rob, which caused a stir on Monday. Her rhythmic handling of simplistic forms is truly remarkable. Interestingly, the project had an ominous start… Domenica’s sitter nearly left after she told him that what she ‘really liked was the “wonkiness” of his face’. Fortunately for us he stayed!

Rob by Domenica de Ferranti. Plaster. Photo provided by the artist.

Like Domenica, Giles Lester received a classical artistic training in Florence. Judged to be this year’s best newcomer, Giles was awarded the The Talos Award for Olwen. Sculpted with sensitivity far beyond his years, Giles describes this portrait as an ‘impression’ of his mother who remained ‘patient and generous with sittings’ over the busy Christmas period.

Richard Atkinson-Wiles, Giles Lester and his sculpture Olwen. Plaster study. Photo by James Larcombe.

It was under the instruction of Robert Bodem, at The Florence Academy of Art (FAA), that Giles met his close friend and model for his second exhibited work, Valentina Zlatarova. Observant viewers at the exhibition will have noticed a quiet dialogue playing out between this sculpture and Valentina’s own portrait of Giles.

Valentina by Giles Lester. Plaster study. Photo provided by the artist.

Incidentally, Valentina’s works have also been recognised. She received the Tiranti Prize in 2008 and 2011 as well as the Founders’ Prize in 2009.  This year, the haunting, brooding melancholy of her portrait Giles stopped many viewers in their tracks.

Giles by Valentina Zlatarova. Plaster version on display. Photo provided by the artist.

Born and raised in Bulgaria, Valentina experienced a burst of patriotism during Professor David Ekserdjian’s speech. Reminding us that great art continues to speak to a viewer, he recounted an anecdote about the recently discovered bronze head of the Thracian King Seuthes III in Bulgaria. Ekserdjian had received a photograph on his phone from a fellow Professor, who in turn received it from his editor. The message accompanying the photograph was simple - ‘You need this.’

Ekesdjian was then in the process of curating Bronze at the Royal Academy and knew his friend was right. Ekesdjian exhibited it. As a great believer in discussing and debating projects with peers, Ekserdjian used this to communicate the advantage of not being overly ‘sensitive’ to sharing ideas.

Perhaps taking heed, Ian Rank-Broadley told me a little about his awe-inspiring exhibit Napoleon. It is a study for what may become a life-size equestrian statue of Napoleon Bonaparte! In the pursuit of truth, Ian has spent substantial time at Chatsworth house studying Antonio Canova’s Bust of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon by Ian Rank-Broadley. Bronze. Photo provided by the artist.

Ian is ideal for this commission; the male figure has been the dominant theme of his work for the entirety of his professional career.  Early on, he realised that ‘the female nude had, to a large extent, been robbed of its power by the commercial world of advertising, whereas the male nude still retained a power that could excite, grab attention and shock.’

However, it would be wrong to only recount the projects of FACE 2014’s exhibitors. I was fortunate enough to meet many interesting people, including Arthur Millner. Although an auctioneer by profession, Millner has been ‘experimenting with glazes’ in his studio in Shopshire. This reminded me of a recent conversation I had with the painter Nelson White. Nelson admitted that he tends to think well of art market professionals that also practice art! Such tangible self-expression is a universal language.  

Tristan MacDougall has also been exploring ceramics, having been inspired by sculptures with glazes that produce ‘stunning effects’. However, he is wary that too much polish can disguise form and so finishes his fired earthenware with a combination wax and a light polish ‘to pick out high points’. His success manifests in the brow and cheekbones of his exhibited portrait Sakura.  

Sakura by Tristan MacDougall. Fired earthenware. Photo provided by the artist.

Sakura is based upon Tristan’s eight-year-old daughter. Although Tristan’s children are ‘competitive about being models’, neither enjoy the reality of sitting for a portrait. As such, Tristan found himself referring to photographs whilst committing Sakura’s face to memory whenever she was eating, sleeping, watching television and so on!

At the root of Tristan’s work is ‘a deep respect and love for the tradition of classical sculpture’. Driven by the desire to ‘push his craft to higher standards’ he is discovering the possibilities of working in relief.

Icarus by Tristan MacDougall. Fired earthenware. Photo provided by the artist.

Robert Hunt also has a ‘special interest’ in relief sculpture. On display were portraits of his great-nieces Hope and Alma. Working from his studio in Winchester with photographs, Hunt strives to ‘trick the eye’.  
Hope Bradby by Robert Hunt. Exhibited in Bronze. Photo provided by the artist.

FACE 2014 was a chance for me to see works by fellow FAA alumni. And, though I have striven not to be biased, I must tell you about my favourite work on display. 

Maddox, by Bayasgalan Batmagnai is a portrait of Derrick Maddox - a good friend and fellow sculptor. What really overwhelms me about Bayasa’s work is his ability to gracefully amplify an entirely revealing fleeting expression. In Maddox, Bayasa captures his sitter in a moment of contemplation – but incorporating Derrick’s signature beanie hat acts to humanise the work.

Maddox and The Last Seeing by Bayasgalan Batmagnai. Bronze. Photo by the artist.

When in contact with clay, Bayasa feels his hands become a living tool. For Baysa, the very act of sculpting can carry ‘an overwhelming feeling of elation and pure happiness ’ as well as the inevitable frustration when faced with ‘obstacles related to continuous learning’ and the need to understand his subject.

The Last Seeing by Bayasgalan Batmagnai. Bronze. Photo by the artist.

I am certain that these sentiments ring true for all artists. Recently, Giles sent me an extract from a letter written by the sculptor Umberto Boccioni in 1912. Reading Boccioni’s description of his own experience transported me to the memory of a figure that I had struggled with for weeks on end. Yet, I also found solace in Boccioni’s words. Recognising these sentiments again echoed by Bayasa has encouraged me to share them with you:

‘I work much but seem to conclude nothing… Today I have worked six consecutive hours on sculpture and I do not understand the result… Planes upon planes, sections of the muscles and of the face and then? And what about the total effect? Does what I create live? Where is it going to finish? Can I ask enthusiasm and comprehension from others when I myself wonder about the emotion which springs from what I am doing.’

Photo by James Larcombe. 

As an aspiring art historian, FACE 2014 reassured me that the future of portraiture is in safe hands. Together, the exhibitors are pushing boundaries yet maintaining traditional techniques. 

Self Portrait by Gilbert Whyman. Welded steel. Photo provided by The Society of Portrait Sculptors.

And, as an aspiring sculptor, FACE 2014 provided me with endless inspiration. With the end of the academic year just weeks away, I am so looking forward to putting into practice the advice I have received when talking with artists. (Just two exams to go!)

Northeast Girl by Professor Li Xiang-Qun. Resin. Photo provided by The Society of Portrait Sculptors.