"I like the fact that I don’t really know what I’ll be doing next year." Groundbreaking artist Dave McKean likes to keep everyone guessing – himself included, as Mark Penfold finds out
Dave McKean has always been something of a creative chameleon. Artist, writer, film-maker, musician, sculptor, photographer - these and other, harder to define, facets take turns in the spotlight as he moves from books to comics to film to illustration, a very particular vision indelibly marked on each of these forms. With his latest movie, Luna, experiencing birthing pains at the post-production stage, McKean has returned to his roots with a number of book projects. Collaborators include arch rationalist Richard Dawkins and the children's author David Almond, but there are a couple of personal projects in the offing, too. We caught up with the multi-talented creative...
Computer Arts: It's been a while since your last film project, MirrorMask. How's Luna coming along?
Dave McKean: Slowly. We've had many problems funding the film, even though it's a very low budget. It's all shot and 90 per cent edited. We need to tie down final funding to complete it. I thought we were there, but it seems not. Very frustrating.
In 2007, I basically decided that I'm not going to pursue the film industry any more; I'm much happier and healthier doing books. So, if one of my projects lands, with money in the bank, I'll go to work, but I've decided I'm not doing any more lunches, development meetings or drafts. Life's too short.
CA: So, what are you concentrating on at the moment?
DM: Like I say, books really. Or, at least, projects that I have control over. Not just creatively, but also the ability to push the project through to completion. I would much rather expend energy, time and ideas on something I know will happen, even if it's on a much smaller scale than something larger that I can't make happen.
It's only the work that interests me - not the deals, the cross-platform marketing, the promotional tours and the rest - so the size of audience isn't an issue. So long as I can pay the bills, I'm much happier just making new things that are important to me. I hope that they touch someone else as well, but if it's only one person, well, that's okay.
CA: You're working on a book with Richard Dawkins. What's it like being in cahoots with the Devil's chaplain?
DM: I've always thought of myself as the Devil's pencil sharpener, so I fit right in. I've long been an admirer of Richard's strident, but ruthless, clear-sighted books and lectures. Reading The God Delusion, I was left with a strangely intense feeling of dÃ©jÃ vu, because I'd run through many of those arguments in my head so many times. So I pursued Richard, and the opportunity to do this book, after reading several interviews with him expressing the wish to do a book that would encourage children to think for themselves - to be engaged sceptics. This is all I wish for my own children, so I believe in the mission of the book. I think the format we've created is working well. It's not an aggressive book, though it puts woolly thinking gently, but firmly, in its place.
CA: Do you feel your style is still evolving?
DM: In the last five years I certainly feel more confident drawing and painting, and creating books and stories. I've done a lot of work, and simply by logging the hours, you improve. I'm a lot clearer about the work I should be doing and, much more importantly, the stuff I should decline, or avoid. Film has been a tough language for me to get into. Maybe some directors fall naturally into the grammar of film, but I've struggled. Having said that, I'm very happy with my short films, and Luna is looking good so far. I don't think it's obvious who my influences are any more. I think that everyone goes through a period of gestation - taking in and mulching down the work of your favourite artist's - but slowly you start to find your own marks, lines, shapes, colours and ideas.
CA: When did you start on the path towards finding a style of your own and what was the catalyst for that?
DM: It's been a series of lurches, really. As a kid, I liked all sorts, but I essentially drew very realistically. I valued technique and literal accuracy. Then in art school I discovered expressionism through the drawings of Jim Dine and Ralph Steadman. Towards the end of my time in art school, I discovered images that used expressionistic technique to express strong, provocative ideas, often in a manner you would call surreal: Marshall Arisman, Brad Holland and Matt Mahurin in America; Jan Svankmajer and the Art Brut movement in the Czech Republic; Stasys, Lenica, Starowieyski and the Polish poster designers, and others. And then Cages taught me a huge amount about drawing, storytelling and writing. Travelling has done wonders for my work, as has collaborating with unusual people. It's an ongoing development.
CA: Have the tools you use changed?
DM: I enjoyed getting into digital imagery very early. Photoshop has really enabled me to get close to the images in my head. It's as though the program was written for me directly. More recently, I've moved back to pen, brush and pencil much more. I just prefer drawing than staring into a monitor all day. Plus, there's so much Photoshop collage work around at the moment - I would rather be doing something that's a bit more personal.
CA: What's inspired you most recently?
DM: Anything and everything. Angelopoulos's films, Heston Blumenthal's mind (and food), the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Tom Holland's historical books, [loud] music, Jake Thackray, the possibilities of genetic engineering, and just working a lot.
CA: What part does your background in music play in your other creative outlets?
DM: Music is very important to me. Music is the most direct art form. It goes straight in, unfiltered. I love playing every day, and have started to perform again recently. I find that music really helps create a mood for me - it colours my stories and images all the time.
CA: You've said in the past that you don't feel comfortable with the 'artist' label. What would you say your tag read now, if you had one?
DM: I don't have one really. The Italians have a term - 'creativo' - which is an all-purpose title for someone who creates things, and it's not as abused or loaded as the word 'artist'.
CA: Do you have a common methodology across your various creative outlets?
DM: Yes, I suppose I always make notes in sketchbooks first for almost everything. It helps to see it represented on paper - I can judge it then. While it's only swimming around my head, it's too insubstantial. It feels like I'm clutching at remembering a dream until I commit to paper. As I'm thinking this through, it feels like the classic definition of uncertainty in quantum mechanics; objects that can exist in many places at once, smears of charge that only collapse into one position once they're observed. At least, that's the current theory.
CA: Have you been collaborating with Neil Gaiman recently?
DM: I just saw Neil again. We're both very busy pursuing our own work. We may do another picture book soon, and I'm doing a limited edition of Smoke and Mirrors with him. I think we'd both like to find a new thing to do together, but that thing hasn't crystallised yet.
CA: What do you think of those early comic book works when you look back at them now?
DM: I don't look at them. Cages is the earliest book I did that I'm still happy with.
CA: Do you think your audience has grown along with you or are you appealing to a different demographic these days?
DM: No idea. I meet both. I meet new readers all the time, because I do many different kinds of books, and often people will only know me for one thing, and even if they're aware of others, they haven't made the connection. Two years after starting my ongoing relationship with Front Line Assembly, Bill Leeb called one day and asked, "Are you the same guy that did the Sandman covers?"
CA: What's occupying your thoughts at the moment? Anything that might eventually become a new project?
DM: Several books that I've been planning for many years, but now really feel able to do them justice. I have a few film ideas, but I'm actually more likely to do them as books now. I like the fact that I don't really know what I'll be doing next year.