This is an excerpt from our Drawing with Senses Mini Mag - a zine packed with artists interviews, sensory activity ideas and event advice. Free for all fee paying Big Draw Festival organisers, or available to purhcase from The Big Draw Shop!
For our artist focusing on touch, we had the pleasure of chatting with typewriter artist James Cook. Cook picked up the unique drawing tool of a typewriter, whilst studying his A-Levels, and the rest is history. In the last 9 years, he has produced an incredible 300 typewritten drawings using his collection of 63 (yes, 63!) typewriters. Using his distinctive and meticulous style, Cook has produced artwork for celebrities, musicians and brands, as well as selling original artworks and prints.
Interview: Lucia Vinti in conversation with James Cook
Hi James! Could you let our readers know a little bit about yourself and your art?
I’m 26 years old and my background is actually in architecture. When I left college in 2015 I went to study undergrad at UCL in architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture. I also went on to study my masters there as well, and my interest has always been drawing buildings from a very young age.
I worked in several different offices around London at different architecture practices and in the background, whirring away, was this hobby of typewriter art which began as a college project. In A Level art we were given a research question, to explore artists throughout history that had used technology to create their work. I looked at David Hockney who had done some work with a fax machine. It was simply because I couldn’t get hold of a fax machine that I had to look into the world of typewriter art, and so potentially a wild coincidence that I’ve ended up here as a full time job. It could have turned out quite differently I suppose.
I found this artist Paul Smith, and I suppose anyone that knows of typewriter art, they consider Paul Smith as the origin story. His work was just so incredible, even looking at the work when I was 17 or 18, my jaw sort of dropped -surely there’s some sort of trickery going on here, this can’t be possible! So yeah, I just did 2 or 3 drawings for one research project and then very incognito after that project had ended, I anonymously posted [more typewriter art] on instagram. There was no face behind the work as I didn’t know what kind of reception it would have and whether people would get it or consider it a bit unusual, or quirky.
Slowly I grew some followers and local news stories started writing about the typewriter artist and it became like a part time job. Studying architecture is quite demanding of time, you’re working quite late, so it was a flexible job to afford rent to live in London. People started commissioning typewriter art from me through sending messages on instagram. And yeah, that’s where it began really. Now I do commercial projects -I recently finished a project with Disney for the Boston Strangler, it’s kind of a film noir 1920s/30s and they wanted some typewriter art to go with that kind of style for that project. So yeah, I didn’t plan any of this!
That’s really interesting. It’s so impressive how far you’ve come already!
Oh thank you, I mean I suppose it’s just, I can’t explain it. I’ve got a studio on sight [at Trinity Buoy Wharf - the same site as The Big Draw!]. I didn’t really plan to have a studio, and it was only because I visited Trinity Buoy Wharf in August 2021, because I wanted to do a drawing of the lighthouse. It was only when I met Patricjia, who works for the space, said Do you know anything about the site? We have artists in residence and studios available and it was then that I thought, maybe this is big enough for me to take this on as a full time thing.So 2021 was when I graduated from my masters, and even then it was still a hobby, the typewriter art, but the benchmark kept moving. So, when I graduated, I had this plan - let’s go out big and I’ll put on a summer exhibition. And then the end of the summer came and the exhibition had done really well, I’d sold lot’s of work and I thought I suppose I’ll keep doing this till Christmas then. And then Christmas came and went, and I thought well I’ll keep doing this full time. I suppose if you have the means to do it and if it works as a business model, and people buy the work from you and people are happy and if you are able to do it full time, it’s not work really, it’s just fun. So I’m very lucky that people continued to enjoy the work.
You mentioned Paul Smith and David Hockney, are there any other artists that inspire you, maybe artists that meet like a different kind of medium, interestingly, or just anyone traditional that you're inspired by?
Stephen Wiltshire, he has an incredible mind. And again, another artist, who regardless of having a disability, has been able to do something incredible with his work. And in the same light, Paul Smith, who unfortunately was, was born with cerebral palsy. The very reason why Smith made typewriter art was because at a very young age. His parents gave him a typewriter because of his muscle condition. He couldn't hold a pen or a pencil. The typewriter was given to him with the ambition that he could learn to read and write. It gave him that mechanical, that precision that he needed. And he wanted to draw so he'd learned to draw through the typewriter, which is just amazing, you know? Nothing was stopping him regardless of the muscle condition that he had. Steven Wiltshire used to have a gallery, I think in Pall Mall and his sister used to be front of house so he'd be upstairs working, creating drawings and she'd be downstairs running the shop. So actually before I'd learned to do typewriter art, I did a panoramic drawing of the London skyline when I was still at school, because he's famous for doing these panoramic cityscapes from memory. And I'd showed his sister because she liked the work, so that's nice. We're happy! I also like street photography, like William Eggleston. I like Joel Meyerowitz, a photographer based in New York.I like lots of sort of 70s 60s 80s Still Life street photography.
Okay, so on to the actual creative process. I'm really interested in how much planning you do - how much do you work freehand? Or do you sketch out your designs before?
Yeah. So most drawings are A4 or A3 paper size. They're all done within the machine. So there's no pre-drawn elements. One of the benefits of the typewriter over the conventional computer keyboard is the keys have a weighting to them. So that gives you the ability to make slight impressions on the page without it being of any consequence to the final drawing. There is a tolerance to be able to erase some of the ink sometimes, so there is margin of error there. And then with some of the bigger pictures…So the panoramic drawings require more than one sheet of paper. To make sure each of the elements that make up the drawing, align with the next sheet of paper, I'll put some ruler lines in pencil.
I think the crazy thing about it is, I never used to draw people. When I was at school, I hated drawing people. I say to people, I probably type people better than I draw them with pencil because I've done so many portraits of people. But again, that's being out of my comfort zone. Because sometimes you can't be picky about when you get commission that comes in, and you want it to work as a business. You can't always say no to everything you want to do. You can't be self indulgent, you have to do those boring projects to pay the bills. And yeah, so by doing work that I didn't want to do, I've learned new skills.
When you're starting a piece can you visualise how the final thing would look in your mind or do you just start typing and trust the process and see what happens?
Yeah, I think just trust the process. I think some people think as I walk around, I kind of reimagine in my head how I would interpret stuff in letters, numbers and punctuation.
But there are some go-to methods that I've learned that are proven to work on previous drawings. Really simple things like, if something has a curve, I'll pick a curved letter number or punctuation mark. They're sometimes as simple as typing out someone's pupils using two brackets symbols, which are normally the right scale on an A4 or A3 size, compared to someone's face. And generally, you'll see lots of @ symbols, because they have quite a large surface area. So they make for good shading. Something as sharp as capitalised or a lowercase i, you might use for a vertical line. It's about using a combination of those kinds of characters to build a drawing up. But never do I have an idea of what the drawing might look like at the end. For example, I'm currently working on an interior shot of the Royal Albert Hall. So I'll be going there to sort of do part of it on location, but I'm at the very early stages working on the drawing at the moment and I have no idea what it's going to look like... but I just have to have fingers crossed that it does work! And this is the thing, not every drawing works first time, a lot of drawings there will be four or five attempts. But what I won't do is, you know, 50% completion, and then start all over again.
You'll always do a drawing till the end?
Yeah! I mean, I look at all my pictures, and I know where I've made mistakes, I kind of have to live with those mistakes, without being too protective. Because you know, it's intimidating for any artist to look at a blank piece of paper and to know where to begin. For me, I think I've just grown in confidence to know that you just have to live with some mistakes. And I think what helps is because it's type written, you're not always aware of what constitutes a mistake, generally. Whereas if it's something that is drawn in pencil, and you're drawing a perfectly straight line, and it goes slightly off or out of line, then people can see that, whereas with this, because what you're already punching onto the page is already perfect. It's perfect every time because it's pre stamped. People don't always notice those mistakes.
It's so interesting to hear about how it all works. How long does it take to do, say, an A3 building?
So an A3 generally takes about one to two weeks. But what I will do is, probably I'll normally work on several different pictures at a time. So I'll have two or three other different drawings on the go. So I'm based in Essex and normally I get to the London studio about 10.30 and then sort of leave around sort of seven o'clock. And then obviously, take a few breaks in between. So I'm spending about, I don't know, five, six hours per day working on a drawing. But when you're working you're busying away, and suddenly, all this time has elapsed. because you get so engrossed, and so focused on what you're doing, and you have to be so careful about what you place on the page.
I've done workshops previously and it's amazing how quiet people become when they're, when it's so, so fully focused on what they're doing!
One of the things that The Big Draw finds really important is how drawing, whether that's with a pencil or with a typewriter, can be quite meditative and a great way to escape. You can really pass hours away when you’re in that zone, can’t you?
Absolutely. And there's not many drawing techniques that make noise [like using a typewriter] So yeah, so you've got the noise in the background and it can get very therapeutic. That being said, I still normally wear headphones and listen to podcasts and stuff. But yeah, it's that, like you said, it's kind of like therapy. And, sometimes you kind of step away from a drawing at lunchtime. And you look, you go back to it with fresh eyes, and you kind of amaze yourself that you're able to make so much progress with it.
To read the full interview, along with interviews from other artists who's work explores sight, sound, taste, smell and the sixth-sense, check out our Drawing with Senses Mini Mag - available for all fee paying Big Draw festival organisers or to purchase on The Big Draw Shop.
Interested in taking part in The Big Draw? Registrations for our 2023 festival 'Drawing with Senses' are open now! Find out the benefits of becoming an organiser here and about this years sense-sational theme here.