IN CONVERSATION MIKE NICHOLSON illustrator, tutor, Zine publisher and flâneur / Vick Fullick / FOTS Designer
Mike Nicholson has generously contributed the centre spread of each issue of FOTS with an illustrated social commentary. He has the honoured position of being the only contributor that we publish more than twice in a row because we love his work and it captures his perspective of the moment.
Hi Mike, we’ve known each other for a very long time. We met at St Martin’s School of Art, 1982 on the Graphic Design degree course. You were one of the ‘northern bAstards’ (said with a hard A) and I was one of the ‘southern softies’ (sorry everyone but things were different 40 years ago). My first memory of you was of a chap in a beige raincoat, black trousers, bank clerk shoes, and a little tache. What is your outfit of choice now?
I don’t remember the raincoat you mention! I have two fashion words in my life now – waistcoats and corduroy. That’s it. And I’d like to say that I’m still proud to be a ‘Northern bAstard’.
Corduroy and waistcoats! Like a proper art-school tutor. I remember your observational drawings and funny caricatures of other students, and your wickedly dry, sense of humour. What do you consider your finest piece of student work?
My sketchbooks. I’d sit in a doorway in Long Acre, Covent Garden at rush hour, (it was full of closed buildings in the early 80s) and draw people passing, building up the drawing muscle. (As a lad down from Windermere, I’d never seen such diversity, so London was a gateway drug). Imagination overtook observation but I still have many of those sketchbooks – interesting to watch myself getting better then ‘peaking’. It’s a delicate balance and an old story.
When we graduated, I remember you were getting a lot of interesting commissions?
Just as I was graduating in 1985, I had a commission from Penguin Books to illustrate the first of several covers, and then I had a great job in 1986 for the World Wildlife Fund. They were celebrating their 25th anniversary in Assisi with a conference. I was sent with other illustrators to cover the event, reportage-style, by accompanying a pilgrimage heading there. It was a massive cultural explosion. And then came magazine work – illustrations for The Observer (for the Sue Arnold weekly column), Guardian – and a lot of regular work for Time Out.
Yes, I remember I used to enjoy seeing your name in the magazine gutter! And then what did you do?
From that gutter into working on a lot of storyboards for commercials. Different gutter, much more money. Thankfully I ended up in the later 90s working in film and TV. I started on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which a mate of mine from Windermere was directing. That led to storyboarding for Vic & Bob’s Randall & Hopkirk, the Ali G film, The League of Gentlemen, and Armando Iannucci. I absolutely LOVED it.
You also began teaching illustration in the 90s. I imagine you’ve seen many changes?
Yes, while there have been changes with the way students use technology, I think the main difference is the way illustrators find their audience, mainly via Instagram and online ‘shops’. The idea of a jobbing illustrator is seen as old hat nowadays. The role is being rewritten – a romantic mix of a craftsperson and exhibiting artist.
You've done a lot of comic book-type work and have self-published a wonderful series of illustrated graphic ‘novella' short stories – ‘bio auto graphic’ you call it. How did they come about?
As a detox from advertising storyboards, I had been drawing/writing comics using a character I called Ron. Then someone suggested I make them more autobiographical. There have been 33 so far (since 2004) and I sell them at Artists’ Book fairs and through Instagram. They’re in the Tate, Wellcome and British Library collections, too. Zines is the term in common usage.
I love the way you call yourself a ‘Londonaut’. What is your definition of a Londonaut?
It’s a phrase that I used for one edition of the Zine but it stuck. I called myself a ‘Londonaut’ to describe how I walk to explore and observe. A bit like the notion of a ‘flâneur’.
What a great word! It describes you perfectly. (A flâneur is a man who saunters or drifts around observing society). And I do love this quote I found on your blog …
'If the mind is a palace, these editions offer Air BnB at very reasonable rates'
That’s good – I don’t even remember writing it.
What would you like to be doing in 10 years' time?
Mainly breathing – with decent knees and hips and a quiet pub where I can read the latest good book, while I wait for my partner Mette to arrive and get the next round.
Thanks, Mike for taking the time to chat on Zoom – see you soon IRL!
To see more of Mike Nicholson's work go to:
Blog address www.ensixteeneditions.blogspot.com