James Cook Typewriter Artist
2nd July - 31st July 2021
Read our 'In Conversation' interview with James ahead of the opening of the exhibition
New Artwork created by James (31st August 2021)
Finchingfield based gallery ‘Wonky Wheel’ will host a season of exhibitions during the summer months commencing on the 2nd July 2021 with the talented Essex based typewriter artist James Cook.
James is from Braintree, Essex and is studying for a master’s degree in architecture at UCL, London. In the past seven years he has produced more than one hundred typewritten drawings. To produce his stunning artwork James has nearly thirty typewriters dating from the early 30’s all the way to the late 90’s. Using the typewriters he has produced artwork for celebrities, television presenters and musicians.
James’ work has been featured on ITV's Good Morning Britain, Sky News and BBC News and in other parts of the world such as The Kelly Clarkson Show and The Morning Show Australia.
The exhibition at The Wonky Wheel Gallery in Finchingfield will showcase a collection of James' more recent works, exploring the architectural and historical landmarks of the Essex countryside inspired by where he grew up and has lived during the recent COVID lockdowns.
Wonky Wheel owner Mary Turley commented: "I’m so excited about exhibiting the latest work from James, and it was an honour to go out on location with James to get an insight into how he prepares for his drawings. We have some exciting locations still to be announced and some remarkably interesting buildings as well here in Essex.”
On display will be drawings of Horham Hall, The Moot Hall, Finchingfield Green and a few more still to be announced. All work will be available to purchase from the gallery along with a selection of prints.
You might even see James and his typewriters around Finchingfield and surrounding areas as he works on some of his drawings for the exhibition.
James will be in the gallery on the opening weekend and his vintage typewriters will be on display throughout.
How did you first discover that you could use typewriters this way?
I came across an American artist by the name of Paul Smith, not to be confused with the famous British designer. This artist, who had cerebral palsy, couldn’t hold a pencil or paint brush because of his unfortunate condition. However, this didn’t stop him from producing what are incredible, intricately-detailed drawings that are stamped with thousands of letters, numbers and punctuation. The control and precision of the mechanical typewriter helped Paul Smith to produce these fantastic drawings. He passed away more than 10 years ago now but his legacy of more than seventy years’ worth of artwork inspired me to go out and find myself a typewriter and give it a go. It all started back in 2014. I was trawling charity shops assuming that a typewriter would be something quite easy to get hold of. I expected them to be as common as a computer, besides, they have definitely been around much longer! It seems that everyone older than me at some point in their life had a typewriter, but they tend to forget where they left them! I must have gone to sixteen different charity shops one weekend in the Braintree and Chelmsford area in the county of Essex where I live. Typewriters are an important writing device that seems to have been lost through time. From my experience and my growing collection, typewriters are found in people's attics, at the back of cupboards behind boxes or left to rust in a shed at the bottom of the garden. Typewriters are something people don’t tend to throw out, even though they appear to be of no domestic use to the majority of the general public anymore (unless you happen to be an enthusiast or collector like myself.) My first typewriter was a green 1953 Oliver Courier. An elderly couple from Braintree sold it to me. It’s still my favourite typewriter and it’s my go-to device on which I have produced some of my very best work, or what I call, my “typictions.”
How do you do it – do you have to plan it out beforehand or do you just dive straight in?
Every drawing is different and all have their own unique set of challenges. If only there was a formula for these drawings but I am afraid they are never so straight forward, or in fact, easy to type. You are essentially taking a writing device and asking it to do something it was never designed to do. The typewriter carriage wants to move forward onto the next letter but I am holding it back, forcing it from doing so. I am therefore able to adjust where I type on the piece of paper. I will twist the line spacer knob to move the paper up and down. It can’t be too dissimilar from anyone that remembers using an etch-a-sketch from the 1970’s. If I am commissioned to draw someone’s portrait, they will usually send me a photo. I couldn’t possibly imagine sitting with the subject in front of me and expect them to stay still for more than 15 hours. If I am drawing the face, I always start with the eyes. I believe this to be the most important and most difficult facial feature to get right. No one wants to buy a drawing from me if they have wonky eyes. It’s always the first part of the drawing I will start with. I will trace in pencil the outline of the silhouette of the head to make sure I have enough space on the A4 piece of paper. Punctuation marks, numbers and letters have different shapes and sizes which I use to my advantage in my drawings. The @ symbol is great for shading because it has a large surface compared to most other letters and numbers. Brackets, forward slash and underscore are great for drawing thin lines and the pupils of peoples’ eyes. I will overlay the information multiple times to build up shading and tone. The same principles apply to drawing landscape scenes.
Do you have a favourite typewriter to use – and do you have a large collection of them now?
I have been extraordinarily lucky and thankful to have people donate their typewriters to me. They appear on the doorstep of my house and typically a letter is enclosed from the sender requesting a drawing of my work in exchange. The collection is growing. I started with just one but now have twenty spread between my home town of Essex and my university flat in London.
How much time, roughly, does it take to complete a piece?
They take 15 – 30 hours roughly. But it entirely depends on the complexity of the subject and, in most cases, if I am drawing a portrait, how much hair they have on their head. Long hair requires so much more shading with the @ symbol.
When you complete a piece of a famous person, do you send it out to them? What has the reaction been like?
The reaction has been surreal. I started my typewritten work by simply creating fan art of celebrities or characters from some of my favourite bands, films and television series’. The reaction from everyone has been positive and I have been very lucky to have some celebrities repost my drawings on their Instagram. In some cases, they have even purchased the drawings or I have ended up meeting them in person so that I can personally hand the drawings over to them. I have done an album cover for Alex Preston, a singer from American Idol. I have had actors such as Jon Heder, Pearl Mackie, Tina Majorino and Joey Dosik repost my artwork on Instagram. I have also created artwork of Bill Murray, Peter Capaldi and Tom Hanks( who I hope to hear from some day as he owns a collection of typewriters. I have produced drawings of television presenters such as Ben Sheppard and Kate Garroway when I was featured on ITV's Good Morning Britain. More recently, I was asked to be a guest on The Kelly Clarkson Show and I produced a drawing of American singer, Blake Shelton. The goal now is to send Tom Hanks the typewriter portrait I did of him from a few years ago. As a fellow typewriter enthusiast, it would be amazing to hear his response.
NOTE ON TOM HANKS:
One ambition remains unfulfilled - a reply from one of the world's most famous typewriter enthusiasts.
"I have posted my typewriter portrait to Tom Hanks's Playtone Productions Company," he said.
"He is known to correspond to people with his own typewritten letters, however I am yet to hear back from him. I will keep trying!"
Do you sometimes leave hidden messages in your artwork?
Each drawing is assembled from a variety of characters, letters and punctuation marks using the forty-four keys of a typical typewriter. Information is overlaid and the keys are tapped at variable pressures to achieve tonal shading. Whilst most of my work is straightforward by its frame of reference, the use of perspective and concept of concealing information plays an important role in how the drawings are observed by the viewer. Some of my more recent works feature hidden written messages which only become visible from up-close and thereby add another dimension to the drawings. Comparatively, my work is difficult to be distinguished as type-written from a far distance.
What type of work do you most commonly get commissioned?
My day-to-day projects consist of private, type-written commissions which fluctuate in demand constantly and are a whirlwind of paper, ink ribbons and podcasts. The majority of my 35 typewriters in the collection are incredibly noisy so I find myself listening to lots of podcasts and music when I am in the midst of creating the portrait of a client’s family relative or their favourite childhood landmark.