*Originally posted February 3, 2016*
Trained in Fine Art, John Cockshaw has worked in many disciplines. From painting, sculpture, performance video and photography. He is currently curating JRR Tolkien inspired exhibitions but has made a move recently to works inspired by Star Wars.
“Star Wars has taken me back to my roots,” said John, “as an aspiring 7 year old artist I recreated the entirety of A New Hope in storybook form from memory using pencil crayons and felt tips.”
As a teen, he studied art books on Star Wars, such as The Star Wars Archives by Mark Cotta Vaz and Shinji Hata, which helped him in creating his own spaceship constructions from “found and recycled materials”.
I have been friends with John for some time and have watched his Star Wars themed art posts on Facebook and was amazed! I knew I needed to feature his work for all to see.
How would you describe your art style?
J.C.: After years of concentrating firmly on large scale abstract and impressionist painting, and more recently on photomontage. I decided to return to very precise and detailed pen and ink work. It actually started out as pure drawing practice by choosing Star Wars as a subject to pursue for #inktober on Facebook. The drawing aims for precision but I like working quickly so there is a certain rapidity to the ink lines (the fact there are no rough drafts done beforehand mean that mistakes mean having to start again but I’ve been lucky so far…) and this gives the drawing a certain fluid quality, an edgy quality that keeps it alive and bestows upon it a sense of movement. The ink and paintwork follows this path and the colours are approximations of the actual scenes from the film. My indicator of success is that the pieces ‘feel’ like Star Wars and belong to that universe. Retro colouring is also a key recurring feature throught the work and one of the most delightful aspects I’ve always enjoyed about the special effects in Star Wars is the used quality of the universe in terms of props and miniature spaceship modelling.
What specifically attracted you to created works based on Star Wars?
J.C.: Nostalgia is a very strong element and an affinity with the films from growing up with them. I was born the year The Empire Strikes Back was released which puts me at the very younger end of the original Star Wars generation. I never saw any of the original trilogy at the cinema but I devoured them nonetheless and a large part of that was John Williams film score. Like many fellow film score enthusiasts and collectors I trace back my love of film music back to John Williams. On the same note Williams was also responsible for my interest in classical and symphonic music in general and that started from the exploration of what influences and traditions informed Williams’ Star Wars work. Actually beginning to make Star Wars artwork was something that wasn’t pre-planned. Wen #inktober came along, I picked a subject and set myself a challenge; complete an ink drawing of the millenium falcon in 20 minutes. The initial reaction to the first drawing is what fuelled my enthusiasm to continue. It started initially as both a need for brushing up on my drawing skills and letting loose after the highly complicated business of curating two art exhibitions back to back in combination with other video and publishing projects. In the time since its fair to say that Star Wars Art is now becoming quite addictive. It also became something of a more serious endeavour when I had work shown as part of an exhibition of Star Wars Fan Art titled ‘The Fans Awaken’ at The National Media Museum in Bradford, West Yorkshire in December prior to the release of The Force Awakens. A friend and fellow Star Wars artist Justin Leeming tipped me off about that and we both had work included in that brilliant show. It was just great fun and when we both met up on the day to deliver our work we were all goofy grins and brimming with nostalgic glee.
What aspects of your approach to depicting the subject of your work makes you unique and set you apart from other artists who have used the same themes as their inspiration.
J.C.: That’s a hard question to answer and sometimes the commentators of an artists work really get to define that. But to try and answer that question; an accurate depiction of the chosen scene, character or spacecraft was the first approach that I began with in combination with an engetic ink style. Going back to the idea of a retro approach to colour choices, I was interested in heightening the rusty hues and ‘used’ look of the spacecraft. I would also say, though it isn’t a new approach, that the influence of graphic novel and comic book stylings come to the fore in my work and give it a further energetic edge.
Of the works you’ve done so far, were there any that proved more challenging than others?
J.C.: Larger spaceships with a demanding level of detail have proved the most challenging and only really in terms of patience and focus. The quick way of working I favour had to be slowed right down. Even if a shorthand drawing method is to be used that suggests detail rather slavishly reproduce it, the time taken increases because it has to look convincing. The Rebel Medical Frigate Cruiser, The Millenium Falcon and Star Destroyer were such challenging ships to complete.
Star Wars has a very devout and outspoken fan base. Are you ever worried about what they will think of your work?
J.C.: I can imagine how and why artists would worry about taking on the subject but I think as an artist you would know pretty quickly if you had the chops to tackle it or whether you’d be better off leaving it alone. It either has to look the part convincingly or offer something new to be most effective. In my case I viewed my art from a fan’s perspective – I am a fan after all – and when I felt my inner Star Wars enthusiast smile with satisfaction I knew it was working and I had the confidence I could take it further. The reaction to my first drawings carried me forward and to have people enjoying my work and actively saying so was a wonderful experience.
What is it about Star Wars that inspires you when painting?
J.C.: For me it is the release of the inner child, the thrill of achieving the likeness of something incredibly iconic and more often than not it’s the persistent association of John Williams’ music. I’m mentally hearing it while working and assessing my work even if not actually listening to it. Williams’ musical contribution to the films just cannot be overstated. The construction of leitmotifs and their progressions combined with his varied orchestral world-building takes you instantly to the core of Star Wars and its a rich source of inspiration to tap into.
Are there any characters or scenes that are harder to create than others?
J.C.: Absolutely. Composing scenes of dramatic action are incredibly hard to balance where enough needs to be shown in the piece to reveal the drama but not to over complicate the piece in question. ‘Dogfight ’77’ is a good example of this where I channel the dogfight over the Death Star with Vader’s Tie Fighter in pursuit of an X-Wing (not necessarily Luke’s). ‘Solo on the bridge of Starkiller Base’ was definitely a difficult challenge to be relished and was inspired by one of the pivotal moments in The Force Awakens; the confrontation between Kylo Ren and Han Solo. The tragedy of the killing, the pain of torment and the father/son drama was affecting and I knew I wanted to do a portrait of the iconic Harrison Ford-Han Solo persona but show the aged, vulnerable character through Ren’s eyes. It’s basically Han Solo in the moments before his demise and that piece had to do a few things; reveal pain and sadness in the eyes, be recognisably Harrison Ford c2015 and hint at the atmospherics of that specific location in the film. I am pleased with the results.
My favorite ship in Star Wars is Luke’s X-Wing. I was fortunate to receive an original copy from you over Christmas. Thanks so much! What is your favorite Star Wars ship to illustrate?
J.C.: Definitely the Millenium Falcon. Its iconic and a true character in its own right. Would the ship be so iconic today if the earlier design concepts for the ship hadn’t been replaced with the hamburger-esque shape it became? I’m really not sure! Everyone knows it and everyone loves it and so it becomes a pleasure because you get really encouraging and enthusiastic responses to artwork. Williams’ genius in The Force Awakens film score is to assign the Falcon a musical identity which it’s never really had. The Rebel Fanfare is now replaced by the March of the Resistance in the score so what Williams does is transfer that theme to the Falcon and its awesome! So that first reveal of the Millenium Falcon on Jakku is underscored by the Rebel Fanfare and its a real heroic moment and for the audience its a thrilling nostalgic moment! That fanfare also imbues the Falcon with all past heroic glory of the original trilogy. A particular piece I’d like to highlight is ‘Flyte Risk’ which features a wonderful poem by Janet Nelson-Alvarez that takes the Falcon as its focus at the end of The Return of the Jedi. I was lucky enough to illustrate Jan’s recent book ‘The Road, Taken’ released by Oloris Publishing and so it was amazing to produce a joint piece with Star Wars as the subject.
What did you think of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens?
J.C.: I loved it without reservation. Quite simply loved every minute and I think JJ Abrams directed a very fine operation and made a lot of people fall in love with Star Wars all over again. The humor, the engaging characters, the pace, the old guard meets the new generation, the stunning cinematography, Williams’ score, the visuals and amazing practical effects were stunning. I wasn’t that excited when the new films were first announced – quite indifferent actually and probaly due to mixed feelings about the prequels. I was impressed by the teaser trailer and pleased that 1977-era Star Wars was the look they were going for and by the time the final trailer debuted I was fully sold. However, that still did not prepare me for just how good it was, how much fun I had watching it. They got it so right. Kylo Ren was perhaps the biggest surprise; the characterisation, menace and THAT voice were perfect! I completely agree with critics who comment that Kylo Ren is the most interesting villain to ever populate a Star Wars film. The whole thing just awoke long dormant enthusiasm and the deliberate build up to the final scene of Luke Skywalker was nicely handled. In fact it was downright sublime. I’ve only seen the film once but it is well and truly under my skin. Just remarkable!
Any future plans to you have for a Star Wars themed series of work, such as Star Wars Rebels?
J.C.: At present I’m working on two collections of Star Wars Art, one inspired by the classic trilogy and one slowly emerging collection inspired by Episode VII: The Force Awakens titled accordingly as; ‘Of Rebels and Empires’ and ‘Of Order and Resistance’. The latter collection will remain small for now and the classic trilogy will certainly be the ongoing focus. This leads me to mention a number of other inspiring artists I know who are making Star Wars art and in very distinctive ways.
Funny enough, they are also fellow Tolkien-inspired artists and I know them through our mutual contacts and exhibitions but I’m greatly impressed by their recent SW art. Jenny Dolfen’s water colour character studies inspired by The Force Awakens are tremendous and incredibly beautiful. They follow the stylistics of her Tolkien-inspired and other historical-referencing work. It’s fascinating to read via her Facebook page and website Goldseven.de just how much of a personal impact the new film has had on her and it makes for infectious reading. There is also a great story about the origin of her website name Goldseven.de and its relevance to her love of Star Wars that I would encourage all to read. Artist Soni Alcorn-Hender has done a wide-ranging series of art projects for Topps for Star Wars and for the Clone Wars animated series. What stands out in her work particularly is the sheer volume of output and her varied style.
The second artist I’d like to point out is Katarzyna Chmiel Gugulska (Kasiopeia.pl), whose style and output is incredibly varied and expertly executed. Katarzyna’s graphite and paint work is wonderful anyway but what marks her Star Wars work out is its piercingly funny humour evident in the comic strip-styled work that winkingly casts its eye on Kylo Ren’s progression to the dark side. I maintain that I’d be happy if I could possess just a fraction of her skill and deftness for humour, it really is a force of its own. Powerful enough to destroy a Death Star.
You can see more art by John Cockshaw on his official page.