Or Talking About Somebody ELSE’S Work for a Change: Occasionally I am given the opportunity to write a preface for a book of another artist’s work. It’s an exercise I thoroughly enjoy, an opportunity to pry up the cowling and peek in at the inner workings of another image-maker’s mind. (You just have to keep ypur hands clear of the gears.) When Paul Bonner asked if I’d be willing to do a few words for a volume of his collected work that was in preparation, I immediately agreed quicker than you can say “And about bloody time too!”. Paul’s work is simply amazing, and just knowing folks like him are out there in the wildwood of the mind in which all fantasy illustrators wander is a comfort and an encouragement.
Paul Bonner is something of an enigma.
Therefore, everything that follows is pure speculation, it may all be wrong. As I said, Paul is something of an enigma.
I had the pleasure of meeting Paul only once. Picture three illustrators (Ciruelo Cabral was there also) sitting at a terrace café in a most extraordinary piazza (built inside the ruin of a Roman coliseum) in Lucca Italy, discussing plots to illustrate this theme and that, carefully distilling experiences and opinions, trading stories of skirmishes with games companies and publishers. It was a rare kind of encounter, conspiratorial and convivial, with the kind of eager bashfulness that strikes when chance brings you face to face with people whose work you admire.
(Come to think of it, what better place for three wayward illustrators to meet. An Argentinian settled in Spain, an Englishman domiciled in Denmark and a Canadian who calls Helvetia home; three expatriots who spend most of their time abroad anyway, wandering in the worlds built inside their own heads.)
Paul’s work is of course exquisite. It is a curious blending of the whimsical and the deadly serious. His mastery of space is well… masterful in every way. His horizons fade into powder blue or dusk, his shadows are obscure and mysterious. His landscapes are somehow familiar, the kind you see on hikes, or contemplate while sipping from a flask of tea and devouring a well-earned sandwich. The denizens of his landscapes, however, are the kind that you would not like to meet on a narrow trail or in the deep woods…
His compositions are always perfect and often sublime; witness “Eldsjal”, with the graphic slash of the (carefully detailed) waterfall. When Paul does night scenes, his firelight is so convincing it makes you look for stray sparks. Paintings like “Drakar och Demoner” or Eld och sot” are in a narrative and pictorial world class of their own.
Looking at Paul’s work, I think of John Bauer, for his love and understanding of dim northwoods walls of vertical tree trunks and horizontal November light. Looking at Paul’s work, Richard Dadd comes to mind, for the uncommon ability to indulge in lavish detail without ever losing sight of the whole image. There is something of Brian Froud in the profiles of his trolls, something of the folly of Frank Frazetta in his capacity to capture movement in mid-air, a few steroids from Simon Bisley in the biceps of his axe-toting warrior heroes, a hint of Arthur Rackham in the silhouettes he paints and atmospheres worthy of Gallen-Kallela or Vasnetzov.
But, to assume that Paul Bonner’s work is a conscientious patchwork of the best a century of illustration has to offer is totally wrong. Paul Bonner is entirely his own man, his universe is unique. He is in perfect equilibrium between detail and freedom. His pictures tell stories; they are all balanced on that crucial instant of “but-what-happens-next?” Nevertheless, the imagery is poised and centred; Paul is an arch tight-rope walker, managing the all-too-rare equilibrium between pictura and gnarus.
There is no contradiction between fantasy and functionality in his work. His costumes are colourful and his weapons and armour outrageous and original, but they work. Paul doesn’t just look at landscapes, he knows his history too. All his illustrations are a masterful distillation of anecdote and archetype.
Paul’s talent for observation is laser-sharp, with that precious distance that is the gift bestowed by circumstance the voluntary exile. Every stone, every tree or blade of grass in his work is as though observed for the first time, nothing is taken for granted.
All this combined lets us wander in one of those all-too-rare places: a landscape of the mind, a world of an artist, recognizable at a glance, unfathomable when you attempt to look deeper..
So, with all this, you might ask, well what DOESN’T he do well? I suppose there is a dearth of body-builder females clad in chain mail bikinis with a backdrop of dead saurians, suitable for posters and screensavers, but Paul has chosen substance over surface, interest over admiration; you’ll have to excuse him if he doesn’t cater to fashion, he’s busy building a universe.
And what’s more, he works in WATERCOLOURS (remember those? In tubes?). He uses a BRUSH (that’s a short stick with hairs affixed to the end) and works on PAPER (yes, it’s made of linen or cellulose). None of these are available from software companies. They aren’t updated regularly, you don’t have to buy a new version every 6 months. Didn’t I say he was an enigma? John Howe’s Journal: PICTURA AND GNARUS