State Of The Art - Graham Turner

Press of Canvas

Question — Name the first motor racing artist that comes into your head.

chances are that most of you reading that last sentence immediately said to yourself “Michael Turner” — and that’s hardly surprising, as he has been the doyen of automotive artists for the last three decades.

What has guaranteed his lasting appeal to all motoring enthusiasts from the guy in the rally jacket that buys his art as a postcard from a stall at Silverstone, to the well-heeled collector bidding at auction, is that ‘a Turner’ combines both technical and proportional accuracy, with a flair and dash which captures the vital immediacy and action of his subject.

Fortunately for his army of admirers, the family genes have passed these talents on to his 25 year old son Graham, who has been steadily building his own reputation and clientele over the last few years. So much so in fact that Victor Gaunlett, opening an exhibition of the Turner’s work In London in January, claimed — perhaps a little mischieviously — that he had not yet been able to secure any examples of Graham’s work, because he had always been outbid at auction.

Possibly he was thinking of the 1989 Monaco Auction, at which one of Graham’s paintings sold for a multiple of the sum which a London dealer had paid for it a few weeks before?

Curiously perhaps, for someone who as a child had Stirling Moss, Graham Hill and Bruce McLaren popping into the family home to visit, he had no particular interest in cars and motor racing at an early age. Indeed when he was taken to race meetings whilst young, the noise upset him, so he developed a definite distaste for them.

Nor was he impressed by his father’s guests — “To me it was all perfectly normal having a father who was an artist and these racing drivers turning up at your house — I suppose sons of rock-stars are the same . . . it’s only when your friends come round and say — Gosh! . . . Wow! — and you say, well what’s different? Surely everyone’s like this?!” In fad until his 16th birthday his ambitions were directed towards a career in engineering, favourite subjects at school being maths and technical drawing.

“Around about the time I actually started making decisions for myself, I started to think about of a career in art.” Even then, it was a gradual process and there was certainly no overt parental influence, he was allowed to make up his own mind — “The summer when I decided to go to art college, I spent a lot of time going into work with my father and either painting myself, or watching him work”.

Once the die was cast, father actively encouraged him and what followed, was two years at Amersham College, gaining a diploma in Art & Design, then two more years working in design studio, gaining some experience of the real world, doing mainly ‘magic marker’ mock-ups of cartons for food products and domestic cleaners.

In the meantime he had started selling some of his paintings — the first one being a commission in 1982 to paint a portrait of a helicopter belonging to a local Mercedes dealer — and the first motorsports sale being a painting of a Porsche 956 in the 1983 Silverstone 1000 kms, sold to an unnamed collector — unnamed because the artist claims that he is rather dissatisfied with this early effort. However, the buyer obviously couldn’t have shared his view, because he has purchased a number of paintings since!

In 1984 he decided to go freelance — and to cut a long story very short, he has quickly built up his list of clients, boasting such corporate names as Goodyear, Vauxhall, BP, Whitbread and Imperial Tobacco and private clients from amongst the motor racing fraternity, drivers, teams, as well as ordinary enthusiasts. He has worked on material for cigarette cards, promotional handouts and forecourt posters for petrol give-aways and has even produced a pictorial history of Motor Racing which was used to illustrate postage stamps by a number of Carribbean Islands.

Despite this heady list of patrons, Graham is more than happy to accept commissions from any source, and the outlay, which may look high at first sight — (“People forget that professional artists have to earn a living”) — is actually quite modest compared to the pleasure they bring to the owner.

How then, I wondered, did he actually go about painting a work?

The initial stage is to research the subject thoroughly. For this he can call on the extensive library of photographic source material accumulated by Turner senior since 1958, as well as the obvious contemporary and modern magazines and books. The customer commissioning a work may also have his own material to work from.

The detail work is not only evident on the cars themselves but also in the backgrounds, which have to accurately correspond to the year the race was held.

Interestingly, when gathering material at race meetings, the artist does not brandish a sketchpad as you might imagine — rather a camera is used to gather information — bodywork configurations, trim details and colours of course, but even suspension layouts are recorded, allowing him to recreate the correct attitude of the car whilst cornering, accelerating and braking — a problem that can cause long hours of agonising and re-working of a piece.

Having gathered the information needed, a rough layout pencil sketch is done as an aide memoire and for final approval by the customer. The next stage is to lay down the basic layout, colour and tonal values fairly loosely across the artboard (he works exclusively in a medium called gouache — an opaque water-based and soluble paint), before starting to build up the light, shade and detail across the whole work, until everything starts ‘coming together’ at the same time.

This technique he admits, is one that he has absorbed from his father and has the big advantage that it allows the artist to make fairly major adjustments quite late — “Some people, when they start [a painting], they paint the background and then they put a car in — and that is a much more rigid way of working, so you’re pretty well stuck with it then if you have got something wrong. But if you keep it fairly ‘loose’ and then build it up, it’s easier to make changes and you get more action and atmosphere in the final picture, I think”.

Even using this approach, sometimes it does go wrong — as Graham attempted to prove, when I was shown the discarded first attempt of a work depicting the 1958 Le Mans winning Hill/Gendebien Ferrari 250TR rounding Arnage in the rain. The second attempt was later issued through the Turner’s Studio 88 concern as a fineart print. However, this example found its way into a dark corner of the artist’s studio, apparently only to be brought out to show visitors how not to do it. That said, I must say that apart from being incomplete, my untrained eye couldn’t see much wrong.

When does he know when a piece is finished? — “The moment finally comes when I say `Ah! that’ll do’ then I normally go on for another few hours…”

Depending on the size and content, a painting usually takes about a week to complete; though a couple of years ago he was commissioned to paint an advertising poster celebrating two hundred Grands Prix wins on Goodyear tyres, which meant painting two hundred tiny detailed cars and drivers to a very tight schedule — “Fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for four weeks it was one of the memorable pressure periods!”

Naturally enough, Graham’s biggest influence and inspiration has been his father. That there is a great similarity in their work will be apparent from the accompanying illustrations. Closer examination however, reveals perhaps a tighter attention to final detail in the finished product of Turner junior. That, he admits, probably stems from his original aspirations to being an engineer. A lot depends on his mood though and certain subjects seem to inspire the more free approach that has made his father so popular typically scenes dating from the days before advertising became rife in the sport.

There are some other artists who he admires, though they have had no direct influence on his style. There are very many others who he has less regard for, but overall he feels the increased competition has itself created more demand for motoring art, and with it hopefully a more selective consumer.

Despite his early lack of interest in cars, once the bug bit, he made up for lost time very quickly and since 1983 has actively been involved in club rallying. Road rallying-until new regulations were brought into force to curb the enthusiasm of the competitors and more recently closed rallies and special stages.

He competed regularly as a driver in the “Motoring News” Championship in a Escort Mexico 1600, which was written-off in an altercation with a Cotswold bank and later in a hydrid Opel Kadett using the Ford’s power-plant and a Manta back-axle. This latter machine came to an even more violent end at the Devils Leap on Epynt during the 1986 Virgo Christmas Rally, when he managed to barrel roll the car across a hundred metres of marsh, coming to rest upside down “The engine was screaming and I was totally disorientated, my navigator was shouting at me to cut the engine and apparently I was reaching up to the roof trying to find the key!”

“Other people seem to have relatively minor, repairable accidents, but I’ve had only two accidents and both of them involved write-offs . . . “

Because he prepares and tunes his own cars in a garage at home, two costly major accidents-and his burgeoning career, have obliged him to restrict his recent sporting activities to navigating for fellow clubbie Andy Timberlake, a combination which won the Southern Lada Challenge in 1989. Currently Graham is preparing a Vauxhall Chevette for his re-entry to the forests as a driver, though his professional workload is making this a lengthy process.

Any artist needs to diversify if he is not to stagnate – something his father discovered a number of years ago – and it is probably not generally understood by motor racing enthusiasts that Michael Turner is as well known as an illustrator in the aeronautical field as he is in the motoring.

Heeding this advice, his son has plans to spread his net wider. Indeed when we met, he was working on the artwork for a bookcover with a nautical theme and is already well known for his painting of animal subjects something which is close to his heart, the Turner home having a number of resident cats, a dog, plus goats and chickens in the garden.

To this end and to encompass his future ambitions, he intends to travel to the United States later this year both to publicise his existing material, but also hopefully to pursue a long standing ambition to gain commissions to paint film posters for the Hollywood studios.

In spite of this, he expects his main preoccupation to remain automotive subjects and certainly the exhibition of his and his father’s work held at the Carisbrooke Gallery in January, has meant that there is plenty of his favourite work to occupy him for quite a while, even if he is also obliged to fit the building rally cars, tending animals and painting Indiana Jones into his schedule! IB