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Ideal World: James Marsh's work with Talk Talk

The illustrator talks composition, meaning, and the Spirit of Talk Talk.

James Marsh's vivid, dreamlike covers for Talk Talk's discography turn up on list after list of Best Album Covers. Their appeal is timeless: nearly thirty years on -- unlike so many great covers of that era -- Marsh's images don't seem dated. There's a sureness, a sense of precision and balance, that carries throughout his body of work, combined with a bright, lush palette and a naturalist's eye for detail -- and he has the trained illustrator's deft hand for problem-solving and the difficult art of communicating ideas through image alone.

When people talk about their favorite album covers, even when the conversation begins with the art, typography, or design, it often drifts to the music inside the sleeve. In the case of Marsh's work, this crossover makes particular sense. Part of the appeal of the Talk Talk covers is how well Marsh evokes that music -- no small feat for an album as complex and subtle as, say, Spirit of Eden, a recording which I've always felt conveys something of the feeling of waking up early in a new place after a long journey and realizing the dawn chorus of birdsong is different from any birdsong you've ever heard before. Oddly enough, Marsh's image of a flourishing tree filled with birds and shells on the bright shore of a blue body of water was painted before he ever heard Spirit of Eden.

Marsh was kind enough to take the time to respond to my questions over email about his longtime collaboration with Talk Talk, his aesthetic and working methods, and what he's working on now. I felt strangely thrilled to hear that he retains the original oil on panel of the Spirit of Eden cover: over eighty years since Walter Benjamin published "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," some sense of the resonance of an original object, created by the artist's hand, still remains.

Spirit of Talk Talk (Rocket 88, 2015)

LKH: What are some of your influences, aesthetically speaking? Are there any artists or movements that have particular importance for you?

JM: As a fledging student, ‘Pushpin Studios' dominated the graphic art scene; that particular group of Americans captured the zeitgeist and had a strong influence on many illustrators and designers at that time, with artists Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and Paul Davis leading the way. There were aspirational influences when I started painting; Magritte, Dali, Botticelli, Picasso, to name a few. However, I’m influenced by everything without wishing to emulate any particular artist, except when attempting a specific pastiche that is. A constant influence on me generally would have to be the Natural World; I’ve always felt an affinity with the ecological aspect of our planet. I think it’s quite easy to identify many parallels in my work, drawn between nature and the human condition. Not only tangible things can have an influence, though: Reading, Walking, Exhibitions or Travel in particular can stimulate ideas just as much; most things are imbued with creative potential for me, even writing this stimulates ideas.

(Left) More Haste, Less Speed - Proverb and (right) Fine Filly - Pastiche after Stubbs by James Marsh

(Left) More Haste, Less Speed - Proverb (Right) Fine Filly - Pastiche after Stubbs

LKH: Following on the previous question: some of your images have a surreal quality, while others seem to call on more mainstream images, like newspaper engravings or illustrations from early natural history texts -- but oddly enough, often from the same era when the Surrealists flourished. Is there something about the early 20th Century that's significant for you, or is that just coincidence?

JM: I admire the Surrealists and the Dada movements but it would be pretentious of me to align myself with those in a literal way. I’ve been called a Chameleon, which is quite apt. But if I had to label myself, it would probably be ‘Solutionist’ or problem solver, as that’s what I am -- when commissioned, at least. I assume your question alludes to the collage work, which is a fairly recent direction in the grand scheme of things. I actually find the 19th century to be ripe for parody more than anything else, particularly the early Photography. From a young age I collected matchboxes, cigarette packs, early advertising, et cetera, and made scrap-books. It’s a practice that’s remained with me and forms part of a personal archive of reference material, to draw on if necessary. I suppose the imagery and iconic designs from such Ephemera has had an accumulative influence. Inevitably all that kind of imagery gradually morphed into the burgeoning ‘Pop' scene back then.

Generally I gravitate towards the ‘50s & ‘60s more than anything in my artistic tastes. I was born after the war, so am a child of the ‘Atomic age’, as it's become known. Following seamlessly behind came the 1960s, creating a seminal and formative environment for me, particularly studying within the creative arts. So naturally all that had a profound effect on my general outlook. I was at art college from 1960-65, moving to ‘Swinging London' in the second half, so I’m indoctrinated by the ’60s. You’ll gather from all this, in association with some of my abstract work -- that it’s part of my DNA make-up. The recent ‘Dylan’ print is a clear manifestation of it -- the impression drawing strongly on subliminal influences from that iconic era. I should add that the circles literally represent discs, reflecting his prolific musical output over the years, with the ‘60s vibe placing him firmly in that decade: the time he burst upon the pop music scene.

Dylan by James Marsh

LKH: When you paint animals -- insects and birds particularly -- you seem to approach your subjects with a naturalist's eye for accurate markings and distinguishing features. I noticed a lecture to an entomological society on your CV. Is natural history part of your formal training or just an interest you've pursued over time?

JM: Nothing formal, but there’s always been an abiding interest. I beg to differ on the approach though! My work has generally been stylised rather than naturalistic, in my mind at least. Anatomical accuracy has never been the main objective, although a representational approach was always a conscious thing. Analytically, this approach acts as a conduit, by way of getting the public to identify instantly with the subject matter, rather than presenting any particular style. After the initial looking, hopefully the viewer is sufficiently engaged to read further into the concept, metaphor or message behind the image. It’s a kind of trap but I propose my work process is more akin to Quantum Mechanics than anything, specifically in the basic principle: that one thing is affected by another to maintain the equilibrium.

Incidentally, the venue for that particular lecture or talk about my work (instigated by the AOI) was just a coincidence, albeit a very happy one for me.

(Left) Pigeon-Holed and (right) Endangered Species by James Marsh

Surrealistic Naturalist / Ephemeral Accumulator c.1980

(Left) Pigeon-Holed - Edition print (Right) Endangered Species - Edition print

LKH: Do you listen to music when you work? Any particular favorites?

JM: I used to listen to music more than I do today. Going through a long phase with Radio 3 and 4, but now, more often than not, I prefer to hear myself think. Sound can get in the way of one’s thoughts, although it can be equally stimulating, if I want to work and listen at the same time. I do like to engage with a music project, though. This enables me to create the right mood or vibe for the project in hand.

I’ve accumulated a large record collection over the years and can dip into that as and when the mood takes me, transporting like an instant ‘time-travel-machine'.

(Left) Summer Sounds and (right) Dawn Chorus by James Marsh

(Left) Summer Sounds - Radio Times cover 1980

(Right) Dawn Chorus - from the Introducing... Talk Talk compilation

LKH: You've illustrated book covers and magazine articles as well as album covers, and many other things, and have worked as a fine artist as well. If this question doesn't strike you as too pretentious, what do you think is the essence of an illustrator's task, and how is it different from that of the fine artist (if at all)?

JM: They are two different things, although there's inevitably some crossover. The concept could be exactly the same behind two different stylistic approaches. An example of that would be the more recent, apparent departure, with my collage work. For me it’s the same thought processes at work, it just so happens to be visually different in style. That's a very conscious decision on my part though, wanting to ring the changes and not be too formulaic or repetitive, even though most of my ideas could be painted in the way I’ve done previously. It necessitates finding a new voice to convey the same message and is also about evolving, given the need to experiment and progress as an all-round artist I suppose.

Le Cage Aux Folles by James Marsh

LKH: To ask the previous question another way (an annoying interviewer's trick, I know!), what is it that allows you to distill a complex idea or set of ideas into a single image? I'm thinking particularly of the covers for Laughing Stock and what became the cover for After the Flood. Do you think it's a matter of training, or more of an ability or way of looking at the world?

JM: For any Artist, it’s all about discovering your own voice or language to convey ideas. That becomes instinctive after a while and inevitably creates a necessary confidence - all of which only works if clients embrace it of course. I’ve always liked metaphors and learned early on as a budding illustrator how to distill ideas into a single image, especially if designing book covers. Cultivating the ability to mentally stand back from something and gain a complete overview comes before deciding how best to convey that vision. It’s not simply the idea in itself, though - Composition, Colour, Style & Presentation all play a part in getting your message across successfully.

Cover artwork for Talk Talk's After The Flood EP by James Marsh

Cover artwork featured on Talk Talk's After the Flood EP

LKH: Your work is so beautifully detailed, down to the drops of dew on the tree in the cover image for Spirit of Eden. Some of that detail gets lost in reproduction, particularly now with the smaller image on CD cover or a digital thumbnail in iTunes format. Do you care, or are you just used to that?

JM: Images can work on many levels, good ones convert to any scale. I’m happy to design to a CD format but the question of scale is an important factor, when comparing the CD format with a twelve inch album. Originally Spirit of Eden was intended for the twelve-inch format; in the process EMI decided to reproduce the image at CD scale, thus diluting the impact greatly - too much white space in that particular instance. Those sorts of things will inevitably happen if you don’t have complete autonomy over the design process. By the way, this image is my biggest print seller - there’s also a large-format sceenprint edition, the image size being four times that of the original artwork, where all the details you mention are amplified rather than diminished.

Cover artwork/print for Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden by James Marsh

LKH: Somewhere in the Spirit of Talk Talk book, Mark Hollis talks about collaborating with you as being a better way to represent the music than the usual photographs of band members in makeup that tended to grace many album covers at the time. Did you get the sense that your long collaboration with Talk Talk was a way for him to push back against the general silliness of eighties pop?

JM: Definitely. It was also a good way of avoiding the typical egocentric approach to album covers at the time -- one which still prevails. The initial concept I created for Talk Talk was literally inspired by the band's name and done prior to even hearing any music. It became a sort of logo and also set the tone for any singles released from that specific album.

Cover artwork for Talk Talk's The Party's Over album (left) and "Today" single (right) by James Marsh

Cover artwork featured on Talk Talk's The Party’s Over and "Today" single

LKH: I read that the original painting for Spirit of Eden was oil on panel -- I think you'd said the substrate was a cabinet door or something like that. It made me curious whether you still have the original work? If not, where is it now?

JM: This is a painting I’ve hung onto, more for personal reasons than anything else; it’s one of those milestone pieces for me. It goes back to the ‘70s when I was considering a career in Fine Art. A personal painting not a commission, although subsequently used, which is always a bonus. Actually it’s painted on an old Tea-chest panel, something discarded that I utilised for the purpose -- I always recycle where possible.

LKH: I get the impression the later paintings are usually acrylic -- do you prefer it to oil? Has your use of materials changed much over the years?

JM: Acrylic became the natural progression for commercial work, with its non-reflective qualities and faster drying times. I have experimented with other mediums: Pencils, Pastel, Watercolour, and Gouache before Oils, but acrylic has been the dominant medium in most of my illustration work. Oils are used in some of the abstract relief works - those are generally labeled - ‘Oils and mixed media’. I also incorporate Painting, Drawing, Graphics and Photography into my digital work. This multi-media approach has become an evolutionary process for me in recent years. But I consider any material fair game, particularly in my personal exhibition work.

(Left) Jetsam and (right) Evolution by James Marsh

LKH: Has the advent of computers changed the way you work? Do you think that sort of technology -- scanners, printers, Photoshop, and so on -- has been good for illustration generally, or not?

JM: Yes to both questions. Technology has given me a lot more creative freedom but it’s also a necessity if you work internationally. Technology doesn’t negate other methods of working; it’s possible to combine both. If I’m doing a physical painting, the work process is unchanged, apart from the obligatory need for a digital file at the end of it; not to mention dissemination via the Internet.

LKH: Are there any illustrators working today whose work you admire?

JM: Yes indeed but it would be wrong to single out a few individuals; there are so many good ones out there. It would be the same answer if you asked me about artists in general and vary depending on the mood I’m in. There’s a lot to embrace and the world is a far better place with the rich variety of creativity in it.

LKH: Your work has often held an environmental or conservationist message, which is a kind of quiet activism. With everything that's going on in the world -- I'm thinking of recent elections both in the US and UK -- do you think the role of the artist has to change?

JM: It’s left to individuals as to how conscious they are regarding change, et cetera, the commercial world being a perfect outlet for cartoonists to respond quickly for example. We all have a responsibility, regarding the environment. I’m very conscious of the world’s ecological problems, I play my part and consciously strive to incorporate messages into my personal work, where it’s free from restraints. Something with content and meaning, something above mere surface, goes a long way. I do have many interests though and don’t feel completely obligated to stick with just one theme or message; some of it may simply be visual puns for example:

(Left) Equilibrium and (right) Sawfish by James Marsh

LKH: You’ve been associated with the music industry, particularly through your work with Talk Talk; are you still active in that particular sphere?

JM: I began my career designing for music companies, the first two jobs after college being with Pye Records and Decca Records, respectively; both giving me an excellent grounding -- designing and laying-out albums or singles, producing ads for music papers or magazine etc. Since then I’ve had an on-off association with the music industry in various ways, but it still remains a creative arena I enjoy working in very much.

I’m often approached by musicians, either established or those wanting to break into the business, invariably because of my association with the band Talk Talk. This has led to some interesting collaborations, which I cherish and sincerely hope it continues. The industry has had its problems in recent years, with downloading and the decline of physical product, although bands or musicians (and most fans) still prefer an actual album or CD as a permanent record, if you pardon the pun. That’s something I’m keen to support personally and do my part by offering a low budget design package, which helps out those artists with the complex process outside of their particular remit. There are various examples of this kind of work in the 'Design' section of my website.

LKH: Are you working on anything interesting now that you'd like to talk about?

JM: Plenty. The various music projects discussed above still continue -- with several interesting collaborations in the pipeline yet to be published. I’ve been exhibiting quite a bit locally over this last year, which keeps me grounded and also puts one’s work into some kind of perspective. The process also helps me think differently because it's outside of any real commercial restraints. Further examples would be my collage work & postcard sets of the same, plus the self-published A-Z artist-edition book - all of which I plan to do more of:

A-Z Book of Animal Verse by James Marsh

I especially like designing logos or creating branding for projects -- there are many examples on my site. Aligned closely to that are my various font designs, accumulated over the past 5 years or so, all available under the foundry name of ‘ArtyType’. It’s something I’m particularly keen on as a designer, because it enables a much more personal approach to my design projects, assuming those fonts also complement the graphics. I especially like the notion that other designers could be using my fonts to enhance their design projects; that’s a very satisfying thought. I’m also trying out selected work on a garment range and other products. This gives me an opportunity to adapt or create for other purposes outside of 2D graphics:

New projects are regularly posted on Twitter & Facebook - if readers care to join my Facebook page and follow any work posts etc. please do so here.

For a more comprehensive look at James Marsh's work, you can visit his official website here.

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