The Social Artist

Add more to your reading experience, listen to this playlist of Steve Bonello's favourite songs whilst reading this feature on him.

"I don’t really know.”

The creative process is an extremely personal, complex endeavour and Steve Bonello is hardly the first artist to find it difficult to explain how he works.  Still, his hesitation comes as something of a surprise.  After all this is a man who has produced a cartoon for the Sunday Times every week for twenty five years – not to mention a whole host of drawings – so, if there is someone who should have an established and documented working system, it is him.

As it turns out, that is the case and all that was needed was a few moments of reflection.  Indeed, far from being a capricious artist of myth, he is actually quite regimented in his approach.

“I use To Do Lists quite a bit,” he admits.  “In fact, if I don’t take an item off my list after five days I start to panic a bit.”

The process, however, involves more than that.  Essentially he lets the canvas talk to him.  “When I’m working I’m lost in a world of my own.  Sometimes, however, after working for ten days on a project I then have no ideas on what to do next.  That for me is torture.  Then I spend a couple of days sketching repeatedly, trying different ideas until something comes to emerge.”

Bonello’s drawings are unique both in style and execution.  He freely admits that “I don’t really focus on the backgrounds.  I know that I could produce and sell many drawings if I included more Maltese scenery in the background.  But, to be honest, I can’t be bothered.”  Instead his focus is on the characters where he exaggerates commonplace habits and Maltese peculiarities.

It could also be argued that Bonello doesn’t draw in the traditional sense.  Instead his style is closer to that of graphic novel artists who colours the panels.  Where Bonello is unique is in the way he does this: by painstakingly filling in the blank spaces with coloured lines.  Shadows and movement are hinted at by drawing lines closer to each other.

Turns out that his is an exceptionally effective (if, by his admission, an occasionally tedious one) approach that results in extremely vibrant illustrations.

Still, his free use of colour does not signify that his subjects are necessarily happy ones.  “It is my sketching that decides.  Will it be something light or dark?  Sometimes I am playful in my drawing because I feel playful.  But I have to admit that I do like the dark side.  I also like a bit of storytelling.  A lot of my work is storytelling; it tells a story.”

All of this is a big departure from his first attempts that largely involved drawing inanimate objects.  “In secondary school I was fixated with building cathedrals.  I used to draw churches and architectural drawings,” he says of his those early attempts that were so similar to blueprints that “my teacher wanted me to become an architect”.

Experiment, rather than study, was his main mode of instruction.  “I used to attend the School of Arts but that was largely because there was a group of people with whom I got on really well.  We organised an exhibition in 1984 so by that time I must have felt confident enough to take part in an exhibition.  Looking back, I think that I was a bit presumptuous.”

That year turned out to be a pivotal one for Bonello.  “I was in London walking along the Southbank.  I could see that on the other side of the Thames there was some kind of celebration going on so I crossed to see what was going on.”

“There I came across a fantastic exhibition.  I saw the work of Ralph Steadman – who I had never heard of before – and it was something incredible.”

To say that Steadman, a British artist who was a favourite of Hunter S Thompson and provided a great the illustrations that went along with the great American writer’s work, had a deep impact on Bonello is something of an understatement.

“It was the first time that I noticed that cartoons weren’t just some simple drawings but you could make a statement through them.  It was my introduction to the idea that cartoons can be more than a simple gag; that it can be bigger than that.  To do this kind of work…” his voice tails off as he tries to convey the magnitude of Steadman’s work.

“He was a huge influence on me,” he says, eventually.

Rather than in the actual style of drawing, that influence is more visible in Bonello’s social commentary particularly that which comes through in his cartooning.

“The biggest advantage that cartoons have is that whilst it may take fifteen minutes to read an article you can get the message of a cartoon immediately.  Obviously this creates its own challenges because in those thirty seconds you have to put your message across.”

“People either get it or it falls flat on its face!”

The other big challenge of a cartoonist who, like him, has a regular column is the need to come up with ideas every week.  “The ideas…I don’t know where they come from.  I always say that the cartoon is there; a cartoon exists about any situation.  You have to pick it up.  Sometimes ideas come out of the blue.”

“Sometimes I have an idea for a cartoon that I leave simmering before I start working on it.  Thankfully I’m not under pressure over what I work on.  I wouldn’t like it otherwise.  Freedom to fire in all directions is nice.”

Not least because this freedom allows him to do the kind work that he loves.

“I see myself as an observer.  I don’t condemn or judge.  I simply observe.   It isn’t a case of being afraid but, rather, one where I don’t feel that I’m in a position to judge.  I try to leave everyone feel free to make their own judgements.”

That is, partly, also why he does not do caricatures.  “When I’m working on a cartoon, I largely do it digitally.  You have a huge advantage that you can fix things.  My life became much easier when I discovered what I could do digitally.”

“Faces, however, I sketch and rarely do I create them online.  Most of the time I do a few sketches until I feel that I have a likeness.  Still, it isn’t something I enjoy doing.”

“I do get commissions but nine times out of ten I refuse them.  I find it hard to match my style with what the client is expecting.  And if the client isn’t seeing a likeness or they aren’t liking what they’re seeing then it isn’t much sense in doing them.  It becomes a waste of time.”

Time – and using it well - is a critical for Bonello especially as for the past few years he has been living solely off the money he makes from his cartooning and illustrating.  It was a decision that was partly forced on him when he was made redundant from his previous job but that has turned out to be a blessing in disguise seeing that it has granted him even more freedom.

“I always saw work – your daily job – as a necessary evil.  Then, in the evenings after work you could start to live.  At my parent’s home I used to have a small coffee table and I would crouch on the floor to draw on it, yet I used to be extremely comfortable.”

“I’m hugely influenced by the weather.  When I can I try to go out for a three or four hour walk.  I study closely weather predictions to plan whether and when I can go out for a walk.”

“You have that freedom (when you’re freelancing).  I remember when I used to work that Thursdays would invariably be beautiful days and then the weather would turn, caging me inside for the weekend.  That was extremely frustrating.”

“This freedom is the biggest gain.  You have a number of setbacks.  You end up talking to yourself, you’re living by yourself.  Still that freedom is priceless.  You know that you have work to do but you’re in control over how you do it.”

“I don’t watch any television,” he says, continuing on his schedule.  “I read a lot.  I have to be reading because otherwise I don’t sleep.  Don’t get me wrong, however.  I do waste time.  There are things like Facebook and news sites of which I’m a junkie.”

This can be a bit of a problem especially as Bonello seems to be perpetually updating his Facebook feed.  “It [the internet] is essential when you work on your own,” explaining how it is something of a coping mechanism.  “At least you can talk to people through Facebook.  So much that when the internet is down I leave my studio and go outside.”

“Don’t forget that sometimes you will see an innocuous comment on Facebook and it triggers a good cartoon.  Quite possibly the person who made it didn’t even mean it to be funny but it sparks a thought process.”

“I do find it important to read people’s Facebook feeds to see what their views are.  I won’t say that newspapers have become redundant but media has become richer thanks to social media.    Everyone can publish their thoughts which was not possible fifteen, twenty years ago.”  I don’t mention that there are quite a few thoughts which should go unpublished.

Bonello’s own Facebook feed is a mixture of comments, update from his work and photographs from his famous walks.  The latter, and his ability to capture the beauty of Maltese countryside seems to be a recent addition to his artistic library.

“I like photography a great deal but I don’t know the first thing about it and I resist learning.  There have been plenty of people who have tried teaching me but I don’t want to.  I’ve only got the most basic of ideas.  Most of the time I choose a setting and don’t change it because I know that I will be getting a decent photo.”

“The irony is that what I capture in photography I would never draw.  I’m not inspired by landscapes.”

A further irony is that Bonello knows the Maltese islands better than anyone I’ve ever come across.  “You’d be surprised; there are those who know it better,” he says modestly before admitting.  “I know it pretty well.”

“I’m curious.  First of all I started driving pretty late on, when I was 38.  This meant that I used to travel a lot by bus.  Secondly I’m the kind of person who, if I’m going to Ghajn Tuffieha and on the way spot a sign for a place called ‘Tal-Palma’ I have to go to that place.  And if there are side lanes in a road I have to see them all.  I’m very curious.  I’ve been practically everywhere in Malta.  I’ve even walked at the feet of Dingli Cliffs a couple of times.”

It is that curiosity, rather than any formal training that has led to his maturity as an artist.  “I’ve always been curious.   Every time I come across the work of an artist that I like I look to learn more about them.  A classic case for me is Modigliani.  At first I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about but eventually I came to appreciate the beauty of his work; the economy with which he drew yet still made such an impression.”

“I think that was the idea behind Systems of Knowledge, to get people curious and appreciate art – among other things – more.  Then exams were introduced and that kind of defeats the scope.  One of my pet theories is that art shouldn’t be taught in school except to young children who enjoy drawing and come up with ideas that we adults can’t conceive.”

“I don’t agree that you keep forcing art on students up to Form 2.  My opinion is to introduce art appreciation.”

Feeding that curiosity and appreciation, however, becomes difficult when you look at the current situation of art in Malta with most of the work of contemporary artists being housed in private exhibitions.  “Maltese museums are extremely lacking (foqra mmens) in the modern idiom.  Take Antoine Camilleri, a great of Maltese modern art, how many pieces does he have in museums? One? Two?”

“Part of the problem is that this is a baroque island.  You cannot escape that.  And you have people, even artists and sculptures, who are stuck in that idiom.  It is as if in the subconscious of the Maltese there is the idea that baroque is the high point of art.  If you take your average Maltese, that is what they understand.”

“Then you have the poverty of interesting twentieth century artists who are missing from museums.  You have some big ironies li Josef Calleja, one of the most spiritual of artists, who doesn’t have any work in Maltese churches.”

Another irony is that, whilst modern art is missing from museums, it is very popular on Maltese roundabouts.  “That is a positive.  The grasshopper that there is in Gozo (Ghajnsielem) is one of the most interesting works of modern art.  So too Andrew Diacono’s Three Graces that in my opinion is one of the most beautiful work that there is.”

“At least there’s something.”

“However when it comes to official art we go all safe.”

Thankfully, at the same time there has been an upturn in people’s appreciation for art.

“I think that attitudes are changing.  There are encouraging signs.  I’ve had buyers who are in their twenties and thirties.  I had someone who was around twenty who bought a piece off me.  She paid in installments but that’s very encouraging.”

“Now, there are some people who will buy a picture because someone else bought an original painting.  But there are people who will insist on originals even though you tell them that there are prints.”

“For some people hearing that a piece costs €600 or €1,000 is a bit of a shock.   But if someone has done a piece of work that is very good and, in my case, has spent ten days on it, don’t expect me to work for €50.  But even here I think that attitudes are changing.”

All of that is hugely encouraging.  Still, is there any lingering disappointment over not having listened to the advice received all those years back and taken up architecture?

“No, because in Malta what are you going to come up with?  It is hard to be creative.  You see some of Richard England’s work and they are amazing.  But I think that being an architect in Malta is a very frustrating life because all that most people want is to go for the cheapest possible work.”

For more on Steve Bonello's work visit his site or follow him on Facebook.  An abridged version of this article originally appeared on The Escape, the cultural supplement of the Times of Malta.