With a bag so heavy it could dislocate my arm by the time I reach Cardiff, I board the train. Today I’m in at the deep end. I try to write and I try to read during the journey to the Welsh capital, but all I can think of is the blank wall that awaits me this afternoon.
I’m working with an interior-design company that has been tasked with revamping The Flora, a pub that has shifted its target market slightly. The décor now has to appeal the student population of the city. So the usual buzzwords are sent my way. They’re looking for ‘edgy, urban, sketchy and loose,’ which to all intents and purposes have become literary bat-symbols in the sky for the Ben Tallon ink based, energetic trademark visual style.
The difference this time is, I have never applied my full illustrative style to a canvas so big, exposed to the elements and under the watchful eyes of Welsh electricians. So first, I drag out a series of wardrobe panels from the far corner of the studio, stashed away for such an emergency. I apply ink, paint and trial a few ideas at 1/3 scale of the wall at The Flora. It dries fast and seems to be permanently fixed. Next, I call two graffiti artist friends before asking Google if Indian ink dries permanently, just to be safe.
With this homework done, I call up the client, talk confident, assure them that yes, I am the man and you will have the local undergraduates scaling the wall to drink and eat at the Flora, basking in the turquoise and yellow glow of my mural, which will be worthy of Michelangelo.
Now, as the train thunders through Newport and fellow passengers start unplugging their devices in Orwellian unison, the nerves begin. Have I bitten off more than I can chew, or will this relative gamble prove to be the opening up of a whole new market? I am determined to make it the latter and I sincerely hope that my preparation will pay off.
Circumnavigating stepladders, drills, paint splattered dustsheets and humans, I unpack my emulsion, spray paint, brushes and ink. Lastly, I reveal my A4 mockup of the work I will attempt to create. The first marks are always the worst. My design features a huge, warped, slightly crazed looking Pikachu and a dismayed punk watching a scene of modern culture madness and the electricians have noticed it. One of them tells me his daughter ‘bloody loves it’ and this adds to the pressure that nobody, including the client knows I’m feeling.
Before lunch, I’ve passed the most intense test you’ll be faced with when working on a project you’re unaccustomed to. Getting something done that you like the look of changes everything in your favour. I think that deep down, I had confidence, but it was not supported by experience of successful examples, so only my mouth and professional trust placed in me had won me this job. With a base colour and strong black ink outline-drawing in place before breaking, I breathe out, relieved that my belief that I could do this was accurate.
Three days later, the work is complete and the workmen gather around, crowing about it, taking photographs on their mobile phones. Now I can confidently take on any large-scale interior design work at a time when demand is high. There’s always that first time, the pilot. The key is to practice, properly prepare and only gamble if you have put insurance policies in place. There are many occasions when someone asks if I can do something I’ve never done before. Instinct is a great guide in this instance. There have been times when I have made the wrong call, roaming too far outside of my comfort zone despite a pang of anxiety and committing to something that was either stylistically incompatible or set up to fail from the get-go, which would have been obvious had I properly done my homework.
Calculated risk is something we’ll all take at some stage, but it is key to be honest with yourself and the client, not afraid of a challenge, but also open about your own limitations. The client initially asked for a recognizable iconic portrait and at the scale of the wall, with such a definite brief with no margin for error. The risk was huge, with embarrassing consequences. I explained and showed what might work better, having only done portraits at a much smaller scale. In the end, we were all delighted and I have now started to promote my new asset. To take on work and do it badly is far more destructive than making clear the situation at hand before contracts are exchanged, even if that means allowing the work to pass you by.