Friday, 4 March 2011

New Saliva Tree

Yesterday I finally finished work on the largest illustration I’ve ever undertaken. It’s a completely new and updated ‘Saliva Tree’ featuring three hundred small portraits spread out across three metres of miniscule detail. Tomorrow it goes on display for the first time at East Grinstead’s Chequer Mead Arts Centre, as part of the group exhibition ‘Telling Tales’.

This time round the ‘Saliva Tree’ takes as its starting point the singer and reality star Peter Andre. Beginning with his twin connections to Katie Price aka Jordan, and Mel B aka Scary Spice, you can follow the lines of saliva through various marriages, divorces and affairs – and see in diagram form how Peter connects to a former US president, to the great and the good of classic Hollywood, to French New Wave movie stars… and of course to Kathy off Emmerdale.

Why Peter Andre?’, I hear you ask. Well, as with Carol McGiffin – the subject of my previous Saliva Tree – I knew the piece would only have impact if I could succeed in connecting a UK star with a wealth of Hollywood greats. This time round I wanted to pick a bloke. And significantly, given the fact that Andre lives close to East Grinstead, where the work will be initially hung, I thought I could take advantage of a local connection.

The sheer time and effort involved in this piece of work is the main reason why both my text and sketch-blogs have been severely malnourished since Christmas (and why I haven’t had a weekend off or a social life of any desciption in that entire period). Allow me to explain just a little… The process of making each portrait starts by finding a reference pic for each celebrity – easier said than done. Sometimes it can be quite tough to find a photo in good light that actually looks like the subject.

In one of my many rather odd PJF superstitions, I always re-size the face to the dimensions of a quarter page reference pic of serial killer Dennis Nilsen which I keep on my desktop. This was the first portrait I produced for my ‘Numbers’ book in early 2009, and it’s a pretty perfect mugshot view of an ordinary face. I know if I keep these rough proportions all the celebrities will fall into size harmony.

I draw a large version of each face, in a combination of light-box tracing and eyeballing. Then I shrink each portrait by about 50% and retrace it on the light box. This is a kind of ‘distillation’ process that allows me to reduce the face down to its necessary line essentials. (This necessitated drawing 300 portraits twice over… that’s already a basic 600 drawings.)

Some faces were tough nuts to crack – Jason Donovan took me about six goes. Edward Norton took me four or five.

Probably more taxing than the donkey-work of portraiture were the twin challenges of research and layout. For research I couldn’t and wouldn’t just rely on the likes of wikipedia. I consulted quite a few celebrity biographies in the library and paid close attention to fan-sites. Some of the romantic connections at first seemed too outlandish to believe. Did Brad Pitt seriously date 80s pop singer (and X-Factor helper) Sinitta? Apparently so - the photographic proof is out there. Did George Clooney really spend years dating Lisa, the Capital FM breakfast DJ? There’s loads of evidence out there - it’s pretty much beyond doubt. The challenge wasn’t how to find out about enough potential connections, the real challenge was to exercise some restraint and editing skills to make sure the tree was in some sense (don’t laugh) scholarly and truthful. If I’d believed internet rumours I could easily have connected Liam Neeson to Brooke Shields to Dodi al Fayed – and from him to the British Royal Family, which could have led me to a royal line of saliva stretching all the way back to William the Conqueror.

Laying the faces out fairly evenly across the available space was another very taxing challenge. Certain celebrities form ‘hubs.’ From their faces sprout a multitude of connections. Warren Beatty is an example - this bloke makes Russell Brand look like Susan flipping Boyle. If you believe half of what the gossip pages tell you, he has managed to cross-generationally shag half of Hollywood, from Madonna to Joan Collins, via dozens besides. Finding adequate room to fit his connections on a page without the whole thing becoming an unreadable mess of criss-crossing lines was indeed a challenge.

Originally I tried to plan the tree out in analogue fashion, by sticking five A1 sheets on the wall of my flat. Every night after work I’d try to spend an hour shifting faces around, chess-match-style, on the life-size maquette. The portraits weren’t ready, so ‘stand-in’ portraits had to suffice. For these I used one sketch of the Queen Mother, printed 300 times and captioned with the relevant celeb names. It didn’t seem insane until the day the plumber called round to discover me with a lounge wall festooned with miniature Queen Mother portraits. I’m surprised the men in white coats didn’t come to take me away.

I quickly gave up on the analogue route, to explore a no-less nutty way of planning it out – a humungous digital file, with 300 lo-res portraits, each face on a separate named photoshop layer. This was time consuming to create, but necessary because each face had to be readily moveable – every time you moved a face on the chart, all the attendant connections had to move as well. Would it surprise you to learn that I shed real tears over these preparatory versions?

I finally dropped the files off to the printers yesterday, and I’m intensely relieved to have finished the task. Our show runs at Chequer Mead Arts Centre in East Grinstead until March 15th- private view on Saturday 5th March, 1.30 to 7.30.


  1. Wow Peter that's some very impressive work! Loved reading about the process too, very interesting.

  2. Wish I was there to see it Peter. Looks and sounds amazing. Good luck with the show. Simon