For Carnoustie illustrator Gary Burley, drawing is as much about storytelling as it is about artistry.
He first hit headlines in 2017 for his page-by-page illustrated copy of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – a project which he embarked on a full 27 years beforehand and kept up through jobs in kitchens and coalmines, and even through a period of homelessness.
Now, Gary has now caught the art world’s attention again, this time for his second book-inspired piece – an impressive pen-and-ink illustration of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which has become the first article added to the National Museum of Scotland’s Inspiring Walter Scott collection in more than 50 years.
But the Angus-based artist didn’t really set out to honour the 19th Century novelist – it all started much more simply, with his dad.
Legacy of loving literature
“When I was a kid, my dad had a 150-year-old old book on Ivanhoe. It was his favourite novel, and this book had amazing pictures in it,” explains Gary, whose love for old-fashioned, beautiful books is palpable even on the phone.
“I’ve got three major books I want to do – one was my granddad’s favourite, one was my dad’s favourite, and one was my favourite, which was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
“Now I’ve done my dad’s favourite, but this time instead of illustrating each page, I just did the cover and a big poster.”
(His granddad’s favourite, for those wondering, is All Quiet On The Western Front, and he intends to tackle that next.)
Raphael, Kurosawa and… the Mandalorian?
The poster, which depicts a violent duel from the novel, took three months to create during the pandemic. And his determination to get it exactly right meant Gary didn’t even put pen to paper for the first month.
“It took a month to do all the research,” he explains, “and then it took another month to actually do.
“Because the picture’s so large, I had to draw the horses and the knights separately and place them over one another on a lightbox.”
The research phase involved Gary collating all his inspirations, which ranged from 15th Century Raphael sketches to Disney’s The Mandalorian, in a quest to do justice to the high drama of the scene he was depicting.
“I wanted to do something different,” he says decisively. “I really like the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, his fluid motion and composition.
“If you look at the picture, one horse is rearing up, the other is nosediving. As the rain’s coming down in one direction, the winds are blowing in another.
“I wanted to whole thing to look like a vortex of violence, like Akira Kurosawa.”
He also took inspiration from the Sir Walter Scott monument in Edinburgh – though interestingly, he started drawing the monument long before this project.
“I really like the helmet on the Sir Walter Scott monument of Ivanhoe. His helmet looks a lot like the Mandalorian helmet,” Gary observes.
“And when I started drawing the Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea), I made the front of the submarine like the Ivanhoe helmet.
“Then when I came to do Ivanhoe, it was a straight choice – I had to use that helmet again on Ivanhoe.
“But that was the only tie into the monument, everything else clothing-wise was 12th Century.”
The final area of inspiration was similarly unexpected, showing that Gary’s style is very much of his own making.
“I didn’t want to do realistic shrubbery,” he states, citing a drawing by 15th Century Italian master Raphael as his reference for the foliage in his picture.
“Renaissance paintings don’t have that realistic look to them, and I wanted the whole thing to look like Renaissance painting.”
‘Extreme colouring in’
As for actually putting the picture together, pen-and-ink artist Gary likens the process to “defusing a bomb”.
“With that much work, I have to get it right first time when I ink it in,” he says. “And the inking in was so scary, every single minute of that picture you could screw it up.
“It was like defusing a bomb! You’re scared of making one wrong move because that’s the picture gone.”
But why, one has to wonder, use such a risky medium? For self-deprecating Gary, the answer is easy.
“Probably because I’m an idiot!” he jokes,
“You know there are those people who take risks with extreme sports? Well I suppose working with pen and ink is an extreme way of colouring in.
“It seeming impossible to do makes it more fun.”
‘If you’re doing it for the love of it, you’re always testing yourself’
And it seems like Gary has a knack for the impossible. Though he’s not “raking in the money” as he puts it, and he does most of his work from his living room rather than a formal studio, he’s had an impressive – sometimes astounding – career in a field which is notoriously difficult to break into.
From meeting his boyhood hero Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) and having him compliment his work – “that was like all my Christmases came together” – to working for acclaimed comic book publishers 200AD, he’s reached heights most artists only dream of.
Yet Gary remains surprised and grateful for every opportunity that comes his way.
“With the Ivanhoe poster, that drew the attention of a guy who works for Ridley Scott as a special effects artist,” he says incredulously. “And that got round the community and Stefan Lange, the other cinematographer on Skyfall, noticed me!
“Then (online art gallery) Saatchi and Saatchi contacted me and put me on their webpage. So I’ve had quite a bit of notice because of it.
“But,” he insists, “I’m still just doing it for the love of it. If you’re just doing it for the love of it, you’re always testing yourself.”
A very ‘inspiring’ Walter Scott
With such wise words, it’s easy to see how someone like Gary has found his way into the National Museum’s highly-anticipated Walter Scott exhibition.
In a moment of serendipity, his drawing came to fruition at the same time as the display was being put together.
And in keeping with his down-to-earth approach, Gary simply emailed curator Anna Groundwater and asked “if she might be interested in my drawing”.
“I saw that they were doing a 250th anniversary last year of Ivanhoe, just by chance,” he explains.
“So I sent the picture along to her, and they jumped on it straight away. Then it was just a case of going through all the processes so they could put it in the museum.”
And last month, in a real dream-come-true moment, Gary and his family went to see his work unveiled in the Edinburgh museum’s display alongside .
“The main centre case is the one with my picture in,” he admits sheepishly. “Along with a quote from the book, which I didn’t know, because I actually haven’t fully read the book! But it perfectly matched the picture.”
National Museums Scotland welcomed the addition, with a spokesperson saying: “We were delighted when Gary contacted us to tell us about his Ivanhoe artwork, and we’re very pleased with how the reproduction of it looks in our current display, Inspiring Walter Scott.
“The display is all about how real historical objects inspired Scott in his fiction. It’s really nice to think that they have also inspired this piece of art.”
Inspiring Walter Scott is running at the National Museum of Scotland until January 9 2022.