A line around Winchester with artist Simon Harmer

King Alfred Monument

King Alfred Monument - Credit: Archant

Sandra Smith chats to local artist Simon Harmer about his latest obsession with linear drawings

Simon Harmer

Simon Harmer - Credit: Archant

I guess, like me, you probably couldn’t come up with a connection between New York and Winchester, either culturally or from an historical viewpoint, and you would surely struggle to find a common denominator between the two cities in terms of architecture. The American giant is, after all, contemporary in style and known for its iconic sky scrapers. Winchester, on the other hand, as England’s ancient capital, boasts more yesteryear than the whole of the east coast of the US put together. So I was intrigued to learn how a trip to the first of these cities led artist Simon Harmer to create a beautifully illustrated book about the second. He recently took time out from his duties at his creative agency, Marmalade on Toast, to enlighten me.

Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral - Credit: Archant

“The Chrysler building is one of my favourite buildings and I thought it would be lovely to sketch it from a photograph. Since then, to develop an interest outside of work, I’ve been sketching stuff around me.”

Simon’s passion for art began at an early age and although creative influences in his childhood were largely motivated by his love of comics, he also recalls a time at junior school when he drew a picture of one of his classmates sitting on a table.

“Actually, my mom showed me the drawing a few years ago and I think it’s pretty good. I was only seven at the time but it looks like it’s been drawn by a 15 year old.”

With encouragement from his family – his mother’s side had always been artistic and his grandfather was a good amateur painter – as well as teachers at senior school, Simon gradually developed his skill. After studying Art at A Level, he embarked on a two year Junior Foundation Course in Shrewsbury before heading for Portsmouth University at the age of 21 to do a degree in Illustration.

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that someone with such a natural talent would also have a specific career lined up. Yet this certainly wasn’t the case with Simon.

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“On my last day of university my flatmate asked me what I was going to do next. I said I hadn’t a clue; in fact, I hadn’t even thought about it.”

Thankfully, however, this friend had slightly more ambition. Declaring his intention to turn Simon into a famous artist he found them both a job with a local company. Simon picks up the tale: “A property development company needed a logo. I didn’t know what a logo was! I completed that first job by hand but then the two of us set up a design company. For a few years we worked part time in a pub together and in the evenings designed stuff for companies. I bought a computer and graphics package and taught myself. Eventually we secured a business loan and our venture grew from there.”

Browsing through Simon’s book I’m intrigued by his distinctive, linear drawings. The style richly details historical landmarks. The chosen buildings may be rigid in structure, but fluid lines breathe life into their shape and form. Simon has clearly developed a fondness for the city he moved to 10 years ago and this is reflected in his illustrative tribute. But I’m interested to know how he worked on these drawings. Did it involve days camped out on cobbled streets with easel and sketch books?

“Actually, I always draw from photographs. Then I work on each one a bit at a time, maybe on the train if I’m going to London or at the kitchen table once I’ve put my children to bed. It’s a labour of love. I’m drawn to anything linear and intricate, and at the same time fascinated by older architecture.”

Simon confesses that he has always had an affinity for black and white sketches yet he has developed his own trademark by adding a single block of colour to each of the Winchester images. The Guildhall’s clock tower, for instance, with its copper roof these days tending towards green, is highlighted. Similarly, the pedestal upon which King Alfred stands is infused with muted yellow. The result is effective without detracting from the underlying simplicity of each representation.

The project took about a year to complete and Simon secured a market in advance by persuading both the local Council and Waterstones to sell copies. And now, such is Simon’s passion for his latest project, he’s keen to embark on a whole sequence of books covering other British cities. These will hopefully include Salisbury, Portsmouth, Bath, Oxford, Cambridge and Shrewsbury. In fact, I get the impression he’s already set aside time to fit the work in to his schedule. Not that this is his sole ambition. A children’s book has been on Simon’s agenda “for years” and he’d also like to devote more time to painting, particularly portraits of children, though finding the opportunity what with work commitments, a growing family and his love of football, is a continuing challenge.

Before my time with this charmingly talented artist comes to an end he’s keen to share some advice from a teacher which continues to influence his work: the 80-20 rule. For a moment, I’m stumped. My appreciation of art, after all, doesn’t extend to knowledge of the techniques involved. Simon explains: “While drawing, an artist should spend 80% of their time looking at whatever it is they are trying to represent, and only 20% focused on the paper. Making mistakes isn’t a problem because they have a beauty of their own. After all, if the line isn’t perfectly straight, it doesn’t matter.”


Buy the book

A Line Around Winchester is available at Waterstones stores in The Brooks and High Street, Winchester.