Frank Wootton – illustrator, artist.
Widely hailed as the finest aviation artist of all time, Frank Wootton OBE (1911-1998) is equally well known and regarded for his artistic work in both equestrian and landscape fields. But his skills could be said to have been honed, be they in pencil, oils or in charcoal, during the earlier portion of his career, drawing and painting motor cars.
A Hampshire native, Wootton attended the Eastbourne School of Art, being subsequently awarded a gold medal and a £25 travel scholarship, which he used to tour Germany for a season painting murals. London called and led to a position as a commercial artist in the Grafton Studio. During the mid-1930s, Wootton’s employer pitched for Ford of Dagenham’s promotional business. The carmaker was seeking high quality, American-style illustrations, but most importantly, in colour. Just about to leave the office one evening, Wootton’s boss breathlessly crested the stairs imploring him to get this done ‘before the morning’. Wootton’s all-nighter paid dividends, for Grafton won the Ford contract, keeping them busy for years with many colourful front-page illustrations and adverts.
The Rootes group subsequently came calling but Wootton soon tired of working “like a dog” even if it did entail travel to nice locations, drawing nice cars with nice models. A freelance career beckoned, as did a Grafton retainer for the Rootes work; five pounds a week, easily paying for food and accommodation, which literally kept his hand in.
With war declared, having volunteered for combat duty, Wootton became the official RAF war artist, which led to a complete change in subject matter. Some of his finest artworks would ensue. After hostilities ceased, BOAC flew him wherever they landed, commissioning all manner of flight-centric artwork, in a manner somewhat similar to Americans, Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman, albeit with a decidedly more British flavour. Wootton’s life altered once more when he was offered the Sporting Artist position at UK weekly, The Motor, covering Grands Prix, Le Mans, the Monte Carlo rally et al, which brought him into the orbit of legendary drivers such as Stirling Moss and Juan-Manuel Fangio.
Then a chance to influence a car’s design presented itself in the shape of Jaguar’s William Lyons. Impressed by Wootton’s work, the Jaguar boss had a job for him. “It was the 2.4,” Wootton recalled. “There was a line running along the car which at certain angles appeared kinked and Bill wanted me to iron it out, confident that my artistic skills would be up to mustard.” Adding a new curve to the windscreen along with altering the back end a little, the full size model was set up on two huge wooden beams, the wheels leaning against this “for effect.” The chrome parts were stuck on using plasticine.
Wootton would also get to meet the secretive and mercurial Alec Issigonis while working briefly at Alvis. He described the eminent engineer seated alone in what he described as a “swiss roll of canvas, separate from the rest of the office, working on a secret project.” No more is said of the enigmatic Anatolian, nor the project he worked upon.
Rolls Royce was the next to come calling, seeking artwork for their 1955 S-Type. “Being a commercial secret, I was asked to keep to country lanes when searching for locations to draw it in. I had that car for two weeks. When they sent a man round to collect it, he took ages in making sure I hadn’t scratched it. Three hours passed and Rolls phoned to ask if their chap was still there. An hour after he’d left, I got another call saying he’d wrapped it round a tree. It was to be the last car I got paid to paint.” The commitment to other fields proved stronger.
Amongst those other fields was the eloquently titled 1949 imprint, How to Draw Cars – number 24 in a series of 35. Other Wootton titles in this series would include animals and boats, while number 21 dealt with Technical Illustration. Number 29 involved Drawing to Scale, but my personal favourite has to be number 30, Tree Rhythms in Pencil. How to Draw Cars was written to assist those of an automotive bent in their quest to create beautiful cars. Amid its pages, Wootton maintained that simplicity and a clear methodology were the key to drawing, not just cars but any subject. “There is no formula, no short cuts. I can only direct attention to essentials, it is for the student to study for depth in observation, comparison and calculations.”
This 64-page guide could enliven even a modern-day apprentice’s ideas on the not-at-all simple art of drawing a car. “Imagine the car packed in a crate or as a block of wood. No fancy curves, just an oblong form. Begin lightly, simple outlines, then start at the top and work down, like gravity.”
“Those square corners now have to disappear, the roof dome providing a clear and continuous curve. The waist line now, normally the longest line in a car, runs under the shoulder of the bonnet, below the windscreen base and helps the form of the window base.” How simple it all sounds. “From this waistline, resolve the door pillars and the car’s front.” Not a computer nor App in sight. “By adding a faint centre line, you take into account the rise and fall of the bonnet, the sloping shoulders which aids symmetry, thus determining spacing for headlamps, fairings, etc.”
On the subject of wheels, one should follow this simple rule (as long as one can draw an ellipse!) that “the axis of an ellipse is always at right angles to the axle.” Simple when you know how.
Onto perspective and the subject of foreshortening the subject: “The three quarter view explains the disappearance of the tapering bonnet. Similarly from the front, you lose the rear quarter view which is obvious but often forgotten by the young student.” Wootton also urged an understanding of the three-dimensional form and the use of different perspectives.
Chapter four saw Wootton diving headlong into the ever-shifting world of light and shade. Artists since time immemorial have used such techniques to enhance the subject. Throwing a metallic object into the equation often exacerbates this. Wootton urged the student to “vary the degrees to elaborate form and texture. Experiment with lighting; with overhead light, the top surface or full line of the car is enhanced. Lower the angle of the light to accentuate sides and the front.”
Wootton also elicits deeper thoughts: those fleeting glimpses in passing traffic, sunlit cars against those in shadow, the dark, brooding mass of a shadowed car against a gleaming backdrop. All can have a discernible effect, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. This is for the artist to choose, unless of course one’s paymasters consider otherwise: “Draw it again, boy, and this time make our car look better!”
In the main, cars are made of metal, then painted and, in the case of presentations or advertising, made very shiny indeed. Even the shabbiest, most patinated of vehicles were once pristine. This brings in the next level of depth to the drawing, that of reflections. Heed these words, “all tones are modified when reflected; the lights are darker and the darks lighter.”
Wootton Urges the artist to study reflections, and to consider the environment the car inhabits. In a cityscape, buildings cast dark shadows but in open country the sky is, quite literally, the limit. But another warning follows, “The less laboured your drawing, the more faithful it will be. You do not have to faithfully copy everything you see. Use some artistic license, gain confidence and produce a more convincing final piece.”
Of course these days, appropriate software can simulate all of this in seconds on screen. But where’s the soul, the skill? I understand that some designers still use pencil and paper before transferring their images to screen, then onto clay and, finally, a mock-up. And we’ve all the seen some unsavoury instances of using generated light to enhance a particular vehicle. I do believe Mr. Wootton would not be impressed.
But underlining that he was of a former time, Wootton then asks the artist to study details such as, “door handles, steering wheel and stalks, side or running lights along with the sporting man’s additional Rallye lights.” Have you seen any of the latter on your modern car? “A piece will yield most good by being watched and drawn in your own imagination until this becomes so familiar that the design’s essence seems to detach itself. That my friend, is the piece to draw.”
Should the car become somewhat inert in its surroundings, why not place an open door or a figure entering or alighting? Again, viewpoints determine the interest (or in modern parlance, dynamics) of using such an approach. “Linking so closely is the composition of the piece, be concerned with what you are trying to achieve. As the car is usually the centre of attention, don’t waste time making the trees or street scene just as detailed for this will detract from the model.” And who would wish to upset that star attraction?
Having guided us seamlessly through the basics of how to draw a car, Wootton closes not only the chapter but the whole book by offering, “Do not try to develop a method or style; these are abstractions to the job at hand which is merely how to draw.” Regrettably, Frank Wootton’s style of drawing has now become a lost art, along with the patience to sit and wait for a drawing to be completed.
But the story doesn’t quite end there. Wootton was also a keen motorist, purchasing a 1913 Morris Oxford Bullnose, registration plate CF 1177, for the princely sum of £100 in 1950 from Eastbourne Morris agency, Parkinson and Polson. Having originally been owned by a certain Arthur Conan Doyle, the car had been loitering in the rear of the garage for years, one of the old boys remarking that he’d driven it back in the late twenties.
After evicting a family of mice which had been residing there and giving the carburettor a once-over, the Morris started first time, subsequently taking Wootton and his wife on many a jaunt. The Bullnose even won him a prize for the ownership of the oldest Morris then known, the prize being a brand new 1958 Morris Minor, presented by the Duke Of Bedford. Needless to say, Wootton also immortalised the Bullnose, drawing it in loving detail for a 1950 edition of The Queen.
Wootton had always been involved in charity work. During the war he sketched fellow servicemen for a pound a head, raising £250 for the Wings For Victory fundraiser. His Lancastrian commanding officer commended his work, observing, “Play your cards right, lad, and you might get a job drawing on’t pier.”
We conclude with words from Wootton himself, a fitting epitaph. “The experienced artist is not conscious of working in stages, only when asked to explain the process. A thing will yield up when observed and drawn in imagination. When that becomes so familiar, the essence of design becomes detached. That is the the thing to draw.”
Fitting then, that at Wootton’s funeral in Sussex, April 1998, a Spitfire performed a victory roll.
 William Lyons received a knighthood in 1956.
 The 2.4 saloon became retrospectively known as the Mark 1, precursor to the more illustrious 1959 Mark 2.
 Alec Issigonis was knighted in 1969.
 The Queen: The Ladies Newspaper and Court Chronicle was established in 1862, aimed towards the female aristocracy in the UK. It went through a number of derivations over the ensuing decades, which included Harpers & Queen to the current Harpers Bazaar.
Data sources: How to Draw Cars, faded Newspaper articles from 2007 and Classic Car Weekly 14/04/1993.