Lights are Darker, Darks Lighter

Frank Wootton – illustrator, artist. 

A Frank Wootton advertising illustration for Rootes. Image: Motoringart

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. 

From ‘How to Draw Cars’. Image: Motoringart

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[1]. Impressed by Wootton’s work, the Jaguar boss had a job for him. “It was the 2.4,”[2] 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[3] 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.

Image: Motoringart

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.”

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“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!”

Image: The author

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.”

From ‘How to Draw Cars’. Image: Motoringart

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.

Image: Motoringart

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[4].

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.

[1] William Lyons received a knighthood in 1956.

[2] The 2.4 saloon became retrospectively known as the Mark 1, precursor to the more illustrious 1959 Mark 2. 

[3] Alec Issigonis was knighted in 1969.

[4] 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.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

12 thoughts on “Lights are Darker, Darks Lighter”

  1. Good morning Andrew. What a nice feature for a Saturday morning, and what an interesting life Mr Wootton must have enjoyed, using his gift for drawing and painting so productively.

    My favourite image of those you feature is the pencil drawing of the racing car, where he has captured the energy and dynamism of the scene brilliantly, even though the background is highly impressionistic, leaving the viewer to imagine and fill in the details. Are those people standing on a high bank to the left, watching the car speed by? One sees what one needs to see to bring the image to life.

    There’s also a lovely peaceful and strangely bucolic atmosphere to the illustration of the garage: a place of industry and activity, but with the timeless village scene captured in the background. Lovely stuff!

  2. I well remember Autocar magazine in the 50s/60s, when the advertisement on the front cover was by an artist rather than a photographer. Those boys could make a Morris Minor look as long as a Buick…

  3. You’re in fine form this morning, Andrew! A delightful start to the day. I was given a copy of “How to draw cars” as a child and didn’t really appreciate it at the time; in the thinly-disguised actual cars I saw only the details that were (deliberately I now realise) ‘wrong’. So thank you for making me appreciate what a skilled – and thoughtful – chap Frank Wootton was.

  4. Thank you so much Andrew for this article on Mr Wootton;
    One of my neighbors gave me the same little “How to draw cars” book as he knew of my interest in cars and drawing them; in one of several moves in my life the book got lost unfortunately, but looking at the photos here now takes me back to when I was about twelve years old. I was amazed at how lifelike the cars looked in his drawings, even though they did not have the ultra-realistic (well, apart from the ahem “enhanced proportions”) appearance of Kaufman and Fitzpatrick’s work with which I would become acquainted a few years later. The book also helped me in bettering my knowledge of the English language and I remember consulting the diary on more than one occasion to better understand what he was saying.
    How to draw cars, and AF/VK s well, helped me a lot in sharpening my drawing skills and developing an own style of sorts (it also confronted me with the limitations of my drawing talent however) and now that this article has reminded me of those days I will be on the lookout for a copy of the book for nostalgia’s sake.
    By the way, another artist that worked in roughly the same timeframe as Mr Wootton was Terence Cuneo- using a slightly “looser” style but evocative and effective nevertheless; a few examples (two Armstrong Siddeley brochure pages and one painting of Waterloo Station):

    1. Terence Cuneo was best known for his railway subjects – all of which feature, somewhere, a mouse….. there will be one somewhere on the station concourse picture but I don’t know if he also included one on other subjects. I can’t see one with either Armstrong Siddeley, but…..

  5. The trick to (commercially successful) portraiture is to flatter your subject to a point just shy of where they might begin to question the veracity of the portrait. I imagine the same is true for automotive illustration.

  6. Thanks for posting that. Car art has always been something I´ve been ambivalent about. Only once did I see a painting with a car that worked aesthetically. As illustrations, it´s another matter and I really admire the technical excellence of Wootton. The black and white charcoal sketches are delightful and show that then as now, a bit less is a lot more. I tend to prefer impressionistic sketches over deadly accurate renderings. The computer can do photorealism but can´t capture the imaginative mood of a few rapid lines piled up.

  7. I have been collecting Frank Wootten items for many years. About 40 years ago I was searching for vintage items to purchase while in upstate New York, USA. I stumbled onto a huge hoard of “press overruns” from a color lithography print shop that had closed about 1965, and I ended up buying tons of unused and untrimmed prints from the 1930s into the 1960s, most were intended for wall calendars. Included in the prints were about a dozen full sheets of the 8* sports cars paintings created by Wooten for [I believe] Sports Car Graphics Magazine, dated 1958. These were extra sheets, never cut and trimmed. Normally these were sold as a set of 8* individual prints and also used as gifts when people subscribed to the magazine. I suspect these are the only uncut examples existing in the world today, and will make a wonderful wall hanging after proper framing. Other than giving a few away as gifts, I’ve never sold them.

    *My memory is not always correct, there may be only 6 per poster, will go over to my “collection warehouse” on Monday and check, I will also take photos.

    Note that someone recently began offering reproduction Wooten prints on eBay, in a similar “uncut” format, but they are clearly reproductions as the prints are NOT lithographic printing, instead they are the regular offset version, and the various prints are in the wrong locations! The eBay listings also have no description text, and do not mention if they are original or reproduction. The posters I have are guaranteed to be original 1st generation stone lithographic prints.

    If anyone is interested in one or more of these uncut posters [rough estimated size is 24″ X 36″.], please feel free to contact me. Billmccoskey[at]

  8. Good evening one and all and thank you for the kind comments. It is also most welcoming to know this helped bring not only reminiscence but inspired a deeper understanding of the art of illustration. The modern (and moving) image may make things clearer but such old fashioned talent brings about the missing romance. Wootton had this in spades.

    I’m also pleasantly surprised at one Terence Cuneo being mentioned, a larger than life character who again is more well known for railway and military artwork but more than dabbled in the car world. The enormous Waterloo picture (about 12 foot long by six foot high) now resides at the York Railway museum, which is a very nice day out, too. The artist painted himself in the picture, exiting his Bristol (leaving his wife, within) to head into position to paint the piece. Harold Wilson is also depicted along with other topical references. Nice one Bruno for opening this gap!

    One more Cuneo and Bristol car anecdote being TC was on his way to a “job” when he crashed his 408 into the central reservation of major road. With dented metal and pride, he immediately ordered an exact replacement to cover the fact he’d bent this one. He was also rather fond of extinguishing birthday candles with a shotgun – the life of the artist/illustrator appears far from boring!

  9. I am just an insignificant passenger here, but I am enjoying every moment.

    Great pictures, I wish I was even close to being able to do this. Thank you Mr. Wootton, thank you Mr. Miles.

    1. A lovely article. Many of Frank Wootton’s images have an almost ‘silvery’ quality to them – they sort ‘sparkle’.

      I think one of the great things about art is that it’s a bit like memory – it involves interpretation. In the same way that the brain tends to ‘clean-up’ memories, these images are idealized, to tell a story more effectively. Perhaps that’s why they are appealing.

      I really enjoy looking at these images. I wonder if Mr. Wootton did some work for Bentley – the pictures I recall seem to be very much in this style.

  10. Another excellent piece Andrew so thank you. Beautiful drawings produced with such skill and imagination. Absolutely lovely!

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