In 1990 Tom Walbank found himself, like so many bluesmen of lore do, at a crossroads. An aspiring cartoonist, he was immersed in the Scottish zine culture, with his eye on a career in comics. But he loved playing blues, too.
“I decided I would have to concentrate on one,” Walbank says from his home in Tucson, where he’s resided since 2000. He chose music, and since doing so he’s performed around the world and released dozens of blues recordings, often incorporating dub, punk, and rocksteady textures into his albums – many of which can be heard on his Bandcamp page
. Still, his passion for pop art endured. Wanting to explore his dual interests together, he began drawing portraits of blues artists. “I started with one of Bukka White, and I kept doing them wherever I was,” Walbank says.
In 2012, Walbank collected 250 of his blues drawings for a self-published tome called Picture the Blues
. He laughs while explaining that though he put the book on the indie press site Blurb more than a year ago, he never quite found the time to properly promote its existence. No matter – the book has a timeless quality, a sort of catholic overview of the blues, featuring arresting black-and-white portraits spanning blues history, from legends like Muddy Waters, Charlie Patton, and Son House to gospel vocalists like Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rossette Tharpe. He includes lesser-knowns like Mississippi Hill Country queen Jesse Mae Hemphill and Jazz Gillum, jazz players like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, and a section of pictures of modern raconteurs like Tom Waits and George Thorogood. Walbank’s unique style differentiates itself from blues comics like Robert Crumb and William Stout — his work owes as much to 1920s print advertisements and British artists like Mike McMahon and Kevin O ' Neill, famous for their work in violent pulp publication 2000 A.D, as it does Crumb’s distinctive crosshatching.
Divided into chapters featuring slide players, piano players, harmonica players and other blues distinctions, Walbank’s heavy black-and-white style is accomplished mostly by ink and brush, utilizing stippling – stabbing the paper and “ruining brushes” in the process – to build up grey effects. He applies correction fluid, too, to suggest the look of woodcuts.
“The heavy black-and-white kind of evokes heat to me, like the heat of Mississippi,” Walbank says.
Walbank admits that the book’s asking price, about $200, is hefty, but blues aficionados, the kind of guys forking out hundreds for rare 78s and blues ephemera, are still getting a pretty sweet deal. “It is a little pricey,” Walbank laughs, “but originals are about $400 bucks, so $200 bucks for 250 of them, it’s not too bad, you know?”
Walbank says the goal of the project isn’t to serve as a historical text; it’s strictly art. “There are plenty of great blues history books out there, and I’m a sucker for those,” Walbank says. “But this is just a plain art book. You can do your own research if you come across a picture and you like that picture, but this would be too large if I did historical pieces of writing about each artist. Sometimes, doing your own research is half the fun. You find your own past, if you know what I mean.”
Order Tom Walbank’s Picture the Blues via Blurb