Glints of Light

Steve Barker drawing of tenor saxophone

Steve Barker of the UK has been obsessed with line, shape and color ever since he can remember. The first detailed drawing he recalls doing was at age 6 or 7. It was of a crab on pebbles. Pen or colored pencil in hand – always – he has been creating extraordinarily photographic renderings of musical instruments. He’s captivated by the curve of a saxophone’s mouthpiece; the way sunlight catches the bends of a trombone; the iridescence of buttons on a trumpet valve. Steve’s got no lack of material, as his wife is a musician and there’s always some instrument laying around in or out of its case, with all its accessories.

Steve Barker Jazzdrawings

Steve Barker

The obsession started at a young age? 

Yes. One early memory is drawing a detailed drawing of a tiger. We had been to a safari park, and in the guide book across two pages was a beautiful photograph of a tiger. I remember seeing the photograph and I couldn’t wait to draw it. I can remember drawing the tiger a few times, always wanting the next one to be better, more detailed.

At junior school, I had a teacher who was an illustrator. He obviously appreciated the need for children to be creative, so the whole school was encouraged to draw and be artistic. The classroom was full of interesting things, the type of old objects that you would find in a junk shop or antique shop; old bottles, bits of rope, old electric fires, paraffin burners, old fashioned things, interesting objects that were a challenge to draw.

One afternoon a week, the teacher would teach us how to draw. It was during these lessons that I first discovered pen and ink. There was a stuffed squirrel in a glass box. I can clearly remember drawing the texture of the fur hair by hair, trying to capture the subtle tones.

I had started to play the guitar by the age of ten, but art was the path that I had always wanted to follow. After two brilliant years at the local art college I then went to Liverpool John Moores University and had three amazing years where I gained an honors degree in fine art.

What is it about pen and ink, or pencils, that you gravitate to, as opposed to oil paint and acrylics?

I’ve always loved drawing, and I try to follow what is appealing to me about the whole process of drawing: the flexibility of the material and the ability to create a three-dimensional feel on a two-dimensional piece of paper. I use subject material that allows me to satisfy my fascination with color, shape, form, light, detail and complexity.

The action of drawing with traditional pen and inks has a different attraction. It’s an entirely dynamic and fluid experience…the colored inks add an organic, spontaneous element which expands each drawing.

The drawing styles of pencil, and pen and ink, complement each other, one being very precise and intense, and the other freer flowing, but while still managing to capture the essence of the instrument.

Do you play an instrument?

I play the guitar. My wife is the real musician, and she plays the piano, clarinet, saxophone and flute.

What is your connection to the jazz community?

My wife and I are both members of The Dearne Big Band & Singers. The original band was formed in 1978 for pupils of the Foulstone Secondary School Barnsley. We were both associated with the band while still students at secondary school and we are still part of what was originally a school band some twenty years later.

The band is still true to its original beginnings, being the primary fundraiser for The Barnsley Youth Jazz Association, a non-profit music service based locally. Its objective is to give individual music tuition for students aged 5-18 at an affordable cost. The association provides musical instruments, tuition and various bands that children can participate in.

Why did you focus on jazz instruments in particular?

As an artist who’s married to a musician and who plays in a big band, musical instruments became an obvious choice of subject matter, and there’s obviously plenty to have a go at drawing. Each drawing that I produce is of a band member’s instrument which is kindly loaned to me.

What ultimately draws me to musical instruments is the high level of precision and detail that they have as objects. The way that they are crafted, the accuracy of their construction and manufacture, and the reflective qualities that they have. I enjoy the high level of skill, precision and control that is required over the material to recreate the object’s detailed appearance.

Do you enjoy jazz? 

As a guitarist, I love the chords and the chord progressions in a piece of music, how a piece of music works and how all the individual parts come together.

How do you achieve that highly photographic appearance? 

I always try to draw the instrument from direct observation in the first instance. You can’t beat looking to see how an instrument works, the shape of each component, how the linkages connect, how the valves or pads of a saxophone fit and come together.

I have a really detailed look to see the shape and form of each element of the instrument and try to understand how the instrument exists in its own space. That’s one of the ways I achieve the level of realism.

I also use photography. It’s integral to what I’m trying to achieve. If you just copy a photograph it can all too easily become a flat copy that’s lacking in depth, that’s why I need to study the instrument first. I also have to get the instrument back to its owner, that’s the other purpose of photography.

Jazz Drawings US clarinet

How do ideas come to you?

I find inspiration from all sorts of places. It could be an image in a magazine or a visit to a gallery. The internet is an amazing resource for creativity, and there are a lot of talented people out there publishing their work online. Inspiration is everywhere.

Your most unusual commission? 

I was asked to produce a family tree a few years ago. I had studied calligraphy while at college, so when the commission came in I thought why not? It was a good chance to blow the dust off the calligraphy pens.

The whole drawing was quite a challenge. I had to do a lot of research.

The most unusual instrument you ever drew?

Someone got in touch with me regarding drawing a drum kit, and after looking at the drums, I’ve yet to come up with a way of capturing them in a drawing. The drums are one for the future.

How long does the average drawing take you?

Some drawing can take up to 250 hours to complete from start to finish, like the pencil crayon tenor saxophone drawing.

Time passes really quickly when I’m drawing. I work at such a small scale capturing the slightest detail, I almost find myself descending into the drawing.

The pen and ink drawings are a lot quicker to produce, only a few hours or so each. Slowly paced drawings can takes hours to produce a few square inches; a quicker, more energetic way of working soon yields an outcome. It’s a balance between the two, sometimes slow, sometimes fast.

What part of the instrument is the most difficult?

The most difficult part of drawings are large areas of seemingly flat color, like on the body of the cello, violin and guitar. These areas aren’t one particular color, but achieving the slight tonal differences in color and trying to capture the iridescent qualities of a material can be quite a challenge.

Talk about the market for your art.  

My work mainly sells in the US and UK although I do have interest from across the world. 

Have you considered jazz portraiture?

That side of drawing has never appealed to me at all. I’m more focused on the instrument as an object, rather than a portrait of the person playing it.

Do you make all the decisions on framing and matting or do you work with the client?

I usually leave the framing up to the client.

Future plans? 

I’m always on the lookout for different approaches to the way I draw. I’ve been exploring more textured work using collage to create interesting surfaces to draw on. I’ve also been exploring the space around an instrument by employing a larger and freer use of line.

In the long term, I’d like to take the drawings into some kind of printmaking, possibly lino printing to start, and ultimately into some sort of intaglio printing. That’s something I’d really like to explore.

To learn more, visit


Photos courtesy of the artist.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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