Ben Jennings

A-Levels (Guardian, published 16.08.13): This was in response to this years A Level results day – juxtaposing the joy of receiving good results and the promise of a bright future if you do well at school, with the many restrictions that hold back so many young people in our society today, with youth unemployment in particular being ridiculously high.

What was your key motivation in becoming an illustrator?

I was an only child growing up and tended to just spend most of my time doodling. I’d always had a passion for cartoons, after gorging on lots of Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and The Simpsons as a kid – as well as comics. During my later school years I was incredibly uninspired drawing still life in Fine Art and making logos and letterheads in Graphics. However in my spare time I made a modest living drawing caricatures of classmates for £3 each, as well as scathing depictions of my Maths teacher that I’d stick up around school. A couple of teachers picked up on this and introduced me to the likes of Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman during my A-Levels, which opened my eyes to a whole new realm of artwork and is when I realised that this could potentially be something I could do to make a living. So from then on I focused on trying to make that happen.

Personal work: Russell Brand has recently been anointed poster boy of the left-wing by some, especially as he recently guest edited the New Statesman in which he commissioned himself to write a rather large piece urging readers not to vote at general elections. Personally I like Brand, and it was a brilliant article that was a joy to read, however I don’t feel it was anything more than that (e.g. a realistic call for revolution). I personally had to right-click and use the dictionary tool about half-a-dozen times, maybe that says more about me, but I think that if you’re going to talk for ‘most people’, you have to speak like ‘most people’, rather than dazzle them with fancy words and rhetoric because that’s what politicians do.

How do you maintain an ongoing stream of work?

I work at a studio with some other illustrators, which helps me stay motivated even when I haven’t got much commissioned work on. Having somewhere to go makes it feel like a ‘real job’, even when I’m only going in to work on personal projects and updating my portfolio. However I do find it hard to stay focused on personal work when I can’t justify it, so I tend to give myself goals, such as working on areas that I feel need improving on my website, or producing a finished piece that I can then print or pitch somewhere. But also as I have a weekly gig with the i newspaper, I’ll always be churning out at least one topical cartoon a week.

You initially began your freelance illustration work by selling cartoons when you were at school, and then moved onto completing exhibitions and commissions for magazines, books and websites. How important do you feel exhibiting your work as an illustrator is and how did it help you in your profession?

I think it’s incredibly important to be able to sell your work, as in pitch it to people where you think your stuff might suit, and thinking of creative ways of where your work could be used. Masterpieces are no good in a pad under your bed, unless you’re looking to be a legend posthumously, unappreciated in your own lifetime like many of art’s greats. All of the work I’ve got is from showing it to various people. Eventually people will start to approach you instead, but at the start I really think you need to put your work out there as much as possible.

– The Queen’s Head (i newspaper, published 14.09.13): In response to the privatisation of the Royal Mail by this government. This is something that not even Maggie Thatcher could bring herself to do, saying she didn’t want the ‘Queen’s head privatised’. I’d just got back from Amsterdam when I produced this piece and had seen some wonderful classic paintings whilst I was there at the Rijksmuseum etc, including a biblical one of Salome holding the head of John the Baptist on a platter, which inspired this cartoon.

People may well know you for your cartoons in I newspaper, the Independent and Guardian, but how did the first commission come about and what were your first three steps to producing the cartoons?

Well I was quite stubborn on my degree course in regards to what I wanted to do when I left, so I started emailing people and going around to various places with my portfolio almost straight after my foundation course. Looking back this was probably a bit premature, as the work I was showing people was shockingly bad! But I eventually caught the eye of Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson, who was incredibly nice and saw some slight potential in the crap I was pitching to people. This eventually lead to him and Steve Bell mentoring me and some other unpublished cartoonists before giving me the chance to take part in a showcase, which was to work for The Guardian for six weeks, alternately producing political cartoons covering for Steve Bell whilst he was on holiday in the summer of 2010. I then started to get work here and there for The Guardian after the showcase and got a bit better at coming up with ideas and turning work over so quickly. Then in 2011, to my utter disbelief, I won ‘Political Cartoon of the Year’ for a piece I did for them. Shortly after I got my gig for the i newspaper and continue to contribute to The Guardian.

In regards to the three steps in producing a cartoon on the day, for my i one it tends to focus on the big stories of the week as they only have my cartoon every Saturday, so I get this done over a Thursday/Friday. Whereas for The Guardian or The Independent it would have to be more up to the minute as they both have a daily cartoon. The day tends to go something like this:

1. I begin by gorging on the news in the morning and trying to figure out what stories I could focus on, what people are talking about, and what will still be relevant by the next day when it’s published.

2. I start scribbling some roughs and get them sent over to whoever I’m dealing with that day by about 10:30 – 11 ish. On a good day there will be at least one half-decent idea that gets okayed and I can crack on with. On a more challenging day there may be some back-and-forthing to come up with something that everyone’s happy with. It’s often hard to convey your idea totally in the rough, as you don’t want to spend too much time on them due to the snappy deadline, as well as the fact that sometimes things change slightly when you’re rendering it to the finished piece.

3. Cartoon usually has to be filed about 5pm-6pm ready for the next day.

Party Conference (GQ illustration): This was an illustration for an article on party conference season and how it was an opportunity for all parties, particularly those in coalition, to separate themselves from the others.

What importance do you put on your own personal body of work and how does this influence your commissioned work?

Personal work is of major importance I think. When I produce personal work my drawing is a lot freer and I’m not afraid to try new things – whereas when I’m working on a commission I tend to tighten up and stick to what I feel confident with. However in the processes of personal work I hone skills that I then start to use in my commissioned work, so I definitely think that the two go hand-in-hand, and to progress as an illustrator and make your work better in general you have to maintain drawing for the love, as well as for the money.

Who and what keeps you inspired within your illustration?

As most of my work tends to be a visual response to the news and current affairs, inspiration is infinite. In regards to staying motivated, there are so many people doing wonderful things with illustration at the moment, which constantly inspires me to try and get better and experiment with new techniques etc.

7th February 2014

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