The AOI Illustration Professional Self Initiated / Professional Catergory Winner 2013.
What was your key motivation in becoming a reportage illustrator?
I have always been a terrible people watcher. Being away from my familiar environment and able to sit quietly, observe and draw what I see is something I have always loved.
I worked as a free-lance illustrator for many years creating surface design for textiles, ceramics and packaging for UK retailers. Although observed drawing informed the more simplified decorative work I did, I found this kind of work had taken me away from the observed drawing that I was really passionate about. A friend suggested I did an MA and this gave me time to consider my illustration practice. The research on my MA bought me back to working on location, I enjoyed it so much as it rekindled my love of drawing and of illustration. The non-fiction stories I observed and wanted to tell suited reportage and so I decided to follow my passion.
28 Colour swatches on the hull
How do you maintain an ongoing stream of work within your reportage?
I am constantly looking around for topics. Reading a newspaper article or having a conversation with someone will often give me an idea for a theme or a subject matter that I would like to document. Then I study the subject and think about suitable locations. I consider who I should talk to, or work with, to give me more insight into the issue. Research is very important. I only work on location and I can’t expect to find the best places to draw or ask the right questions, if I don’t know about the topic I am documenting. Different locations have an effect on what I record and how I tell a story, so it is important to consider them carefully. For example, I am currently working on a project exploring the changes in UK fisheries policy and how that affects the local community. If I spend my time with the fisherman and the locations associated with them, I will get a particular viewpoint, but if I spend my time with environmentalist groups or with DEFRA, I will get a different perspective again.
Coasters ferry passengers
How has the landscape of reportage changed since you have been predominantly working within it and where do you see it going?
I have only been specialising in reportage since 2007, but in that time there seems to have been a real resurgence of interest in drawn reportage as a way of telling non-fiction stories. In the last three years two of the overall winners of the V&A Illustration Award have been reportage illustrators. Olivier Kugler in 2011 for his account of travelling through Iran and George Butler in 2013 for his work about Syria.
I think a drawn journalistic account of an event gives people a different perspective on a story. In an age where we are saturated with photographic images, drawn reportage, as opposed to photographic reportage, is rare and therefore is perhaps able to hold the viewers attention for a little longer.
Sitting down and drawing someone is a less invasive way of recording their story or situation than being approached by a camera or a microphone. It takes time to make a drawing and people tend to be curious. The process invites strangers to interact and engage with you and as a result I think reportage illustrators are able to see things that would be overlooked by other forms of reportage. I would like to believe that this slower record of news would gain more popularity as a result.
What importance do you put on your own personal body of work and how does this influence your commissioned work?
I think personal work is fundamental to maintaining an illustration practice. It gives me somewhere to experiment, to try out new ideas and time to explore them in as much detail as I want. But most importantly, it gives me somewhere for my drawings to fail without the fear of letting a client down. I learn so much more from my mistakes than from my successes. This often throws up problems to solve and leads to research into different ways of working. I think it is important to get your influences outside of illustration. Making time to do personal work creates a circle of research, applying that enquiry to my illustration practice leads to more questions and therefore more research looking for the answers. It is very refreshing.
Your book ‘Coasters’ is an illustrated poetry anthology published by Atlantic Press, a great piece that truly represents reportage illustration. When a company for a commission approaches you, what are the first three steps you take?
‘Coasters’ was a collaborative project with several illustrators and poets. I was free to interpret the poems and identify locations to draw in that I felt were appropriate. I discussed these ideas with the poets and we talked about how best to capture the feel of the poems. I drew in each of the locations I had identified, until I was satisfied I had enough drawings from which to be able to select the most suitable illustrations I think this way of working keeps a real freshness to the drawings, as I don’t redraw them over and over again.
It is always interesting to look at my drawings later and consider the context they will be used in. When I take a fresh look at them they often suggest something that I was not aware of at the time of drawing.
Johnny Fabricating the Gudgeons
Talk us through your experience of entering and winning the AOI Awards 2013 the self initiated professional award.
I was preparing for the exhibition at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, when the email about the AOI Awards landed in my inbox. I entered on a whim and didn’t believe for one minute that I would win the self-initiated category, but it suited the project From the Loft Floor that I had just completed, so I thought I would have a go.
From the Loft Floor took 20 months to complete, so my family have taken to calling my AOI Award ‘the award for stamina’. When I started drawing I thought it would be interesting to capture the building of a boat as it progressed. This would impose its own discipline on me, which would help me maintain the motivation to keep drawing, because otherwise I would miss critical parts of the construction. I had no idea it was going to take so long, or become such a big project. At first it was just the satisfaction of seeing the pile of drawings growing and then I realised that I probably ought to do something with them.
Entering the AOI Awards 2013 has been an amazing experience. All the people I have worked with at the AOI have been great, so enthusiastic and supportive. The exhibition was very well curated and I would never have dreamed of seeing my work exhibited at Somerset House, just across the courtyard from where the Richard Serra and Durer drawings were being shown.
The other competition winners I met at The Awards Ceremony were so talented. Finding myself in their company has been really encouraging. I don’t think you could go to another award ceremony in any other industry and find a group of people who were more modest about their work. Illustrators tend to work alone and to underestimate what they do. The AOI Awards has been a great experience and I would encourage other illustrators to enter.