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Interview with Timba Smits

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Meet Timba Smits, an artist, designer, illustrator, publisher, curator and wannabe Olympic ping-pong player, who has the heart in him to share with us all some fantastic advice for all of you budding and upcoming world-class illustrators. Timba worked himself up from being turned away from design agencies, to becoming an extremely successful, world-known and award-winning creative, a founder of a superb magazine publication and a founder of a great brand known as Lyrics & Type. Read on to find out how he has gotten so far in life.

Q Hi there Timba - thanks for taking the time for us to interview you, and for wanting to share your views, opinions and knowledge with the readers of Tuts+. Could we please start with you telling us a little about yourself, where you're from, your formal education and how you got into the industry that you're currently rocking?

My name is Timba Smits. I'm an artist, designer, illustrator, independent publisher, curator and wannabe olympic ping-pong playa! I'm currently living and doing my thing in London (UK) for a chomp but I was born and bred in Melbourne, Australia (my home ground). I grew up with a really tight knit family about an hour down the coast in a quiet place which we called 'Mounty'. Without all the distractions of a big city or town, it was a great place to discover who you are, which for me came through at a very young age. However, after I finished high-school I just couldn't wait to move the hour into the city to chase my dreams of becoming an artist. There just wasn't the same opportunities back in 'Mounty'.

After a few years of painting, experimenting, and lots of procrastination (mainly about why I wasn't Andy Warhol already), I looked into a computer graphics course at a quaint little private college in Melbourne called Shillington College, thinking it could help speed things up a bit. Looking back, it was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made. At the time it was pretty expensive but it only lasted three months and before I knew it I had the right qualifications to get work as a designer. Although a post-graduate from college I found it hard to get a job which mainly came down to the fact that I didn't have the required 5 years experience, blah blah blah. What I did have though and still do have is a good amount of drive, passion and dedication towards what I do. So I quickly decided that if nobody was going to give me the chance I believed I deserved, I would go it on my own - so that's exactly what I did.

Q Out of all the industries in the world for people to fall into these days, how did you decide on illustration and design? Was it just something that you always had an interest in as a kid and had a natural talent, or did you have to work your hardest to get to the quality you're at today?

I don't think you really fall into anything. Yeah, there are stories of that happening, but I believe you either choose your path in life and your career, or it chooses you. For me it's the later. From such a young age I knew exactly what I was meant to do. I had a very supportive mother who nurtured my creative side, much to the dismay of my scientist father at first, and through the help of two incredible arts teachers at school I was helped into believing I could be really good at art and design. As far as illustration and design goes, I felt, and still feel more broader than just that. I like to keep things as varied as possible so I run a magazine to fuel my love of books and zines, I opened an art gallery to feed my hunger for art, all whilst drawing and designing for lots of different people as this feels natural.

I've always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit too and this has lead to being involved in a huge amount of projects including starting my own independent publishing company and opening a really successful gallery in Melbourne called Gorker Gallery with some mates in early 2008. I guess I was born with some natural talent in the beginning but I've had to work extremely hard to get here, and have struggled almost to breaking point to get to where I'm at now. It's funny because from time to time I bump into the same art directors who knocked me back for jobs out of college and I'm always thanking them for closing the door on me. Some have even confessed to kicking themselves, ha! Sometimes I imagine what life would have been like had they said yes. Would I be here? Deep!

So in a nutshell, I sort of just dived into the industry. Straight into the deep end, no floaties - and have been trying to swim to the shallow end ever since. No falling - diving!

Q You cover a huge variety of skills, from youth culture to fashion and music, art, photography, design and illustration. Why do you like to cover all of these topics, rather than just one or two of your strongest skills? Do you have a favorite topic, or do you wish you had more time to experiment with certain skills that you don't get to use much?

You got me. I'm one of those people that has to do everything at least once and love everything in life. I'm not saying that I have a checklist or anything but there's simply not enough hours in the day, days in the week and months in the year for doing all the things I'd like to do. So I go with the flow a lot - I follow my heart most of the time and whatever feels right I chase it with a passion so hot it can sometimes burn me out. If I'm not good at something at first I'll beat myself up until I am. It's painful for my friends to watch sometimes and they wonder why I do this to myself but I just simply love challenging myself, it makes me feel so alive and being creative is a gift that keeps on giving. It never wears me out.

There are so many things I'm interested in apart from art and design swell of course. I'm pretty active so I love skating during the summer and snowboarding when winter comes around. I'm pretty excited as I have just landed my first snowboard graphics job which combines my top two things in life. And did you know my magazine is named after an old slang word for a skateboard...? Wooden Toy. I've been pretty much into skate and snowboarding culture my whole life, from it's fashion, the music, the trends and how parallel it seems to be with art & design. I'm also really into Film, I've always thought that if I got a whole new life I would start all over as a film director. Cue Wes Anderson as a favorite.

Then there's music. Sheesh! Don't get me started. I'd love to produce music, sing or be in a band but I cant. No, that's wrong, I probably could, but it takes so much time to be good at something. So instead what I tend to do a lot of the time is connect into these loves by creating initiatives like my Lyrics and Type project which brings type, music and designers together as one. This seems to give me a little bit of fulfillment and helps to feed my desire of wanting to make music. L&T has also been built somewhat as a lead up over the past six months for the release of Wooden Toy's music edition in August 2010.

Q You have a very unique, clean and "vintage" style to your artwork. Is there a reason behind this? What inspires it? Do you have any influences?

Yeah, I kind of don't like new things, glossy things and quite a lot of technology to be honest. As much as a computer is a vital ingredient to what I do, I actually have a love / hate relationship with them. I love what I can do with them but hate sitting in front of one. You see, I'm more of a paper and pencil person. A traditionalist in many ways and this, I think, is where my style comes from. Because I prefer to work offline as much as possible most of my design work has a real illustrative feel and nostalgic sense about it. So when I am playing around on the computer I try to make my work as naturally illustrative as possible. Almost as if it was hand-made. I tend to do this by adding subtle texture to a heap of my work. Converting scanned elements into bitmap and vector texture files and placing these atop of my artwork.

As a whole I'm mostly inspired from a time well before the iPad, wireless keyboards and the mighty mouse. I use some of these products but don't seem to connect with them as a lot of people do. Vintage design approaches, advertising icons and products, notably stuff from the 40's, 50's and 60's gets much of my attention. Meccano and chemistry sets over Xbox any day of the week, ha! And as far as influences goes, sure, I have my favorites. Lets see; pin-up artists George Petty and Gil Elvgren are some of my all time favorite illustrators along with Gary Taxali and CandyKiller as some of my new found loves. Mike Giant is up there, as is Tyler Stout.

Q What is your first step when starting a new project? Do you have a particular process that you like to see through with every project, or does it change every time? What does your workspace look like? Are you a Mac or a PC, and why?

First step... go for a walk! I seem to come up with my best ideas outside of my working space. Just a simple stroll with a notepad and pen down the canal is all it takes. It's funny, when I'm at my desk and working I seem to just zone out. I don't think, I don't stop and I hardly blink at all. I almost go into this meditative state where everything is just quiet. So it's really important for me to get out, take a break and walk around for idea trawling. This part of starting a project is always the same regardless who I'm working for or what it is I'm working on. Everything else is quite dependent to the projects brief really so this changes each time.

My workspace at the moment is in my house as a result of moving to London where rents are equal to that of my Melbourne house and studio combined. So this has been a bit hard to fall back to after having a proper studio for so long. It's only temporary however and I'm lucky to have a big house and a huge bright sunny studio that overlooks some beautiful gardens with bumblebees that quite often drop in for a visit. It's also a very clean workspace. I have a separate desk where I draw and one as a computer station with a 15" MacBook Pro connected to a 24" Cinema Display, a trusty scanner, printer and my cactus plant (the only plant that doesn't die on me). Why mac? Well, before I started at college I could barely even use a computer. They had Macs, and so I became a Mac person. It could have easily been PC had they taught on those but I'm glad it was mac as there products are soooo puuuurdy!

Q You've worked for some pretty incredible clients, including Diamond Back Bikes, Red Bull and Insomnia Skateboards. Do you have any advice for getting your work out to such large companies? How did you manage to land projects with them?

Yeah, over the years I've been quite lucky to work with some great clients, and... some not so great clients. The surprising fact is, I've never proactively hunted for work before in terms of sending out pr/folio packages to people I wanted to work with or even asking people. Things have always just come my way when I needed them. The universe works in strange ways. Some would call this luck, however I don't as I've worked damn hard in order to make these people notice me at some possible point. I realize that Wooden Toy has helped more than I think when I'm discussing this topic. In a way, Wooden Toy has almost (secretly) been a massively expensive business card, kind of promoting all that I'm capable of.

On top of this I've always been very much a head-down-bum-up type of designer who constantly works more hours and produces more work that even I can't believe at times. I've also been clever in terms of filling my magazine with things that I'm really interested in so the work that comes my way as a result of Wooden Toy is always going to be stuff that I'm super excited about working on. A lot of design studios and advertising agencies subscribe to my magazine, as-well as a lot of brands looking for the latest artists and designers to work with. So a lot of the time I'm invited to work on projects this way but also a lot of the time I'm connecting clients with artists that I've featured in my publications for work. This is also a really nice side to what I do. I also have a number of websites. It's a real pain in the ass to maintain them all but they're quite a large backbone to getting more work. A lot of my offers come through from my websites, so some advice would be to have a kick-ass website with some great work up for show. Include a healthy blog too which you should keep updated all the time, just to keep people watching you constantly. I do this a lot and it works. If you can do this in print too like me then there's no way they won't notice you.

Q Over the past few years you have won and come close to winning some great awards, including the Designer of the Year - Desktop Create Awards 2007 and the British Council Realize Your Dream Awards (2009). Is there anything you did in particular to get spotted on their radars? Did winning these awards bring you any new opportunities? How did winning these awards make you feel as a designer and illustrator?

I kind of answered this a little in the question above which would relate to your 'how to get spotted' part. Answer: Simply working extremely hard and producing a lot of great inspiring work. I believe and practice this myself all the time, and if your latest work is consistently better than the last piece of work you did and you do enough of it, then people are eventually going to catch on to you. But you need to get it out in front of them. I've never been into the idea of setting out to win awards though. Some people do and that's fine but that's not what I'm searching for in my career or in life. I'm very proud of achieving them but I don't really like a lot of fuss. It sure was a nice thing to receive at the time though. Mainly as it was in the very beginning days of my magazine and in a way I guess it gave me the confidence to keep pushing on. It also gave me closure on any doubts I had at the time towards thinking I wasn't doing things the right way.

My first award happened to be a big one too - designer of the year! So naturally I was shocked and I flipped out a little, I mean a lot! Especially considering that if it wasn't for a friend I would have never entered the awards. Then on top of this the other designers nominated were some of my heroes. I just couldn't believe it. I still can't in a surreal sort of way but it sure helped a lot as I won some cash which I put towards my next edition. This and some of the other awards I've won have done best in terms of exposing me to a wider audience outside of the people I was already communicating with. And yes, some great opportunities have come knocking at my door ever since. The most recent one in form of a scholarship that has brought me here to the UK, where things have really opened up for me and have helped show me where I'm to step to next. I feel so inspired and ready for bigger things.

Q We already know you're an extremely busy individual who barely has time to sleep. However, on top of your freelance design career, you also found and run two great brands, Lyrics & Type and the Wooden Toy Publishing Co. Tell us a little about these brands, what are they, and how did you go about opening them? What was the original idea behind them? Have they opened many doors for you?

In fact, they all work together. I wouldn't say that my freelance is separate to my magazine or that my magazine is separate to Lyrics and Type. They all communicate on a level that is about a bigger picture. In the beginning I started Wooden Toy Magazine which eventually became my business to service three of my loves: magazines, art and supporting people. When I was looking for work out of college I sent a lot of my work to magazines I admired and nobody ever gave me the chance or even bothered to get back to me. And because I'm sort of a quiet achiever and just do things I started my own magazine. And in the very beginning I promised I would never be that magazine and that at the very least get back to people. I try my hardest on that and since I started Wooden Toy it has helped so many people in so many ways.

A good example would be an amazing artist named Bec Winnel. When I met Bec she was a timid work experience student that came to my studio during a freezing winter to help on Wooden Toy. I asked to see some of her drawings and I was simply blown off my chair. I thought geez, you have to do something with these and so I published her in my book in two separate editions. Since this moment Bec has become such a good friend and every now and again when we're drunk together she pours her heart out to me about how much an influence Wooden Toy has been in shaping her career as one of Australia's leading female illustrators. Career and money and everything else aside, moments like these feel like my greatest achievement. So personally I've never looked at any of these brands as door openers for myself, instead I've trusted they have become a way to help others achieve and promote the greater joy of being creative with one another. It may sound a bit hippy but it's true, because I know what it feels like to become something myself, nothing gives me more satisfaction in life than seeing and helping other people achieve their goals. It's beautiful. And if my magazine or Lyrics and Type can help in this then I'm a happy man.

Q You must have worked with a lot of designers and illustrators since the launch of your two brands. Is there anyone in particular whose work fascinates you, and has influenced you over the years? Was there anyone's portfolio, an individual or a company, which you visited on a regular occasion when you first started out?

Haha, portfolio stalking. Yes, lets see! So so many! And you're right, sheesh, I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of designers and artists over the years. It's funny, I never stop to think about that. I also still get really giddy when emailing a new artist whom I've never spoken with before. I love that initial introduction when you send a nice email letting someone know about you and how much you admire them and their work, then you receive a nice email back and a beautiful creative relationship opens up. Sure is a nice thing! In the beginning this feeling was really heightened. Because I was so new to it and nobody knew me or the magazine, just writing an email to anyone with my snazzy new Wooden Toy email was exciting.

For the first edition I probably stalked the Girl Art Dump: Andy Jenkins, Evan Hecox and Tony Larson the most. I stalked their work for quite some time, I still kind of do! They're exactly what I mentioned earlier in terms of skateboarding vs art & design and how the both are so in tune with one another. I'm inviting them back in edition 8 swell which is going to be fun. It will be good to touch base after so long. Another magazine from Sydney called 'Monster Children' was a pretty huge darn inspiration and influence to me when starting Wooden Toy in the beginning. I'd been collecting it for years and I thought it was the best magazine ever and thought that in order to be the best, this is what I have to aspire to become. And lately I've been stalking CandyKiller. I can't seem to stare at his work for long enough. Love it! Oh, and a frequent stalk is always Gary Taxali. I have a few originals of his work and they're among my favorites. I'm also an avid art collector you see!

Q Timba, thank you so much for taking part in this interview - keep up the great work! Before you head off, is there one piece of advice that you would like to offer to budding and determined illustrators and designers?

No problems guys! It was a pleasure sharing some thoughts with you. Because I don't really write that much and when given the opportunity I kind of can't shut up so I hope I haven't drooled on for too long and if you've got this far to read this then you were sucked in, haha!

Seriously though, If I could give some last pieces of advice to anyone it would be to put as much passion and determination into your career as humanly possible. Be prepared to sacrifice a lot (money, partners, going out, money... money) and do not be afraid to take HUGE risks! You will almost certainly face all these things when trying to become a well respected artist/designer/illustrator. I'm talking about immersing yourself within your career until it shows signs of working for you. This can take up to several years, in my case six years and counting, so don't think it's going to happen overnight or it's ever going to be easy because it won't. And that's me being very honest. Not trying to scare anyone off here but it's extremely hard trying to manage the challenge of a career as a designer and normal life. And life, as you know, will almost certainly change a lot.

To be honest even I, under huge pressure, nearly packed it on three different occasions but I'm glad I didn't. It wasn't because I didn't like what I was doing anymore, heck, I love what I do and always have, it's just that sometimes living on the financial edge and struggle street whilst watching all my friends living life and partying got a bit tough. But I survived and I'm more passionate than I ever was and so much closer to achieving every thing I set out to achieve in life. I think that I appreciate it a lot more now after having gone through so much to get here. I wouldn't change anything for a second! Good luck and work hard. Peas out. Timba.

Timba Smits on the web:

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