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Interview with Ben the Illustrator

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Meet Ben the Illustrator, a veteran illustrator from South East of England who has a super-happy, colorful, vector style. If you're a vector lover, then you've likely heard of Ben, or gone through one of his tutorials. If you're a fan, like me, then you've got one of his prints up in your office, or his work on your laptop screen.

Ben has loads of useful information to share with us in this interview. He covers creative topics, and gives lots of clear business advice, which is like gold to aspiring illustrators. Get Ben's take on issues like choosing an agency to represent your work and what makes a good character design!

1. Hello Ben, please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, what training do you have, how did you got started in the field, and could you tell us about your creative background?

Sure thing. So, I'm 33 and to put it simply I'm an illustrator. I grew up in the South East of England, in a little village surrounded by some awesome woodlands and hills. When I left school I went up to London to study art, then I studied animation for 3 years. This was the mid to late 90s, there was a lot of very exciting stuff going on in animation with Michel Gondry, Shynola, Hammer & Tongs and a whole load more making awesome music videos, that's what I dreamt of doing.

I studied traditional animation and it was at a time when the industry was really changing, with Flash and 3D software becoming much more widespread, so once I graduated in '99 I instantly had to paddle hard to keep up with everyone. I got a lucky break from Skint Records (home of Fatboy Slim who was huge at the time), they were doing some really good stuff at the time and investing in a lot of videos for their smaller artists, just as I was graduating they commissioned me to animate and direct a promo for Cut La Roc (hiphop/breakbeat DJ) which was a massive drop in the deep end for me, but really good times, a massive learning experience. This lead to a few more videos for Skint, Domino Records, Channel 4 (UK TV channel) and Sony Japan.

It was fun, but really hard trying to find my way in this massive animation/design/film world. The internet was nothing like it is now, so there wasn't the communities and the ease of communication we have now to sell ourselves and show our work. We had to get things into festivals for the right people to see them. After a couple of years going it alone I joined forces with some guys I'd studied and worked with before and we formed a small animation/design studio. I was working on the design/creative direction side of things, while also taking on illustration projects, and sometimes having to step in as production staff on animation projects.

Being a small studio we all had to take on a thousand different tasks. Again, it was fun, I learnt a lot, but we had to work hard. We got to work on lots of children's TV animation for the BBC, and amongst other things like t-shirts and editorial work, we really indulged ourselves in the possibilities of the internet as it grew. Then in 2005 I was getting tired of having so many job titles within one studio, and I had an epiphany! I had this thought, all I really wanted to be was 'Ben the Illustrator' so I called it a day in the studio and went solo.

Again I was dropping right in the deep end, starting everything all over again, but it was worth it in the end. Not long after that I met Fi, and we started working together, left London and headed out to the countryside. We're now married and living in a lush little place in the South West UK, called Cornwall, we're by the sea and surrounded by magical woodlands, a lot like where I grew up.


2. Could you tell us about your collaboration experiences working with your wife Fi. How are the various roles of "Ben the Illustrator" divided between you two? How does having such a close partnership benefit the quality and output of "Ben the Illustrator?"

Above everything else, I love it, it's always a blast working together, having a share in everything. We do both play quite different parts, which I guess is why it works out well, I'd probably be too stubborn to work so closely with another illustrator! So, essentially I'm the illustrator, obviously, I don't really have many other jobs outside that, except maintaining our main websites. Fi's main role is managing 'Wish You Were Here,' our home wares brand, this is almost a full-time job, maintaining the online shop but more so doing all the promotion and dealing with orders.

We're lucky to have a few good stockists now too, selling our art prints, so that takes Fi's calm and creative business mind to keep everything rolling along. It's great how many artists/illustrators/designers are selling their work as prints nowadays, but I know that I'd never have been able to sell my artwork so successfully without Fi's managing the brand, the products and everything that comes with it.

While that takes up a lot of her time, my time is spent more on commissioned illustration work, advertising and editorial, and finding the occasional day to work on new artwork for prints to hand over to Fi. When we have a commission that's very conceptual, like ad campaigns, we work together, Fi has a great imagination and frequently comes up with the ideas behind my illustrations, so in these cases we work more like a design studio, analyzing the brief, brainstorming for ideas and developing the project from beginning to end together.

Even though I'm the illustrator, we still work together while the image comes together, discussing color schemes, compositions, moods, etc. It's a great way to work as a business, seeing everything throughout together, always having another mind to bring something else to a project or a piece of work. Our
partnership ensures a higher level of quality and a much fresher more original outlook on design and illustration than if I worked alone.


3. You have such a well-defined, colorful, and happy style to your illustrations. How did this develop? What inspired this work and how long did it take before you felt it really came together?

Thank you, honestly, thanks. It started coming together very gradually, over a couple of years. While I was working as part of a design studio I would work in varied illustration styles, whatever answered the brief, but I guess for those years I had a thread of one style coming together, creating places, taking inspiration from nature, using bold colors.

I've always been a huge fan of Pop Art and early 80s graffiti (the NYC Wild Style era), so I'd learnt from the greats about how to use color, to be brave with color and to find a balance between different colors. Towards the end of my time as part of a studio, I was working on a commission for Smart Cars, illustrating a car driving through various landscapes, there was this one piece, with the car driving across a desert with mountains on the horizon. Originally I had the ground in bright orange and the mountains in brown, the car was black and white (the client's requirement), I actually remember staring at this piece for ages, I think I even hated it for a while, it just wasn't very exciting, the color palette was so limited, but since it was a desert I couldn't throw in trees or anything with color.

Then (and I guess this was quite a pivotal moment in my career!) I figured that there was no rules on what color those mountains could be, so I played with them, effectively changing them into a rainbow, but in the graphic form of a mountain range, and then it all came together, I loved what I'd done, it even gave me a rush, the client and the advertising crew were psyched with it, job done. Since then I've always been conscious of progressing and developing and always trying to keep things fresh.


4. What do you think makes a great character design? And how do you go
about developing a character's story and personality?

Character design is such a funny one, especially nowadays, it's easy to make a character, but it's not easy to make a brilliant character. Anyone can slap a smiley face on a tree or add a kawaii face to an ice cream, but it takes a bit more to really design a character.

Personally I don't think it matters what it's for, but you have to have a story in your head for a character, even the smallest details, just something that tells you what kind of character it is, and why you're creating it. Character literally means personality, so give a character some personality.

There are some amazing character artists working at the moment (Peskimo, Tado, Noferin, etc.), and the best are those that can design a well-rounded character, not just add faces, it's something I even get a bit annoyed with! Seeing people mimic character designs without thinking what they're actually designing. For us it's usually the life-story or the personality traits that come first, once we've invented a persona, the character design often follows quite naturally.


5. Who is Speakerdog and what is he currently up to? Also, could you tell us about the Speakerdog paper toys project and what you
love about it?

Awwww, lil Speakerdog, he's his own man now really, it's like we conceived him and did loads of stuff, and now he's bigger than us, just taking care of himself! Okay, Speakerdog is our own illustrated character, he started as a fun thing, just a doodle really, but he's developed into being this spokesman, a mascot for environmentalism and all sorts of good times.

We've had exhibitions of prints and painting all over the place, and we sell posters and customized paper toys at The Speakerdog Shop. The paper toys developed a few years ago, I was really getting into what Shin Tanaka was creating, and decided to engineer a paper toy out of Speakerdog.

Since then we've continued with the project, now inviting artists to customize the template and design their own Speakerdogs, there's about 300 different designs now available. We do love it, we get no money for doing it, they're free to download and all, we just love doing it.

We get emails from little kids, students, adults, parents, teachers, all sorts of people that enjoy making Speakerdogs. We now have schools in the UK making Speakerdogs as part of their art classes?!?! Sometimes the schools ask us to set briefs, giving a theme or a topic, it's all good.

Unfortunately, Speakerdog isn't up to much at the moment! We've got a baby due in January, so we're taking a few months out of everything, so we've decided to hold back on new Speakerdog projects until after then. We've got some great things planned though, for next year, we'll be launching a whole load of new Speakerdog 'things' in Summer 2010!


6. Could you let us know about your personal projects and about "Wish You Were Here"? With art prints, cushions, calendars and more, what do you plan to add in 2010?

As I said before, WYWH is pretty much Fi's business, I know this sounds soft but I'm proud of her for what she's done with it, it astounds me when I see the prints going out to buyers sometimes, we're always especially proud when prints go to people in New York, Paris, Tokyo and Australia, it feels like we're really reaching out to the big cultural places we love and take inspiration from.

It's become a major part of our business as a whole too really, a lot of clients come to us having seen what we've done with WYWH. It's a blast though, it brings in more 'interior design' related jobs, which are always good. 2010 will see more new art prints, but we're also planning on some new products, mugs probably being the first to go public when it's all come together.


7. What key business decisions have had a positive impact on your business? What commercial work are you most proud of so far?

It's nice that you ask me that, a lot of people underestimate the 'business' side of being an independent illustrator/small design studio. If you're doing it for your income, if it's your career then you do have to keep a business head on a lot of the time, you can't just be the wild, creative 'artist' all the time.

A few years ago I read this incredible book by Paul Arden (a former creative director at Saatchi, he sadly passed away not so long ago). It's called 'It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be' and it's about managing yourself in the creative/advertising world, and it completely changed my path!

Before that my business knowledge was taken from a few small courses I had done, enough to learn accounts and basic practice, but nothing that really helped you to manage projects, and to think in a positive, productive way. Now, having learnt from that book and the people we admire, such as UK design studio Airside, who I did some freelancing for some time ago, we're able to manage our business positively and enjoy every moment.

The key factors are to keep focused, aim high, enjoy everything, take a risk and never ever repeat yourself. Commercially, I'm always proud of those original pieces I mentioned for Smart Cars, that actually developed into a couple of years work with them, creative illustrations for advertising, displays for trade shows and even designing a mural to be wrapped around a car. That client relationship took me from pretty much starting out through to just a year or so ago, so that's probably my proudest one!


8. What's that happy mix for you with balancing various types of creative projects? Are you most happy cutting personal and client projects in
half, or some other mix? What are the benefits of each type of project?

Unfortunately it's impossible to control the mix! I love both, the main split of my own time is between client projects and designing/illustrating WYWH products and prints.

The client projects always have to take a precedent, they have their deadlines and I have to work to them. There's never a routine mix. Sometimes I'll be working on a client project for a solid couple of weeks, and during that time I might have an image in my head for a new print, but I've no time to make it, that's hard, probably sounds daft, but it's hard to keep working on a project when you really want to get a good picture out of your head and into reality!

It's completely random how projects roll along, sometimes they'll be very free and easy, creative projects, pure fun, whether it's for a client or an artist collaboration or a WYWH project, but then sometimes you can have very specific guidelines, like some design projects, which can be hugely technical and require super serious focus, but to be honest, I love it all, that's perhaps why I'm happy with my career, it can go anywhere, even tomorrow is unknown. I enjoy the instability of it all, I think you have to in this kind of job.


9. Could you tell us your opinion on the benefits of working with an agency vs. representing yourself? Why did you choose to work with an agency?
What did Agency Rush offer specifically that made you want to be represented by them?

First and foremost, they're great, they're a pleasure to work with, and essentially, I get more client projects from having them representing me than not having an agent. I'm lucky to have an agent, there are only so many agents in the world, and a lot more independent illustrators, I know I'm one of the lucky ones.

The benefits far out-weigh the negatives, firstly, you've got an entire company promoting you, and then managing a project, invoicing, chasing payments, all of that. Plus, hugely, negotiating a price with the client, of course the agent take their commission, but generally an agent will successfully negotiate a bigger budget, often ensuring their commission without taking much from the illustrator.

I know there's some dodgy agents out there, and you have to watch your back, but if you're represented by a reputable agent, then you're in a much better position to build a good career. I've been represented by two different agents before, one was great, and taught me a lot about the industry, however they were a more traditional agent, representing more traditional illustrators. It's vital to have an agent that looks for clients in the fields that you want to work in.

Having an agent, as far as Fi and I are concerned, means we can put more time into our own projects, like WYWH without having to spend time marketing me as an illustrator to the commercial market, plus it means that when we have a project, all we have to worry about is the final design/illustration work, not the budgets, planning schedules, etc.

Agency Rush are great, when we first looked around for a new agent a couple of years ago, we wanted someone who already represented illustrators we admired, which they did. We wanted someone who is friendly and good to work with, which they are, and we wanted someone open and honest, that we can always talk to about projects, finances, and the general flow of work. Fingers crossed we'll get to work alongside Agency Rush for a long time to come!


10. You've written quite a few vector illustration tutorials for numerous professional publications? What do you feel makes a great tutorial? What approach do you like to take? And will we see more educational material from you in the future?

Tutorials are such a good thing, I'm very proud to have written them for Computer Arts, Digital Arts and Vectortuts+! I learnt Adobe Illustrator myself, like a lot of people, and so it's impossible to know if you've figured it all out, so tutorials can be priceless to share the knowledge around the community. I'm flattered to be asked to write tutorials, but at the same time I've learnt so much from other people's tutorials.

The best tutorials generally do one of two things, either they instruct you on the best way to use tools, they can give you a clear idea on simplifying the processes, OR they teach you something completely new, perhaps someone has been clever enough to use a tool in a whole new way. If a tutorial doesn't widen your scope or your knowledge, and allow you to use that knowledge, then it's a waste of good publishing space.

My approach is to generally set the final product, think what people might want to achieve, and then just work backwards, what do people REALLY need to know? What will people make good use of? We do have one new tutorial coming out in Digital Arts magazine in December, I'm not sure if that's available globally or not, but it'll be online. I'm not sure if I can say what it's about though! Stay tuned!


11. Could you tell us about your artistic influences? What artists or designers have had the greatest impact on you? What consistently inspires you today? What are your favorite websites?

In one way there's millions, I think everyone is constantly finding great artists or designers, old and new, that can inspire. But I do have a list of people that constantly inspire me.

Growing up I was a big fan of Pop Art and early 80s graffiti as I said before. Also, when I was about 12 my folks gave me a book of illustrations by a guy called Brian Cook, he used to paint landscapes for book covers in the 1930s. It absolutely blew me away, he painted British village scenes and countryside, the kind of place I was growing up, but he used this wild color palette, bright oranges, purples, everything. It really changed the way I thought about depicting normal things at that age. I later found out the he never enjoyed the work he did in that period, which is a shame, I think it's amazing and I've taken so much enjoyment out of it in the passed 20 years.

More recent influences come from artists like Takashi Murakami, because he frequently strives to create something very new in the world, he has a great outlook. And then in design there's UK design studio Airside, when I first saw the record sleeves they did for Lemon Jelly I was absolutely speechless! I love what they do, creatively but also professionally, the way they operate, the way they inspire. I was lucky to end up working with them for a short while, freelancing on an ad campaign they were working on.

Other areas that constantly inspire include vintage packaging and toons (1950s and 60s candy packaging especially!) modern architecture, especially a lot of modern and Modernist British and Scandinavian buildings, and essentially nature. We love to travel, whether it's big adventures or just short trips to somewhere new, seeing new views, trees, hills, beaches, it's all inspiring. As for websites, there's so many, I'm enjoying discovering a lot of things on Share Some Candy at the moment, they have a good range of creative stuff on there, illustration, architecture, photography, etc.


12. What are your plans for the future? Any creative work coming up, or that you're currently working on, that you're excited about?

Just this week I'm working on a nice commission for a book, it's a double-page landscape, but that's all I can say probably. We've just launched our 2010 calendar on Wish You Where Here, that's been quite exciting, it's not a massive product, but it's our first calendar. We're also working on a long-term interior design project for Westfields Shopping Centres in the UK, we've designed a series of murals for the shopping centre in London, and these are now rolling out to different areas, so we're getting to work on different colorways and elements for each location.

As for long term plans, everything is actually slowing down a little, we're having a baby, due in January, so that's the big news, that's the most exciting project I guess! It's due in January so we'll be having a break from work at the beginning of the year.


13. Thanks for the interview Ben! Is there any advice that you'd like to give aspiring illustrators and designer who are working hard to grow professionally?

Be exciting. That's all that really matters. If you produce exciting work, clients will want to work with you. If people think you're exciting, they'll want to know you. If you excite other people, those people will respect you. If you're working on something that excites you, you're in a wonderful position in life. Be exciting!


Ben the Illustrator on the Web

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