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To the Point: Interview With Rod Hunt

Bhartiya City artwork
Bhartiya City artwork.

Today I'm interviewing London-based illustrator Rod Hunt. Read on to get a dose of his intricate artwork, and learn about his experiences as an artist and as chairman of PR for ICON—The Illustration Conference. Plus, you can answer the question on everyone's mind, "Where's Stig?" through his work for the BBC's Top Gear. Let's get to the point!

Hey Rod, thanks so much for the interview! Let's start at the beginning: What got you into art?

Comics were a big influence me, especially British comic "2000 AD", and the thing that got me drawing as a kid.

The man himself Rod Hunt
The man himself, Rod Hunt.

Who or what are your main sources of inspiration?

Apart from comics, my inspirations would go back to games from my youth on the ZX Spectrum like "Knight Lore", "Batman", "Alien 8", and "Head Over Heels" by Ultimate Play the Game; the isometric ones were particular favorites.

I also grew up with science fiction films like "Star Wars", "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Forbidden Planet", and old TV shows like "Flash Gordon" and "Star Trek". Their design aesthetic definitely stayed with me and their visions of the future are still what I think the future should look like. And of course the robots were always cool! I also owned a few old tin robot toys as a kid, which were amongst my favorite toys.

I love old illustrations from 50’s and 60’s advertising, pulp fiction covers, album sleeves, old posters, comics, etc. Having a sense of history and what’s gone before is very important, as you can’t learn from just what everyone is doing today. The American painter Edward Hopper has also been a big influence on me due to his lighting and ability to capture a moment in time.

Wheres Stig drag race piece
"Where's Stig?" drag race piece.

Are you formally trained? If so, where did you go, what degree did you achieve, and what was the experience like? If not, how did you work up your portfolio for professional work?

I did a one year foundation at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design, followed by an degree in Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University, and I have to say it was a great four years of learning and socializing.

Being at art college gave me four years to develop my skills, thought processes and the freedom to experiment without any commercial considerations. Of course the real leaning about the business of illustration starts once you graduate and launch yourself into setting up your career. There’s a lot more to it than just drawing pictures. In illustration it’s the quality of the work that counts to clients and qualifications are on the whole pretty irrelevant. I don’t think any client has ever asked what my results were.

Dublins FBD insurance piece
Dublin's FBD Insurance illustration.

What is your creative process like? 

Everything starts in an A5 sketchbook with very rough and throwaway compositions to work out the overall page layout and where text will be placed. At this stage I purposely draw with a biro so that I can’t erase anything; keeping away from detail to keep the ideas flowing.

Compositionally it’s important to have flow through the piece, leading the eye on a journey. The piece has to work as a whole and not look like the sum of its parts or be disjointed. It’s important not to be seduced into the detail too soon and lose sight of the overall goal. I also need to give myself enough thinking and doodling time at the beginning of a project before producing a finished rough drawing. That’s where the real hard work is done and is the foundation of a great piece of work. 

Sketch and layout

After I’m happy with the very rough compositions and idea, I move on to creating a detailed fully finished pencil rough, drawing with a 2B pencil on heavyweight cartridge paper usually at A3, but some of my detailed map roughs I have to draw at A1. It’s at this point I work out the amount of detail in the piece. With some of my detailed pieces the old adage “less is more” might not initially seem to apply to my work, but it’s far from chucking loads of stuff in and hoping it holds together. If I keep adding more stuff, it doesn’t automatically make it a better piece. In lots of ways it’s like having 20 illustrations in one, each small part telling a story in itself, which then forms a larger story.

The roughs are then scanned and used as a guide in a background layer in Adobe Illustrator to produce the final artwork. After using a normal Wacom tablet for quite a long time I decided to invest in a Wacom Cintiq to help with the work flow and speed things up. It was a pretty wise investment as drawing directly onto the screen made things much more natural and intuitive. 

I tend to use Illustrator as a straight drawing tool and use effects sparingly, aiming to keep the hands-on feel with my work, despite producing the final artwork on the computer. At the end of the day the computer should just be seen as another way of making a mark on a page. Everything is broken down into many layers so I can keep track of all the detail and make things easily editable for myself.

Looking For Transwonderland - Book Cover Illustration
Looking For Transwonderland: Book Cover Illustration

For how long have you worked professionally?

I've been at this full time now for over 18 years. After art school it took me a couple of years to build my portfolio and start gaining clients before I could take the plunge and go full time.

Intermarch Christmas Catalogue  Advertising Campaign
Intermarché Christmas Catalogue & Advertising Campaign

What's your typical work day like?

Up by 8.30 am for half a gallon of black coffee, followed by a walk or bike ride to my studio at Second Floor Studios & Arts by the Thames Barrier in South East London; I’m usually in by 10 am. Fire up the Mac and go though the first emails of the day, and deal with any overnight inquiries. 

If I don’t have to get straight on a job for a looming deadline, I’ll probably do a bit of promo; maybe updating the blog, website, Flickr, or an online portfolio. After that it’s heads down on the current job until 1 pm when I’ll stop for lunch. If the weather is nice I might get out of the studio and sit on the Thames river wall. Possibly I’ll do some reading back in the studio and catch up with design news. I think it’s important to be very aware of what’s going on in the wider design world beyond what you're doing. You never know when that information might be useful or lead to discovering a new potential client.

Then it’s back to work by 2 pm, before a tea break around 4 pm where I might meet up with some of the other artists on site at the studios. Then a final stint until I leave for home, hopefully before 8 pm. Get home, have some dinner and try to switch off from work, though I might have to deal with an inquiry from my US agent in New York, or take a conference call with a client about a job that I might be working on out there. It’s great to work internationally, but you do have to juggle multiple times zones sometimes.

Rods studio space
Rod's studio space, filled with inspiration as well as his own work.

How about your work space? Can you give us an insight into how and where you work?

My studio is right by the Thames Barrier in South East London at Second Floor Studios & Arts, London’s largest single site artists studio provider. I have a 200 sq ft studio room to myself amongst nearly 450 other artists studios. My studio also has a great view of the Thames itself and all the river traffic, which can be a bit of a distraction when something interesting comes up the Thames like an Aircraft Carrier!

These days I couldn’t do without my iMac and my Wacom Cintiq screen tablet. My Cintiq has been a wise investment, making the whole process of using a tablet completely intuitive and more natural.

Rods work space
Rod's work space.

You have excellent skill with perspective drawing. What drew you to working isometrically?

I guess the isometric computer games stayed with me from when I was a kid, but I never set out to work in this way; it’s something that has evolved organically over time. I started creating isometric work at art college when I painted with fat hogs hair brushes and acrylic paint on paper. After I gradated in 1994 and started working towards getting commissions, some of this work was part of my portfolio. My second ever published commission, which was for New Statesman magazine in 1995, was isometric.

Indonesia etc isometric illustration

The next big leap forward was when I reinvented my work in 2001 by going completely digital, changing over to working in Adobe Illustrator. Lads' mag Maxim asked me to create an isometric lingerie shop which helped me to develop my new digital isometric language. This then led to more commissions and refining the style. 

The book cover for "Change the World 9 to 5" in 2006 then started me on the path of much more complicated scenes and cityscapes, the culmination of which has been "Where’s Stig?", which took the detail and sophistication to a whole new level. All along I’ve followed where I saw an opportunity and what I was having fun doing.

Wheres Stig book cover

Your client list is quite impressive. When working freelance, do clients typically find you, or have you had to seek them out?

The Internet is probably the first port of call for most clients these days when sourcing an illustrator. Website portfolios, blogs, inspiration sites, interviews, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, etc; I do all of these and more. Sites like Behance and The Association of Illustrators (the AOI) are also excellent portals for clients to find creative talent. 

But I’m still a great believer in the value of quality print promotion targeted direct to a client. I usually produce a 28 page full color brochure every 12-18 months, essentially a complete portfolio in a book, sending up to 3,000 copies to clients in the UK, US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Asia. An expensive exercise, but it has proved to be fruitful. I buy a mailing list for the contacts from Bikinilists, and the AOI also produce affordable client directories which I've used in the past. This way I have up-to-date contacts and don’t have to spend my valuable time researching thousands of names. 

London takes the bus
London Takes the Bus

Producing something memorable that a client will want to keep increases my chances of having my work in the forefront of their mind. It’s about raising your profile and getting your name into a client's head, which sometimes means sending work to people for years before they find the right opportunity to use you. 

I feel that many illustrators don’t invest enough time and resources in promoting their work, or exploring all possible markets and outlets for their work. In the past even I probably didn't do enough. The most important part for me is the art, but to be successful and build a sustainable career you have to put the business first. At the end of the day it doesn't matter if you’re selling widgets or illustrations; the business principles are the same: have a great product and market it well. I budget at around 10% of my business turnover on promotion a year. You have to “speculate to accumulate” as the saying goes. You might be the best illustrator in the world, but if clients don’t know about your work you won’t get commissioned. Get seen, get remembered. 

London takes the bus sculpture

How did you come to work with an artist's rep/agent? What's the experience been like?

I’d known Louisa St. Pierre, Director of Illustration, Interactive and Integrated Media at Bernstein & Andriulli (BA Reps) from when she was a rep at Central Illustration in London. I caught up with her in New York in 2008 at ICON5 The Illustration Conference, and we casually discussed her repping me in in the US. In early 2009 we made it official.

The US is a huge market, though it can be very regional too. There’s also the time difference, which works in my favor with deadlines but when dealing with quotes and negotiations can mean being on the phone at 11 pm at night to a client in LA. Financially to promote myself with print promotion in the US the same way and scale I do here could be prohibitive. My New York based rep Bernstein & Andriulli is one of the best there is, with a reputation and artist roster that is second to none. They know the market and the corporate culture intimately. They also have the contacts and existing relationships with clients. They’re out there working for me, putting my work to clients and dealing with inquiries, negotiations, and chasing payments so I don’t have to. It takes the pressure off me so I can concentrate on the markets I know best, the UK and Europe, and expanding into new markets like Asia.

Lightbox Interactive Environmental Graphic Display
Lightbox Interactive Environmental Graphic Display

How did you get involved with the popular "Where's Stig" book series? What's the process in creating the book and typically, how long as each one taken? 

I’ve had an ongoing relationship with Top Gear that started with working with Top Gear Magazine in the early 2000’s. In 2008 they asked me to illustrate an “unrealistic cartoon simulation” of the top Gear studio for the forthcoming Big Book of Top Gear 2009.

They were so pleased with the illustration I did that it got them all thinking, "What if we were to expand the style into a whole book?" I felt a book had massive potential but would entail a huge commitment from me. So the idea of "Where’s Stig?" was born, essentially a Top Gear inspired "Where’s Wally/Waldo?" spoof involving The Stig, Top Gear’s resident tame racing driver. We had several conversations about ideas, feasibility, timing, costs, and eventually we got the green light to go for it!

Wheres Stig illustration

"Where’s Stig?" was a major hit reaching number 6 in the UK Christmas book charts, and the 4th bestselling hardback non-fiction book of 2009. It’s pretty crazy to think I’ve had a Top 10 bestselling book! I've created two successful sequels, "Where's Stig? The World Tour" and "Where’s Stig? Motorsport Madness".

There’s a wealth of visual material from the show so there’s a lot to draw on for inspiration. It’s fun getting in all the geeky things and stunts they've undertaken, giving the show’s fans all the in-jokes. So there’s so much to choose from. The show can be a bit risqué, and the publisher and Top Gear are very supportive in not wanting to tone down certain un-PC elements.

Cover of Wheres Stig Motosport Madness

There’s a huge amount of research that has to go into each piece as many scenes are directly based on episodes of the show (such as the Vietnam, Middle East or Deep South specials) or stunts they've done. I’ve watched a ridiculous amount of repeats of Top Gear while doing the books. Since the latest book being based around motorsport, not only were there Top Gear races inspired by the show but also many famous motor races from around the world including Le Mans, Dakar Rally, Nascar, Wales Rally and Formula One Grand Prix. Lots of research was needed on the tracks, places and the different cars involved.

Wheres Stig Dakar rally
"Where's Stig?" Dakar Rally.

The biggest issue with creating a book on this scale is time. Six months sounds like a long deadline but it flies past at a frightening pace, and it was the only job I had time to work on for the entire duration. It’s a very labor intensive process and the print deadline cannot be missed if the book is going to hit the shops in time for the lead-up to Christmas. So good time management is essential, right down to working out on a spreadsheet exactly how long I could spend on each piece of artwork and crossing off the days as I went. There was no margin for overrunning with the deadline.

The complexity of your work is mind blowing. I'm currently staring at the pieces you did for Ikea Russia titled "Apartmentology". What was the brief for this project? How did you get involved with it and was it something that, aside from showcasing Ikea furniture, you could take liberties on with the style of apartments or situations that the little people inside them are in?

The Russian IKEA advertising campaign was a particularly intense commission. My first thoughts when I received the project outline were “This is going to be a hell of a lot of work!” The whole project took around 8 to 10 weeks in total, from briefing to final artwork. There was a considerable amount of work involved with very long hours in the studio to complete the project on time for the campaign's launch. This is one of the most detailed illustrations I've ever produced, requiring extensive research and reference for a high level of accuracy to represent the many featured products from the IKEA catalog.

Ikea apartment illustrattion
IKEA: Families & Apartments Advertising Campaign

I was given a detailed brief and outline including mood boards, descriptions, and background stories for each family. There was a lot of discussion about the layouts of the apartments, with a "Tetris" interlocking style arrangement seeming the most suitable. Everything started with a detailed pencil line drawing, and once that was approved by the client the final artwork was produced in Adobe Illustrator drawing with a a Wacom Cintiq. Alongside this, Instinct BBDO were also producing a photoshoot of the actual families and apartment sets; these then also fed into the look of the final illustration.

Ikea apartment illustration
IKEA: Families & Apartments Advertising Campaign

Each family has their own unique character with IKEA furniture and products suitable for their lifestyles. For instance the "Darkness Loving Family" have a dark and red Gothic feel with moody lighting, while the "Pet Family's" apartment has a nature-inspired interior.

Ikea apartments poster

What are some current projects you can talk about that you're working on? 

I’ve worked on quite a few advertising commissions last year, including creating a map of Dublin for Irish Insurance company FBD’s ad campaign with Publicis, French supermarket Intermarche’s Christmas Toy Catalogue campaign with Publicis in Paris, and at the end of 2014 working with Saatchi & Saatchi on part of Toyota’s Go Fun Yourself campaign for the Aygo.

One of my most satisfying projects last year was creating an illustrated bus sculpture for Transport for London’s Year of the Bus Sculpture Trail, which took place across London. The launch event took place in London's Trafalgar Square in October, and it was great to see my work displayed in such a prestigious public location. I found inspiration for the design by looking at the Key Bus Routes in central London map and seeing that it almost looks like the map is spelling the word "Bus" in the route lines.

Toyota Aygo Wheres The X Advertising Campaign
Toyota Aygo: Where's The X? Advertising Campaign

What words of advice do you have for aspiring artists?

  • Get out there and get your work seen by as many people as possible. You should never be afraid to show people your work. It’s important to invest enough time and resources in promoting your work and exploring all possible markets. You may be the best designer/illustrator in the world, but if no one sees your work, you won’t get commissioned. 
  • Be yourself and indulge your personal interests in your work, as that is what will set you apart from everyone else. 
  • Perseverance. It can take quite some time to get really established. 
Wheres Stig in Rome
From "Where's Stig? Motorsport Madness"
  • There’s a steep learning curve for the actual business of illustration: pricing, contracts, ethics, copyright, and managing deadlines. There’s much more to being an illustrator than drawing pictures, so it’s vitally important to educate yourself if you want to have a successful and sustainable career. I recommend joining the Association of Illustrators. They’re constantly campaigning to protect all illustrator’s rights, and if you need advice and support with pricing commissions, contracts, copyright, promotion, developing your career, etc., it really pays to get help from the experts. I know first hand the value of being a member and the confidence it gives you in your career. I wouldn’t be the successful professional I am today without their training, advice and guidance over the years.
  • Maintain control over your copyright in your illustrations. There are very few occasions that clients really need to own the copyright in your work. Your body of work is your livelihood, and you should be entitled to the financial benefits of your talent and hard work.
  • Think big because everyone else thinks small.
WWE Hall Of Fame Revealed - Editorial Illustration
WWE Hall Of Fame... Revealed: Editorial Illustration

Many thanks to Rod for taking the time out of his ever busy schedule to run through my many questions and not only give us an insight into his work, but also offer fantastic advice for freelance artists everywhere.

For more of Rod's work, check out the links below and follow him around the web!

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