I recently had the opportunity to interview one of my favourite illustrators, Ben Newman of Bristol, UK. Among other things we discussed how he approaches both commercial and personal projects, how he develops his characters, collaborating with other creatives on projects and the importance of understanding the print process.
Can you quickly tell us a bit about your background as an illustrator?
I studied illustration at UWE in Bristol and was pretty slow out of the gate when university finished. Lots of students now seem to head straight into the market once they graduate but I was still trying to figure things out. I spent a long time painting and finding my voice, I guess. Over the first couple of years I completed a few editorial pieces for the now defunct music magazine, Plan B. I mainly took part in exhibitions and concentrated on personal work until I came back from 3 months in Asia and found myself unemployed and looking for work in restaurants and bars, which made me realise that I wanted a career as an illustrator. So I saved my pennies and eventually bought a computer, taught myself to integrate my hand drawn work into photoshop, joined MySpace and started producing posters for gigs and the rest grew from that really.
You create interesting & original characters in all your projects, could you tell us a little about your creative process and inspirations for developing these characters?
Jim Flora, to me, is one of the greatest character designers ever. His images are so energetic that you can practically see them moving on the paper. That has always been a great inspiration to me but due to the very blocky way that I work I try to infuse my characters with a static energy using colour and facial expressions. I just play around with shapes and try to lock them together in a way that interests and excites me.
Your work it seems like every character could have a back-story. Is it fair to assume narrative and character development play an important a role in your work?
I’m really pleased to hear that that is how you see some of my characters. I guess they all do in a strange way but for me their story is just the films I saw or the music I was listening to when I drew them.For example, Mr Fish came about after watching the ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ and the ‘Big Sleep’ and listening too much of Benny Goodman’s orchestra.
I read the project from your recent exhibition, Masks, was a self-initiated project. How do normally approach self-initiated work?
I never really approach it as a self initiated project to start with as I find that they usually grow out of one image or idea I’ve produced for something else entirely. The decision to develop the idea into a project is made in two parts, (1) do I think I can mine this idea/inspiration for an extended period and (2) will I enjoy it? Its never a forced decision but I like to have a project brought to a conclusion in the form of either a book or exhibition or object as it places a deadline for the project and gives me a more focused aim.
It’s quite easy for creative types to get ideas for personal projects but many of us let them slip into the quicksand that is day-to-day life. How do you ensure you see them through to development & execution?
I need the personal projects. They keep me going. They are rewarding in a way that commercial work isn’t. I’m not saying anything negative about working commercially, as quite often working with clients can take your work in directions that you wouldn’t have gone in if the job hadn’t taken you there. Often that can lead you to places you may not have gone in your own work. I don’t like sitting around doing nothing so I just make sure I keep a rhythm and routine so that personal projects just slip in naturally to my everyday.
On more of the technical side of things…I’ve seen that you often wax lyrical about the print process and how that factors into your work. How important is print to you?
Super important. A job or image is never finished to me until I can hold it in my hands as a physical object. The more you know about the physical process the more it makes sense when you start preparing the layers digitally. Some of the colour cross-overs I do are too complicated for my tiny brain to work out manually so I rely on the computer for that part. Even then though, its still very complicated.
You recently had an exhibition at the Nobrow Shop and Gallery in London, called Masks. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind the project?
I produced a piece of work for The Small Print, based in Ireland, for their illustrated alphabet project. For the emotive piece I started to think about Japanese warriors so I did a little research and started drawing it out. I started to look at lots of different cultural masks and these all started having more and more of an input into the piece until it wasn’t about a Japanese warrior any more, it was just a weird tribal mask. I showed it to a few friends and their reaction was so positive I figured I’d hit on something quite interesting but more importantly I’d loved the process of creating this image.
I noticed the Nobrow shop is bursting at the seams with 3 dimensional interpretations of your work, e.g. stuffed figures, masks, etc. Could you tell us a little about what inspired you to take the leap into tangible, 3d products and how you realised this goal?
It was something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the physical space or talent to interpret my work into 3D so I figured I’d look to collaborate with people who could. Working on the large plush/stuffed toys with Felt Mistress was super easy, I just gave her pictures of some of the Bento Bestiary characters and she did the rest. She is so talented and friendly that it was an absolute pleasure working with her. The 3D masks with my father was a lot more hands on for me and it was a great experience to work with him as we had talked numerous times about sharing a project. Towards the end of the project, my Dad was starting to add angles and perspectives to the masks that I never would have thought of. It was really exciting.
The main thing is trust. I tend to work with people that I have had significant contact with in the past and that I know them as a person…I think challenges are overcome by not being too precious about your original vision but again that all comes down to the person you’re working with and most of all, trust.
I know this is not the first time you’ve worked with others to translate your work into different media. How do you find the process of working with other ‘creative-types’ to interpret your work in different mediums?
The main thing is trust. I tend to work with people that I have had significant contact with in the past and that I know them as a person. I’ve been extremely lucky that all my collaborations and working relationships are very strong and that they trust me as much as I trust them. If I’m setting or pitching the idea/project I want the other person to feel free to have creative input into what we’re doing. When Daniel Binns put together the 20 odd seconds of Ouroboros he saw things in the comic that he built on and added some fantastic flourishes that he could see but I couldn’t because he has a great idea for motion. I think challenges are overcome by not being too precious about your original vision but again that all comes down to the person you’re working with and most of all, trust.
In a previous interview on your comic book, Ouroboros, you made reference to the importance of breaking the project down into smaller segments in order to ‘chip away at (it) rather than becoming totally overwhelmed by it.’ Is this a technique you regularly employ?
For sure. I slot my personal work around my commercial work so when I’m working on a book or an exhibition I’ll have numerous images in various stages of completion sat around waiting for me to pick them up when I have time in between jobs. I think it makes me more productive when I’ve already kick started something and then it’s ready for me to pick back up when I can. Also, having a bit of time to come back to something can give you a fresher perspective and allows you time to notice mistakes or clunky areas in the composition that need changing.
An hour here or there adds up in the end but it really boils down to starting projects as early as you can and giving yourself time to make mistakes so it doesn’t all fall apart at the end because you let things too late and have to rush ideas.
Could you give another example of when this technique really helped with your project development and execution?
The work for the Masks show was the most recent time where I’ve started about seven or eight images on the go at the same time. I was working on 33 illustrations for BBC Lab and some book covers for another client so I would play around with Mask’s images whilst waiting for feedback from a client. An hour here or there adds up in the end but it really boils down to starting projects as early as you can and giving yourself time to make mistakes so it doesn’t all fall apart at the end because you let things too late and have to rush ideas.
And lets end off with something fun. We’d love to get into the mind of Ben Newman to see what inspires you. Could you list an example of each of the following that has greatly inspired you as of late?
Pneu – Highway to Health
Field Music – Measure
tRANSELEMENt – (_____) is missing
Mastodon – The Hunter
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
That Fucking Tank – Acid Jam
Melvins – Black Betty (cover of an old Leadbelly song)
Field Music – It’s not the only way to feel happy
‘They Live’ directed by John Carpenter
‘The Big Nowhere’ by James Ellroy
A creative person:
Rob Hunter (he is just too good at too many things) www.rob-hunter.co.uk
Any other person:
My Father, Colin Newman.