Sunday, 25 December 2016

Print Isn't Dead™ Element 004 / People of Print Interview 2016

Interview conducted for Print Isn"t Dead™ Element 004 / People of Print

What was the first illustration of yours to go to print?

That would be a small book that I did for a Dutch publisher via The Partners design company straight after graduating from Kingston University. I had distributed a number of photocopied folded books that had been seen by them, so I was commissioned for a book celebrating the life of the publisher. The book contained a CD with the publisher taking about his experience in the business and the drawings were a combination of drawings and collage, and one page was scratch & sniff - So a really nice print job, involving the readers experience of the book as an object. At the same time I was commissioned by Trickett & Webb to work on one of their famed illustrated calendars, which were beautifully screen-printed.

What was your big break into the word of illustration?

This was probably during my second year at the RCA. Bloomsbury publishers approached me to illustrate Peter Bowlers ’Superior Person’s Book of Words’ at a time when there were very few novelty books. It was a great job, allowed me to translate what I was doing at the college, into a successful printed outcome, that was in the bookshops for Christmas after my graduation. As that job was going into production Penguin Books commissioned me to illustrate Zadie Smith’s second novel ’The Autograph Man’. I learnt so much on that job, quite a long lead in time as Zadie was still writing it at the time so I was given quite a bit of freedom to interpret ideas around the book. I was still to work with a computer at that time so the designer that I was working with had a lot of trust in me to create the right handmade feel to the jacket design. I was part of choosing the right paper stock, the cover was a folded down poster printed on both sides that became the jacket. It felt very creative to learn on the job, using printed offcuts from the Letterpress department at the RCA to make the typography and give the cover some colour, since the initial drawings were in black & white. The book got quite a bit of exposure, and got me known in a relatively short period of time - it became one of those signature pieces of work professionally.
Strangely I’ve always been fortunate in getting interesting illustration commissions, unusual print jobs, which I’ve learnt a great deal from whilst completing. Much of my work comes from the USA these days, I like being a little anonymous as an illustrator in the UK, it seems to offer me the freedom to evolve and not to be type cast in an industry which tries to do so very much.

What tools and techniques do you use when creating work?

The work is a combination of drawing, handmade elements that are processed through digital. I’m a drawer, but like to contrast the linearity of the drawing with graphic shapes or silhouettes from handmade stencils that I spray paint. Recently I’ve used more devices such as a rolling ruler to help mechanize some of the drawings - I’m interested in the tension between pictorial depiction/space and abstraction, precise figuration and graphic abbreviations. I use mechanical processes such as photocopiers to distance the work from the original drawing, at times to pick up the dirt or to throw the drawing optically that leaves smudges or pushes them focally. These imperfections, graphic elements or component parts sometimes become the work itself, or are re-contextualized in later drawings.
Sometimes the tools have a purely conceptual rationale - the drawings done for Nicolas Bouvier’s The Way of the World, that represent half glimpsed memories of cities seen along a journey across Iran in the 1950’s had to be rendered in felt-tips that were not lightfast pigments. So that whilst the print reproduction remains fixed, the original drawings will move, the colours will fade with exposure to light. Very early on I wanted a specific colour palette unique of felt-tips, and a medium that reflected the fragility of memory.

Where do you gather inspirations?

Visually I’ve always been drawn to contemporary art and photography/film. I see a lot of art, I read quite a bit of both fiction and art theory, watch many films. In my teaching I advise students to look away from illustration as much as possible, to seek inspiration from other creative sources.
For any job I spend much time researching visually, both for material to draw from, but also to create a colour palette for reference.
The studio plays an important part also, the dialogue with other practitioners, I talk much with Ian Wright to be honest, but also with writers such as John O’Reilly. Inspiration can come from many divergent sources - it’s in the act of creative making that they inform, or you see their effect upon you.
Teaching has also greatly impacted upon me. The students especially at the University of Brighton have always inspired. Not in terms of the look of my work, but in the ambition of work etc. Moving into animation and film was a surprise, or I should say an opportunity to discover another aspect of my creative personality. Writing has followed this as well… something else that I didn’t imagine.

Tell us about the AOI and your involvement.

I was approached to apply for a position on the Board of Directors. At the time I had recently co-founded the Mokita illustration forum with Geoff Grandfield and Darryl Clifton of Kingston and Camberwell educational institutions respectfully. So when I was asked by the AOI to become a director I was already thinking of the wider illustration profession, and the changing nature of illustration as a discipline.  In my short career as an illustrator there have been massive changes, not only in how work is made, but the effect of the Internet on the industry and it’s popularity. I’m privileged to have a portion of my contract at Brighton for research - To be given the time to explore and to make known the emerging opportunities for and challenges that face the illustrator today, and tomorrow.
The role is voluntary and none paid, looking after good governess, making sure that the AOI is secure financially, strategic planning and the direction of the company. Knowing that the AOI is the only trade organisation for illustrators, and it’s work promoting and looking after the interests of illustrators nationally, means that it’s important to invest time as a director, and in recent times the position of Deputy Chairman to help support it in whatever way I can. One of my roles is to help support illustration research it is within the academic that you see how the discipline is developing, engaging with new technologies and the possible future spaces for illustration.

Do you draw everyday?

I go through cycles with drawing. I understand the need to train like a gymnast at drawing, of having a regular artistic practice, but I also like the breaks - to allow for the freshness of re-learning to draw, or the adventure of a new medium, also of building up the energy for the next series of drawings - creative procrastination I guess? I’m always busy, whether that be with commercial jobs or drawings that I’m initiated myself - important for my practice that I do both. I’m looking all the time though - there is that necessary combination of drawing, of making marks on the paper, and then looking, one informing the other. They’re not necessarily the same thing, and I’ve always been interested in the communication aspect of the drawing, what it is trying say.

What films, books and magazines do you recommend that we run out and buy?

The filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky had a profound affect upon me.
L’Appartment by Gilles Mimouni
Le Samouraï by jean-Pierre Melville
The Fearless Vampire Killers - Roman Polanski

Elephant by Raymond Carver
The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Utz by Bruce Chatwin
On Being an Artist by Michael Craig-Martin

Varoom Magazine, Eye Magazine, Works That Work, and Frieze Magazine I regularly read.

What are you working on at the moment?

There seems to be quite a bit of writing, and curatorial work, speaking at various international conferences etc. There is a growing network of illustration research, which is important to support and to help the burgeoning discourse around the discipline. In terms of personal drawings there is an ongoing series - Depictions of haunted houses from horror films. Once again for me there is this interest in reality and fiction of source material that become the subject of drawings. They are depictions of film sets and locations that in the narrative of the film are haunted.

There is some moving image work that I’m working on - Much of my work is sequential, or requires time to understand, so animation and film interests me much. Then some work based upon Venice, an ongoing project exploring the image of the city. Of course there are commercial commissions always to be negotiated, but I like to be busy, to be making work for others, and some for myself. They feed into each other and help keep my practice developing.

© Roderick Mills

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Palm trees

"Life has now taught me that love for things, like unrequited love, takes its toll in the long run."
Adolfo Bioy Casares, Asleep in the Sun

Process leftovers from a commission which have a beauty by themselves. 

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Brighton Illustration Show

Writing originally published by Crowd Talks 2015

My first experience of a Brighton illustration degree show came in 2001 at the Coningsby Gallery in London. Lawrence Zeegen, then the head of the Graphic Design & illustration courses at the University of Brighton, invited me along to the exhibition after being introduced during my graduation show at the Royal College of Art. It was the only tangible thing that I got from the show at the RCA, so I duly went along the following week to see what the Brighton students were all about.

The Brighton Illustration Show a chance for those who hadn’t seen the degree show at Brighton to see the work of graduating illustrators. Having a second exhibition in London was nothing new, indeed Kingston University had held their own ‘London’ shows at the Coningsby Gallery for a number of years, and I remember myself transporting artworks to the gallery from Kingston one weekend to set up the exhibition.
I was asked to begin teaching at Brighton the following Autumn, the start of a lengthy relationship with the university leading up to the present day being the Course Leader of the illustration programme. What became apparent in those subsequent years of teaching at Brighton was the growing independence of these exhibitions, to today when they are completely student led.

Gradually I began to notice an increase to the scope & ambition of these Brighton student led exhibitions. From the early involvement in the burgeoning ‘Free Range’ series of graduate shows at the Truman Brewery in the East End of London, to shows at the Rag Factory just off Brick Lane E2, Rochelle School on Arnold Circus, Netil House at London Fields, and the Car Park Show in Chelsea 2013 in a former car sales dealership, what has always impressed me has been the scale of ambitions of the students.
The Graphic Design & Illustration courses at Brighton prides itself on the fact that the students themselves fundraise through out the 3 years of the undergraduate studies, to culminate in the organization & curating a graduate show externally of the university, as part of the learning process in the final year. This show to be honest is usually better than the assessment degree show at the university, reflecting greater identity and self-confidence gained from the earlier exhibition.
Each show has had it’s own character, whether the provocative use of bare chipboard to hang work upon & dry ice at an infamous private view in the Truman Brewery, causing a letter of complaint from one visitor of another show that it felt like they were entering a rave! From such youthful spirit to the ‘Now What’ exhibition of 2012 whose students wanted to question the profession that they were about to enter, featuring writing and an event evening that later was to spawn Crowd Talks themselves.

The importance of this independence is in harnessing the spirit of the year group, allowing the students to break away from the institutional, and to reflect their own concerns or agenda beyond simply a display of work. This forms an important element of forming an individual identity, both individually & collectively – allowing students to enter the professional world on their own terms, discussing social and political awareness.

In an increasingly non-linear career path, the individual who can design his or her own job is becoming vital to stand out, and not to feed into an industry. Also it is important in the light of tuition fees and politicized student bodies. Having the confidence to trust students to explore not only themes or subjects that may be contentious but also the very means of communicating, and the forms of presentation within a degree show.

© Roderick Mills 

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Being Alone

"I love walking in the woods, on the trials, along beaches. I love being part of nature. I love walking alone. It is therapy. One needs to be alone, to recharge one's batteries."
Grace Kelly

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Wandering Line

Writing originally published in The Wandering Line for Ink Illustration 2011.

The Wondering Line

In the digital age there is seldom time for the wandering thought, an explorative journey of an idea, observation, a narrative, or simply a line taken for a walk. Maybe only through the simple act of drawing can one slow down & wonder, to intuitively make a mark whether descriptive or abstract, turning a thought into the visual.
It is perhaps only through a sketch that we have the time to embark on journeys which are undefined, to explore a subject matter without a clearly defined outcome, upon that treacherous path where dangers lurk at every stage. In the sketch we are brave, where unconsciously we express ourselves without thought of audience or client.
Sketches are often unseen. They are the intermediary stage of a work, part of the working process, the immediate thought, the trace of an idea prior to its translation as a resolved piece of work, a visual shorthand, a rhythm of spontaneous marks made across paper or computer tablet induced by an emotional response. The sketch may be a personal space, a place for posing oneself questions in your work, a place to show no fear.
Ink Illustration here exhibits their sketchbooks, diaries & collected material thoughts, personal inner dialogues to show their visual worlds, both real & imagined, at what they dwell upon in their common collective. To reveal there individual journeys with unabashed honesty in an effort to understand & explore the process & philosophy of the sketch.

© Roderick Mills

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Studio

Writing originally published for the Brighton Show: Studio 350 in 2015

The Studio

This year in Studio 350 at Brighton the level 6 students prepared in advance ahead of the start of term, designing the space for the 8 months of their final year at the university. Amongst the highlights of the year there has been a graphic design Island, an Introverts’ corner, and illustrators sat amongst the designers. Outside of the making of work, lectures, seminars, tutorials and crits, there have also been a meditation session, a cake competition, a class photograph, interviews, debates, tears and laughter, the odd bit of philosophy, construction, some records played and a live webcam recording the studio. In 2014/15 I’ve enjoyed my visits to Studio 350.

In my time teaching at the University of Brighton the first major change to the studios was in 2007 when the Graphic Design and Illustration courses replaced the old individual desks and invested in new folding tables. They were long, came in blue, red and yellow, looked like design furniture and modernized what had been a very traditional layout of the studios. There was an immediate impact upon the way students engaged with the space, especially the illustrators, as the spaces became less individual, becoming more open plan and introduced a more mobile use of the studios rather than a working space. Initially I remember the look of horror from one of the Graphic Design members of staff when Jasper Goodall and myself inserted partition dividers between the tables to help create intimacy for the illustrators – we did actually acquiesce in the end, and there were large blocks of tables organized around the room with students sat around, rather than the patchwork of short tables and pin board dividers.

There was logic to the change, at degree show time they could be easily folded away for local storage in the department rather than the cost of using external storage. They also offered a more social use of the space, reflecting the changing nature of the profession towards the digital, and being mobile. It would take a few years before students themselves took ownership of the space, to adapt the furniture for their own ends, mixing up the spaces a little to provide quieter, more private working environments.

Increasingly students did more work off site, coming in on hot days when staff where timetabled for workshops or crits. This obviously might have always been true, and there is a danger of romanticizing the studios. We did notice that studio attendance was always higher in the final year, perhaps the jeopardy of the degree mark, or as one graduate put it, they were simply dressed appropriately in level 6 to begin seriously to work. Each year group in any event has its own dynamic in how they want to engage with the space. There is usually a core group of students who set up camp and have serial attendance, in subsequent years students mixed up the large blocks of tables with single strips facing the windows to encourage more individual spaces, and most recently utilizing the sink area in Studio 350 as we saw less and less paint being used.

At the time of the original change the new tables seemed harsh especially on the illustrators, who formerly customized their spaces with sources of inspiration around them, pinning postcards and magazine cuttings about them. Sat with students during tutorials you could build a picture of their interests and possible subject matter from what surrounded them. Gradually however I noticed that over time the layout of the studios allowed for a different use of the space, encouraging newer types of work being produced, together further collaborations to take place. At other institutions I have seen the template of one table per student effect the material output of students, generally encouraging 2D only, and usually to fit the table size. This especially for illustration can slip into the clich├ę of what you would expect to be produced, pencils, fineliner, and watercolour renderings, little use of digital and only occasionally breaking out of these modes when in the print room.

It was during 2011/12 that I first recognized how students themselves had changed and were using very different working methods to those of mine only a few years previously. In that year student Jake Evans referred to themselves as the ‘laptop TV generation’. This came out of one of those freeform conversations when discussing how students were using their laptops in the studio. It was becoming more regular that students were generating artwork digitally, at first for print outcomes, but also increasingly more film based material, but I noticed that they were also using the laptop to store inspiration and research material, and to keep updated on social media with what was happening, and communicating that way rather than simply email. I recognized that they were using their desktops just like students in the past had used the desk dividers, as pin boards, ordering sources of inspiration from around the world.

During these tutorials I remember that at first students being initially embarrassed when I would notice that they had Facebook opened also on their desktops, but these days there is an acceptance that multiple screens are part and parcel of our daily studio activity, whether in the professional world or in the university. Not only are students adapting the studio space according to their creative practice, but in terms of tutorials, the laptop enabled a reservoir of material to show students, making for a much more interactive conversation, being able to show instantly a film clip, or an artist the student should look at. So change is not necessarily bad, and studios need some form of flexibility to meet the needs of students. It is perhaps no coincidence that in recent years work being produced in the level 6 Studio 350 have included more sculptural forms.

As a student the best studio experience that I have had was in the Stevens Building at the Royal College of Art in Kensington. In the first year I was in the famed Studio 1 on the first floor, the traditional illustration studio during a period when the Graphic Design & Illustration courses became MA Communication Art & Design. An intimate room with Individual table spaces, storage lockers, and plan chests. In an evening the desk lamps gave the studio a warm, safe feel about it – important to establish the right environment. The studios were also a mixture of years and disciplines, so you found yourself sat amongst illustrators, graphic designers, typographers, filmmakers, or artists, this added richness to the dynamic of conversations and helped to raise the critical discourse.

However what signified the atmosphere of the studio more than anything else was those who occupied it. I think that studio culture is essential, and students need to be prepared to properly engage and to use the studio as a professional would. In the past I’ve always encouraged level 6 illustrators to take ownership of the studio, to adapt the space, if necessary to even bring in furniture that suites their requirements, anything really to reflect the work production of the year group using Studio 350, to mimic as far as possible how studios work in the professional world.

David Rayson, the Professor of Painting at the RCA has often used the phrase ‘washing your dirty linen in public’ to emphasize the need for students to work at college, to share work in progress. Similarly the illustrator Marion Deuchars who I now share a studio with, at Studio 100 London always pressed upon me the importance of being in the same space as others; “…You can always see the confidence in the work of those who share spaces, rather than work from their bedrooms.”
The studio is a shared space, a communal exchange, from Andy Warhol’s Factory, to the artist Olafur Eliasson, to Heatherwick Studio at Kings Cross London, the studio becomes more than merely the place of making work, to encompass both research and knowledge production.

The studio has to be flexible, reflecting the cross-disciplinary/hybrid nature of work, to an ever-increasing expanded field of artistic production, to encompass the broad range of practices that students are identifying within illustration at Brighton. Today a diverse capacity of production is necessary, including both traditional analogue techniques to equipping students with digital, and theoretical skills.

As the nature of the studio has changed, the transition from a workshop for physical production to a space with the potential for multiple forms of creation and participation has to be anticipated. Over the past 6 years it has been interesting to observe the changing nature of Studio 350 at Brighton and how the space is being used. Enabling the collaborative interchange between Graphic Design and Illustration, but also a growing crossover into other disciplines, and creating a space that is accessible, in terms of students looking outwards beyond the immediacy of their work, to locate their audience, and engagement with the public.

© Roderick Mills