Sunday, July 23, 2017

Having assistants is great!

Lisa wasn't officially an assistant, but this is what assistants are supposed to look like, efficient and cool and in control my head, anyway

Since the late 90s, I've had assistants. The first one was my best mate Jules; the second who worked next to her was my other mate, another Sara, and the third, my sister's best mate Michelle. At one point all three of them worked together alongside me, doing different shifts, helping me run the wedding stationery business which ran alongside my illustration and lecturing work - you can see why I needed extra hands! - and later I employed a family member to run the accounts (who's still here).

'Staff' Christmas Party, 2003 - Sarah, Jules, Michelle.

This is Jules 7 years later, sitting in judgment with later assistant Drew, who LOVED stamping things.
And assessing the suitability of my clothing on arrival at work. 

We often get emails asking whether we currently have an opening for an assistant or intern. I've almost always said no - and not because we don't need one, but because we already have one. And we make an important distinction between Interns and Assistants - traditionally, and especially of late, Interns aren't paid; they're meant to be getting 'work experience' on the job, something companies can easily take advantage of. They're often expected to be grateful for the opportunity, and do it for free. We don't buy into that however; if you're working with and for us, yes, you'll most definitely be getting experience in the form of Illustration Boot Camp, (just ask our former assistant Brook), but we'll also be gaining from your input, knowledge, skills, your third pair of hands, eyes and your brain. So it benefits both parties, and for that, we pay very fairly, and handsomely over the minimum wage.

Lily was invited to rifle through my entire archive of original work, and put up an exhibition of what she liked - followed by the curation of a show of her own work, and a blog written about the process of doing both. 

Graham Robson did a similar thing in his first week - put up his own show of work, which included two murals, one of which Sarah is sitting in front of at one of our pop-up Secret Sunday Breakfasts! (I'm eating off my collection of Inkymole press)

If you come and work with us you'll be expected to work. Not watch. Anyone can make tea, and I'll probably make as much tea as you do. If you do make the tea, however, you'll be shown the right way to do it (bag in first, milk only after it's brewed). But you'll also be asked to undertake a sometimes bewildering variety of tasks which engage the brain and call for initiative.

For example, our successive assistants have:

- been our 'eye in the sky' back home as we travel through Europe checking out an exhibition venue, looking out for logistics, watching email, helping to order passes and other legalities

- helped paint a 15m mural in a half-completed building without power or light - on breeze block, the bastard of all substrates

- helped painted a restored pub, powered by chips

- made an oversized silicone penis door stop, from scratch

- worked out the basics of copper etching and assisted in etching album cover art

- completed entire illustrations in a style to complement mine

- built an archive

- been a waitress in our pop-up restaurant

- edited and subtitled a film

- went on a solo mission to London, twice, to find a suitable exhibition venue

- set up an image tagging system

- set up a server

- been indispensable right-hand (wo)man during the publicising, set-up and installation of a two-week exhibition - twice

- pitched in with drawing hundreds of mathematical formulae for a 72ft high Manhattan billboard

- been the Fourth Man in setting up the technicals of hosting an online and FM radio station over a 72-hour shift (including doing 2 live DJ slots)

- built 3 websites

- helped build a web shop

- solved endless technical challenges

- solved brain-crunching iTunes issues

- turned a Mac into a PC to run broadcast software

- installed a Firewall

- done photoshoots

- accompanied us to agency dos

- built an iPad folio system

and that's by no means an exhaustive list. These jobs of course are all alongside the day to day tasks like simply giving a second opinion, brainstorming, researching and ordering supplies and equipment,  making lunch and dinner for everyone in the studio, and stamping hundreds of mailings and Christmas promotions.

Graham adding a hand-painted postbox to the office front door.

Brook Valentine with Leigh in her show-hosting costume/shoes!

...and seeing if your name's down on the list.

So you're kind of in at the deep end if you come here, but part of that challenge is accepting that there will be days when there is simply nothing for you to do. The single most quoted obstacle to having an assistant which I hear illustrators talk about is 'but what will I give them to do'? And that's why our assistants have to have spades of initiative, for precisely those days when you need to either fend for yourself, or work out what WE need you to do - because often, when you're really busy, you can't actually see what needs doing, or where you need help, till someone else points it out to you. When your assistant starts to spot what needs doing before you do, you know you're onto a winner, and all those slightly awkward days early on in the arrangement have all paid off.

Sarah Jinks constructing a piece from almost 2500 Swarovski crystals for our 2006 'If A Girl Writes Off The World' show

Graham helping with the etching

As well as the obvious joy of having a pair of helping hands, there is the changed dynamic of a studio with another person in it who isn't you or your partner. As we've got older, our assistants have, as a matter of chronological fact, become younger than us - and this is a GOOD THING. Millennials come in for a shit load of stick, but they're great - they're interesting, they think in a different way, their skillsets are not the same as ours, neither is their experience of the world, and their energy is refreshing. I don't actually even like the word Millennials - there's something very 'other-ing' about it - but there is most definitely an energising effect to having one bounce into your studio with their slightly askew, quick humour, ideas, opinions and musical choices (we will check the contents of your iPod before we say yes - there's no point you spending your days hating what we're playing, and vice versa - because some days, we'll put you in charge of the tunes!)

The second reason I've heard people give for not having an assistant - including me, definitely, from time to time - is 'but having an assistant is just going to create extra work for me'.

Well, yes, it is. It can be hard work in the early days having someone in your space that you don't know, and you can't just bury your head in your work and pretend they're not there. You have to make sure the bathroom's tidy. You need to make sure you've plenty of tea bags. That they've got somewhere comfortable and well lit to work in. That they know how you like to have your phone  answered, that you've set up their own email address from your studio; that hey feel comfortable around you and they have plenty to do - bearing in mind, 'plenty to do' when you first start in a job, especially compared to your own workload, can actually be about a third of what you yourself would consider 'plenty to do'. But when the ball's rolling nicely, and you've all got to know each other's ropes, it's wonderful.

Graham 'at the wall' - the 15 metre, bastard breezeblock wall

If you think you're getting bit overwhelmed from time to time, you work by yourself or feel like an injection of energy is needed, I heartily recommend an assistant. It took me a long time to get used to the idea of a helper beyond giving roles to my mates and family, as I too used to worry about what they'd do, feeling that I might bore them to death, or their presence would be extra work for me. They don't have to be five days a week - ours have never been, except in REALLY busy times - as the likelihood is they'll have their own shit to crack on with. But maybe try it. The benefits are mutual, long-lasting and good for our brains, careers and creativity. You'll very likely help them on their way, via them helping you on yours.

And who knows, you might even have FUN.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

The joy of commissioning your mates.

We've got some extremely gifted mates, and there's nothing like the feeling of asking them to make something for you which employes all of their skills, plays to their strengths and makes you the thing you need while maybe, hopefully, testing them a little bit.

I don't get to collaborate all that much in my day-to-day work - with art directors yes, via email and phone, and if we're doing something on a wall, some help there too. But pooling your ideas and desires to make a new piece of furniture, a garden sculpture, something stitched for the home, or even the architecture of your new home and studio, is quite different, and the pressure's on someone else to deliver - which can be really refreshing!

Spencer Jenkins, who lives with artist partner Alisha Miller in Warwickshire, has been a friend for the best part of 20 years and during that time has eased his creativity into a unique space which embraces woodcraft, weaving, alchemy (I mean, the man pickles oak you know?) and complex self-supporting structures coaxed from nature's shapes using patience, pondering and drawing. Carved and steamed wood forms complex, thoughtful and reaching pieces; they're aspirational, comfortable and sometimes challenging, but they're all uniquely Spencer, and are commissioned by the RHS, Gardener's World, Chelsea Flower Show, Hampton Court, Vertigo Records, gardens and institutions the length and breath of Britain...and Black Sabbath.

We have long needed a big sofa to go into the room on our top floor; a long, pointy room which along with the rest of the house is on a skewed rhombus; not a right angle to be found. Pretty much all furniture and storage has to be custom made, and the top room - my studio for ten years - has additional challenges as it is at the top of a winding, steep, narrow, staircase - you can't get anything up there without huge struggle, least of all a sofa. And we need a sofa - the whole of the ground floor is studio and office, middle is sleeping and washing, which means the top floor has finally become our dedicated TV, movie and film space. When we finally put pens/mice down and chill, we need to feel work's over for the day.

The studio as it was. There's just a big telly there now!

This 'thing to sit on' needed to be wide, deep for Leigh's long legs, and capable of being assembled on-site. No flat backs or right angles. We briefed Spence on all this, Leigh driving the direction with his idea around a metal park bench with slats, like this one he saw on a trip to New York:

Spencer started with drawings of 50s-inspired space rockets, all Festival of Britain angles and aspiring points:

His cardboard and wire maquette was extremely cute too:

This blog will massively simplify the many processes Spencer undertook, and what can't be communicated is the incalculable amount of thinking, problem solving and man hours that went into this beast. But we shall begin here; once all feeding-back and chipping-in and discussion had concluded, Spencer enlarged his drawing of the profile of the sofa and laid it on the ground of his workshop, starting to lay the metal bar over the top:

after which it was a case of 'Let Bending Commence!' (which by all accounts was Bloody Hard Work). For those into detail, the metals are a hybrid of round solid steel bar, hollow steel tubing and flat steel bar:

This centre strut was created to make a frame for the wooden slats which would form the sofa:

The sofa's four dainty feet began to emerge, delicately en pointe where they would meet the new black sheep's wool carpet:

and suddenly, the final form of the piece made itself known at full size:

At this point there was the opportunity to powder-coat the structure, which had been done to slick effect on some of Spencer's other commissioned pieces. We thought about it, but were so enamoured of the texture of the metal and the polychroming of the welded areas that we decided to leave it, the evidence of its construction, and seal it in with lacquer.

Spencer picked up on this and experimented with varying levels of heat treatment along the bar:

Perhaps a little giraffe-like, the effect was appealing, and the colours gorgeous, but we felt it yelled a bit over the simple, clean lines of the structure:

Here are the arms being made, in Spencer's Hellraiser-esque bending improvisation:

Once the wooden arms, metal feet, legs and back - in one piece - were created to bookend the structure, the wooden slats were cut and shaped, one at a time. Calculating the spacing was crucial, so that gaps were consistent. This is Ash, and the arms are made of steamed ash (to allow the bend):

And quietly, towards the end of July, the finished 2m wide construction appeared in Spencer's workshop. We couldn't wait to go and bounce on it; Spencer couldn't wait to get it into our loft and out of his space! It had occupied huge chunks of his brain and workshop for months on end, and although he was pleased, I think he was happy to...

...take it apart and build it again. Because of course, the constructed version in the workshop had to be disassembled and taken up to our loft room, one section at a time, and rebuilt there.

Sorry Spence.

Our beautiful sofa is now upstairs on its black sheep's wool carpet, with only a light, little table and big telly for company (oh and my massive book cover archive which I've yet to decide what to do with). The next step is getting removable upholstery made, but meanwhile it's home to our small but growing collection of Japanese-inspired textiles - a Dan Kitchener cushion and throw, a Tenugui print by Nomoco (currently being adapted into a large soft cushion by my Mum, resident guru of the needles) and a grumpy, squishy Gudetama who's in a constant state of judgement - along with three other creatures and assorted bung-it-all-on-there blankets and soft things.

It's a nice place to be, and it's a one-off - we've told him already, but here's a large and fulsome public thank you to Spencer for his problem solving, inventiveness and dedication during a period of total Sofa Rocket immersion. 

It's great to commission a mate.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Interview With The Vampire

I received this email yesterday and it confounded me. How should I reply? Should I reply?

It's polite enough, and spelled correctly with proper punctuation; he knows my name, and my work very well (which all help ensure I make time to give an enquirer a reply).

But this is the email, and it stumped me. (Im)pertinent info has been removed.

I am a cartoonist and creative entrepreneur based out of *** (home/school). This week and next I will be making a hand drawn calligraphic website banner for ***'s new *** creative magazine The ***. 

During my research phase I came across your poster for ***. I really enjoy the *** and plan to use the lettering for "***" as a template for my own lettering. If you have a minute, I want to ask you some questions regarding your experience with the poster: 

1. What did you use as a reference to come up with the lettering for "***"? 

2. What was the format and medium for the poster design?

3. Which inking tools did you use? Pens, brushes, digital?

4. Did you use any stencils to render the letters?

5. Anything else that you would like to share about the creative process behind this poster. 

I have attached a copy of the poster to let you know which one I am talking about. 

Now, these are the kinds of questions I get when someone's writing a thesis. A PhD, a dissertation. I've received, and fulsomely replied to, countless emails from students and still-learning illustrators about just about everything over the years - promotion, methods, working practice, fees and so on. I'm usually happy to reply, and use my two and a half decades of experience to lend my opinion to those already offered to a student by their tutors and peers. After all these students are the future of the industry - well, some of them will be, I'm always aware not all will pursue their chosen subject - and mine will be only one of several voices chiming in. I won't tell you how to make your work - only you can do that - but I can suggest how you market it, promote it, refine it, sell it and so on.

But this was an email from someone referring to themselves as a CEO, essentially i) telling me they are going to copy my lettering for their own piece of work - work they intend to take to market, and ii) asking me how to do it, implying in the process that I copied it in the first place.

Was I wrong to interpret this as a politely-written request for a set of instructions on how to re-create the work they want to mimic? Sure, I pulled on all sorts of specific historical references for the work in question - four A3 sheets full of clippings, sketches, photos; my old books and their ornate spines, type books by the likes of Louise Fili, Steven Heller, my Letraset catalogues from the 70s - did they really not have access to the same stuff as me? Maybe they just don't know what to Google, what typographic books to dig into.

I didn't know where to start with it. My first thought was bemusement, then I was a little breathtaken by their cheek, then cross. Then the opposite. I started to think 'OK; just a student, they're learning, and that includes learning protocol and etiquette, I'll just talk to them about their approach'.

But then I saw their website and that as well as being a student, that they're calling themselves a CEO - "the position of the most senior corporate officer, executive, leader or administrator in charge of managing an organization". 

That bothered me. I'm a Company Director, but I don't call myself that day to day - you'll find it on legal paperwork but that's about it. It's a legal status regarding how our company's set up - it doesn't give me any special hierarchy or status. And yes, I guess it's technically possible to be a CEO and be  student - many people go back to study after first careers, or set up fully operational companies while they're still undergraduates.

So what was it about that that bothered me so much?

My thoughts moved onto wondering whether this is 'Just How People Learn Now'. I thought about this for ages - all afternoon in fact, as I did my work. Work that was original, on paper, created afresh, without anyone else's work in front of me, just some references of the particular ancient ethnic henna tattoo style I was taking as influence for the very specific content of this book.

Hang on - how was what I was doing any different from what this person wanted to do?

I recalled a colleague recently talking about an email he'd had from another, presumably newish, illustrator wanting to know his short cuts, what software effects he used and how he could make work like his. My colleague was very cross with the enquirer, as they'd implied that Bob* (not his real name) used some kind of filter, software effect or short cut, when in fact he hand-draws individual elements by hand in hundreds of layers to build up very complex illustrations. Bob was happy to tell the enquirer this, in what we shall call a Firmly Worded Reply. The essence of his reply was, There Is No Short Cut.

As much as I can understand a student's eagerness to just bloody well know how to do it, and quickly please because I live in a world where everything happens NOW, I can also understand my colleague's umbrage. One day you find yourself ten years into a career, and you've built up certain skills through years of trial and error, you're working long days, longer nights. Then you find yourself 15 years into the same career, a little more confident, faster maybe, but still learning, and you're a bit more knackered, the days seem longer. One day you hit 20 years, which you can't believe because only yesterday it was new Year's Eve 1999, and you're adept, busy, confident (ish), and, possibly, well established and well known. Maybe a bit less tired, because some things might have become easier, and still learning. Nobody who reaches any of these chronological landmarks, nor any in between, having spent the entire time working in their craft, likes to believe that anyone thinks their work's just 'knocked out' using filters or effects. We might love our largely anonymous existences as creators of images 'behind the scenes' - we don't get into this to be pop stars - but we are just as vulnerable to pride, fear of eclipse and puffed-out-chests. So we do time-lapses, GIFs, step-by-steps, BTS and WIP Instas to show how we do it; to prove we have skills and what that unique set of skills comprises. We might, as I did in the middle years of my career, share and teach the very thing that's making us unique and marketable at that time - in my case, my lettering work. As early as 2000, I was showing students how to use myriad pens and nibs, create styles like mine, and explore how lettering can be a standalone thing, its enormous creative potential.

So you've got to watch yourself. The industry and how it is both taught and learned has changed radically in the time since my own graduation. Hours are shorter. Expectation is higher. Software must be learned, or the course risks being seen as not delivering. Courses are paid for - grants in the UK at least are no more than a wistful look in an over-40-year-old's tired eyeball - so skills must be handed out, quickly. How do we know what these learners are being taught? Maybe they're encouraged to contact their favourite illustrators directly with exactly these enquiries, rather than waste time experimenting or playing about with materials. After all, a full time course is no longer a full time course - my own experience of teaching degree level has illuminated the squeeze on teachable, on-site hours.

So back to my confusion. This person was only asking me things that a student might have done, face to face, in a workshop. They just 'need to know'. They have a deadline. There had to be something else behind my initial discomfort.

I've thought about this email a LOT since it came in, and my conclusion about my own reaction to it is this. Their email was polite, kind, well-worded, and correct. What they are asking is, technically, and perhaps even morally, perfectly reasonable. What I realised is at the root of my discomfort is the sense of laziness, and my judgement about that. From a position of wanting to have it both ways - being taken seriously as a CEO but wanting to be shown the patience and insights a student would be given - there's a waft of entitlement in the email that suggests I'm expected to hand out easy answers, solutions and instructions to cut out all of the exploration, experimentation, cock ups, embarrassing went-wrongs, wonderful went-rights and messy playfulness that go with working it out for yourself. That's the GOOD STUFF. It's the gritty, awkward, painful side of this work that's hard to engage with, that takes time, and which ultimately makes for a better, more original, more authentic product. I still struggle with that myself. Daily. But to jump that bit and go straight to Go is to do yourself a creative disservice. And I'm not even sure it's possible, if longevity is something you desire.

I'm a professional and I'm experienced, but this makes me neither The Expert nor immune to the struggle to create something new. Maybe that's why it rankled. I want that person to go through what I did - perhaps borne from a misplaced sense of 'fairness', and 'earning' your position...earning that CEO title. They didn't mean, I'm quite sure, to come across as rude. I'm pretty confident they think there's nothing at all wrong with their email; and maybe there isn't. Maybe the difference here is simply that he told me what he was going to do, instead of just doing it without me knowing. My work is copied all the time - as is that of my colleagues - we see it, you know. We just accept it if it's in the context of exploration and learning as we expect that learners will move on and evolve, like we feel we did.

I want CEO Cheeky to go ahead and try the poster without my help. They'll probably do a damn fine job. I hope it doesn't look like mine. I hope it looks like theirs, for better or for worse. In the end, we can only ever do our own thing, and I'm all occupied keeping that fresh and alive. Lord knows that takes enough energy all by itself.

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources" - Einstein

Yes, those are spud prints.


I replied to the CEP today. here's my email. I'm really hoping he'll be as willing to share his work with me as he hoped I would be with my process.

Hi *****

Thanks for your email. I hope by now you’ve got the piece of work done and handed in for the deadline, and you enjoyed the process of creating it. I’ve spent many years helping students with their progress - through Masters and Degree level lecturing, through workshops and seminars, talks, through judging competitions, one-to-one sessions, in further education and by email, and yours was a most politely worded and well written email.

I am flattered that you sought to base your work on mine; I actually wrote a blog about the process of making this poster, which you would probably have found if you’d spent a bit of time on my website and blog. (I’m not sure where you found this piece of work, as you didn’t mention that).

Your email got me thinking about a few things. I’ve had plenty of people copy my work, but never had anyone tell me they’re going to copy my work, and then ask me how to do that. So I spent some time thinking about my own response to that - it’s very unusual - and put all my thoughts in a blog which you can read if you want to ('names have been changed', of course).

Your email presented me with an opportunity to ruminate on a few topics, and I’m grateful for that (there’s no sarscasm there).

And I would be interested to see the work you did, if you are willing to share it? I would be happy to give feedback, if you still want my input.

Best regards


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