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Interview: Rob White

1 April 06 interview: David Bowen

We had a chat with one of Nottingham's renowned artists about everything from Paul Smith to his infamous website

How did you get started with illustration?
My drawing probably started when I was about two years old, taking the piss out of my brother. I'd refer to bim as a "boc", as the back of his head used to stick out rather far, and I used to draw pictures of this huge protrusion sticking out behind his ears. I weigh 50 pounds. He is the "boc" monster on the arthole site. I also used to get obsessive about war films, drawing pictures of the British fighting the Germans, like most kids at the time. Now it's a form of piss take of my friends or brother.

Was it something you would do instead of watching TV?
Yes. I wouldn’t say I was an avid viewer of TV when I was a kid. I’d generally be out making things instead. I used to make lots of gliders and lots of drawings. My mother was telling me that she used to buy loads of pens, pencils and crayons and sheets of paper. I was pretty obsessive about it. I kind of knew it was what I wanted to do since I was four or five years old. I started off watching Tony Hart and sent a few things off to ‘the gallery’, but they didn’t get shown. At home there is a big suitcase full of all those scribbles to this day.

When you began at college, what did you hope to achieve?
I started at college doing a BTECH, as I wasn't too sure which area to specialise in. I think I was almost creatively handicapped because most courses focus on realism at that age. Certain kids that weren't as gifted with drawing would be quite talented at things like composing and then find out more later on. I thought I was going to do graphic design at the time, and spent a lot of time trying to think of it as a job, or a nine to five, you know, the way we think of things as a career. I think that took me away from my true calling, which was more painting, drawing and expressive work. It was at college that i decided to go and do illustration, which felt a little like a compromise. I could see myself more as a fine artist at the time, but I had a tendency to want to do work with more of a narrative to it. I never got too bogged down with writing a 10,000 word thesis on conceptual art and the strong drawing thing in me; boc making; and expressing myself with form and colour was closer to my heart.

After college you worked from one of Nottingham's artist studios. Was it a good halfway house between education and professional life?
It was a bit like that. There were some really interesting people of varying ages and and disciplines and it was great to actually get a space. I came out on university after six years of working with a studio space and it was a challenge to move back with my parents. Working our a bedroom for a few years was difficult and I didn't get the studio until about 1999. It was a major shift when I did get it.

Around that time you started working on the record covers for Bent, which are very different to the other work on the arthole site. Can you tell us about how you arrived at the ideas for them?
It was a very different move for me, particularly with the Programmed To Love LP. I got heavily into pattern and arranging the composition in a grid format. I was painting on canvases a metre square, but when I took them to the scanning shop they didn't have a scanner big enough. Besides which, the scans were not of the quality that I needed, so when it came to the album artwork I had to find a way around it, and the best way seemed to be breaking it into tiles. With the tile system I could get a section on an A4 scanner, which gave me the control over colour and quality to get exactly the balance that I wanted.

There was a creative game going on where I’d lay the image out on 36 tiles, 6x6, then break the boards up and randomly work on a small section of the whole canvas. It was quite abstract, just working with shapes rather than a whole image and I wasn’t distracted by thinking, ‘what’s that banana doing there’, or ‘where are Simon and Nail’s heads?’ It disassembled the image into almost meaningless shapes of colour, and it’s quite playful working with collage and bringing drawing into it. Assembling the image on a board about 1.5 metres square afterwards was like a discovery, like it wasn’t my work. As the work was reduced down, the detail would come through and I was able to use that once the image was together. I could see the small problems and tweak it here and there. It’s a very beautiful way of working because it’s very detailed, unlike what I’m doing with the arthole at the moment. The Bent work leaned towards my university work in the way it was produced.
You did the Programmed To Love cover quite early on. Was it a big step up?
Yeah. I was sending samples of my work to publishers and advertisers. I got out of university and wanted to experiment, to see what would work and what wouldn’t. I was getting a few bits here and there and showed some of my university paintings at galleries in Cornwall and Buckinghamshire, where some sold, and then the Bent thing kind of turned up.
 
It involved a lot of work and research and took a long time. I was helping around the house and also looking after my father, who was unwell, so I worked hard at home on my computer. I’d also get time when I wasn’t needed and be at the studio late into the evening. It was an unusual time, because I felt so calm and very fixated on this piece of work. I think that’s why there is a lot of pattern in that piece and a lot of intricate detail. It’s probably a reflection of what was happening, as I was in some deep thought circles at the time.

More recently you’ve been working on some T-shirt designs for Paul Smith...
Yes, it was just before Christmas when they first approached me. They contacted me saying they liked numerous images on my site, mainly the cartoon stuff like the banana people and the war series. I had a couple of interviews with them, where they went through the website with me, and chose the designs which will now be printed on t-shirts to be sold in Japan. I’m looking to see where it will go now.

The website is massive at the moment and an entirely non-profit labour of love for you. How is it going to develop in the future?
It's totally changing! I've been looking into online selling with various banks and Pay-Pal. Paul Smith will be putting the website URL on all the packaging, so it's conceivable that in six months time some Japanese kid will want stuff off the website. I need to sit down and think about which illustrations I want to use and plan maybe ten T-shirt designs and some prints on heavyweight paper.

There are a few memorable themes running through the website and the Mary cartoons are particularly dark. Can you tell us a bit about her?
She's crap basically. It's almost like I created a really crap person by mistake. I didn't go out and intend to produce a really crap person, it came about by accident. I think my favourite one is where Maru meets herself, or receives a "box of cocks", (laughs). I actually had the joy of creating her and then some months later also had the privilege of meeting a woman who wasn't too far off her. I think she was stalking me. I bumped into her on Ebers Road recently, and she was staring into this big window. Anyway. I'm not going to name drop. She was that bad. Long gone.

Do you have any advice for illustrators starting out?
A website is invaluable, although I've been in touch with various people who really appreciate getting work they can handle and lay out. Some people can't stand websites and enjoy getting something in the post.

Do you have a favourite hangout in the city?
I'd say my mum's, because she's got an exceptional drinks cabinet.

Any message for LeftLion readers?
Don't carry a gun!

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