When did you discover your passion for illustration? When I was sixteen, I attended an art and design course at a college. While I was looking through this college library, I found a book by Ralph Steadman, the British illustrator who illustrated many works, like Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That’s when I discovered what the difference was between illustration and art. Although I’d always drawn as a kid, I had always assumed that art was for artists. Later, I did a two-year course in sequential illustration at Swindon College of Art and Design, learning about storyboard art and how to put stories together. Then I got a degree in illustration at the Arts Institute Bournemouth. I’ve tried every possible practice within illustration, but I really struggled for a long time to find my niche.
How did you develop your pen and ink style? In university, I studied sequential illustration and storyboarding, and also worked on comic books. Even though it was a lot of work, I enjoyed telling a story within a single image, so, inspired by political illustrators like Robert Crumb, Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman, I decided to focus on political satire illustrations. However, it’s hard to get your foot in the door as a political illustrator because there aren’t many avenues where you can go. You either do it for a newspaper, or you don’t. So I tried it for a few years and didn’t get anywhere, but I liked the heavy black line work that makes up the pen and ink drawing style.
This morphed into me doing lots of street art when that was big in Britain in 2007 through 2008. I did many mural shows with street artists, illustrators and graffiti artists in London, where we would draw on all the walls in abandoned. I would use that template for laying down acrylic paint, color and detail, and then use that black line to outline it. Instead of doing political satire, I was illustrating other people and characters in certain situations. That ended up being the style I use in The Great British Bake Off. I tried many other styles, like watercolor and detailed pencil sketches, but pen and ink had been the one that’s stuck because it has many uses.
How has your working process for The Great British Bake Off changed over the years? When I started doing the show, I was 26 and just hungry to do anything. They would usually begin filming in May, and after getting the photographs from the set, I would start on the illustrations immediately. I was working full-time and did all the graphics by myself from years one to six, which meant I was working every evening and weekend. It got to a point where I was constantly working. I would do The Great British Bake Off, then Junior Bake Off and The Great American Baking Show, which ran concurrently. I couldn’t keep doing that forever, so I started taking on interns from the University of the West of England, Bristol, who had just graduated from the illustration course. The process became more collaborative within my studio.
I generally do a rough sketch, lay out all the images within the show format and then pass it on to someone else to do the line work. Then I pass it on to a few more people, and they do the color. I oversee everything and put it all together. However, I haven’t lost the need or the want for each piece to be the best it can be at every stage. There are changes I make that no one will ever see. For example, sometimes I’ll be zooming in at 300 percent, doing every dot of a raspberry when there are 20 raspberries, even though people will be seeing this artwork from six feet away on their telly. But, from my point of view, if I don’t keep that level of intensity, what’s the point of doing it?
Every year since Bake Off started, I’ve tried to improve the process and streamline it. Not just to make it quicker, but also to make the artwork better. If you look at the graphics across seasons, you’ll notice a massive difference in what they look like. For example, the second series was the first time I used color. I hadn’t even really used Photoshop properly at that point, so I was learning as I was doing it. I’ve grown with the show.
You also designed a Shaun the Sheep statue for a public charity arts trail in 2015. What was the experience like? This project is really cool because it’s for the Bristol Children’s Hospital’s charity The Grand Appeal, and the trail is run by Aardman Animations, which created all the Wallace & Gromit films. I had missed out on the first arts trail they did, so I was eager to participate in this one.
Since the charity has a store in Bristol, where they sell figurines and merchandise for the trail, they put ten of us in a room in a back room in the store to paint our statues. As someone finished, another person would come in and fill their space. It was like being back in university, working in a studio full of people for eight or nine hours a day.
The process of designing the statue was similar to when I used to do murals. I created the design on a blank piece of paper on a blank template, penciled and sketched it out, laid down a lot of acrylic paint, and then went over the lines with Posca pens. The statue would be different from the work I create for Bake Off. People were going to walk right up to this statue, so there could be no scrimping. It was good timing that it was in January. I had finished all my other work, so I could go to the store every day and just work on the statue. I had to take a week off to do a job, but I was there for three or four weeks. It was mad really, but also a lot of fun and well received.
I also painted a Gromit statue a couple years ago and I filmed the process this time, which added an extra element to it.
What tools do you find indispensable for your work? Up until 2016, I did all the black line work for the Bake Off drawings by hand with a Posca pen. These pens have a fine sharp nib, so you can easily go from a thin line to a thick line, and they’re just nice to draw with. But after having to scan the line drawings, zoom in, and delete every little line and ink splatter from the original hand drawings for the Bake Off coloring book, I was done with drawing with a pen for the show. I immediately bought a small Wacom Cintiq. Later, I mentioned that I was working on a small Wacom in an article for Vulture, and some ladies at Wacom in America read that article and sent me a big Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 because they are fans of the show. So, I mention Wacom as much as possible now. Though I love drawing by hand, working digitally streamlines everything. I’ve realized that time is much more precious. I’ve also done lots of work on iPad Pros and use them as digital sketchbooks. There are many different formats to work on now where you can produce high-quality work.
Where do you seek inspiration? When I was still up-and-coming, I looked at other people’s work on Instagram. But that negated my own personal development. So I decided a few years ago to stop doing that. I still follow many illustrators I know, but I don’t actively seek out other illustrators to see what they’re doing. I find it much more inspiring to look at worlds that I’m not involved in, like the food industry and photographers. In my opinion, the people who are doing the most interesting kind of work are food photographers. The ways you can present and style food photography can inform the way you produce illustration.
What advice do you have for creatives who are interested in food illustration? When I was still living in Bristol, every lunch, the guys in the studio and I would go on missions to find new food stalls. And many of my friends were chefs, so when I started looking into doing food illustration and my own self-initiated projects, I called on them to send me photos of whatever dish they were making. I gradually accumulated many reference photos to practice drawing different types of food.
Later, after my wife had our first child, I moved into a different studio in Bristol that overlooked a street food hall. Wanting to get the creative juices flowing, I spent two weeks shadowing people in the different shops, taking photos and sketching all the things that they did, like butchering a pig from top to toe. I would look at these processes and think about how I could illustrate all the different parts. So, get involved with food and find interesting dishes to illustrate. Draw what you like.