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Ben O'Brien (aka Ben the Illustrator), a Cornwall based illustrator, predominantly creating colourful ethereal landscapes for advertising and editorial. After graduating from an animation BA around 10 years ago, I went on to follow a dream and work in music videos, animating and directing for Skint Records, Sony Japan and Domino Records. I then became creative director of a small design/animation agency in London, where I got to learn a lot about different media and creative markets. I was also always doing illustration jobs on the side, then in early 2005 I had an epiphany and realised it was the illustration jobs that I really enjoyed, so I left my position in the agency and went solo, became 'Ben the Illustrator'. I now work alongside my wife Fi, who is often the creative mind (and usually the business mind) in a lot of our projects and products.
www.bentheillustrator.com - my regular site, mostly commercial illustration work
www.speakerdog.com - My illustrated character, more of an 'art' project, we take Speakerdog out for exhibitions and produce a variety of products
www.buybentheillustrator.com - Our online shop, posters, prints and plush toys a plenty
When did you first decide to become a graphic designer/ illustrator?
Drawing is all I've ever really done, since childhood, I always knew I wanted to be creative or some kind of 'artist' in life. At school it was often my only enjoyment, although I also have a great love for mathematics!?! I was studying at Central St Martins in the mid-90s when music videos where becoming incredibly exciting, with Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Hammer and Tongs all coming to light. So I went into animation, while always continuing to create a lot of illustrations. My career led me into animation quite heavily, music videos, kids tv and later, online animation projects. Until a few years ago I decided that my strongest skills were simply in illustration, and since then it's all been super!
Was there a pivotal moment?
In my life, there's been a few... Aged 6 or 7, Mr.Stevens history class, we were all told to draw a picture of any imagined scene from history, I started work on a piece involving pirates storming a beach, I remember being so keen to get the waves right and trees on the beach and hills in the distance. Afterwards my drawing became some kind of junior school masterpiece! That was when I decided that drawing was 'my thing'. Aged 11, my folks (who have always been very supportive) bought me a book about the work of Brian Cook, a fantastic British bookcover artist from the 1940s who used wild colours to paint scenes from countryside life, that book remains one of my favourites (it's on a shelf right behind me right now). Aged 16, my school art teacher (Mr John Dutfield, to whom I owe a lot), took us on a trip to The Tate Gallery (Tate Britain as it is now, before the Modern opened) where I saw 'Whaam!' by Roy Lichtenstein face-to-face for the first time and a room filled with four huge Gilbert & George pieces. I was overwhelmed by all, by the colours and the striking imagery, art had never felt so powerful. The most pivotal moment since was the day I realised I could make a living out of illustration work and it didn't have to be small jobs on the side of my position in a design/animation agency. I walked out of the studio, went home, sat on the sofa for two days drinking tea, feeling enlightened that I could actually pay the rent by doing illustration.
Who or what inspires you?
There are literally millions of artists... Brian Cook for his use of colour; Keith Haring for his boldness; most of the late 70s and early eighties graffiti artists from NYC (the Wild Style/Style Wars artists, especially Doze, Lee, Dondi, Seen, Skeme) for their pure guts and skill; Takeshi Murakami for his enthusiasm and ideas; other current artists and illustrators that inspire me include Paolo Arriano, Sauerkids, Phibs, Noferin, Jeff Soto, Airside, Thomas Campbell (and all those beautiful losers) and Alejandro Paul. Also, special mention for Harvey Ball, who designed the smiley face! I also find a lot of inspiration in the outside world, my wife and I like to walk a lot, take ourselves off on dreamy adventures! And finally music, lots and lots of music, The Polyphonic Spree, The Beatles, Adem, The Beastie Boys, I could list for hours!
Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?
I loved art class at school, then I studied animation at college, but I think my illustration training is more self-taught. I developed my drawing style from simply sketching for years. I taught myself how to use Adobe Illustrator, which is now priceless for me in what I do.
How do you keep "fresh" within your industry?
I always keep interested in what's going on, what other illustrators are up to, I love sites like the Little Chimps Society for finding new illustrators, but I think my work keeps fresh simply because I'm always striving to do something better than I've done before. I really don't want to get too stuck in a rut or bored of what I do. Hopefully creating exciting work from the heart will keep things fresh and appealing to the industry.
What are some of your current projects?
I've a new exhibition opening up next week with my character Speakerdog, that's been keeping us busy. It's half new artwork by me, printed nice and big and half new plush toys made by Fi. For the exhibition we've also produced a bunch of new posters in our 'World Lovin Posters' range, that's one of our favourites things at the moments, producing posters, we use an eco printers, so they're all printed using vegetable inks on FSC certified paper, hence the 'World Lovin' Posters'. I've also been involved in a project for BBC and Fallon, questioning what culture is, it's been a great project, now launching online to coincide with the new series of The Culture Show. I'm also working on a couple of things for Computer Arts, who are always a pleasure to be involved with, such a great bunch of people producing a strong design magazine, and really dedicated to giving novices and professionals alike good worthwhile information and tutorials.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?
One of my favourite regular clients are Smart Cars, who I've been working with for a couple of years now, on an 'alternative ad campaign' throughout Europe. Last year I illustrated a landscape which they had printed wrapped all over a new Smart Car, for a big show in San Jose, California. Seeing my work taken onto that kind of medium is quite a thrill. I was also very proud when I was asked to do some work for design studio extrordinaires, Airside. I had been a huge fan of their work for some time, then I got an email from them asking if I'd come on board freelance and do some illustration work for them, it was a dream come true. When I finished the first piece for them and got the ok from them and the client, I couldn't quite put into words the pride, something I'd never really felt before.
Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?
Oil paint! I'd love to learn how to use oil paint, that's a real craft, a beautiful medium, one day I would love to take some time off and teach myself, maybe take my illustration left-field a little and craft my style with a brush in oils rather than using a Wacom in Illustrator. Saying that, I'm still today discovering new things I can do in Illustrator, it's such a deep program. As for projects, I would ove to do some bookcovers, like the great Brian Cook. Or perhaps go back into animation, but only as a background designer work with a team of really great animators, that would be very exciting.
Any advice to the novice designer/ illustrator?
Work hard, keep observing, keep exciting, try everything. A lot of young creatives pigeonhole themselves too early and don't have a go and at all the marvellous aspects of design, from type to portraits, products to animation, just indulge yourself in the wonderful world of design. I hear from a lot of students, which is always a pleasure, and I always see a lot of enthusiasm, however I think colleges/mentors/employers need to ensure that it can be a hell of a struggle to make it in the industry, not everyone graduates and gets that job at the design agency or gets picked up by a top agent. We all have to make sacrifices and really push to get somewhere, it's not easy. Saying that, it's worth the ride!
What makes a designed piece or illustration successful?
If it's commercial, for advertising or editorial etc, then the key is whether or not it does it's job, does it sell the product, or tell the story? If it doesn't then your client will tell you so. Design and illustration, although sometimes are simply just to be enjoyed, they frequently serve a purpose. when working on a piece you always have to keep in mind why you're doing it. It doesn't necessarily have to be colourful, or strong imagery, it doesn't have to appeal to everybody, but it needs to be perfect for it's purpose, whether it's to stand in an exhibition and excite people, or to grab people's attention regarding a serious cause or to sit quietly alongside a small article in print to back up a story. Design is functional, enjoy letting it function, let it function enjoyably.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?
It seems to come quite easy to me, I enjoy illustration so much, I feel blessed to be able to spend my days drawing and Fi and I love thinking up new ideas for projects and products, our heart and soul is focused on creating new things, we excite ourselves with the possibilities. I'm also incredibly critical of my own work, and often hide away older work which I no longer enjoy, so I've never had to stick in the same area for too long. The design and illustration world is fairly fast-paced and exciting, you just cruise along naturally with it and you'll be fine.
Finish this sentence. "If I weren't a designer/illustrator I would have been a..."
Forest ranger! As a teenager I worked voluntarily with my local forestry rangers and tree-surgeons and loved it, if I hadn't followed this path I'd go back to making fences around conservation areas, sawing down pine trees to preserve the heathers and building big steps out of tree-trunks to prevent erosion.
And finally, what is the best thing on prime-time TV right now?
Anything with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall growing vegetables and treating farm animals with a little love before he lights the fire and whips up a banquet of goodness.
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