Johanna Basford specialises in finely detailed monochrome pen and ink illustrations, and last year came to the media’s attention after she conceived #TwitterPicture, a crowd-sourcing exercise in which she asked tweeters to suggest images that she then compiled over a 48 hour period into one giant montage, letting those involved follow her progress using the picture-sharing site Twitpic. Here she talks to recent collaborator Neil Ayres about working with the Edinburgh Fringe, the ongoing success and continuing permutations of #TwitterPicture, agency representation and making sure, when it comes to her work, that she’s always a little bit scared.
Botanical Rhapsody, commissioned by Queensberry Hunt Ceramicists to create hand drawn surface patter designs for tableware collection, 2008.
For those that don’t know, and at the risk of making you cringe, you’re the ‘#TwitterPicture girl’. The first #TwitterPicture was a big success, but it was evident to anyone who was following your progress that it was pretty exhausting. You decided to follow it up with an even more gruelling version. Was this really sensible?
I’m a firm believer that if something isn’t challenging, it’s not worth doing. I work in a huge industry saturated with talent. My thoughts are that you have to put yourself on the edge a little bit to make yourself stand out. There’s nothing captivating about mainstream.
Detail from an illustrated interpretation of Cervantes’ The Dialogue Of The Dogs, for The New Goodbye iPhone app, 2010.
You recently used the #TwitterPicture premise to create artwork for the Edinburgh Fringe. You’re also illustrating all of the literature for the coming festival. What other work has this involved?
I’m working with Edinburgh-based design agency Whitespace to create a series of illustrations for the programme, as well as having produced the final artwork which was the result of the #FringeCover #TwitterPicture. As the Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival, it’s obviously been a privilege to work on the project. I’ve tried to capture the bubbly sense of excitement and eccentricity which is at the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe. I managed to smuggle a few little quirks and surprises into the final artwork which I hope will delight and intrigue the audience.
Hand drawn images layered over fashion photography for Vogue, 2009.
And any more #TwitterPictures on the horizon? I’m sure it’s nice to be the go-to person for something, but are you in danger of becoming typecast?
Every time I finish a #TwitterPicture, I get a little over emotional and swear, ‘never again’. Yet I find myself being drawn back to the format of live drawing and crowd sourcing just a few months later. I would never run the same project twice, but I do believe evolving an idea to fit different formats and meet new challenges is both positive and interesting. Whether it’s adding the webcam, the non-stop 24 hour drawing or teaming up with a commercial client, each evolution of the #TwitterPicture has explored something new in the idea and pushed the concept to more extreme levels. As for the danger of becoming typecast, one look at my desk would reveal the dozen or so projects I am working on at any one time. Be it textile designs, custom packaging, illustrations, limited edition prints, website graphics or tattoos – my practise is diverse and always developing, the only constant thread is my love of monochrome.
Heartbreak Pen and ink illustration, later screen printed as part of a limited edition print series created with Heartbreak Publishing, 2009.
Tell us a bit about how you came to do what you do. Have you drawn pretty much since you were knee-high to a pencil?
More like a Crayola crayon. I’ve always drawn, much to the peril of my parents who had to put up with a toddler who drew on walls. It’s a cliché, but I’ve always known I was going to end up drawing, I just wasn’t quite sure of the exact format. I went through phases of wanting to be an architect and a fashion designer, but at the core of everything was this passion for drawing.
After school I went to art school and studied printed textiles, specialising in silk screen printing. I graduated and spent a couple of years making hand-printed wallpapers and fabrics, feeling a bit confused and very unhappy about the direction I seemed to be heading in. Then, thank God, the credit crunch hit. The recession was the best thing that has happened to me. It forced me to seriously rethink what I was doing, to be completely brutal with myself. I re-evaluated my business and the work I was producing and made some big decisions. I stopped messing about making and selling products. I set myself up as an illustrator, focused on the one thing in life which never fails to inspire and delight me. I’ve not looked back since. Life is good.
MoonlitWalks, Chapillo illustration for iPhone app The New Goodbye, 2010
And how have you managed to carve a career in what’s a notoriously difficult industry to break into. Did you start out with any form of game-plan?
I’m very conscious that my industry is jam-packed with talent and ambition and that each year a new wave of eager graduates swarm into the pool of illustrators competing with each other. I’ve always thought it was better to do something different, something a little unusual, which would help me stand outside the crowd and be different. So I concentrated on creating the most detailed, intricate, hand-crafted designs, done almost exclusively in monochrome. I can’t compete with everyone on every level, so I focus on creating the best work I can for a specific niche. That’s not to say I’m not flexible in my work, and I would never limit myself on a brief, but for the main part, I want to be known as the girl who does ‘the-super-detailed-hand-drawn-black-and-white-drawings’.
PunkPeacock first shown at 100% Design, 2008.
We’ve worked together on a project recently, to republish a novelette, The Dialogue of the Dogs, by Miguel Cervantes [author of Don Quixote] as part of an iPhone app. Illustrating an old, respected text must have proved a different challenge to the type you’re used to. How did you go about it? There are hundreds of different elements in the finished illustration—is there much preparation involved?
Reading is not my strong point, so I did have to plough my way through the story a few times to really get to grips with it. I then made lists of important events, main characters and iconic images from the text and started time lining them together into a sequence which mirrored the narrative of the story. Using my trusty lo-fi methods, I stuck together lots of sheets of paper to make one long canvas and started drawing in the top left hand corner. The drawing process was unplanned. I just followed the flow of the story, sketching in the characters and scenery as I came to them, working from left to right. As the paper filled up, I stuck another sheet on. The creative process was organic and rambling, which I felt fitted the narrative thread of the story. As the drawing grew, I moved off my desk and worked on the floor, finally, several metres of paper later, the artwork was complete.
SweetNothings Chapillo Chapter illustration for iPhone app The New Goodbye, 2010,
You’ve worked with some interesting clients, particularly high-profile in the creative industry (aside from the Fringe there’s Heal’s, the V&A, BBC, among others). Do you have any particular ambitions in regards to your illustration?
I love the challenge of working with new clients in mediums and contexts which are unfamiliar to me. I’ve just finished working with Oxford University Press on my first book cover which was brilliant. My primary aim is to keep things scary. The anxiety of working on a project in which I may be a little out of my depth always inspires my best work. Looking forward, I’d like to work with some more big name clients; I’d like to see my drawings come to life through animation; I’d be keen to work on some more multimedia projects. And as specific examples, I’d love to get my hands on a Selfridges’ shop window and a Boutique Hotel. I’d also love to tackle more installation projects and supersize my artwork. I have a lot of plans. I just need more hours in the day.
You’re represented by NB Illustration, and this is a relatively recent arrangement, right? How’s that working out?
I signed with NB at the start of the year as a way of opening up my work to a new audience. NB has been crucial in introducing my work to a segment of the industry I just wasn’t able to tap into alone. They handle all the horrible or slightly boring stuff and leave me to the joyful task of drawing. They warned me when I signed with them that it might take a few months for the first piece of work to come in, but we had just a week to let the ink on the contract dry before they lined me up with my first job. For an illustrator, they’re a great agency. Not so large that my work is lost in the chatter, but big enough to have a firm standing in the industry. If the first four months is anything to go by, it’s going to be a fruitful partnership.
Do you still feel the urge to push your work as well as relying on the agency?
Most definitely. I think you have to work in tandem with your agent to ensure you are reaching as wide an audience as possible, not just sit back and wait for them to come to you with work. I’m always working on numerous other projects direct with clients alongside the work I’m producing for NB, and usually have a few self-initiated and collaborative projects on the go too. I like it busy. I believe keeping the mix of work, clients and collaborators constantly evolving forces me to learn new skills, develop my craft and push my work to new levels.
Johanna has a website and blog at HYPERLINK “http://johannabasford.com” http://johannabasford.com; or find her on Twitter: @johannabasford; The New Goodbye, the app that includes her illustrated narrative of The Dialogue of the Dogs is released on the App Store at the end of May and the Edinburgh Fringe takes place 6-30 August.
- Photography: Ben Meadows at Edinburgh Fringe
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