Alexander Jackson is an illustrator based in Edinburgh who is best known for his pop-culture inspired portraits. His scratchy style has proved popular and he’s worked with companies such as PUMA, BBH and Forever Sports. We chatted to Alexander recently all about his work, his love of music and his varied artistic processes.
Tell us a bit about the process of creating one of your illustrations and what tools you use.
My process varies depending on what it is I’m working on but I try to keep my work looking very handmade. Most of my work is hand drawn using dip pens, brushes, calligraphy pens, pencil, charcoal etc. I’d go by what feels the most natural for whatever project I’m working on. Whatever implement I’m using to mark with has it’s own personality, including graphics tablets. I still haven’t been able to get too much into those, I dabble here and there, but I keep coming back to the old methods. I think I just feel like I’m being more creative if I’m getting my hands dirty. I do use digital methods quite often for adding colours and textures, although most of it is taken from surfaces that I’ve handmade and scanned/photographed beforehand. Not that I disapprove of digital methods, of course. Most of the art that I take inspiration from is constructed entirely using digital methods. I think it’s perhaps more of a case of me still being a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to technology.
Much of your personal work is heavily influenced by pop-culture and you have worked on many portraits of famous faces and iconic characters. Who have been your favourite to draw and who’s next on your list?
It’s been an interesting experience so far. I enjoy the more obscure ones that are based on subjects with a bit more of a cult following, such as a recent series I put together based on the characters from Red Dwarf and another piece on Cliff Burton from Metallica, which was to be published on the 30th anniversary of his passing. When people respond to those ones it has more impact on me because it takes more to connect with an audience than say, my Harry Potter portrait series, which was very popular because it’s such a recognisable property. That said I still really enjoyed working on those and taking on the challenge to apply my own vision to something carrying that degree of popularity. I’ve lately been focusing my attention on an entire series of Warhol-esque repeat portraits based on just one TV/film personality showing a variety of different personas. Who specifically I can’t say as I have a lot of ideas and I can’t decide who to do first.
You successfully crowd-funded and self-published a children’s book Jenny’s Bath in 2014, what inspired the book and what made you decide to crowd-fund and self-publish? Do you have any advice for other illustrators or authors who are thinking of doing something similar?
The book was originally written and illustrated in 2014, then became available after crowd funding in 2015. The idea came after I attended a dog show to do a few doodles in my sketchbook of different dogs. I found that the different personalities of these dogs all began to come through in the sketches. I observed a mixture of excitable, clumsy, lazy, stubborn and other quite human characteristics in the dogs and began to construct various narratives involving scenarios involving ordeals that a dog and its owner might go through. I eventually settled on a story about a boy trying to get his big clumsy dog to have a bath, despite the dog not wanting one. The dog ended up being based on a few different dogs I’ve known as well as the ones I saw at the dog show.
After making a couple of copies I found that it was very positively received and people would contact me about buying a copy. I took it to various publishers a lot of them didn’t really seem to understand aspects that were important to me, one example being that I deliberately made the dog’s owner say nothing throughout the whole book and he always had the same deadpan expression on his face – basically the polar opposite to the dog who clearly goes through a wide range of different moods, thereby ironically making the dog more relatable than the human character. I thought kids might be more into that. One publisher said that I should have the boy show more of a variety of emotions but I personally felt that it would spoil the charm of the story. In the end I found that crowd funding was the best way to remain true to what I wanted it to be. Not only that, but it’s easier to become acquainted with your audience through the support that comes through the process of crowd funding.
My advice to anyone looking to do something similar would be to not be afraid to remain true to your vision. I don’t think that I would be as proud of the book if I’d made the compromises that I was suggested to make by some of the publishers. That being said, there were a couple of things suggested in the early stages of writing by children’s authors that I contacted to bounce ideas off of and I still took on board what they had to say and found their insight very helpful, so maybe don’t be too close-minded about your work.
You’re also a musician. Do you find that this ties in with your creative practice as an illustrator at all?
I think that some of the process is quite similar. My art style originally took shape as I studied painting and the procedure of blocking in shapes initially and then building up layers of detail until the painting begins to take shape, introduced a system of working that works very effectively for me. When approaching both visual art and song writing/composing I usually think of what moods or tone I want to covey. That way it helps me to determine what tools to use. In the case of visual art it determines my colour scheme and the arrangement of shapes across a canvas, whereas in music it will influence the tempo and how one might move to the music. When approaching both mediums I think about shapes and movement. I saw an interview with Gary Numan who showed some of the ideas he’s written down. It was just a piece of paper with coloured shapes and squiggles on it that only he understood. I can relate to that extremely visual way of thinking. After creating that base work it’s mostly just a case of adding detail from there on. In song writing I usually write from the bottom up, so start with say, a beat and then add rhythms and chord sequences over the top. The melody often comes last, which is as far as I understand, quite an unconventional way to write songs, but the most recognisable elements of art are often only on the surface, for me.
You’re based in Edinburgh, where you studied illustration. What made you stay in the city after university? It seems like a very creative and inspiring place.
I grew up in Bradford, West Yorkshire. I remember visiting Edinburgh when I was about 16 or 17 and at that time could really picture myself living here. I eventually I moved to Edinburgh years later, somewhat impulsively as a change of scenery and continued my studies in illustration here. After graduation I moved back home to focus on Illustration as a full time vocation, although I moved back to Edinburgh a few months later. Edinburgh is a popular place for tourists and is rich in history and the arts. With that being the case you get to meet a lot of interesting people and there’s plenty going on. I find that it’s really helpful in remaining inspired to be creative.
What would be your dream commission or job?
I’m a really indecisive person so it’s difficult to say, but I enjoy being a regular collaborator with a publication that releases material say, monthly or weekly. That way it keeps you on your toes and ready for the next project and it gives your audience something specific to follow. It’s also nice to establish a long-term relationship with clients. Also as reluctant as one might be to admit, the financial security of a more predictable pay routine is always appealing for a freelancer.
Besides that, I’m very much in my comfort zone doing portraits for more commercial uses, although it’s surprising how thin skinned people can be when you decide to draw them a slightly less than flattering portrait!
Find lots more of Alexander Jackson’s work in his portfolio.