This month we spoke to our latest illustrator Lee Ford about what inspires his work and his creative pursuits outside of his own practice…
Your work combines traditional printing techniques with digital processes – can you explain in a little more detail how you go about creating your work and what led you to this way of working?
The commission usually sets the tone for how I decide on a working method. Over the years my process has been refined but I feel it’s important to still remain organic; the pencil sketch always establishes early ideas and compositional detail. I then tend to move quickly from sketch to mark making and develop a series of textures that I feel best encapsulate an emotional response that resonates with the narrative I am working with. The introduction of digital into my work for many years has been very simple and often the computer is used as a method to work up compositions quickly from many scanned elements; more recently however my work has become simplified the relationship between the working drawings and final images becoming much closer.
I’ve always been interested in looking outside of the field of illustration for inspiration, looking instead at artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, the early photography of David Hiscock, Henry Moores sculpture and the work of printmaker Norman Ackroyd have directly or indirectly informed my approach to making illustration; sometimes it’s process driven by a particular energy expressed through mark making other other times it can be more conceptual.
Alongside your freelance illustration career you’re a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. How do you balance your two jobs and does your lecturing and the work of your students ever inform or inspire your own practice?
I work as part of an amazing teaching team; nearly all of the staff have come from or are still involved with design industry. The course philosophy is very much about providing a learning experience that is academically challenging but also professional facing. We encourage real conversations with our students about balancing illustration work with other responsibilities. I have taught in several institutions but have been a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam for 10 years, the practice and theories that are developed in the studio undoubtedly extended into my teaching practice. Teaching I have found challenges me to consider and reflect on my approach to making illustration and how this relates to a broader community; most recently I was invited to present a research paper at ICON illustration conference in Texas, a great opportunity and a definite example of how illustration and it’s practitioners are very much forging new territories.
I was recently invited to present a series of workshops in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The brief I set was to explore illustration as a global language, a subject which I believe is a significant reason why illustration is again gaining popularity and a focus point of my PHD studies. It was an amazing experience and really allowed me to test my visual skills due to language barriers. I enjoy placing myself in unfamiliar settings where I have to respond visually in new ways, which happens on a regular basis in my teaching practice.
How did you find your own time at university when you studied Illustration and Animation at Manchester University? Have you worked on much animation since graduating?
I had originally planned to be a graphic designer. After finishing school I took several work placements in studios in central Manchester. During the second placement whilst assisting on a job I became very disinterested and concerned that this career path was not for me. The designer who I was working for was genuinely concerned and asked me “what was the problem” and I replied “this wasn’t what I had expected and that I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted to do”, I went on to explain that I had hoped to make ‘pictures’ that meant something and he smiled and explained that his wife was an illustrator. This was a massively informative moment and an afternoon spent looking through early illustration annuals set me on a different path.
Once I had been introduced to the term ‘illustration’ I knew this was what I wanted to study. I had an amazing experience whilst studying at MMU firstly on the foundation where the tutors were extremely encouraging particularly about my drawing and teaching me to really look. During my degree study tutors such as Vanessa Cuthbert and Ian Whadcock helped students including myself to develop and celebrate their individual personal visions. I also met long time friends and collaborators illustrator Richard May and animator Chris Sayer who I still discuss projects with on a regular basis.
As students we were encouraged to diversify and explore our work though several processes including animation. More recently with digital platforms being the context for many commissions, sequential is increasingly intrinsic to making illustration and is certainly an area I will be exploring, particularly character design.
If you’re feeling creative block what do you do to seek out inspiration again?
I think remaining curious has really helped me sustain my enthusiasm for making pictures. I spend probably an unhealthy amount of time in charity shops looking for potential reference, old magazines, photos and more unusual objects often find their way back to the studio. I think the advice I was given whilst studying to look outside of the discipline stills holds true and I often spend time in galleries or catching up with friends and family.
In serious creative block situations a close friend who works as an animator many years ago introduced me to the concept of ‘kill it quick’, where early ideas are not given time to become precious. If something isn’t working, move on. If that doesn’t work I put my tools down quickly, leave the studio, get on a bike or go for a swim, both have helped in the past. Other times it’s about being stubborn, digging in and working through the problem until you get where you want to be.
If you had to pick the piece of work you’re most proud of what would it be and why?
A really difficult question as the excitement of finishing a job quite quickly disappears as you move onto the next project. I still enjoy being surprised and this can happen with quick sketches which I do regularly on my commute. It still makes me smile when hand and eye coordinate and are able to record a fleeting moment.
See more of Lee’s work in his full portfolio.