September 24, 2007

Interview - Ben O'Brien

Ben O’Brien (aka Ben The Illustrator) is a graphic artist and illustrator based in Dorset, UK, but they’ll be relocating to Cornwall soon. You may have seen his work in Smart Cars and Vice Magazines as well as The Guardian. He and his wife Fi are a self contained design agency.

First off, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

How did you hear about the 100 Artist Project?

I saw it on the Little Chimps Society website, it sounded awesome to be honest. I love illustration projects that bring different people together so I was desperate to be involved.

Are you self employed or do you work for an agency or studio?

Self-employed. I used to be creative director of a small design agency in London, I enjoyed it but spent most of my time wanting to just focus on my own illustration work...

I now work with my wife, Fi, who manages our print sales and plenty of creative projects.

So you've done a lot of magazine covers and ads and such, yes?

Quite a bit yes, although I've always still got a lot to aim for though!

Was it a choice to work in the style you do now, the fanciful, colorful scenes, or was that more a need to adapt to the market?

It just came naturally to be honest, I've always drawn landscapes and I'm a bit of a nature freak so I'm always looking at trees and views. I find I create the best illustrations when I just do what I want to do, I'm not really a fan of adapting creativity to suit the markets, it takes the spark out.

That said, where did you pick up the desire to do landscapes?

Mostly from travelling I guess, when I was a kid we'd drive around France and see the mountains in Alps and the beaches on the South Coast, I just love places! Landscapes have always had quite an effect on me, so I try and get those feelings into my illustrations. If I can create a place that makes someone feel something, then my job is done!

Did you study art or are you self taught?

The basics of drawing I learnt myself just from copying comic books. I studied animation at college, which gave me a good grounding in visual arts I guess. Throughout school, right from childhood, art was the only lesson I ever enjoyed, I had one very inspiring teacher, and plenty who I just set out to rebel against.

Who were your biggest influences starting out, that teacher maybe?

Yeah, Mr.Dutfield, he taught me from the age of 13 - 16, taught me to try new things and not to feel the need to use traditional methods. He was great. At the same time I was discovering pop art, Lichtenstein, Warhol and all, plus early New York graffiti artists like the Wild Style guys and Keith Haring. All these people had such an incredible use of colour, I loved anything with colour.

There’s also an old book-cover illustrator called Brian Cook, my folks gave me a book of his work for Christmas and it blew me away, he painted all the British landscapes using really fresh colours, they looked brand new, but they were done between the 1930's and the 1950s. All these people using colour have to be the base influence for what I do now.

In doing what you do now, is there anything - a habit or crutch - that you'd change?

Thats a tricky one! Creatively I don't think there's anything, and generally, considering my job, there's nothing, I love what I do, and I love working together with my wife so that's all good, nothing to change... however! I do wish I was more confident, like more able to sell myself, better people skills! I've always shied away from people too much.

That actually answered my next, question about promotion, so thanks.

No worries!

Without naming names, what was the hardest or most improbable thing a client has asked you to create?

Hmmmmm, I had this one job last year, working alongside a design company for a massive client (no names named!) and we did they presentation, got the job, signed contracts, but then at the last minute the client decided they wanted a completely different style! However I could create the style they wanted (a 1950s cartoon style) so I just got my head down and produced what they wanted it's weird working in a different style, for the first time in my life I felt like I had a tedious uncreative job, not doing what came naturally to me! In the end it did look pretty cool, but no-one will ever know I did it!

Well to give you some credit and right the score (and feel free to name names here) who's been your best client?

I have a few that I enjoy working with, but my favourite is probably Smart Cars. I've been working with them for a couple of years on their 'alternative' ad campaign in Europe. They give me free-reign on what I illustrate pretty much, just Smart Cars zipping around fresh landscapes. The last thing I did for them was a landscapes which has been printed around a new Smart Car for a car show in San Jose next month, I can't wait to see it all together!

Where did Speaker Dog come from?

He started off as a doodle, just me coming up with new characters, he was actually connected to another character by a wire. I painted a few canvasses with him on, then it just rolled on from there.

Do you have plans for him?

Plenty! We have the paper toys which are set to get bigger and bigger. Fi manages the Speakerdog Paper Toys, and she's got designs from some really great designers for the next series, including Shin Tanaka who rules the paper toy world! We've also got our first Speakerdog exhibition in the UK in November which is going to be awesome. We've also just started talks to get a vinyl toy going!

Plus I'll always keep illustrating him, we have a lot of dreams with Speakerdog, just keep on taking him to different projects!

I know freelancers and self employed creators have to set daily routines like folks working office jobs, but have you found, especially working closely with your wife, that you seem to be working all the time? What's down time like?

Yeah, whenever we're at home, it seems like we're working. Although recently we've been house-hunting so we get enforced breaks. Down time usually involves cooking, walking or watching comedy on tv. It is hard since even when you're doing these things, trying to rest, you end up talking about Speakerdog or something!

Do you think it's easier to be an artist today than say twenty or thirty years ago?

Yeah, with the internet it is incredibly easy to get your work out there, and collaborate with people, and run great projects online. However! nowadays there are a lot of people being artists so there may well be more competition than there was 20 years ago.

Are you better at collaborating or working alone?

Working alone, but collaborating is like an exciting little break, it's different and interesting, but when it comes to generally making pictures, I'd rather work alone most of the time.

When you look back on the choices you made as an artist or becoming an artist, what - if anything - would you do differently?

I'm not sure, because I'm quite happy where I am now. I spent a few years working in animation, maybe I could have skipped that and gone straight for the illustration? I also wish I travelled further afield when I was younger, seen more of the world in my early 20s. I'm trying to make up for it and experience more places now.

Do you have anything you'd like to say to your fans and fellow artists?

Enjoy what you do. I have kind of 'found myself' in settling into illustration, and I think once you find your calling, your creative style, whatever, you should enjoy doing it.

... and use your powers for good. Like superheroes do.

Ha! Excellent.

Ben, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking with me today.

Ah, that’s it? It’s been grand, thanks Ben! A real pleasure. Fi and I really admire the 100 Artists project, it's ace to be part of it.

I appreciate that, it's been fun working on it and seeing everyone's work.


You can see more of Ben's work at his site,

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