Interview with MiAL Artist – Robbie Porter
Our interview this week is with playful Scottish illustrator Robbie Porter, who has created work for an impressive client list including The New York Times, New Scientist Magazine and The National Museums of Scotland, as well as album covers and a full length graphic novel. Robbie uses a variety of tools from pen & paper to computer & camera in order to create images that convey a message, feeling or story.
Robbie’s work stems purely from his imagination, ideas pop into his head and he turns these into uniquely recognisable illustrations, which promote a quirky and creatively fun attitude He likes work that has a concept behind it and that is communicated interestingly however most of all he would like to achieve a unique voice in his pieces that is clearly his own.
This voice shines through clearly in Robbie’s work with his comical way of looking at the world always present.
For example when asked “What would you like to achieve through your work?” Robbie simply replies:
“World peace or world domination. I can’t decide…”
His current projects include work for the cycling company Rapha and also a well-known airline magazine. He also won ‘Best of Digital Illustration’ from Varoom! Magazine.
How did you come to study Illustration?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do throughout my foundation; it was a bit of a mess actually! I thought they were going to teach me how to draw but you were just left to figure it out for yourself. I think a lot of what I drew came out of frustration! For my BA I studied visual communication, specialising in illustration in the last year. At Leeds College of Art people were very community lead and collaborative, which is great, but it took me a long time to admit I just wanted to work for myself. After graduating I left the bright lights of Leeds and moved back home for a few years – it feels like everyone leaves Leeds after they graduate which is a shame really! I worked at a printmakers in Edinburgh and developed my portfolio before deciding to do a masters. I went to the end of year show at Camberwell and it was really well attended, I think that’s what really sold it to me.
Your work has a very clean and consistent style, how would you define it?
I think it is very hard to see for yourself or to define what your style is. Other people see it and sometimes when you are able to take a step back from the work then you can see what they are getting at. It’s all a question of taste, knowing what yours is and your standard; what you are trying to achieve.
One of my favourite people (Ira Glass) says working is about trying to close the gap between your taste and your creative life. I work hard but I’m constantly getting jealous of all the brilliant stuff I see on the internet, but it spurs me on because I want to improve and create better work.
I definitely work towards having a strong signature style, tutors were always trying to get me to experiment and I do… but within the boundaries of my desired aesthetic. On the course there was a lot of concept led work, challenging what illustration could be and incorporating digital and analogue aspects into our work. I still usually start with hand drawing but I admit that I spend so much time on the computer that I occasionally dream in Photoshop.
I think I am quite stubborn, I just wanted the time and space on the course to be able to carry out long-term projects rather than to change my way of doing things. For example on the MA I wrote & illustrated the graphic novel ‘The Librarian’s List’, it took me two and a half months to finish and there was no way I could take that much time on a project whilst working freelance. Now that the book’s finished everyone (especially my mum) keeps telling me to do another or to develop it, I think I need to step away and take a break before I can take on something like that again, but it was fantastic to have the space to complete a big project.
What has inspired you in the development of your style? It is very evocative of comic book art, were you a Marvel or DC fan?
I was never really into the superhero side of comics at all actually; I love comics such as Farside and Calvin & Hobbes. I think I went from those to graphic novels like Chris Ware’s Building Stories. The book, if you can call it a book, is about the inhabitants of a building in Chicago and is a collection of documents, leaflets and bound copy in a big box like a board game, you have to bring all the elements together to tell all the different stories. I love work like that, you can just spend so long looking at all the elements and the story and structure are incredibly complex, even though the artwork appears simplistic.
Comics and comic style artwork is an amazing form of visual communication, Chris Ware talks about keeping work simple so you can read the images like words and not take too much time on them. I really believe in making things as simple as possible, or to borrow illustrator Craig Frazier’s line
Good communication goes from the eye to the mind then the heart, if it’s really good it goes at the speed of light.
Much of your work has a strong narrative, as if they are a panel from a longer comic strip, do you ever think about where or what your characters did next?
There is a story behind each of my illustrations, it might not always be immediately obvious but I hope the audience will wonder what is going to happen next, or maybe what has gone before so that the images achieve a sort of longevity. They are all borrowing from the same world, especially the adventure collection such as ‘The Lost Boys’ and ‘Lost Keys for Locked Doors’. I would like to go on more adventures, just pack my bags and head off into the unknown! It is basically the opposite of how I live though, so while I sit at my desk I like to make up worlds – so I can head off on adventures in them. At least artists/writers tend to have interesting friends to go down the pub with, look at Ginsberg!
Everything seems to be very neat and tidy in Robbie Porter world, is that thing you are conscious of?
I think I can be quite obsessive about line-work, colour & typography… and I admit to watching documentaries about fonts or colour theory for fun! I was pretty good at maths at school and as a kid I embarrassingly used to collect Sylvanian families, I loved the precision of the models. I think maybe it just appeals to my stupidly neat brain to keep everything tidy! I like to have things in their proper place, and if they don’t have a place then I’ll create one for them (my girlfriend is the opposite, it’s a nightmare!). I’m very precise in my work, especially with lines and using grids in my layouts, I think a certain way and then put things together in a manner that reflects it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve had some really exciting projects like creating illustrations for New Scientist Magazine & Rapha, but when you are working for big organisations it can be difficult to combine the details of what they want with the image that you want to make – but then that challenge is just part of the job, and it can be fun!
I’ve also been designing a lot of wedding invitations for friends recently. It’s sort of fun trying to combine peoples’ tastes, working out how to get Bruce Springsteen in there, but at the same time it’s a lot of responsibility in a way -their special day and all that! In my spare time I listen to a lot of podcasts, actually I do that whilst I’m working, especially the New Yorker stories, they often give me ideas to bounce off. I’m also a member of the cloud appreciation society so I spend a lot of time looking out of the window – it’s good for the eyes!
What is the strangest thing someone has asked you to draw?
The weirdest is a commission that I actually didn’t do in the end but sort of wish I’d had. I was asked to design a sex theme park for an aids awareness campaign. All sorts of willy and boob themed rides! I didn’t do it in the end as I felt it didn’t really fit with my style but maybe I should have…experimented within in my boundaries!