Ben Rothery is an illustrator and surface designer who hails from Norwich Via Capetown. He now works on his intricate creations, with a small team, from his studio in the picturesque town of Bath. For the most part, this entails producing a beautiful range of products, including stationery and homeware, and working on varied commissions with the partners and clients.
A highly professional and insanely talented creative, Ben’s work has fascinated us for a while and since we teamed up with him for our LION PAW show with This Must Be For You, gifting his fantastically detailed lion print to a lucky attendee and packing our goodie bags with notebooks and illustrated treats, we’ve been keen to discover more about his naturally-inspired images. We caught up with him to learn his story and to ask his advice on a few things.
What does your work explore?
I’ve always been obsessed with nature so mostly my work has a strong natural history flavour to it. I’m pretty detail-obsessed so I tend to want to capture the personality of my subjects even if they’re a little insect. I find so much beauty in the detail of things so that’s what I explore. However, I don’t just draw a technically accurate representation of a thing. I want to convey a real sense of things, for example how they move, their personality, their character, even maybe anthropomorphise them. Sometimes I do this by literally putting an animal head on a human body but other times it’s more subtle than that; the tilt of a head or the angle of a mouth. It’s all about the details.
Have you always wanted to be an illustrator?
Well I grew up wanting to be Indiana Jones, David Attenborough or a dinosaur but as I got older I realised this wasn’t realistic so settled for drawing instead. I think I have always wanted to be an illustrator, not any sort of artist, specifically an illustrator. Maybe because I’ve always loved natural history books, I used to carry around encyclopedias and shark books when I was little so that was the artwork I was exposed to from an early age. I remember wanting to be an illustrator before I really knew what that meant.
In terms of how I got here, I took quite a circuitous route. I took Art for G.C.S.E and didn’t want to do work in the style of other artists so just did my own thing and made up imaginary artists to imitate. I was really into castles when I was studying so I came up with ‘Gründheim’ a Bavarian illustrator who just happened to draw castles in a style suspiciously similar to mine. Needless to say I wasn’t allowed to do A level art at my school and drifted away from it a bit, working as a chef for a few years before putting myself through art school.
Tell us about your tools…
Everything for me starts life as a pencil or fineliner drawing. I love etching so I try and draw as though I were etching too. I take really hard pencils, 9h-f, no soft smudgy graphite, sharpen them into spikes and then almost cut the drawing into the paper using fineliners to pick out the blacks. For complex patterns, I’ll draw everything in sections and the hand-drawn parts are then scanned and digitally composted before either being coloured digitally or by hand depending on the project. If by hand it’s always water-based then acrylic inks which still let the linework show through. I tend to choose media which allow me to stay really tightly in control, I’m really uncomfortable with paint, pastels and that sort of thing.
What inspires you?
I get most of my inspiration from the natural world, I love plants, animals and birds. The infinite variety of what’s out there keeps me engaged. As for arts related-inspiration, I’d say it’s the work of my peers. When I look at something beautiful that one of them has done it helps keep me on track and helps maintain my standards. I don’t mean that in a competitive way as I think we spend as much time promoting one another’s work as we do our own, I just think that seeing the fantastic work that other illustrators are producing keeps me dialled into what I’m doing. It’s nice to have a sense of community and just because we’re independent doesn’t mean that we’re alone.
My favourite illustrators are Niroot Puttapipat, Sandra Dieckmann, Aidan Saunders (Aka Print Wagon), Hayley Chan (Huetone), Aaron King, Martin Aveling and Alice Tams (Birds in hats). Their work is all completely different; some incredibly detail-orientated and realistic, some the complete opposite but what they all have in common is that they can really draw. They all continually strive to master their craft whatever their style or chosen media and with there being so much work out there that is perhaps a little more style than substance, it’s good to see people who can put forward both. I’d love to give a big shout out to these people, their work is a constant source of inspiration and reassurance for me and to top it off they’re all pretty awesome people too.
What have been the best moments of your creative career?
I guess there’s been a couple. Realising that there was actually a market for what I do and focussing on it full-time after years of slogging away doing other jobs alongside it was a big one and setting up the studio was another. I’ve had a few favourite projects so far. We recently did some illustrations for a Wealth Management company here in Bath which was nice as we were able to take the project from drawing right through to the installation. They wanted us to do a Bull and a Bear to represent the different kind of financial markets but beyond that pretty much gave us carte blanche to draw what we wanted and to match the framing and other aspects to their boardroom. It’s really nice when a client just trusts you and lets you handle everything.
What are you working on at the moment?
We’re working on a few things actually, we recently launched our new collection so a lot of our time is spent promoting that and getting it stocked in new places. It’s an amazing feeling when someone from somewhere really unexpected gets in touch wanting to stock our things and takes an interest in my illustration. I’m about to start creating some new anthropomorphic characters and I want to do some with a bit of a South African flavour. I’m taking suggestions and I’m working on a couple of secretive things which hopefully I can shout about over the coming weeks over Facebook, Twitter and in my newsletter.
Do you have any tips for aspiring illustrators?
By no means do I think I’ve made it but I think I’m on the right track. There are about 1000 things I wish I’d known when I started out but I’ll focus on 3 things which I’d say to anyone who who aspires to ‘make it as an illustrator’.
Stick to your guns.
I mean two things by this. Firstly, that your talent alone is not going get you anywhere. There are as many talented illustrators doing other jobs as there are other jobs for them to be doing and the ones that have made it are the ones who were just too stubborn to go away. They’ve kept working, kept plugging away, demanded to be noticed.
Secondly, believe in yourself and do the work that you want to do; if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else is going to. I was told all the way through school, through university and beyond that I wasn’t loose enough, that my style wasn’t in fashion, that my work took too long to produce and perhaps that was true. That didn’t mean I wasn’t able to carve out a niche for myself and make a living out of doing exactly what people said I couldn’t. Illustration can be an incredibly rewarding career but it’s also lonely, frustrating and incredibly hard work. You’re going to be broke, people are going to criticise you, patronise and ignore you. If you’re going to take all of that on it might as well be doing something you actually love.
Never give your work away for free.
You’re going to encounter a lot of people who are going to try and take advantage of you. They want your work and the value it will bring to their product, article or ad campaign but they don’t want to pay for it. Memorise these phrases:
‘I can’t pay you now but I’ll give you a share of the profits’
This is your job. It might not be you only job in the early days but it’s your job nonetheless. People who work get paid so if you decide to ‘waive your fee’ there has to be something tangible that you will receive in return. Can they really not afford to pay you In this scenario, the term ‘a share of the profits’ is nonsense. 50% of nothing is nothing.
‘It’ll look great in your portfolio’
Will it? You already have a portfolio, you graduated with it. Is this the sort of work you want to do or want to be known for? If the answer isn’t a resounding yes then you’d be better served working on some personal work of the sort that actually will look good in your portfolio.
‘It’ll be great exposure’
Will it? Who is this client? If they’re a startup, what kind of exposure are you actually going to get for this? What sort of work is it that they’re asking you to do? Say the client wants technical, medical illustrations and you want to design repeating patterns for fabric, of what value is that exposure? Retain your rights and never sign your soul away.
You’re a professional, act like one.
This is not being arrogant, you have trained to do this and if you did an access course you’ll have spent four years at university or college. To put this into perspective, that is the same amount of time as a teaching or nursing degree and only a year less than someone studying law. At the end of your degree, in all likelihood, you’re going to spend a couple of years working part time, doing internships and slogging. Then you’ll have spent as much time on your training as someone who studied medicine so demand respect both from others but also from yourself. You’ve chosen to take on one of the most competitive careers you could imagine with no support network other than the one that you create for yourself, be proud of that.
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Words: Emily Beeson | @younggoldteeth