Saturday, April 18, 2015

Meet Artist Johanna Basford

Tumble down the rabbit hole and find yourself in Johanna Basford's inky black and white Wonderland. Johanna is an illustrator and ink evangelist who prefers pens and pencils to pixels, and creates intricate, hand drawn illustrations predominately, although not exclusively, in black and white. Her creativity is cultivated by a curious imagination and a delight in the fantastic. Much of her work has roots in the flora and fauna that surrounded her growing up on her parent's fish farm in rural Scotland.

Have you always wanted to work in Design? Yes, always.

Where did you go to Art School? I studied Textile Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. I specalised in silk screen printing.  

What did you do after Graduation? I exhibited my work at New Designers and did a few internships in Scotland and London. I was on route to move to London and work in a commercial textile design studio, when I started getting orders for the hand printed wallpapers I had shown in my degree show. I got more orders, some national press coverage and suddenly it seemed silly not to pursue a path there was clearly a market for.

Did you study at Post Grad or Masters level? No. I applied to the RCA during my final year at Duncan of Jordanstone and didn't get in. At the time I was gutted, but soon realised I had plenty of other opportunities and that perhaps fate (and the admissions board!) had worked to my advantage. 

How did you make the move to be self employed / freelance? Initially I set-up a studio creating hand printed wallpaper, fabrics and interior accessories. I applied for Scottish Arts Council Funding (now Creative Scotland) and took out a PSYBT loan. I leased a studio, kitted it out for screen printing and spent my days making very expensive patterns for interior spaces. Then the credit crunch hit and the market for luxury interiors plummeted. I was forced into rethinking my practise completely and making some pretty drastic changes. It was then that I realised that drawing was my passion and that becoming an illustrator might be a good move. 

What materials and tools do you use to create your work? Initially I draw using a rotary pencil using a 0.5 B lead, a pink Hello Kitty one from Tokyo is my favourite. When I come to ink the design, I use a variety of pens, but usually Staedtler pigment liners feature heavily. I like a 0.2 or a 0.05 for the really fine bits. I draw on bleached white A3 or A2 pads of Daler Rowney layout paper.  It's super smooth which is great for inking as there's no bleeding or crinkling, also it's a good paper for scanning and is thin enough to trace on if I need to work on multiple layers.

When it comes to digitizing the drawings, I have an A3 scanner (life is too sort for A4) and scan the drawing in sections into Photoshop on my Mac. I have a little MacBook Pro which I plug into one of those big Apple cinema display monitors. I use a wacom instead of a mouse.

What is your favorite pen? Staedtler Pigment Liner. 0.05 or 02 nib.

What pens or pencils do you recommend coloring your books with? Everyone will have their own favourite pens and pencils, but my personal pick’s are Staedtler Triplus Fineliners.

I’d recommend you do a sneaky test patch at the back of the book though to check how heavy you can press without bleed through.

If you find the ink is seeping through the paper, coloured pencils are a great alternative. I love Staedtler’s Ergo Soft range.

Can you describe your creative process? I tend to have a rough idea of how the piece will look. If it is to be a specific shape, say a sphere or a rectangle, I work with a template guideline below the paper I'm drawing on.

I draw bigger than the finished print size of the actual piece, this allows me to sharpen details at the computer stage.

When I begin drawing, everything is roughed out in pencil first; sketchy graphite outlines of blossoms and foliage begin at a central point in the design, then grow outwards. The evolution is organic, I begin at a specified point and the pattern slowly creeps its way over the paper.

When the pencil outlines are complete, I place a fresh sheet of paper over the top and re-draw the design in ink, adding detail and areas of block fill and texture.

After the entire design has been inked, I scan the artwork into Photoshop. Often the drawn artwork is sprawled over many sheets of paper, tacked together with masking tape so the scanning process can be lengthy.

In Photoshop I use the Mac to sharpen details, resize areas and do any symmetry flipping required. The computer is a tool which I use to polish the hand drawn artwork and transfer it to digital format for onwards use - I see it as a commercial tool, not a means to create. 

What happens if you make a mistake?! One of 2 things:

1. I kind of morph the mistake into some other shape or object within the drawing and just draw over the top / around it till the original error disappears. Many a flower, leaf or bumble bee began life as a smudge or slightly wonky looking leaf.

2. I ignore it, then when it comes to scanning the image to Photoshop, I just cut and paste something over the top of it. Bit like a patch repair. 

Where are you based, and what kind of studio you work from? I'm based up in Aberdeen in the north east corner of Scotland. I work from a studio at home.

My studio has a distinctly analogue feel to it. There's a big plan chest, stuffed to the brim with every drawing I've created over the last 3 years, a book case with my archive of pens arranged into various jam jars and shoe boxes and of course a big empty desk for drawing on. I also have lots of books and design magazines. My Grandparents were both gardeners and I inherited their library of botanical reference books, these are a great source of inspiration.

I know some people struggle working from home, but it suits me. I work long hours, so having the studio in the room next door is handy. I'm out the studio at some point every day, whether for client meetings, post office runs, catching up with other friends who work in design or visiting suppliers and printers - it's not as isolated as you might imagine. 

How long does it take you to complete a drawing? The length of time from initial sketch to finished piece varies greatly from job to job. It all depends on factors such as the complexity of the brief, scale, number of rounds of client amends required etc. Basically, there's no super equation to calculate the time required. 

What inspires you? LOTS of stuff. I think creative people just soak up all those little things that surround us everyday and feed into our imaginations and work. Whether it's a book cover, a bubble gum wrapper, a leaf in the park, a spider's web, a scary biker guy's tattoo or a chintzy vintage wallpaper, it all gets stored away somewhere and seems to pop back into my mind when the time's right. 

Do you ever run out of ideas or suffer from Creative Block? Yes. Like most of us I do have times where I sit at my desk and stare blankly at an empty sketch book page, whilst an overwhelming sense of fear and inadequacy washes over me. I think that's normal. Best thing is to be pro-active and not let the situation engulf you.

Get out, move, flick through some magazines, visit a gallery, meet a friend, read a book, walk in the park. Just do something. I find that once you step away from that empty page, you soon start to image ways of filling it. 

Nearly all of your work is black and white - how come? My drawings are very intricate and complex. I like to hide little curiosities within each illustration, be it a rogue butterfly, a tiny beetle or an elusive white rabbit - things which appear over time and add a little mystery and whimsy to the piece. I feel colour can complicate matters. I think the basic black and white designs are bold, graphic and allow the lines and marks of the pen to speak for themselves. In a way, I think adding colour can sometimes confuse and clutter when the artwork already has so much to draw your attention.

Also, pens are black.

Paper is white.

It just seemed to make sense. 

Why does nature feature so heavily in your work? 3 reasons: love, genetics and nostalgia.

I love natural form and all its weird curiosities; bumble bees, seed pods, dung beetles, blossoms, thorns, gnarly apple trees, fox gloves, spiders webs - they all get my attention.

My parents own a fish farm and I grew up there with my little sister. In addition to fish farming, my Dad is also a Gamekeeper and my Grandparents were Gardeners. We had a pretty organic childhood; out of doors, building dens, swimming in the loch, climbing trees, tracking foxes etc. I think that kind of play as a child helps cultivate a pretty lively imagination as well as a love for nature, which in turn feeds my inspiration as an Illustrator.

You're a big fan of putting pen to paper (rather than mouse to pad) - why is this? (what do you think is gained from hand-drawing?) For me, hand drawing just seems more authentic, passionate and personal. There's something cold and analytical about vectors, whereas a hand drawn line has character; it captures emotion. I tell people that I create Analogue Art for a Digital World.

The industry is saturated with Adobe whiz kids and Pixel Perfectionists. For me, I like the romantic charm of an illustrator sitting down to a blank sheet of paper, getting their hands dirty and crafting a beautiful image from graphite and ink. It almost seems more honest than the computer generated alternative.

I do use the computer, but only at the very final stages of the creative process. My Photoshop skills extend to: scan, cut, copy, paste, rotate, scale, save. Seriously. 

How have you managed to carve a career in what's a notoriously difficult industry to break into. Did you start out with any form of game-plan? I've always thought it was better to do something different, something a little unusual which would help me stand alone from the crowd and be different. By concentrating on creating very intricate, hand crafted designs in monochrome, I aimed to make myself stand out in just one area of the illustration hot pot. I can't compete with everyone on every level, so I concentrate on creating the very best work I can for a very specific niche of the market. I'm flexible in my working practise and would never limit myself on a brief, but for the main part, I want to be known as ‘the girl who does the super detailed black and white drawings'- it's a way of getting your name heard and remembered.

What's the best piece of advice you have been given? Bad things happen to everyone at some point in their career. The people that succeed aren't more talented, well connected or even more lucky than you. They just pick themselves up faster. When something happens that makes you fall, don't lie there wallowing in your misfortune and misery, pick yourself up, work out what you've learnt and fire back in. The quicker you can do this, the better.

And worst? After graduation I was advised by an older designer who had been in the industry for many years not to apply for an Arts Council Grant. She told me it was a premature move and that the Arts Council only backed experienced designers who had ‘proven their worth over time'. I ignored her words of caution, applied and got the maximum level of funding. I later discovered that she had applied unsuccessfully for the same grant after graduation. I guess the moral of the story is, don't let other people's failures curb your ambition. Aim high, there's nothing to lose. 

How has social media affected the way you work? Social Media is the single most powerful tool I have to market my work - and it's free! Twitter in particular is incredibly useful. The Internet has made the world a small place and social media has given everyone a voice. TwitterPicture has been my most effect piece of self promotion to date; it introduced my work to thousands of potential news clients and helped me grow my online profile considerably.  .

How many hours a day do you work? Hand drawing is by no means a fast process. When I'm busy, I can be at my desk from 6am till midnight. When you work this way there's not really any quick tricks to speeding-up the process, it just takes as long as it takes.

In addition to creative work, I also have to factor in time for all the admin tasks involved in being self employed; answering emails, communicating with clients, preparing quotes, invoicing, updating the website, online shop orders - it all stacks up.

I'd be lying if I didn't say I work a lot. My friends and family will testify to this. It can be incredibly hard and you have to be very focused and disciplined, but at the end of the day I love what I do and that makes it incredibly rewarding. 

What are your future plans? My primary aim is to keep things scary. The sense of fear when working on a project in which I may be a little out of my depth always inspires my best work. Looking forward, I'd like to work with more big name clients on campaigns and long term projects.  I'd like to see my drawings come to life through animation, I'd like to work on some multimedia projects, to get my hands on a Selfridges shop window, a Boutique Hotel and the Starbucks cup. I'd like to tackle more installation projects, super size my artwork, publish a book and put on an inky one girl exhibition. I have a lot of plans, I just need more hours in the day. 

What would you be if you weren't an illustrator? A Florist. 

What's your favorite book? Fact: Purple Cow by Seth Godin

Fiction: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

You get to experience life as an animal... what would you be? A bumble bee.

You can find Johanna Basford on Facebook, her books on Amazon, or visit Johanna at

And a Giveaway/Contest - two winners! One of Johanna's Secret Gardens and one of Johanna's Enchanted Forest. Contest Question - Who is your favorite artist? We want to know! Post here! Drawing is extended to Friday, May 1, 2015.

If you win, I will privately contact you to get your shipping address. And let us know which of Johanna's books you'd prefer. Good luck!