January 22nd, 2013

Illustrators at work – interview with Steve Simpson

Steve Simpson‘s work spans editorial print illustration, packaging design, children’s books, postal stamps, album cover art and much more. His unique approach combines such unlikely elements as retro vintage colors, folk art references and mid-century cartoons, bringing them together in a vibrant and immediately recognizable style. His active digital presence includes his main portfolio site, as well as Behance and Twitter. Selected prints are available for sale at Society6 and The Copper House Gallery.

Today I am thrilled to have an opportunity to ask Steve a few questions about the art and craft of illustration in the digital era.


Kirill: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in the field.

Steve: Originally from the UK, I’m an illustrator and designer now based in Dublin, Ireland. I’ve been working in the area of design for print for the last 20 years. Previous to that, I spent 7 years working in TV animation and also had a short spell in comics. I studied technical illustration way back in the early 80s in the time before computer aided design:).

Kirill: You move with ease between a number of illustration styles. Is this a conscious decision to diversify and be flexible?

Steve: With my background in TV animation, the ability to change style from one to project to the next was an essential, even lorded part of the game. When I started to sell myself as an illustrator in Ireland, having multiple styles really helped kick start my career. Mainly, I was being asked to produce brightly coloured cartoony type illustration. It had a broad inoffensive appeal I guess.

It was only later that I noticed a style evolving, particularly in my personal work. Initially it was difficult to sell this new style to local clients, but as the style started to gain success in international award competitions it became easier.

I think these days I tweak my style according to the target audience rather than making wholesale changes to it.

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Ad campaign for Vodafone. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.

Kirill: You seem to be moving away from your earlier cartoony style. Is it hard to let go of something that is not finding its place among the current trends?

Steve: A few years ago I made the difficult decision (financially) to move away from the cartoony style by removing it from my online portfolios.

Doing this helped consolidate my portfolio into a single(ish) style. There’s still a local market in Ireland (and probably elsewhere) for the cartoony style.

Kirill: How has your own stylistic taste evolved over the years? Is there ever a thought of exploring radically different directions? Is there a concern of falling into a certain rigidity of style?

Steve: I think my style is constantly evolving, but by fractions rather than huge leaps these days. Fashion trends are constantly shifting and working in the areas of design and advertising you get shifted along with it. Getting stuck with a style is always something I’m aware of but I wouldn’t say it was a concern at the moment. I use personal projects to experiment with new ideas.

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Mural for TUZO Mexican kitchen. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.

Kirill: Folk art is one of your stronger visual references. What shapes and informs your taste and style?

Steve: I’ve had an interest in history and archaeology for as long as I can remember. My parents house is built on the site of a Roman fort and my father was always digging up incredible pieces of decorated pot, coins and broaches. Over the years this has led to an interest in ancient civilizations and in particular folk art which influences much of my work these days. For centuries pictograms, textiles and graphic iconography have been created all over the world and used to communicate and preserve legends, myths and narratives as a part of daily life rather than for commercial gain.

I love South American folk art, everything from the Incas to the Chachapoya in Peru and particularly the imagery based around the Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) holiday. It’s not just the South American influences, there’s also Asian, African and local Celtic imagery. Medieval Bestiary imagery is also fascinating!

Kirill: What do you think when you look at your own work from, say, five years ago?

Steve: This is the main reason I haven’t designed my own tattoo yet:) I’m always pushing myself, experimenting a little. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. If after 5 years my work hadn’t evolved I’d be very disappointed. Naturally, there are some jobs that I’m still happy with but they would tend to be in areas I haven’t been concentrating a whole lot. I do have a piece of technical drawing I did in college in 1983 that I’m still amazed by. This probably proves my point, as I haven’t drawn a technically accurate bevel cog using Rotring pens and ellipse guides since 1983!

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Packaging design and illustration for BBQ and Sweet Chilli. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.

Kirill: What draws you into working on physical branding and packaging?

Steve: I like the idea of producing the whole thing, being responsible for the whole design. Especially with packaging projects where you get to fine tune everything down to the tiniest details (I love messing around with barcodes). I like to think of my job on these projects being akin to the commercial artist’s role in ad agencies in the mid twentieth century when they were expected to produce the illustrations, hand lettering, design and even photography and animation. It’s a very fulfilling feeling.

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Barcode details for Sweet Chilli. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.

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Barcode details for BBQ Chilli. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.

Kirill: Do you prefer getting a full artistic freedom for a project, or a more defined direction from the client?

Steve: I like having a definite problem to solve. Too much freedom can lead to a lot of indecision:)

Kirill: Do you keep a sketchbook to develop ideas in between projects?

Steve: I’d like to have one of those beautifully collated sketchbooks, with amazing pieces of art at every turn… unfortunately mine tend to be a mix of hurried scamps, scribbles, lists and the occasional highly considered ink and wash drawing. I’m constantly sketching, mainly on any scraps of paper that come to hand. I’m always planning on sticking them into sketchbooks, but it never happens. My latest idea is an amended version of my previous failed idea, which was to have 2 sketchbooks one for best and the other for scribbles. The amended idea is to have best at the front and then turn it upside down and use the back for scribbles and notes and workings-out…

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From the sketchbooks. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.

Kirill: Pen and paper, or digital? How has your choice of tools evolved since you’ve started in the field?

Steve: In 20 years it’s actually evolved very little. It was the early nineties when I first started scanning my pencils and working over them in Photoshop using the vector tool and I still do that now. Along the way I’ve played around with tablets (I’m still using a mouse) and various 3d programs but I’ve always come back to same old method. Works for me I guess:) Previously, when I was working in animation as a background artist, I would have used inks, watercolour, acrylics, collage and even the airbrush.

Caffeine Junkie personal project. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.

Kirill: Do you spend time on personal projects, and how important is that for you?

Steve: I always have a personal project on the desk. Something I can work on in between commercial jobs or when I need a break. It’s what keeps me sane!

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Illustration for The Smallest Heroes children book. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.

Kirill: Your site has a special section for children books and projects. Is this a personal passion?

Steve: As anyone knows who works in children’s books, there’s not a huge amount of money involved, you really have to do it for the love. I illustrate a couple of picture books a year. They tend to have long deadlines so I can usually spend the first 2 hours of the day working on one before going back to the tighter deadlines of the design and advertising work.

Kirill: What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?

Steve: Sitting in a coffee shop thinking can be considered working! You can’t get away with that if you’re a window cleaner:)

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Details of the Revolution illustration, the winner of the Illustration at Fire Award. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.

And here I’d like to thank Steve Simpson for this great opportunity to get a small glimpse into his world. Selected prints are available for sale at Society6 and The Copper House Gallery.