January 22nd, 2013
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.
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.
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!
Packaging design and illustration for BBQ
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.
Barcode details for Sweet Chilli
. Courtesy of Steve Simpson.
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…
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.
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!
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:)
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.
November 28th, 2012
I was hooked from the very first episode. The idea, the script and the cast were phenomenal. And the colors were absolutely gorgeous. Almost too bright and vivid to be true, and yet never flashy or harsh. As I sat down to relive those few precious episodes that saw the light of day (two seasons, twenty two episodes total), I was completely overtaken by how amazingly well this show was put together.
The very first sequence with young Ned running through the impossibly bright field of yellow flowers transitions into the kitchen scene with his mother. Every piece in this set has its place, every fabric and wallpaper lovingly textured with nature-based patterns, and the pop of bright red is a perfect compliment to the earthly yellows, olives and browns.
This style extended to all interior sets, never too vintage to mark any specific era, and yet never modern to break the charming spell of the deeply emotional connections between the different characters. Here’s Olive in her living room, surrounded by blooming flowers on the walls, sofa, pillows, lamp, her pajamas and even the tableware. Delicate, intricate, each with its own color palette, yet none screaming for attention, and all working together in a perfect unison.
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November 15th, 2012
In this conversation the acclaimed production designer Sarah Greenwood talks about her craft, the research work that goes into the preparation stage of a new production, why every production is a period one, the famous Dunkirk beach scene in “Atonement”, her take on the advancement of digital tools, and “Anna Karenina” which is her latest collaboration with director Joe Wright, set decorator Katie Spencer and actors Jude Law and Keira Knightley.
Kirill: Tell us about how it all started for you…
Sarah: I trained as a theater designer at the Wimbledon School of Arts, and I worked in theater for three years. I found it enjoyable, but it was strangely unsatisfying. There was something collaborative that was missing. When you work on a film set, you have a very close relationship with the director, and I certainly wasn’t finding that in the work I was doing in the theater. It also involved traveling a lot around the UK, and I quite liked being based in London, see my friends and earn proper money. So I sold my soul to the devil and started working at the BBC which actually was fantastic.
At that time BBC had a massive art department, and it was an amazing training ground. So making the transformation from theater to film television was helped by the training we got there and the work that we did. Working for the BBC was fantastic. You could go two routes – assistant art director or set designing on small productions. I went down the second route, and started designing moving quickly onto “Later with Jools Holland”. I moved into the drama department working with some fantastic directors like Patrick Marbur on “After Miss Julie” and with Mike Barker on “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. And then with demise the design department at the BBC in the mid 1990′ss, I joined the freelance world and started working in film.
That was the story of my transition from theater to television to film. I went backwards and forwards for a bit, and decided that I much prefer film. I’m much more suited to film design. I have friends who still work in theater, and I could never design as well as that. My design work in much more suited to film, and I’m happy to working in this medium.
Set sketch for “Anna Karenina”, courtesy of Sarah Greenwood.
Kirill: Do you see yourself going back to more restrained budgets of television productions?
Sarah: I would like to say yes creatively, but financially probably not. The budgets were tight then and it was fine because you were going through them, but I would probably struggle a bit now with the scale of the budgets. But why not? Although going back to Theatre is a step to far, Joe Wright [director] just has come back to theater and wanted me to do it with him – two shows next year. I’ve chosen not to because conceptually that is so different. As much as theater design informs film design, being character-based and script-led, I think aesthetically they are so different now for me to go back and design theater.
But to go back to television – as they say, never say never. There’s some brilliant television that’s done, particularly at the BBC. They do amazing things, but at the moment it’s probably not for me.
Set sketch for “Anna Karenina”, courtesy of Sarah Greenwood.
Kirill: Do you think that you’ve been “spoiled” by the much bigger budgets of your recent films?
Sarah: The bottom line is that there’s never enough money, no matter what your budget is or your scale. You never have enough time or enough money, which is fine,its the way. You can go from “Sherlock” which had a budget of $130M to “Anna Karenina” which had a budget of $25M, and they’re both equally short on time. There are compromises in both but, creatively good things often come out of those challenges that. If you tell me to go back to a television production with a budget of $2.5M, I’m sure I could do it, but that’s not the route that I’m going down at the moment. Equally, maybe in the future when I don’t want to be working away or stressing as much as the big productions demand I might want to change direction.
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September 7th, 2012
In this conversation Judy Rhee talks about the craft of production design and art direction, taking a look at her work on commercials, TV productions and feature films. After discussing the similarities and differences in scope and pace for the various productions, she talks about her work on “My Blueberry Nights”, a romantic drama that takes Norah Jones on a journey across America. I’ll just go til I run out of places to go, and her path takes her from New York to Tennessee to Nevada and back. Explosively colorful, and yet never flashy, the film is a veritable cinematic feast, and Judy talks about how this production was unlike any other she has worked on so far.
Kirill: You’ve been doing a lot of things in movies, TV and commercials. How did it all start?
Judy: I went to film school and became interested in production design through watching films and taking a cinema studies class in the history of art direction. At the time they didn’t have any production design/art direction classes at NYU in the film department. They only had a Theater/Stage Design in the theater department, but as a film student you weren’t allowed to take classes in theater design unless you were a theater design major, so I ended-up taking related classes at Pratt Institute and SVA [School of Visual Arts].
While watching and critiquing films in classes, I found it puzzling how a lot of the films we’re just focusing on the camera work (i.e. renting helicopters and Steadicams), but no one was paying any attention to the environment they were shooting in – a lot of actors against white walls. I became interested in exploring how you can help tell the story visually by just making a few changes to the set(s) or locations. I offered my services to other students and started working on their student films to make their stories more interesting and compelling by modifying, adding or embellishing their film environments and sets.
I was bar-tending and waitressing while attending NYU and 1-day one of my regular customers, who worked at the Metropolitan Opera doing make-up, came in and said he was working on a horror film called “Frankenhooker”, and he said they we’re replacing the art department that day and I should go down there if I was interested in working in the Art Department. I went there and was hired as an art intern, doing everything from driving the van doing pickups/drop-offs, making and painting props, helping with shopping and set-dressing. It was a non-union film, so everyone did a little bit of everything. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun – a great learning experience!
After that film wrapped I was hired full-time in the art department for his second film, “Basket Case 2″ dir. Frank Henenlotter. He did a lot of B-rated horror films. I wouldn’t mind working on a another horror film. From that point on it was just word of mouth, and I just continued to work steadily.
Opening scene of “2 Days in New York”, Julie Delpy in her child’s puppet theater, courtesy of Judy Rhee.
Cut to 20+ years later, I’m still working on films and commercials. Sometimes I travel or re-locate for work. I went to Jordan to work on a film, “Stoning of Soraya M.” for 4 months, which was really an interesting experience for me. I worked in Atlanta on Tyler Perry‘s TV series “Meet the Browns” for 2 seasons. For that TV show I was able to utilize my background in commercials and movies because the pace of it was like doing a small film on a commercial schedule. Sometimes we would get a script on Tuesday, design a set on Wednesday, start building on Thursday, paint on Friday, set-dress it on Saturday and then shoot it on Monday. Even for TV, it’s a very fast turnaround. My experience and knowledge in working on commercials where everything happens very quickly allowed me to deliver what was expected in an abbreviated timeline.
You still have to design these sets with narrative in mind of what the story is, who are these characters, what are we trying to convey visually – even if it’s a sitcom. My job is to support the director to help tell the story.
I currently have a film out now in theaters, “2 days in New York”, written, directed and starring July Delpy and Chris Rock. It’s a sequel to “2 Days In Paris”.
I just finished another comedy in NY called “My Man Is a Loser”. It was a very quick 24-day shoot. Written and directed by Mike Young, starring Michael Rappaport, Sean Young, John Stamos and Bryan Callen. It’s a first feature film for Mike Young, and he was one of the writers on “Entourage”. It went really well, I think it will be a funny movie. The current scheduled release is spring 2013.
Classroom set rendering for season 3 of “Meet the Browns”, courtesy of Judy Rhee.
Classroom final set for season 3 of “Meet the Browns”, courtesy of Judy Rhee.
Kirill: Do you like moving between different types and scales of productions?
Judy: Every project is different and there are always new challenges, regardless of the size and scale. The process is different from commercials to TV studio shows to films. I can’t say that I prefer one over the other. I like them all because it engages different parts of my brain and there’s always something new, whether it’s time constraints, financial challenges or different and specific expectations. The end products are different. If I can generalize; on a commercial the details of props and set-dressing can sometimes be more important and very specific to the product you’re selling, who the director is and what the expectations are from the Ad Agency and Clients. For Film and TV, the details are sometimes less important – it’s more about the broad strokes of story and characters, obviously depending on the director. That’s not to say there isn’t a narrative you’re trying to create in 30-second spot, you just have to convey it in less time, hence the importance of the specific prop(s) and/or set-dressing.
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