Illustrators at work – interview with Owen Davey

April 19th, 2013

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with illustrators, today I’m pleased to welcome Owen Davey on my blog. Owen is a prolific illustrator whose work spans editorial print illustration, animation, book cover art, branding and more. And if that is not enough, later this year we’re going to see his third published book, “Laika the Astronaut” (which is already available for pre-order).

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

Owen: I’ve been working as a Freelance Illustrator for about 4 years, since graduating from University College Falmouth with a First Class BA(Hons) in Illustration. My first professional commission was for the Guardian Weekend, a week before I graduated. An ex student of Falmouth was an art director for them and liked my work, so thought he’d give me a chance. Since then, it’s just snowballed really. I’ve now worked with a range of clients across the globe including Orange, Microsoft, Persil, New York Times, Templar Publishing, Walker Books, Creative Review, Jamie Oliver & Threadless.

Kirill: Your style is rooted in the mid-century period. What attracts you there, and what are your thoughts on bringing that almost analogue look back to life with the modern digital tools at your disposal?

Owen: I discovered a while ago, that my work thrives under constraints. Limiting colour palettes or applying strict compositions just seems to make my work better. That’s what I love about mid-century design. The creativity and strength of design many illustrators managed to accomplish, within the limitations of technology, just inspires me. It is certainly my golden age for design.

In terms of the analogue and digital, that’s something I struggle with constantly in my work. I love the imperfections of image-making, and the evidence of human touch, and yet I also love clean, slick and precise imagery too. I always start with drawing, work digitally, and end with textures and manufactured imperfections; that way I sort of try and get the best of both worlds. I think I’ll just always be sitting on the fence though really.

Left – illustration for “The Feed” project for Orange. Right – illustration for an article about eReader devices.

Kirill: Do you want people to recognize your work the first time they see your new illustrations? Is there a concern of falling into a certain rigidity of style?

Owen: I’d like illustrators and designers to recognize my work, yeah. I discovered a long time ago, that the general public just doesn’t have the eye for it. Family & friends always tell me when they see something they think is mine, when it looks nothing alike. I don’t mind though; it’s my job to know the difference. I never fear falling into a rigidity of style, because I’m never 100 per cent happy with any of the work I do. I’m constantly evolving my work in an attempt to improve and hone. If you look through my blog for example, there’s quite a distinct change from the beginning to the most recent. I live in a world of illustrative evolution.

Kirill: What do you think about making illustrations for web sites? How does the evolution of responsive web design and scaling the design with device size affects that?

Owen: It doesn’t bother me at all really. It’s lovely to see work in the physical world, but I love computers. They are incredibly enabling objects. I’d have sucked at living in any other era. I just love the internet too much. And the joy of work existing in the digital ether, is that you can be 100 per cent sure how the colours are going to look on your screen. Reproduction can be a nightmare!

Just to clarify though, I’m a great lover of objects of art. My bookshelf is my pride & joy. But what everybody has to understand, is that we are now living in an age, when you should only print something if it’s worth it. You either make beautifully crafted objects, or you just do it digitally. The age of the crappy plastic CD has died out but stunning Gatefold Vinyl lives on. eBooks pick up the trashy novel, while art books are printed with spot colour matt stock perfection.

Various branding materials for the Alone Aboard the Ark project.

Kirill: What does it take to create a complete branding for a new music album (“Alone Aboard the Ark”), from album sleeves to booklets to t-shirts to beer labels, all the while maintaining a unified theme across the different physical characteristics? How long did that process take, and what was the most unexpected thing that happened there?

Owen: Well the surprising thing with it, was how long it trailed on for. I completed the cover artwork before Christmas, and I’m still doing little bits and pieces for it here and there. I approached the merchandising etc. in a very self referential way really. I tried to reuse elements as much as I could, simplifying and rearranging, colour picking, dragging and dropping etc etc. It was great fun to do. Each design takes on a slightly new life, and you really get to explore an image and a theme. I hope to do it more.

Kirill: You also did the jacket design for “Wild Boy” novel. How is that field adapting to the world of digital book stores, and what effect are those scaled-down interfaces having on the process of designing book covers?

Owen: Um. I don’t really know. I don’t see much difference in designing for the digital and physical to be honest. They’re both viewed in similar ways. If it’s eye catching online, it should be eye-catching in store.

Kirill: And if we’re talking about books, you are working on your third picture book, “Laika the Astronaut” – due out later this year. How’s the world of physical publishing treating you? Which parts of the long process of publishing a book work well for you, and which parts are still rooted in the pre-digital world?

Owen: Nope. Not working on it. It’s been done for several months. Just takes ages for it to be released. Um.

Well I love picture books. The longer printing side etc. is slightly infuriating, but the creation of them is great fun. I’m used to working to tight deadlines and single images most of the time, so to be able to approach a 32 page picture book over the space of a few months is really refreshing. You get to develop ideas in such exciting ways. You can add extra concepts or fun elements, properly explore pace and flow, hone storytelling, and refine composition. Love it. And Templar are particularly good at letting me choose papers and fonts etc, so that the finished object is one I can be really proud of. I can’t wait to see Laika in the flesh!

One of the illustrations for Laika the Astronaut picture book.

Kirill: Going back to the client work, do you prefer getting a full artistic freedom for a project, or a more defined direction from the client?

Owen: It depends really. The main issues stem from a client not being sure about which they want. If they tell you you have artistic freedom and then essentially steer you to where they originally wanted you, that’s pretty annoying. But in general I’m game for both. I do like to have some input in the conceptual process, even if they give me a strong theme or specific subject matter. I don’t really love being a human paintbrush (but then sometimes that’s where the best money is)

Kirill: Does it ever happen that a client contacts you based on your existing work, but then starts pushing you into a direction you’re not comfortable with?

Owen: Not exactly. I quite like exploring outside my comfort zone, so its fun when they get me to do stuff slightly different. I’ve had clients with just simple bad taste, asking me to add horrific colours or making bad edits to images after I’ve created them etc. That’s annoying, but I dunno. I’m fairly easy going with it all. If I was too precious with my work, I’d have been a Fine Artist, or gallery illustrator. When people commission me, they have to get what they want; otherwise I’m failing at my job.

Animation still from the Wisdomap Schools project.

Kirill: How valuable is self-initiated work for you?

Owen: It’s not valuable per se. It’s just fun. There’s a massive back catalogue of work I want to get done, but I often try and slip it into commissioned work, or books. I don’t usually class my picture books as self-initiated, because there’s still a client, but I suppose it fulfills the same purpose for me; it’s a way of cutting loose and exploring my own ideas.

Kirill: And on a related note, do you ever get to take a break as a free-lance illustrator?

Owen: Nope. It’s all I think about most of the time. I do other creative things, and live my life, but it all leads back into illustration in the end. I take time off, but I usually illustrate in it anyway. My last 3 holidays have all had mini commissions happening throughout them, but they paid for the holidays, so yay to me!

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

Owen: Being paid to do what I love.

Animation still from the Wisdomap Medicine project.

And here I’d like to thank Owen Davey for taking time to answer my questions. You can find Owen online on his site, his blog and Twitter. Selected prints are available for sale over at Big Cartel.