Hastings-based illustrator Ben Newman on building relationships, writing for children and weathering bad reviews
It’s hard to look through the portfolio of Hastings-based illustrator Ben Newman without cracking a smile. His playful and lightly nostalgic work features guitar-playing frogs, juggling raccoons and even a grizzly bear tucking into a roast and glass of red, and he counts the likes of Tate, Nokia, Penguin, Lacoste and Waitrose as clients. Recently Ben has applied this menagerie of “Bauhaus fuzzy felt” to children’s books, alongside his commercial work. He drew science series Professor Astro Cat for Flying Eye Books and recently published his first book that he both wrote and illustrated – it was even read out on CBBC.
Tate, The New Yorker, Nobrow Press, Flying Eye Books, Nokia, Penguin, Lacoste, Waitrose
Art Director at Nobrow Press, part-time (2013-2014)
BA Illustration, University Of the West Of England, Bristol (2001–2004)
How would you describe what you do?
I work as an illustrator, but do less editorial and advertising work these days and instead spend the vast majority of my time creating children’s books. I work with an old friend Dr Dominic Walliman on a series of science titles called Professor Astro Cat for Flying Eye Books. Last year, the first fictional children’s book that I both wrote and illustrated was published. Amazingly, I manage to pay rent from doing this.
What does a typical working day look like?
I aim to work from 9.30am until 6.30 or 7pm Monday to Friday. Being self-employed, I have to motivate myself and set routines. I have a morning ritual of listening to records. Each side of a record is about 15 to 20 minutes so it’s a nice way to measure how long I spend answering emails, reading the news and procrastinating. At the end of the first half of the second record, I stop what I’m doing and start drawing.
Unlike most editorial and advertising jobs, book projects are quite long so there is more room for experimenting and thinking about creative decisions. There’s still a deadline but it means my days can be quite flexible over a number of months. It means I can work on future ideas and be selective about what jobs I take on.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
In my studio in St Leonards. It’s a 30-minute walk along the seafront from my house in Hastings. The sea has a very calming influence on me, except in the winter when the rain is horizontal. My friend Tim works in the studio next door. I’m lucky to have a close friend around all day who constantly makes me laugh and shows me new things. The studio itself is in in an old town house hidden down an alley. In the summer, the alley is full of potted plants by one of the green-fingered neighbours and looks so beautiful that you might think you were somewhere in Italy. This illusion doesn’t last long when you walk back out onto the street with the drunks, betting shop regulars and dog poo.
“I love working on books because I enjoy having time to think about an idea in more detail.”
How do projects usually come about?
Although I work in a quiet town, I have regular contact with my publisher Nobrow (and its imprint Flying Eye Books) and the London team. For The Professor Astro Cat, I work with the books’ designer, editor and Nobrow’s managing director, sales team and digital team.
When I was working on editorial and advertising projects, I found that I worked with different people all the time so it was harder to form creative relationships with art directors. I think developing long-term relationships is so valuable but quite uncommon in those areas. I’ve also worked as a background and character designer at animation studios. It’s an interesting dynamic because often you’re placed into a team of producers and animators who work together regularly. You can feel like a bit of an outsider for the first few days but the people you meet there are normally really friendly.
How collaborative is your work?
Despite working on my own, I collaborate with a lot of people. I would hate to work in a vacuum. When Dominic and I make science books, we push each other to make each project better than the previous one. Other friends who create things have the same effect on me. There is a little competitive element to our relationships.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Editorial projects have taught me how to respond quickly to briefs but but I find short projects quite stressful because I feel rushed. I often look back and wish I’d done things a little differently. I love working on books because I enjoy having time to think about an idea in more detail. I can come back to drawings or page designs and learn from them.
“Drawing to me isn’t just a job, it’s my life.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
My book BOO! was really exciting because it was the first time I’ve written anything on my own for children. I was quite worried about how it would be received. Amazingly, it was read out as the lunchtime story on CBBC a couple of months ago. This really helped my confidence with writing and has made me excited to do more.
What skills are essential to your job?
Curiosity and tenacity are essential skills to have. Being slightly obsessive certainly helps keep you focused and driven towards your goals. Drawing to me isn't just a job, it’s my life. Everything I do is somehow linked to creating, thinking and being playful.
What tools do you use most for your work?
An Apple iMac Desktop; Canon LiDE 120 scanner; Wacom Intuos Pro; Photoshop; InDesign; Pentel brush pen; Pentel Touch Sign pen (2.0mm); Pentel mechanical pencil; sausage dog ruler; shape templates; charcoal; sponges; acrylic paint.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a builder so I could build my aunt a pond and after that I wanted to draw Spiderman for Marvel comics. Could still happen!
What were your first jobs?
Paper boy, shoe clerk, factory worker, labourer, cinema usher and bookseller. They certainly instilled me with a drive to take control of my life and a work ethic.
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
There is always a conception that one particular project changes something or alters your direction. Personally, each project helps build momentum for the next project or idea. I could highlight my children’s book work but there are so many projects that came before and helped shape that. Its all like a snowball rolling down a medium-sized mountain.
“Not everyone will like what you do. Listen to what is being said but don’t let it stop you.”
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Being inquisitive and understanding other roles and skills like editing, sales and design helps to develop your skill set. Its not just about drawing, you need to be critical and broaden your idea of what an illustrator can be to get the most out of it as a career.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I got a really bad review for my first published comic book by a respected comics journalist and I took the feedback way too personally. He didn’t like anything about it. It really made me reassess everything I had been doing and my confidence took a nose dive. Coming back from that was mentally quite tricky but in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t let it affect me so much. Not everyone will like what you do. Accept that and listen to what is being said, but don’t let it stop you.
Is the job what you thought it would be?
I didn’t think I’d be in a position where I have as much creative control as I do. I also didn’t realise the pressures that come with that creative control. Learning about different areas of a book project like sales, contracts, foreign rights, editing, writing, directing and design really help you to communicate with people in those positions and to make informed creative decisions. The more I’ve expanded my skill set, the better I have gotten at understanding and directing the outcome.
Could you do this job forever?
Definitely, it feels limitless. I just hope my eyesight and hands remain useable for as long as possible.
What is the natural career progression for someone in your current role?
A couple of outcomes are teaching or art directing or just doing what you do until you can’t do it anymore.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
Don’t expect success immediately. The best way to carve a career is to build a solid foundation gradually. Make work to please yourself because when you start working commercially, you’ll feel like you are constantly trying to please others. Be critical but see your strengths and don’t panic if it takes a while. The harder you work the luckier you’ll get.
Interview by Laura Snoad
Mention Rough Trade