How Denzell Dankwah went from being inspired by comics to illustrating for #Merky Books
You’ll often find British-born Ghanaian illustrator Denzell Dankwah immersed in the world of superheroes, comics and cartoons. With his passion and skill, Denzell uses drawing to visualise “how characters interact with the world around them”. It was this enthusiasm – and the Instagram message he sent to #Merky Books in 2019 – that led him to illustrate Superheroes by author Sophia Thakur, proving himself to be as courageous as the characters he creates. Having just graduated from the University of Gloucestershire with a BA in Illustration, here, Denzell reflects on the isolating experience of studying during a pandemic, illustrating with red-green colour blindness and his journey from a monochromatic palette to one full of colour.
Place of Study
BA Illustration, University of Gloucestershire (2018-2021)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I try my best to create art that I enjoy, and sometimes get to do that for others as well. What’s great about illustrating is that I use drawing as a way to visualise ideas – and I’m still learning, so I often come across new ways of doing that. I like to draw digitally; there are so many different tools to experiment with which I think is cool.
My work consists of a range of vibrant illustrations, inspired by comic books and characters from animations I enjoyed watching when I was younger. I’ve always loved drawing and always looked for a chance to be creative, and I’m glad to have worked alongside great people.
What are the main inspirations and influences behind your work?
I’m mainly influenced by comic books and cartoons as that’s what got me into drawing. I like how the medium allows artists to play with movement and exaggerate how characters interact with the world around them.
When I find time, I do figure drawings as it helps with presenting characters in different poses. Adding action and impact in those poses is the cool part, artists like Nikolas Draper-Ivey or Jamie Hewlett inspire me to keep working on communicating a sense of movement, and letting loose on the pages.
“I like how [comic books] allows artists to play with movement and exaggerate how characters interact with the world around them.”
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
Working with #Merky Books and Sophia Thakur on Superheroes is the best project I’ve worked on and it was a pleasure. It was clear that the project was important to the team and everyone worked really hard, so seeing the impact it has had on young readers means a lot.
I reached out to #Merky Books in 2019 shortly after my first year at university. I sent a DM on Instagram introducing myself, explaining that I was an aspiring illustrator and that I’d be happy to create for them. I thought I could make art for the page or something, it never occurred to me that I could illustrate a whole book!
It wasn’t until months later when Emma from the #Merky Books team suggested my work for a project they were developing – which turned out to be the Superheroes book. This is my favourite project as I got to work with an amazing team who’ve helped me in so many ways. I’ll always be grateful as I didn’t think I’d be capable of something like this. Superheroes sends such a powerful message to young readers and I hope it inspires others as much as it inspires me.
“I sent [#Merky Books] a DM on Instagram explaining that I was an aspiring illustrator and that I’d be happy to create for them.”
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Illustrators use a range of techniques to produce their work; things like life drawing or drawing from observation help in developing skills. I’d say there’s more than one specific thing; there are always new ways of approaching art and I’ve started to notice progress the more I learn.
If you could sum up what you do in a GIF, what would it be and why?
I would say this GIF [below] from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse where Peter Parker and Miles Morales are brainstorming, because I spend a lot of time trying to figure out where to start. Maybe a bit too much time.
How I got here
How has your journey been as someone studying during a pandemic?
Being a student during a pandemic was tough, especially as it was my final year. Everything felt a bit overwhelming as it affected how I, as well as many other students, learn. 2020 was a hard year for me even outside of the pandemic, and I was lucky to have a personal tutor who was very supportive. My advice to students would be to reach out to their tutor or friends if they’re struggling; having someone to talk to helps a lot.
If you could pick three things you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or creative journey so far what would they be and why?
The first thing that’s been useful to me is my first graphics tablet, that I still use to this day, as it has allowed me to take my art to the next level. Music also definitely makes creating a fun process and has some influence over what I’m drawing, so I like to have it in the background when I can. Another thing I’d say that’s been useful is being confident in my art, even when I have doubted myself. I’ve always believed in my artwork and it’s what keeps me pushing forward as a creative.
“I’m not the only colour blind artist, but I’m still happy I didn’t let it stop me from doing what I love.”
What would you say has been your biggest challenge so far?
My biggest challenge has always been using colours. I have red-green colour blindness but it affects me to the point that I’ll paint the sky purple if I don’t check the colour I’m using. Some cope with it better, but I struggled.
For the longest time I used to draw only in black and white. It wasn’t until I was 16 and began drawing digitally that I started being bolder with colours and enjoyed it, despite any mistakes. I’m not the only colour blind artist, but I’m still happy I didn’t let it stop me from doing what I love.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
I’d say it helps a lot, but to be honest, I’m not the best with social media as I’m still in the process of building an audience and promoting my work. However, I am always open to collaborating with new people and connecting with other artists.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve received is not to be afraid of going outside your comfort zone as that’s the only way you'll improve as an artist.
What advice would you give somebody looking to get into a similar role?
Keep working towards where you want to be. Reach out to artists for feedback as it will help you progress your work. Create artwork that you enjoy, and people will believe in your work as much as you do.
Mention Denzell Dankwah
Interview by N'Tanya Clarke