The Great British Bake Off illustrator Tom Hovey on money, style and drawing food all day
Every summer, the nation is gripped by The Great British Bake Off. But as the newest crop of amateur bakers take to the now infamous tent to whip up an ever-diversifying range of sweet treats, miles away in Bristol, illustrator Tom Hovey is patiently waiting to draw up his own version of the contestants’ best bakes. Having now spent an astonishing ten years as Bake Off’s resident illustrator, Tom has plenty to reflect on – from his early beginnings as part of a street art collective to financial challenges, as well as landing his now signature illustration style. We caught up with him to find out more about the Bake Off process, how he landed the job in the first place and why it’s important to focus on what sets you apart as a creative.
Illustrator and Director of Studio Hovey (2006–present)
Studio in Bristol; Home in Newport, South Wales
The Great British Bake Off, Channel 4, 4Creative, BBC, ABC, PBS, Hodder Books, Ebury Publishing, Glastonbury Festival, Visit England
Place of Study
BA Illustration, Arts University Bournemouth (2004–2006)
HND Sequential Illustration, Swindon College of Art (2001–2003)
How would you describe what you do?
I have been a food illustrator almost exclusively for about three years. Most of my year is taken up with my main client, Love Productions and Channel 4 for whom I produce illustrated graphics for a number of programmes under the Great British Bake Off umbrella. As well as Bake Off I work on The Great American Baking Show, Junior Bake Off and Stand Up 2 Cancer Bake Off. I also work on a select few jobs throughout the year, mainly food-related projects.
A ten year freelance gig is unheard of, so I feel very lucky. It kickstarted my career, gave me a name in the industry and has made my style very recognisable.
What’s the filming and illustration process like?
I work remotely due to the fast turnaround of filming on set. They start filming the show in the spring. After each week’s filming, I get sent a pack of photos, with accompanying notes about each bake. There is an amazing food researcher on set who takes photos of the finished bakes from all angles. For instance, if any bakes have gone wrong, she will gather photos of practice bakes from the bakers or even sketches, so that I can get an idea of what the bakers planned to create – not what they actually ended up creating in the tent.
“A ten year freelance gig is unheard of, so I feel very lucky.”
I then set about drawing. I draw the pencil roughs for every bake in the show. I then pass these to one of the illustrators working for me, who traces my pencil work with black line. I then put that on the set background and add the accompanying title and necessary ingredient arrows, which are sent to me by the producers for every episode. Another of my studio’s illustrators will then colour the bakes. I oversee each step, giving the illustrators notes and changes as we go along.
There are rounds of sign-off from the producers, and changes are made as needed. Then I make up the final animated sequence of graphics to be dropped into the final edit of the episode by the editors.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I have recently moved back to my hometown of Newport in South Wales, but kept my studio in the centre of Bristol. That means having to commute, so I either drive or get the train. I’m usually in the studio by 8.30am and leave by 4.30am.
I spend the first hour replying to emails, doing admin, print orders, general housekeeping, and eating breakfast. I usually have one illustrator in the studio at a time, so I make sure they know what their workload is for the day. I then work on whatever I am drawing that day. I don’t give myself a set amount of drawings to complete in a day, as every bake and every episode is different.
If I get too bogged down in work and don’t make time to exercise, then it can really affect my mental health, so I also try and go for a run every other day.
How collaborative is your role?
I created my company Studio Hovey in 2016 to make the process more collaborative. I currently have two interns who have just graduated from the University West of England in Bristol. There is an internship scheme they run which means I can offer creative roles to new graduates straight out of uni. This year there will be four of us working on the upcoming Bake Off series.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Drawing food all day long is great. I enjoy delivering high quality artwork for a fantastic national institution and pushing the work forward every year.
For a long time, I couldn’t see a way that I could ever be comfortable financially and be a full-time illustrator. So being able to support myself through drawing is something that I am grateful for everyday and try not to take for granted.
The least enjoyable part of the job has been the intense workload to deliver. For the first six series of Bake Off, I created all of the artwork alone. But I would burn out several times throughout the year due to the constant deadlines and working other full-time jobs. That’s why I started taking on interns to help with the workload.
“For a long time, I couldn’t see a way that I could ever be comfortable financially and be a full-time illustrator.”
What skills would you say are essential to your job? What tools do you use?
Drawing helps. Blind determination to succeed. And a passion for learning. I’ve had to learn on the job and push the boundaries of my knowledge. My process has been fully digital since 2016. The second series of Bake Off was the first time I had really coloured anything digitally. I work on a Cintiq Pro 24 and use Photoshop almost exclusively, which I taught myself.
What do you like about working in Bristol?
Bristol is a really creative city and a generally really nice place to be. I’ve loved living and working there for the past 13 years, but I had to move back home to Newport in South Wales; my small family is growing and we could not afford to buy a house in Bristol. But I have kept my shared studio with a couple of other creatives.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
An artist of some description. I spent my entire school years with no desire to be anything other than someone who drew all day. So I did okay.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
My only creative role model as a kid was my Uncle who had a successful pottery studio in Wales. It was important to see someone that was a self sufficient artist. I saw that it was possible to come from the town where I grew up, and that if you were good enough, you could still reach people.
Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
The courses I completed were incredibly valuable in terms of letting me explore different directions of work, make many mistakes and find out what I didn’t want to do. It was also valuable getting to spend time being inspired by other creatives. I found my tribe, and they changed how I saw the world. I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to go out into the world with the sole objective of being an illustrator if I hadn’t have spent years training to be one.
However I’m not sure I would say it is as easy to make the decision to do a degree in something like illustration nowadays with the insane debt that students are accruing. There are a lot of resources workshops and tutorials online now, but whether this will give you the same experiences and connections as doing a degree, I don’t know.
After graduating (or first starting out), what were your initial steps?
I moved to Bristol after Uni and worked lots of jobs whilst drawing in the evenings and on weekends. I was invited to join a collective called The Daydream Collective run by Hugo Toland and Avue Darien-Gordon who encouraged and pushed me to work outside of my comfort zone and try new things.
The street art scene was in full effect and I took part in group shows creating illustrated murals alongside other illustrators in places like M&C Saatchi’s foyer in Soho and shops on Carnaby street. I learned about planning, paying my dues, and collaboration.
I also started developing a way of producing work, which was 90% character design laying colour down with acrylic paints and then going over with black line markers. Which was a kind of precursor to my process years later for Bake Off.
“It took me almost ten years to find a style which I was really happy with and which I felt was truly my own.”
Did you feel it was important to land on a single style as an illustrator?
I did, but it took me almost ten years to find a style which I was really happy with and which I felt was truly my own. I never saw the Bake Off work as the work that I wanted to be known for. So I actually spent all my spare time exploring different avenues of work, before I finally realised that the style had found me. Illustrating for Bake Off allowed me to develop and refine my working process by repeating the same process for years.
It meant I started being approached for commissions based on this style. Being a massive foodie I realised that I was actually incredibly passionate about food and I could and should make food illustration my main focus. So I did.
You can get caught up in other people’s stories and journeys to the top of whatever tree you are climbing. It really helped me to take a step back and look at what I was doing and what I wanted to do.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Absolutely! I moved to London with my girlfriend (now wife) in early 2010, but I had no paid work lined up. A mate worked in TV and suggested that I apply for a job in the edit of this new cookery show.
With no real experience I got the job and started two days later. The show was the first series of The Great British Bake Off. I was in an edit suite with the series director and editor but within a couple of days I had told them about my lack of ambition for a career in TV, and that I was really an aspiring illustrator. Which led to the director coming to me in the second week saying that he felt there was a visual element missing from the show and maybe I could come up with some ideas.
I pitched a few varying styles and after a few changes, I got the gig. There wasn’t much competition, as they didn’t ask anyone else and they had no money.
“Like most people, I had to learn about pricing and what my time was worth on the job.”
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
I have always been terrible with money, and the financial instability of being freelance has been a constant worry throughout my career. It’s less so now, but I often have the worry of what would happen if I lost all my clients.
I worked in many jobs, bars, record shops, temp jobs in banks, and in TV production whilst in London. But while I worked hard, I had no ambition to move up the ranks. I never wanted to get comfortable, or earn too much money, because I saw many friends from uni doing this rather than pursuing their creative careers. So I spent nearly every evening and weekend working, working, working.
Like most people, I had to learn about pricing and what my time was worth on the job. The AOI has been a great help with pricing throughout my career, as I have never had an agent. I’d advise anyone without an agent to become a member, as they have been invaluable to me.
How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
Illustration can be such a lonely endeavour, but I’ve found a community through Twitter. Most of these are private groups with fellow illustrators that I’d met online or at group shows. It’s helped me find my network, and develop working and peer-to-peer relationships.
Looking back, I always struggled with self promotion. Graduating in 2006, we were still being told to print out a portfolio and knock on every door in London. But I couldn’t fathom having that sort of self confidence in my work. So I would send out postcards annually for a few years, then emails.
Again, I have been lucky that my association with Bake Off means that people come to me now; and I am so busy throughout the year that I can be much more selective with the projects I take on.
What would you like to do next?
At the moment I’m going through lots of changes in my personal life, so I’m happy with the consistency that working on Bake Off offers me. I am running a food illustration workshop at the V&A Museum later this year and I’ve previously done talks and workshops with Apple, so I’d like to do more of them in the future.
And this may be a total cliché as a fairly new parent but I’m totally obsessed with children’s picture books. So every chance I get I’m writing ideas for stories and sketching out layouts and character designs.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Work hard at your craft. Try not to spend too much time scrolling through Instagram. Seek out people who inspire you, but also try looking for creatives involved in different disciplines from yourself.
Focus on you what sets you apart. What are your unique interests? If you focus on what is trendy and current you’re going to be constantly anxious about how relevant you are, and you’ll always be looking to others for the new way to work.
Everything about you is unique, there is no-one else exactly like you. Use this to create work that is unique to you. People will see the honesty reflected in your work and hopefully respond to it.
Mention Tom Hovey
Interview by Marianne Hanoun