If you were on a deserted island, what one design tool would you take with you?
It would probably be a propelling pencil called a “Wöthers shorty”. I’ve got quite a few but I always loose them… Lost one in New York, I lost one in Lisbon. I’d take that and then when I run out of graphite, maybe I could make my own charcoal sticks. I could also use a pencil to kill things!
What process do you go through when given a new project, be as honest possible?
A lot of my time is taken up by promoting and initiating projects for other people, which wasn’t ever meant to happen. I get a bit pissed off that I’m not spending enough time on my own stuff. I’m doing a lot of writing at the moment, so I’m writing a second book, I did a book about a year ago and we’re doing a sequel. I’m writing it with my co author in Australia. It’s going to be on the future of drawing and the documentation of reportage illustration.
I guess there’s two ways of working;
One that is very spontaneous and kind of ugly drawing that isn’t that great but it’s got a sense of spontaneity… That is really being on the spot. It’s not beautified and I kind of like that gritty, broken pencil drawing.
But I do another kind of drawing which is working from primary sources. I actually take the photos but it’s in the studio and working from those. I actually work using a combination of the two. Compositing drawings on the spot and maybe using photos for colour reference. I think there is a real balance from the sort of drawings that you’ve had time to reflect on can be a bit more beautified I guess. But there is a part of me that doesn’t like that. It doesn’t feel some-what real. A lot of people do that. I think it’s really hard to work spontaneously.
Through my website (www.reportager.uwe.ac.uk), I really try to push drawing that isn’t just passive observation. I really try and push drawings that actually say something, it’s much more about documentary drawing and less about urban sketching which a huge movement globally but a lot of that is passive observational sketching. Whereas I’m a lot more interested in people who are actually telling a story.
But yeah I’d say loads of research into an area and if possible in a kind of journalistic way so you’re interviewing people. You’re getting kind of below the surface of what you’re drawing.
What do you look for in a space to create and work in?
I mean I quite like being a bit uncomfortable.
I’m not the kind of person who will draw and want to feel comfortable. I won’t sit in a pub with windows, I’d rather get wet and struggle with the conditions, like labouring.
It depends really… Are you asking what is my favourite location is?
If you were going to choose a place to go and work in, where would you go?
I wouldn’t mind going to Extinction Rebellion demo in London. That’s probably my first point of call at the moment because there’s lots going on. I need to get up there and obviously take a lot of photos and work back in the studio. I really like the idea of slightly uncomfortable situations.
Also for me, it’s the narrative and conversations with people so if you get talking to people. And often people talk to you when you’re drawing. I see it as a much more humane way of engaging with people.
If you’ve just got a camera, it’s really democratising but everyone can take a couple of photos. They can’t all take a good photo. But when you’re out drawing, people can often look and you are kind of on the spot and it’s nice when people actually take the time to talk to you. And you can talk about their stories and why they’re there. You start interviewing them in a very kind of relaxed way and you get more information and sends a narrative / stories. I think they’re interesting, rather than just a drawing.
I mean I quite like drawing scenes or architecture. But again I don’t feel that unless you’re really getting under the fingernails of it, you’re not really saying a lot about it – It’s just a nice drawing.
Are you trying to impress someone or is it just an exercise? I’m not sure. I mean, often it’s a way of practicing. But for me it’s drawing people I guess and talking to them.
A lot of my students who really like reportage illustration, they really struggle to talk to people. They just want to get into a corner and be invisible. I actually think you shouldn’t be invisible.
So I work on a residency in London with students and I’ve done a whole load of stuff here at different events and things. We did this one event, “Pearly Kings and Queens”, which is a massive event in London. We were tracking them and drawing. I was right in this guy’s face, which sounds terrible but he’s loving it and he was really showing off to the crowds. And I was literally just tracking him and he was really ok with it, I was drawing him the whole way.
I was kind of like a roaming camera! Yeah! That was great.
I think it is that a lot of illustrators / artists aren’t good at face to face communication, and they worry that people are gonna be upset. I think that it’s just better to ask people, and if they can see what you’re doing, I think it is fine.
How did your interest start in reportage illustration?
I was a freelance illustrator for about 20 years before I went into teaching. And I lived in London and Paris. And I’ve always drawn from life but I never really saw it as part of my professional practice. It was always something I did separately from my freelance career. So I guess I was a commercial illustrator but I made work beyond that but it was always separate. And then It was only later that I thought I could do more of this within professional practice.
And then I guess it was about 7 years ago, that I started working here with one of the film lecturers, Alice Roldham… I was teaching on the illustration course and then I found this module which was an elective module where several different courses can opt to be on it. So it was a screen-based, film-based module. And I suddenly realised that a lot of the film makers / students were doing these amazing projects all over the world, groups of them! Some of them were in Cuba, some of them were in Africa.
I kind of looked at my students … and although they’re very good artistically…. A lot of them are quite you know nable gasing, quite whimsical, and quite introverted.
And I thought why aren’t these guys doing the kind of stories you get in photo journalists and filmmakers? Why aren’t we making illustrations of child soldiers in Africa or the U.S embarqy in cuba ? I thought ! God ! We aren’t taking any risks.
And that work that you see in the Sunday papers every weekend, that’s kind of exciting. Why can’t artists and illustrators make that kind of work because it’s really interesting area. Photography is ring fenced, there’s no reason why post digital media with the idea that photography isn’t as truthful as we realised. And it opens up the area for a more subjective drawn outcome. So I believe that increasingly maybe there’s going to be more drawn / multiple journalistic projects. Journalism is really opening out into different visual journalism, not just print based journalism; So you’ve got interactive, VR, AR. A lot of projects that the guardian are doing, using an immersive visual experience in the South. And I’m kind of really interested in exploring that…
Yeah so I continued illustrating but also ran this parallel when I worked here, the reportager website.
What is it like being a creative in Bristol? Do you find Bristol is a good place to be creative?
Yeah … I guess. I don’t really see myself as Bristol – based, I mean obviously I am but I never really thought of myself as that. I mean Bristol is good but I’ve been pulled back here several times. I’m originally from Birmingham and I studied here, I went to London, then went to Paris, and then I went back to Bristol and then Dorset and now I’m back in the Bristol area.
I think it’s good because it’s more manageable than London and you’ve still got good network routes to London and up north. And you’ve got a really good music and creative scene and film scene. I know a lot of people who have left London and come back to Bristol or Brighton.
So I think yep, Bristol’s good because it’s got a really good creative community. There’s a lot of students who kind of remain or come back. It feels like the place to be creative. I don’t know why. You are surrounded by more creativity.
London obviously is very creative but it’s very difficult to work and live there these days. You get squashed.
How do you get through creative blocks?
Oh I don’t know, yeah that’s a difficult one. I guess it depends what I’m doing.
Well if I’m working on an actual freelance commission, I have to come up with an actual editorial idea. I tend to use quite large sheets of paper and visually think through loads of ideas. I tend to work on a bigger sheet of paper so I tend to cross fertilise subliminally.
I feel I find out an idea comes out and suddenly realise and I’m picking to come out of several ideas that I haven’t even become aware of cross fertilising because you see that an idea has come out of several other ideas that I’m not even aware of because you’re seeing the whole thing. Whereas in a sketchbook, you turn them over and you’re not looking at them.
So I kind of use a visual matrix. I’ll create this matrix where I have two separate ideas within an editorial idea and you cross fertilise them, you draw something in a box / kind of like an oxymoron.
Or I just start making work. I play around with process, I look at a hell of a lot of visual material that can be useful in getting ideas / other artists / photographers. I think I look at more photography than illustrations or drawings.
I think when you’re on location though it’s a bit different because you’re reacting immediately to what’s happening. It’s not so much about a creative block. I mean sometimes you have a few hours of drawing absolutely atrociously and I don’t know what that’s about. Sometimes your first drawing is terrible and the rest are good. Sometimes your first drawings are the best. I think it’s also if you haven’t been drawing up to that point, you’re really out of practice. You are like an athlete, you need to kind of keep on exercising that memory muscle. I find that it just warms up.
But also I find that an angle on something.
A really exciting location can also seem really boring but if you get a different viewpoint on it, say a high vantage point or a low vantage point. I don’t know it’s difficult but I think finding a focal point is important and panning out around it or someone that inspires you and seeing what they’re doing and following them / talking to people.
Also, forcing it sometimes helps. You just have to work through it. Just spludging your way through.
It’s what you put in as well. You need some creative muesli! I don’t know what that is but it could be watching a film, or a documentary … You just need to pull in a lot of different other stuff.
It’s visual research that’s really important.
Working on the computer isn’t always a good thing. I think the trouble with using resources on the internet is that often people are going for the top 10 searches and they haven’t got the time to dig deeper. Yeah, I think having a range of different materials helps. I mean I quite like photocopying stuff and chucking it down.
But I think it goes right back down to visual thinking, visualising and I feel like I’m quite good at that. I’m not really overthinking it.
What do you think the future is for illustration, especially your roles in education and launching the new generation?
Illustration? I see it more as like problem solving.
If you’re doing a maths course you wouldn’t teach people to specifically be a mathematician if there’s such a job? I don’t know. Is there a job as a mathematician or how to solve problems? I don’t know what they do with maths. If you’re doing a maths degree, you know we do professional practice – you know what do they teach maths undergraduates? Is it to solve problems?
So I don’t really want to feel that I’m teaching people to be illustrators. I feel like I’m teaching them to think. And visually think as well. So, they might go into film, they might go into prop set design or animation.
I feel like illustration has changed in the way we teach it. I feel like it’s much more multidisciplinary.
And the only way that I can continue is to believe that. Otherwise I would probably think that it’s not really fair that we are pushing so many illustrators out into an industry that’s overly saturated. There’s just not enough jobs. So I try and get students to really become much more multidisciplinary, and learn how to make films, learn how to animate, learn how to weld. So actually they come out with many more skills. And they might end up in creative industries but not necessarily as an illustrator.
So I feel like the future is much more multidisciplinary for our students that are doing specifically illustration and want to be able to think and come up with ideas. And we’ve you know, got students going into art direction which years ago would never have happened. You would’ve been a freelance illustrator and most of you would’ve failed to get work.
What words of wisdom would you give to young creatives / students who are entering the industry? And how did you find starting out in the business?
I think it’s really different now. I mean I was obsessed but that that’s all I wanted to do was to make work and be an illustrator, so even if I failed I would still be doing it. It’s almost works like the last man standing. There’s some great people on my course that failed at the first hurdle, because for reasons I’m not sure, they just couldn’t stick it out. It’s a really slow burn process, some people make it quicker than others.
You just need to stick at it and just decide that you are gonna end up doing that.
The problem is that you guys are massively in debt!
Illustrators is specifically freelance so you’ve got to put up with a lot of failure I guess. And the problem is that a lot of people will get a job that will pay the bills and you slowly stop being creative. Because if you’re working all day, everyday to pay the bills and if you get used to a kind of lifestyle, you’re then not gonna be able to have the time or energy to be creative. I think it’s different if you get a job in the creative industry but a freelancer…
You know, a lot of my students are pretty nervous about that. What do you do? You’re possibly working from home, and you are maybe living in your pyjamas.
For me, I guess it was a few years. I stayed in Bristol for a few years getting local work. Then got taken on by an agent in London, moved to London for a few years. Got taken by two agents in Paris, moved to Paris, and then continued on that track.
I was quite lucky that I picked up work quite quickly. But I was pretty much really strategic. I just was really determined to do it.
I guess what started getting me really regular work was getting an agent. Because it’s in their interest to get you work because they’re obviously making money. But that took a little bit of time.
I think once you’ve got a few briefs in your portfolio, rather than hypothetical briefs. You know, someone’s gonna make more of a risk. But I remember one art director saying to me I’ll never commission you because I don’t know what you’re gonna give me back. Cus I was always doing lots of different kinds of styles. So very quickly I learnt that people do want you to have a particular, specific visual language that they know they’re gonna get. He said well “ I haven’t got the time to specify A, B or C”. So then I had to start working under pseudonyms. I had about three different names, which kinda helped. I worked under one agent but he obviously knew who I was. So when the jobs came in, he phoned me up and said – “There’s a job for Michel” – “Oh right yeah ok”. And then I’d know what they wanted, rather than relying on one style which was just boring and only getting one income… It’s a really good way to double your income. A great strategy. It’s quite interesting working under pseudonyms. There’s quite a few illustrators who do it and some of them who you don’t know. Obviously people like ‘Mathew The Horse’ you know that’s definitely a pseudonym, and Mr Bingo, and there’s loads of others that have pseudonyms cus they’re very different visual languages. If you have the ability to do that, it’s really good cus what you can do is have your main work, which is getting you work. And then you can start developing another visual language and start pushing that under a different pseudonym. And then different clients and you can start pulling in a different income. Then when one visual language starts getting less work, the other one will hopefully take over.
Have you got a favourite project that you are working on right now?
I’m working on a new book, which is good because I’m in touch with a lot of artists.
I’m also putting on an exhibition together for creative conscience. They’ve asked me to put up an exhibition around reportage work around ecological / ethological, social and ethical themes. I’m putting in a lot of reportage artists and it’s gonna be with the Guardian. And I feel like that’s gonna be great because I’m pulling in quite a lot of artists so I’m gonna be developing quite a lot of work from that. You get to interview some really interesting people.
In terms of my own work, we’ve just had an exhibition at F Block gallery with a drawing research group that we’ve recently set up so I’ve been doing work for that.
And I’ve got quite a lot of research projects on at the moment too; a paper for a conference in Kansas next year as part as my research stuff.
And I’m still running reportager, which is the website.
Quite a lot on.
People ask “Do you do other things?” and “yes!”. It’s all quite exciting but just a lot of work really.
Interview conducted by Jack Jones, Daisy Wilkinson, David Perry
We met with Gary Embury, who is a reportage illustrator, senior lecturer at UWE and editor of the Reportager website. Visit www.reportager.com to find out more about his work, his wisdom and how he got to where he is now.