Interview: London Based Illustrator Dan Stafford Stops by to talk Art.


“My work explores issues of identity and representation in a culture lacking a vision of the real. I enjoy creating intelligent off-kilter visual solutions for dry colourless editorial topics.

When working on a brief I try to crystalise an idea through semiotics that are not only pleasing to the eye but also to the brain and occasionally the funny bone. I am keenly interested in pattern and shape as a way to manipulate the human eye as well as colour’s innate ability to confuse, disorientate and direct the viewer’s attention.

For me, the most exciting thing about being an illustrator is being able to create an image out of nothing and succeed in simultaneously communicating an idea whilst leaving the viewer wondering how the image was made.”

Daniel: Where did all of this begin for you?

Dan: I love to communicate and discuss ideas so I guess going to University to study Visual Communication was an extension of that. Before I studied, I never really thought about the power an image can have over a person or a populous. If you think back over major events in history you can nearly always visualise associated imagery like propaganda posters, or paintings and photographs. I guess following a career in illustration is just a way to consolidate ideas into a palateable format so people can really relate to it. That’s something I’m all about.

Daniel: Has art always been a passion?

Dan: I’m just enamoured with the romantic ideas of communication and inspiration that art entails. If you can really sell a message or an idea to someone whilst still keeping it aesthetically pleasing, that’s a great thing. I always loved film too when I was growing up, I’m fascinated by how the medium can completely change the mindset of a generation on something. For example, think what Steven Spielberg did for sharks when he made Jaws, or conversely, what he did for dinosaurs when he made Jurassic Park. That’s a lot of power.

Daniel: Is art something you wanted to do from a young age?

Dan: Not really, who ever really knows what they want to do when they’re young (or when they’re old for that matter)? When I was at school I thought I wanted to be a scientist, I was 2 minutes away from studying Zoology at University, but I decided I probably wouldn’t enjoy looking at diagrams and researching everyday, so I took a U-turn and started studying Art & Design. I think since then i’ve been on a bit of a mission to prove a point that this is really what I’m good at. But there’s always going to be a bit of irony in that I spend more time now than ever looking at diagrams and researching information to inform my work.

Daniel: Take us through the creative process of making an illustration piece like yours. From scratch, from the planning process to the coloring.

Dan: For me it’s important to spend time thinking in depth about the brief and the ideas I need to transpose onto the paper (or screen). Especially because making the actual image takes loads of work, so I want to get it right first time for minimal reworking and to match what the client wants from the work. I draw thumbnail sketches and write in my sketchbook for a while until the idea beings to take shape and starts to hold water. I might sleep on it, then i’ll research it visually and conceptually to develop the idea a little further before I make the move onto the computer. Then I can began drawing shapes in illustrator and creating a layout before starting to flesh out the figure or object on Photoshop with a virtual airbrush. From then on it’s usually a case of playing around with shapes and pattern and colour to try and emphasise and exaggerate the point i’m trying to make, but also improve how the overall composition looks. I also play around with dirtying up the image a bit at this stage with collage or wet media that I will scan in, but this doesn’t always fit the idea. Remember, the medium is the message.

Daniel: I know you used some pretty cool tools would you care to share with us what tools you use?

Dan: I use the Adobe creative suite all the time, so Photoshop and Illustrator play a key role. But they would be useless unless I used them in tandem with more analogue tools like my brain, a scanner, a notebook, a geometry kit, paper scraps etc. I also found that making the move to use a Wacom Bamboo tablet to replace the traditional airbrush really helped me develop because you get lots more control over the marks you make. However, I think there’s something to be said and kept sacred about happy accidents.

Daniel: You mention you used to use an actual airbrush for your pieces. What is the difference that you see from combining digital art, and actual art together.

Dan: I just think it’s nice to mix together different levels of control. It can really take the work places you don’t expect, which is always good. Drawing with a tablet and spraying ink onto a piece of paper are two completely different universes. Everyone should try both, it seems silly to only use one and miss out on a whole set of skills and experiments.

Daniel: Do you still use Air Brush?

Dan: Sometimes, but I still can’t get that really polished look with it yet like I can on Photoshop, so it won’t make it into the portfolio until I get better at it. But it’s also prohibitively expensive. Buying all the materials can be a real drain on money and spending the money on promotion is a much more effective use resources at this stage in an illustrator’s career when you’re trying to get on the radar.

Daniel: What softwares have you found useful, and which ones do you find yourself using the most.

Dan: I couldn’t do what I do without Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, that’s for sure. But sometimes the most fun programs are the free ones you can download to play around with texture and pattern, I use them all the time.

Daniel: Here’s a question I like to ask for a ‘creativity check’. Technology has been reshaping our world, and we’re moving towards an amazing futuristic place. What do you think the illustration world would be like in 10, 15, 25, 50 years from today. And if you could, what tool would you create that will reshape the digital art illustration world?

Dan: I’d love to play around with a really ergonomic piece of kit like the Reactable (http://www.reactable.com/), but made for visuals instead of music. I love the idea of a completely tangible tool where you can move physical bits around to make new connections and really experiment. A tablet with a screen built in making it some kind of virtual canvas would also be cool, but i’m sure someone has already made that by now.

Daniel: Adobe CS5 is just around the corner. Have you been watching any of the new upcoming features? Do you think you’ll be picking the new version up?

Dan: I only just got CS4 and I’m always a bit disorientated when I first upgrade, so I’ll probably hold off for a while. But i’m always amazed by how each new version manages to close the gap a little between real media and digital. They just need to invent some kind of glitch in the program to emulate mistakes like knocking over a pot of water or knocking the table and then i’d be happy.

Daniel: Do you consider Adobe the most powerful tool for illustrators?

Dan: It definitely enables people, but the most powerful tool will always be your brain. People should think before they draw. It’s a powerful thing and you should use it wisely to talk about things and really communicate a message.

Daniel: Having been brought up around art, and going to a University especially for art and illustration. Do you think art is something you can teach yourself?

Dan: I think you can only ever teach yourself so much, it’s definitely a great experience to go to an institution where you can talk to people about theory and really be criticised and directed. Everyone should try to be involved in a mind-shaping environment like that. But having said that, I taught myself all the software I use and there’s always a place for just stumbling along with a new technology until you find your own personalised way of using it, that can really add a certain unknown quantity to your work.

Daniel: You’ve been picked up by Hong Kong’s art publication Victionary to be featured in their upcoming book ‘Dark Inspiration’. How did this deal come along?

Dan: I don’t know to be honest. I think they read about me on a blog, or found me by looking for new illustrators, but obviously i’m completely flattered and excited to be involved.

Daniel: When we spoke in person, you told me that you previous had Victionary books growing up. What is it like knowing your art will be featured in this book?

Dan: It is kind of bizarre to be asked to be in a book that you looked at when studying. It’s like some kind of time machine experience. It’s amazing and totally exciting, but also scary when you realise you now have to compete with the big boys.

Daniel: I know you share quite a passion for Japan, and Japanese art – where did all of this begin for you?

Dan: When I was younger, I was obsessed with collecting toys from cartoon franchises. I love the idea that this 2D imaginary character can be solidified into a toy and then you can play with it and act out your own dialogues and stories. Pokémon was a major player in that. Obviously, the more characters there are to collect the more fun it is, right? But this lead me to get interested in Japanese film making and Animation when I got older and eventually learning about the language and history of the country.

Daniel: I know you speak Japanese, care to share with us something for our Japanese readers?

Dan: こんにちは日本、文化と語はとっても面白いと思います。でも日本え行ったことがありません。誰かは私を誘ってください。あ、そして日本語でEメールを送ってください、いつも日本語を練習するが好きです。

Daniel: Has Japan changed your point of view at art, or is it Japanese art that changed your point of view?

Dan: Japanese art is always quite left field and refreshing, it’s always good to look at work from people from a totally alien culture to see how they discuss similar ideas and use visual tools like symbology and iconography. Moreover, studying the language really affected how I think about communication and the way we translate sounds and thoughts into shapes and pictures. Japanese still retains a pictorial quality like Egyptian hieroglyphics. I find this fascinating, I think especially because western language has definitely lost that quirk.

Daniel: Are there any specific illustrators that you look up to from Japan?

Dan: I love all the Ukiyo-e wood cut work from the 17th century. They’re amazing labours of love and it’s enchanting to see how perspective on the world has remained remarkably similar even after 400 years of technological and intellectual development. But my favorite Japanese art comes from film makers. Hideo Nakata has an amazing ability to inflict fear upon a viewer, and it’s always funny to see how America tries to emulate this in remakes such as The Ring and Dark Water and fails miserably losing all the magic in translation. Hayao Miyazaki has an amazing imagination and I think his Studio Ghibli animations always blow Disney out of the water both conceptually and in terms of technical skill and whimsy. And everyone should definitely watch some 70′s Japanese horror flicks like Funeral Parade of Roses or House. They’re just an amazing foray into absurdity and surrealism.

Daniel: What inspires you, and where do you draw your passion to just stop everything and paint.

Dan: Panic mainly, I feel like if I stop people will lose interest or i’ll forget how to do it. Also an abundance of ideas drives me forward, if there’s one thing I need to improve it’s the ability to do the 99 percent perspiration and reduce the amount of inspiration to actualise more of my ideas and ambitions.

Daniel: Who are your major influences from the illustration world?

Dan: I love really simple graphic stuff like Richard Sarson and I’m really jealous of Christoph Niemann’s ability to make a mean visual metaphor. I’m just inspired by great communicators, and for me the best case scenario is when you can say your bit but make it look heart-stoppingly brilliant.

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