3DValley Featured 2D Artist of March 2009 – Gareth Southwell. Gareth is a freelance artist/illustrator based in the UK. He is specialized in figurative work and his preferred medium is black and white line drawing, though he does venture into color when the occasion demands. At the moment he is illustrating a series of philosophy books and working on his own comic project. He has published work in magazines in Europe, America, and Australia, and regularly contributes to The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please read our interview with Gareth below to get to know him and his work a bit better.
Christa: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, who you are and what you do in your daily life?
Gareth: Well, I’m 37, and I live in Swansea, a city in Wales, UK, with my wife and two kids. Profession-wise, I’m running on two tracks at the moment: half of my time is taken up with philosophy – I’m a teacher, maintain a philosophy website, and am currently writing a series of philosophy guide books; the other half is spent as a freelance illustrator and artist. The two things do overlap sometimes (I’m also illustrating the philosophy books I’m writing), but other than that there is constant tug of war between the two!
Christa: Do you remember the first time you knew you wanted to be an artist?
Gareth: I remember when I first went to school that everyone used to draw. They would give us crayons and big sheets of paper at break time and just let us do what we wanted. I remember a phase where all the boys would re-enact space battles from Star Wars (the destruction of the Death Star, as I recall). You would start off doing individual ships fighting each other, drawing the missiles and explosions, etc. However, by the end of break the whole thing would go up in one big explosion – a mass of red and orange crayon! I suppose you would call it a sort of action art! However, at some point we must have started having formal lessons, and it was then that I discovered that I could actually copy things quite realistically. This set me apart from most of the others, and I still remember that weird feeling of separateness – of people saying that I was talented – that I suppose fostered in me this idea that people who were good at art were somehow ‘special’, and that perhaps this what I was meant to do. Of course, the more I found out about art, and other artists, the more I realized that there were lots of people as good as I was – and a lot of them were better!
Christa: Where did you go to school and how did they prepare you for your career?
Gareth: I grew up in quite an isolated village up in the Welsh hills. My school was therefore very small, and it wasn’t difficult to stand out in some way. We didn’t do much formal art study in primary school, and even in secondary school I never really felt that I was learning things systematically – I can’t remember a single lesson on perspective, for instance. So, I just used to copy comics (Star Wars, Spiderman and Asterix). However, towards the end of secondary school I got really interested in portraiture, and my art seemed to take a leap – actually drawing people from life. However, when I got to A Level, I was overtaken by teenage laziness, and so it ended up that I started to get more interested in literature and reading, with the result that when I ended up doing a degree in English and Philosophy. Since then, art has always been a private ambition which has gone alongside whatever I was doing in the other part of my life.
Christa: What kind of materials and/or software do you use for your artwork?
Gareth: I work mostly in black and white, using pigment marker pens, or a brush to apply larger areas of ink. Occasionally, I will digitally colour scanned images, for which I use Photoshop or whatever is to hand – I’ve just discovered GIMP, which is an open license program (and hence free!).
Christa: Can you tell us a bit of the way you work on your art?
Gareth: I generally start by sketching out something quite freely. Sometimes I can get things right straight away, or sometimes it will take a number of sketches, but whatever the case I will work a sketch up into a final-ish form so that there isn’t anything left to work out when I come to do the final piece. If need be, I use photo reference – frequently from the internet, which is really handy. Then, using a lightbox, I trace the image using a light pencil (say 2H) onto Bristol board – which is really smooth and so takes the ink really well. Then I will ink the piece, usually starting with a fine pen (usually 0.05). I’ll then add thicker lines with thicker-nibbed pens and/or brush and ink. However, my one great failing is that I’m finicky, so I quite often end up doing a complete picture with the same fine pen! I then scan the image and clean it up using Photoshop or Gimp ready for publication, web, or colouring.
Christa: Do you have a favorite piece of your own artwork and if so why?
Gareth: I’m very critical of my own work, and so tend to go off my most recent piece as soon as I spot a flaw (which is usually shortly after it’s finished and sent off to wherever it’s going to). However, I suppose if I do have a favourite piece then it’ll be one of the fuller compositions (as opposed to a single figure without background). So, the picture of Nietzsche on the mountaintop I still quite like, even though it’s got lots of flaws, because it is a fully realized idea. The piece is based on Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Wanderer”, because it has a number of resonances with Nietzsche and his thought: Friedrich was German, of course, and a near contemporary of Nietzsche, but was also a sort of Romantic idealist (which is an aspect of Nietzsche, in some ways); also, Nietzsche quite often talks of the higher type of man (the ‘superman’) as having arrived at a ‘height’, and frequently uses the metaphor of looking down from a mountaintop. So, this takes the caricature to a higher level, for me: it’s not just a comic likeness, but also has layers of allusion. If I could get this level of meaning in some of my other drawings, I’d be happy! And remove the flaws, of course…
Christa: Who or what would you describe as having the most influences on your work?
Gareth: I discovered that I liked monochromatic pen work when I was in secondary school. I also realized later on (when I realized that I would never be Leonardo) that it was something that might make my art different (seeing as it is a less popular style in these days of digital illustration). So, I guess my greatest influences would be those artists that I look to who have something to teach me about pen work. My first realization of the potential beauty and humour that could be achieved was on seeing Sir John Tenniel’s illustration to Lewis Carrol’s Alice books. He is a master, in my eyes. In modern times, however, I love comic book art, and am still learning a lot as regards inking. My favourite comic book artists are Seth Fisher (alas, no longer with us), and Art Adams – both of whom are reknowed for their love of detail and quirkiness. There are many other artists that I admire, but the above are closest in terms of my style.
Christa: You are also a philosophy teacher and published author of two philosophy books. What do you think is the link between philosophy and art? Do you use it in your own work or when watching others people work?
Gareth: Well, the traditional philosophy of art (or aesthetics) has never really interested me greatly, and I have never had much patience for ‘clever’ concept art. I’m pretty old-fashioned: I admire skill and craftsmanship (up to a point – complete photorealism is impressive but ultimately pointless). My favourite artists therefore tend to represent a happy medium between skill and concept – that is why I love comics and caricature: you can play with depictions of reality and yet still produce beautiful things. This is not to say that art has to be beautiful, but merely that there is nothing wrong with beauty for beauty’s sake (or humour for humour’s sake, etc.). Therefore, I tend not to be too conscious of the philosophy behind what I’m doing: I could defend myself and my style of depiction if I wanted to, but I am more interested in subject matter. It’s the same when looking at other’s art: usually, I either just like it or I don’t. Occasionally, I will later come to appreciate something that I initially reacted against, but mostly my reaction to art is at the gut level (or perhaps the sensual level).
Christa: Your main work consists out of figurative work, and your preferred medium is black and white line drawing. Can you tell us how you got interested in this style?
Gareth: As explained above, I’m not that keen on experimental art. I’m not against experimentation per se, but a lot of modern art is just ugly or pointless. I think artists should be conscious of their style and their subject matter (i.e. why they do what they do), but I don’t think that art should necessarily be about art – that just gets boring beyond a certain point. So, my style is figurative because I am fascinated by figures! I love drawing faces, bodies, clothes, objects, and the more I draw, the more I realize that art is a way of getting to know the world. To really draw, you have to really look. I’m still trying to look. Also, I draw the way I do because I want to create beautiful, interesting or funny things – things which make us look at life slightly differently perhaps, or make us appreciate it more.
Christa: What is your favorite place and time to draw or write?
Gareth: I’m a pretty chaotic person, work-wise. I don’t have a fixed schedule or way of working. Sometimes, if I get up early, I can get a lot done; other times, I work best when everyone has gone to bed. As regards writing, I’ve recently invested in a laptop, so I can now write where I like (which is great). As regards art, my favourite place is in my living room, half-watching an old film (new films don’t work as they draw away too much of my attention). So, I’ve got lots of old DVDs of favourite films that I’ve seen lots of times.
Christa: What inspires you to draw and write and how do you keep motivated when things get tough in the studio?
Gareth: My writing is pretty much dictated by the subject matter I’ve agreed to write about – so, there isn’t much room for inspiration, though I do try to think hard about new and interesting ways to approach the subject. For art, it depends on what I’m drawing: if it’s a commission, then again I try to find an interesting way of approaching the subject – for instance, if it’s a caricature, then I try to incorporate some aspect of the personality or biography into the picture. If I’m producing original work from scratch, then I tend to struggle more. I don’t have one of those free-wheeling, creative minds which can just produce interesting things out of my head, and I tend to have to work quite hard at identifying something that I can convince myself will be worth working on. That’s why I would consider myself more of an illustrator than an artist: I work better when I have some direction or goal that I haven’t chosen myself.
Christa: Which areas of creating art and writing do you enjoy the most?
Gareth: It’s all painful! However, there are usually feel-good times when things are going well and you can just enjoy yourself. I like it best when I’m working on a drawing and I know exactly how I want to proceed. From then on, it just becomes a sort of semi-mediation and DVD watching session!
Christa: You’re working freelance, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of work?
Gareth: Freelance is really hard. Everyone has days when they just don’t feel like working, but when those days happen to you as a freelance you have to still plough on because your livelihood depends on finding work, meeting deadlines, etc. On the plus side, freelance work gives you great freedom and flexibility, and you can choose what you want to work on, and who for; on the negative side, earning money is a constant pressure, deadlines can be stressful, it can be lonely, and you have to manage your own finances (agree fees, budget, chase payment, etc.). However, I wouldn’t swap it for employment!
Christa: Being a one-man business; how do you keep fresh within your industry?
Gareth: I suppose having two strings to my bow helps me to keep either side fresh. If I get fed up with one, I can switch to the other for a while (deadlines and projects allowing). Within art itself, I try to push myself to improve; almost every day I get up and bemoan my lack of skill, and so I look for ways in which to address my limitations. Also, if I’m feeling jaded, I look at other artists whose style is completely different to mine, which is an ideal way to get out of your own mindset and habits.
Christa: What do you wish you had known when you first started out?
Gareth: So many things. Since I chose not to go to art college, I always feel like I’m playing catch-up. So, I guess I would have liked to have a better grounding in anatomy, perspective, and a wider grasp of certain techniques required in different media.
Christa: What would be a dream assignment?
Gareth: I’d love to produce my own comic/graphic novel. So, a dream assignment would be the money to allow me to spend time doing that – a slew of highly paid monthly jobs should do the trick!
Christa: Can you tell us where you are currently working on?
Gareth: I’m still writing the philosophy books for Wiley-Blackwell – I’m currently working on the third, and I’ll have one more to do after that. Art-wise, I’m just finishing a series of illustrations for a local prison who want posters and a booklet, and I’m negotiating a merchandising deal for a range of caricatures (which may or may not come off). Apart from that, I’m doing lots of non-art-related things to bring in bits of money. If only my children weren’t so greedy that they need to eat every day!
Christa: Besides 3Dvalley.com, which other graphic sites you visit regularly?
Gareth: I’m a member of DeviantArt, which is good for feedback and has lots of different sorts of people on there. I have a gallery on Warmtoast Café, which is run by friend and web designer Alex, so I browse the other artists there now and then. The other site I visit is Seth Fisher’s floweringnose.com, which has lots of his work, and a really interesting blog maintained by his mother, discussing his life and work – recommended. Lastly, I look in at Comic Art Fans, which has all sorts of comics related art (the original stuff, before it’s been published) – which is fascinating. That’s about it, I think.
Christa: Is there something you can’t work without?
Gareth: Well, I have to be careful with coffee – which I love – because sitting still all day and caffeine don’t really go well together. So, I tend to drink lots of tea – more as an excuse for a break, really. Other than that, I need DVDs and no interruptions.
Christa: What do you do when you are not working or creating something?
Gareth: I have so many little projects and intersecting interests and duties that it’s difficult to completely separate work from relaxation. However, I love reading, and try to read non-work stuff as a conscious break (science fiction especially). Other than that, I love sport – rugby, football, cricket – and like to cook. So, I quite often listen to sport on the radio whilst cooking. It’s the closest I can get to a haven of peace in my house!
Christa: Thanks for your time and the interview Gareth!