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© Rupert Smissen
© Rupert Smissen
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Illustrator Rupert Smissen talks us through his creative process

Picture of Alex Mellon
Updated: 19 June 2017
Cannes Lions is known for being the home of creativity in the world of design and media, so to be commissioned to develop illustrations for the festival’s branding is a ringing endorsement of your skills as an illustrator. We spoke with illustrator Rupert Smissen about how he came to be producing illustrations for the 64th International Festival of Creativity, and what the future holds for him.

Culture Trip: Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into illustration?

Rupert Smissen: I’d be almost suspicious if any illustrator didn’t answer this question with a variant on ‘I’ve loved drawing since I was a child’. I drew a lot as a kid, then got into comics in my teens and was nurtured/inspired by all sorts of forums for comics and concept art. I think I had a flimsy grasp on what illustration could be by the time I left school at 18, so decided to study it as a degree. It all looks a little single-minded in retrospect.

CT: You work across quite a few mediums while retaining your own style. Which is your preferred way to work?

RS: I work across a range of digital and traditional methods, but I’m at my happiest drawing in line and tone with simple materials: pencils; fineliners; ink and brush.

© Rupert Smissen
© Rupert Smissen

CT: You have such a distinct style. Was this something you worked towards from the beginning?

RS: Style is a tricky subject for me sometimes, as I can’t seem to recognise my own. Drawing figuratively is definitely at the core of everything I produce, and I love the challenge of capturing people and places. I value atmosphere and elegance, simplicity and detail. Reference can be a necessary evil when drawing figuratively, so I make sure I’m bringing something new to the imagery I use.

CT: You’ve recently been involved in producing illustrations for the branding of Cannes Lions Festival 2017. How was the experience of producing work for a festival that prides itself on creativity?

RS: The Cannes Lions project is something I’ve been working on for the past four months, and has been in many ways the most demanding work I’ve produced. Making work of the festival had the potential to be pretty intimidating, but once I’d managed to wrap my head round the scale of the project, I really enjoyed myself. My brief was both comfortingly specific given the sheer volume of work I needed to do, yet flexible enough to allow me to work in a way that kept me engaged. I think it’s unusual to use the kind of illustration I do for a large-scale branding project like this one, and I’m excited to see what people make of it.

© Rupert Smissen
© Rupert Smissen

CT: What is your creative process from the beginning of a commission?

RS: I do a lot of storyboarding and visualising work, where working quickly and confidently is paramount. There’s a quote, variously attributed to different writers over the years, that I really like: “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at 9am every morning.” I think that the most important part of my creative process is simply turning up to my studio in the morning. If I’m struggling with a problem, I can always go for a walk or do something else, but by being at my desk I’ve given myself a fighting chance of getting stuff done. I’ll often draw something else to loosen up before tackling specific briefs.

In terms of process, I make small, fast sketches that can be signed off by my client, before gathering as much relevant reference imagery as I can and fleshing out that drawing. For hands and expressions I often use photos of myself or unfortunate studio mates. It’s taken a lot of experimentation to turn photos of my chunky mitts into elegant drawings of ladies’ hands…

CT: Of all the pieces of work you’ve produced, which is your personal favourite and why?

RS: My personal favourite? I loved drawing John Hurt for the Little White Lies book What I Love About Movies. I got the opportunity to make it dark and atmospheric, and really explore texture in a slightly surreal way, which was great.

© Rupert Smissen

CT: How do you stay motivated? From your Instagram, and your work in general, I can see you’re an avid cyclist.

RS: I cycle 10-15 hours a week, mostly in the morning before I head up to the studio. I like the regularity it brings to what can often be the unpredictable life of a freelancer. I’m regularly motivated by looming deadlines, so find motivation for personal work harder to come by. I like leaving the city and hanging out in nature, with or without my bike, and find that taking a break seems to clear my head. I draw a lot of people in my sketchbooks, and it’s great to bring in other interests and influences when drawing for myself. I’m a big movie fan; I read/listen to a lot of different books and podcasts, so it’s a fun challenge to try and incorporate people and ideas from these into my personal work.

© Rupert Smissen
© Rupert Smissen

CT: One of my favourite portraits you’ve produced is Jemaine Clement. Do you have a favourite person to draw, and why?

RS: I’ve not drawn many people more than once. It used to be Batman. Probably still is, if I’m honest.

CT: If there was one piece of advice you wish you could give yourself when you were starting out, what would it be?

RS: Find out what it is about what you do that you enjoy, and don’t worry about its relevance or commercial value. And don’t stop drawing.

© Rupert Smissen
© Rupert Smissen

CT: What does the future hold for Rupert Smissen? Any predictions, or goals for what you want to achieve in the next five years?

RS: I’d love to do more live reportage work, and get out of the studio more frequently. I’d like to find interesting uses for portraiture and the sort of drawing I do when I’m left to my own devices.

Follow Rupert on Instagram @RupertSmissen