Monday, November 11, 2013

Mystical kaleidoscopes & the Feminine Fantasia | An interview with illustrator Abbey Watkins

When did you discover drawing and illustration was your passion and you had a talent for it?
I've always drawn to keep myself occupied since I was little. I didn't do well in art at school because I just wasn't interested in school, but I did know that I had to do something with it and I wanted to get out of my little home town. So I managed to talk my way into Art College after getting an E in A-level art, which is where I became really interested in fashion illustration, constantly sketching from magazines and the catwalk shows.

I was desperate to do Fashion Design, but I knew financially that probably wasn't an option, and I struggled too much with my confidence to go to London and pursue it, so I found a happy medium and studied Textile Design for Fashion in Manchester. I had a fantastic tutor who really encouraged my drawings and gave me helpful nudges into the world of illustration. It was during my first year when I was told I had something and I could make a career out of it when I really put my head down and started working hard. I think I was 19. I owe a lot of where I am to his encouragement and guidance. I never wanted to be just an illustrator, but here I am and it's not so bad at all.

Your work is very identifiably yours. Where do you find your inspiration for your work and are their central themes you like to visit and re-visit?
I love mythology and the natural world. I'm fascinated by tribes and ancient cultures that lived closely to the earth and really knew it's beauty and gifts. I also think women and their bodies are the most beautiful things. I think those few together form a good base for my work, but I am also influenced by music, mostly from the 70's, rock, early metal, blues and folk, that kind of stuff. Film plays a part, and also fashion. I've got a real soft spot for anything dark and mysterious. I'm not sure where my way of putting them together comes from, but I'm sure it has something do with my overactive, sometimes ridiculous imagination.

A lot of your work uses primarily black and white combinations or more subtle and simple colour schemes? Is there any reason behind this preference?
I think primarily it's because I work in pencil and pretty much always have. I personally don't really wear colour, only black, so I'm sure that's got something do with it. But to be completely honest, colour is a kind of weakness for me. I'm not good with it and it's something I need to learn about and work at.

Can you briefly explain the process you undertake from idea to finished illustration?

It can happen in a few ways, sometimes I'll be searching through images and see something I like and an idea will pop in my head to draw from that. Other times I'll day dream something up and have to hunt down reference material to fit my idea, which can be a nightmare. Once I have photographs to draw from I normally put them together in Photoshop, print and trace with the lightbox, then I fill in all the detail from there. Once it's finished it will be scanned and touched up in Photoshop if needed. Sometimes I''ll cut and repeat pieces to build something more than what I started with.

A lot of the time I don't really have a plan, I just find bits and pieces and let the piece grow on it's own. Like starting and hoping for the best. It usually works out ok! I rarely sketch things out before I start, I've only just recently started working in a sketchbook but it does seem to make a lot of sense creatively so I think I'll start doing that more.I don't tend to have a strong theme and make a series of related pieces like a lot of artists, I think my creative brain is far too schizophrenic for that. I also get bored very easily. My ideas come and go so fast that's there's never enough time to put them on paper.

Are there any artists across any medium you admire and would love to someday work/collaborate with?
There are so many artists I admire. I am constantly looking through other peoples artwork. I'm in awe of so many. I couldn't possibly imagine collaborating with the majority of them as they seem to have transcended into something beyond my reach. People like James Jean, Joao Russ, Joe Fenton, Agostino Arrivabene, Roberto Ferri, Alexandra Mackenzie, Linsey Levendall. They are all real dreamers who have tapped into another part of themselves which is something I truly admire. There are a lot of artists I'd love to work with, it's just finding the time between you both that is the challenge.

Is there any subject matter or new materials you would love explore but haven't yet had the opportunity to?
The last time I had a week off I spent it desperately trying to learn how to oil paint, to the point where I needed a week off to recover from that one. But it hasn't put me off as I'm desperate to learn. I feel like there's a painter inside me somewhere, I just need to give myself the tools to uncover it. So sometime in the near future I'm going to expand into painting, maybe investing in some lessons. I'm finding myself being drawn away from pencil portraits of “beautiful” women and more towards things concerning the natural world and deeper issues faced by mankind. I think some of the illusions I had about the world are starting to fall away and my work is becoming more personal because of it.

Is there one piece of your work that you are most fond of or proud of?
There are a couple of pieces that I'm proud of in a technical sense, like the Psychedelic Leopard scarf that I designed for The Kooples. There is also a piece coming out next season for Volcomunity that really challenged me but I got it to a place I was proud of in the end. But really, I don't feel like I'm anywhere near where I want to be, or where I could be as an artist, so nothing satisfies me, there's always more I can do. A lot of my time is spent working on commissions so my creative output is almost always limited to the clients taste, budget and time scale. If I work hard enough to be in a place where I can spend more time on my own work, maybe I can create something to be truly proud of. Something that is 100% mine.

You have worked on a few collaborations and projects were your work has been used in textiles and clothing. Is that something you are generally picky about or is that an avenue you would like to pursue more aggressively?
I love seeing my work on clothes. Especially when I get to design prints rather than placement illustrations. It's what I studied and I've always loved it. It would be a real achievement for me personally to work more closely with the design of clothes. A real dream would be having my own line. But at the moment, a dream is all it is.

How hard is it to maintain personal integrity while also working on more commercial work? How do you ensure it is still uniquely yours?
I think I'm kind of safeguarded by the fact that the people who come to me for commissions generally want what I already do. Which is great. I have had to compromise pieces before, to the point where I don't even know why I was chosen to draw it. Sometimes you get hired because you are you, and sometimes you get hired because you know how to use pencil. I think you either choose to follow your own path and if clients what to come along for that ride then great, or you can take any kind of job. I think I lie somewhere in the middle. Sometimes it becomes about the money, which is soul destroying as an artist, but really useful as a bill payer.

What can we expect from Abbey Watkins in the future?
At the moment it's really hard to say. I'm in the middle of moving and life is a bit unsettled. I imagine so many things but I really don't want to set myself up for failure! I already mentioned being more concerned with the natural world. I think I'm about to go down a dark path of self discovery which I anticipate as being incredibly challenging but also exciting. Hopefully coming out more aligned at the other end. I'm spending more and more time thinking about the Earth as a whole organism and human behaviour. I'm fascinated by chimpanzees and how close we are to them. I have this vision in my mind of man's destructive nature bringing an end to our time here and the planet living on without us. I really hope I can open up some doors and create art related to all the things that go on inside my head. For now I'll keep working with all the lovely brands that give me great opportunities to get my work onto clothing and exploring my personal work in my free time.

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