Lieutenant Uhura – Ben Rothery‏

Informative and informal bios are the best and whilst checking out Ben’s it was refreshing to see someone who takes their work seriously but not themselves too seriously. “Recently arrived in London having previously worked in Norwich and Bath Ben hopes that soon people will exchange shiny trinkets for his work which he will accumulate to fund his life… well that’s the plan anyways.” Ben talks about his time between different continents and culture, thoughts on digital advances in illustration and where his work is progressing…

How did you start illustration, between Norwich University College of the Arts and traveling how much is self taught?

I’ve always loved to draw, from an early age I would to draw all the time, I had a particular fascination with animals both real and imagined which I would draw all over everything. Growing up I developed an obsession with sharks, my primary school teachers would constantly have to deal with me having added sharks to situations where they did not really belong, for example my report on our trip to do ‘pond dipping’ in the school’s nature area featured several great whites… much to my teacher and parent’s bemusement.

I would say that I am largely self taught, I was told by my school art teacher that I wasn’t very good and shouldn’t pursue it any further so after 16 and my gcses, I didn’t, I left school with A levels in English, Classics, Busniess Studies and Politics and with that fairly useless combination I proceeded to spend the next 4 years working every crap job known to man while continuing to scribble largely as a hobby. It wasn’t until I’d spent 6 months doing charity work that I made the decision to come back to the UK and get stuck into art! I used to draw mainly with pencil then discovered fine liners and mapping pens which in turn led to etching when I finally made it to Art School.

I pretty much already had a ‘style’ before I went to Art school so while I learned new processes and honed my skills, I am more or less the same now as when I started… The thing which Norwich University College of the Arts gave me was self belief, often as not from having completely ignored my tutors but I wouldn’t be doing what I am without it so I owe them a huge debt… mostly for putting up with me.

How would you describe your personal relationship with art and illustration?

As a constant battle against procrastination. I am pretty much obsessed with line work and detail and so most of my images are a pretty time consuming and laborious undertaking, I love coming up with the concepts, and as I start to see them come together I become fond of them again but the bit in the middle (the hours of drawing thousand upon thousand of tiny lines) is painful as a result I often find myself putting off getting started, I’m getting a lot better now that it’d my job though. But having said that, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

How do you think your time between England, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and Botswana has influenced and been a focus point in your work and why?

Well I have a South African mother and we would go back there nearly every year so for as long as I can remember Africa has played a big part in my life. It’s where my heart lives, theres just something about the place, something indefinable which I crave and keep going back to. I have been all over the world but it is the times I have spent in Africa which have most heavily influenced my life and my work.

I spent some time doing voluntary work in an HIV orphanage in Kibera, (kenya) and that proved to be both the spur to come back to the UK and ‘do art’ and the inspiration for much of my work. My self initiated work is almost all related to Africa.

What other mediums have you or do you use to create some of you work?

My work tends to be based on linework so I’ll use any media which lends its self to that, pen and ink, pencil and etching are the mainstays and then I’ll add colour either with ink washes or digitally… usually with ink, I only tend to resort to the graphics tablet when I am really pushed for time. I have also dabbled in Linocut which allows me to create much more graphic compositions and have loved it as it has freed me from my slavery to the line but as it produces work which is so totally different to what I am known for, it’s not something I get to do as often as I would like…

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of digital technology in regards to modern illustration?

Personally I have no problem with digitally produced or edited work, it is an inescapable fact of modern illustration and so we need to embrace it. From a purely practical point of view it allows you to come up with concepts fast and change them quickly which is handy as some clients change their minds… a lot.

Also, a well crafted digital illustration requires just as much skill as something hand rendered, if you can’t draw with a pencil, you can’t draw with a graphics tablet it’s as simple as that. There is as much if not more bad, hand rendered art as there is digitally produced work. I think some people maybe feel threatened by it but a computer is a tool just like a pen or paintbrush and just like traditional media it has it’s pros and cons.

What other artists work do you find interesting dead or alive?

I love Ralph Steadman who I think is a mad genius and I think guys like Tomislav Tomic are creating some beautiful work. I would love to have met Arthur Rackham who is my art hero and then some of my old tutors, Demetrios Psillios, Rob Mason and Christopher Gibbs are producing some really amazing work, it’s a million miles from what I do but I think that’s kinda why I like it. 

And then of course it’s some of my peers, Aaron King and Rupert Smissen are both extremely talented and graduate this year as does Sian Richards (if she decides to stick with Illustration), Paul Sargent and Emma Armitage are also fabulously talented Illustrators, I could list dozens more but these are the ones who keep me going back to the drawing board when I’ve had a bout of procrastination.

The one thing that they all have in common is that they all really can draw, whatever the differences in their work and style it is rooted in a strong foundation of drawing which I think is sadly missing in the vast majority of contemporary illustration.

How are you finding the London art and illustration scene saturated?

Haha, well there certainly are a lot of us thats for sure.

I don’t know if it’s saturated with Artists and Illustrators but it is certainly saturated with a lot of work which looks pretty much the same but that seems to be the fashion and so that’s what people produce… They have to make a living after all.

I just think it’s a shame as while some of it is very good, the fact that it all looks so similar (simple shapes, flat colour, faux naive drawing style) makes it all visually uninteresting and the whole point of Illustration surely is that it catches the eye, that it adds something and with a lot of it, I struggle to see what that is. I want to see more Illustration and Art in print but my heart actually sinks when I open an newspaper or magazine and I see one of these identikit pieces of artwork…. I know Art is all very subjective and that might just be my personal opinion but it’s how I feel. 

What are you working on now and how would you like your illustration work to progress in 2012?

Well, that would be telling…. 

er, I’m working on a few things, some of which are just to keep the bailiffs at bay for another week and some other things which I am really passionate about, I’ve written and am illustrating a couple of books, I’m collaborating with some clothing companies and continue to produce my own range of stationery, as well as producing work for exhibitions. I think that in order for any of us to actually make a living in today’s climate we need to be doing as many different things as possible without compromising our integrity and style

If I can get my books finished then my main hope for 2012 is that I can get a publisher interested in them… watch this space.

Interview by Von Von Lamunu

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