Owen’s portfolio is nothing short of impressive – and you may already be familiar with his work, as his illustrations have been published “in every continent except Antarctica”, as he himself mentions. His work ranges from children’s books to magazines, branding and mobile game apps. His clients include brands like Orange, Microsoft, Persil, The New York Times, BBC and Jamie Oliver.
His style is that he uses a fairly limited color palette for each illustration, and creates geometric shapes and textures to bring the stories to life. And if, like me, you were thinking that you might need some fancy tablet and great knowledge of Adobe Illustrator to make your drawings look like this, well, think again. Owen is surprisingly low-tech and, after drawing the initial sketches on paper, he only uses a mouse and Photoshop to create his illustrations. Which, you have to admit, is pretty amazing!
Every artist is self-taught in a way, I think
You have graduated from University College Falmouth with a BA in Illustration. How has school helped your career? Do you think you could have gotten to where you are now, if you were self taught?
Falmouth was an amazing course where they spent a lot of time focusing on professional practice, things like colour theory, conceptual thinking, composition, writing books etc. I learnt a massive amount and think I’m a much better illustrator due to them. I think of myself as sort of self-taught as well though. Every artist is in a way, I think. You can feed off the ideas and technical advice from people but at the end of the day, you have to be the one to put the work in and learn by doing.
You have a style that is pretty easy to recognize, from combining geometric shapes and textures to keeping a coherent color palette across all your work. What are the factors that influence your work, what’s your inspiration?
I’m inspired by everything and I’m regularly discovering stuff which I love, which I’m sure influences my work. My ‘style’ has actually changed a lot over the years, but I love playing with colour and shapes. I’m in awe of a lot of mid-century artwork, and really enjoy the limited colour palettes and simplification techniques used by many artists throughout those times.
You are a freelance illustrator. How do you manage your time, so that you are able to meet deadlines and easily switch from one project to the next? Is there a recipe for that?
Yeah, that’s one of the toughest parts of the job. Managing my time has been a big learning curve and I don’t always get it right. I’ve never missed a deadline, but I have had to do several all-nighters and some long long stints of long work hours. I think I’m getting the balance a bit better these days but there are still times where it gets a bit manic. I’ll probably never perfect it. I just want to do everything, which can cause issues hehe.
Your portfolio includes some pretty big clients, like Facebook or Unilever. How did you first get to work with well-known brands like these?
There is a mix of ways really. I reach out to some clients, my agents reach out to some too, and some reach out to me after seeing my stuff in other publications, on my website, in books, or on social media. I do a lot of self-promoting.
Talking about having agents, how is that helping your work? Do you feel that paying a commission to the agent is worth it, is it saving you a lot of time and effort on new projects?
I absolutely love my agents. I have had a wonderful working relationship with them and they always have my back. They are definitely worth paying a commission to. I know that not all agents are like this though. I just got a pretty lucky, I think.
In your experience, is there a difference between working with big clients and small ones? Which do you enjoy more? Why?
It’s not really the size actually that makes the biggest difference. Some big ones are surprisingly awesome about giving you creative freedom. And some small ones can be infuriatingly picky. There isn’t a formula. Although I have to say that some of my favourite commissions have been for very small trade magazines. I don’t know why but they tend to offer you a lot of respect and really appreciate what you do, just handing over the reigns and steering only when necessary.
Some big clients are surprisingly awesome about giving you creative freedom. And some small ones can be infuriatingly picky
When I look through your portfolio, the Smashmallow project is one of my favorites. What was the brief there? I’m curious what the story is, what was the journey from the initial ideas until the final result we see now.
So with most packaging and advertising projects, clients tend to be understandably quite prescriptive. Smashmallow were actually quite relaxed compared to most, but they came to me with the rough idea of worlds based on the flavours of the marshmallows. From that we then had a lot of back and forth over the best routes to take and what to feature, with several rounds of feedback. I’m really happy with the results though. It was a great collaborative effort.
You have several books published, tell me a little about that. How did you first get the idea of publishing a book? And how did you come up with the subject?
My answer to the kid question of “What do you want to do when you grow up?” was always “I want to write and draw the pictures for children’s books”, so it was something I pushed toward for years. And I love doing them. They take up a lot of time though, so I’m limiting how many I do in a year now. My first published book was “Foxly’s Feast” and I actually wrote it and illustrated a lot of the book at the beginning of my third year at Falmouth University. The lovely man (Mike Jolley) then saw the potential in it and helped me get it through his publishers, Templar. Each of the ideas for the books are usually spawned from little thoughts I have whilst living my life, which I note down in a sketchbook and discover at a later date, expanding it into several pages. Although my non-fiction books are much more labour-intensive than that, and are born out of an excessive amount of research.
I’m inspired by everything and I’m regularly discovering stuff which I love, which I’m sure influences my work.
Is it working out so far, are people buying your books? 🙂
Yeah, I think so. I’m not on any bestseller lists or anything, but I never expected to be. It’s never been a goal really either. As long as some people are enjoying them, I’m happy.
How long does it usually take, from the moment you start work on your book, until it’s in stores?
This all depends on the book. “Foxly’s Feast” was nearly 3 years from conception to stores I think, but others are done in a matter of months.
You are also the primary illustrator for TwoDots, a mobile puzzle game. How did you get to work for this project and what were your tasks and responsibilities?
They contacted me and asked if I could do some test pieces for their new game. At first I had to say no because I was really really busy but they extended the deadline for me, and seemed really lovely, so I accepted. Although they didn’t go with my test ideas, they loved what I’d come up with and so started me on a brief. I’ve been working with them for over 2 years now I think. I create the main map, the postcards and the expedition backgrounds.
What is your favorite thing to draw?
What’s the one thing you’d never draw and why?
Something negative to the progress of humanity (i.e. something racist or homophobic or sexist etc. or promoting something harmful) – for obvious reasons.
What is your process, when illustrating something? What are the steps you follow?
I always research thoroughly first. I like to be accurate. Then I do conceptual work to come up with some main themes, start playing with visual ideas relating to them, and then start drawing compositional thumbnails. These are shared with the client, and then when approved I move to final sketches, which I then scan into Photoshop and use them as a guide to work on top of.
Is there any chance you’d be able to show me some rough sketches, so we can show the pencil sketch vs. the final illustration?
What tools do you use in your work? (from pens to software, graphic tablet and any other gadgets you might use)
Pencil, rubber, paper, scanner, mouse, keyboard, mac computer of some kind and Photoshop. That’s it really. Fairly low tech. I know I should probably learn to use Illustrator and a graphic tablet but I haven’t yet.
How do you promote yourself?
Social Media, books, competitions, website.
Looking back, what do you think were the biggest mistakes you made, when you started in illustration? Or what would you do differently now?
Nothing major really. There are a couple of projects I didn’t really enjoy working on, but I’ve just stopped working with those clients now, and all is good. Don’t see much point in regretting things. I’m happy with where I am now, so why change anything in the past?
What do you think is your biggest accomplishment, so far?
I have no idea really. Um. I think just the fact that I’m doing what I love and earning a living from it I suppose. Some of the work I’m most proud of is my About series, which explores different animals and what makes them awesome and interesting. I like to think they’re helping both people and the animals they’re about, as knowledge and getting people to care about nature and wildlife are really important aspects of conservation.
What would you advise illustrators at the beginning of their career?
Work hard. Be nice to people. Always meet deadlines. Be proactive. Stick up for yourself.