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Interview with Illustrator Jonny Wan

Thursday 27 October 2016
Words Spindle

Jonny Wan is a Sheffield-based freelance illustrator who graduated from Manchester School of Art in 2008. He works across advertising, editorial and publishing, and has produced work for The Telegraph, Ford, New Scientist and Easyjet among numerous other brands and publications. His work has an extremely distinctive, eye-catching style, with intricate, iconic character design and an Art Deco influence. We asked Jonny all about this influence and discovered what makes him want to create.

How would you describe your work?

My work has gone through many manifestations over the years of experimentation but I think I’ve reached a point where I’ve settled on an aesthetic that I’m happy with. I feel it’s more pure to me and reflects my personality and direction. I would describe my style as graphic, playful and also people orientated, characterised with bold shape and pattern. I love people watching in general, and the crowds that reflect the diverse population around me is always an inspiration when it comes to my work.


What makes you want to create?

I think more than anything it’s an urge, it’s like an internal itch that I have to scratch each day. I’ve always loved the idea of making something from nothing and that feeling hasn’t left me. I also really like seeing the final end product of my work, whether that be in print, on an advertisement or on screen. Lastly I’m lucky to be surrounded by creatives that work in all kinds of fields that inspire me to make something. A lot of my friends are graphic designers, photographers and art directors working on a variety of projects, so seeing their working process and what they create keeps me on my toes. It also changes my way of thinking and how I approach projects, so I guess the more creativity I surround myself with, the more I want to create.

How did you develop your distinctive artistic style?

A lot of it is just through time, experimentation and being mindful of what I find visually interesting and what I don’t. My style now looks very different from a year ago, which in turn looked nothing like what I produced after graduating from university. I think every illustrator is burdened with the idea of developing their own unique style. With so many great artists working out there, newcomers can put themselves under a lot of unnecessary pressure to create something “new” and “unique.” Don’t get me wrong, I think inspiration is a brilliant thing, especially when you’re starting up, its good to expose yourself to as much as possible, as well as keeping up with what’s new in the industry, but it shouldn’t dictate your own creativity and expression. Also, the key method for me developing my own style is simply making sure I do something each day. The act of doing I find helps me more than anything I see around me, an illustrator by nature is a creator so I think its important to spend as much time drawing and making as much as possible, whether its doodles in a throwaway sketchbook or a planned personal piece, every little counts and gets you closer to your own unique artistic voice.


Tell us about the retro and Art Deco influence on your work.

It all started when I was younger and we were learning about the Ancient Egyptians at school, I paid less attention to what the teachers were telling me, and more attention to all the pictures. I was fascinated with all these abstract illustrations of gods with animal heads, the colours and pattern they used for the clothing and the unique style they had for depicting people.

As I got older I discovered artists like Cassandre and designers like Abram Games, which led me to look up Cubism and Art Deco. Once I found out about the Art Deco movement, I was instantly hooked; not only did the style appeal to me aesthetically but I was amazed about how much of society it influenced. Aside from graphic design and art, the style spilled into everything from architecture to furniture, from engineering to jewellery design. Everything was so unique and characterised by sharp geometric lines and simplified patterns. It was only later on at university that I discovered that a lot of the inspiration for Art Deco came from the discoveries that were being made in Egypt during the excavations. A lot of my inspiration comes from just looking and researching the breadth and depth of Art Deco, the strong lines and imaginative patterns that are used to characterise and simplify complex things is something that I push for in my work.


Do you have a favourite piece you’ve created?

I created a personal piece called ‘People’ last year and I think that’s my favourite illustration to date. That was an image where everything came together for me; I had gone through a very busy period of work, which left me feeling very stagnant and needed something totally fresh to kickstart myself. It was a piece that wasn’t governed by feedback or amends and I had total free reign over the subject matter, I could also afford to be less precious then I usually am with client work. From that I developed a very natural way of working that I look forward to exploring more of and hopefully it will spill into the more commercial projects I take on.

Is there something you want to say or convey in your personal work?

There’s nothing overtly personal I look to say with my personal work, I just aim to make sure that I enjoy everything that I’m making and that the passion for drawing and making new things never leaves me.


What’s your creative process when responding to a brief?

Usually the brief will determine how I work, deadlines can vary between jobs so I’ll be working on different stages at all times. As soon as I get the brief I’ll take a couple of hours to read through and make notes, from there I’ll begin to gravitate towards a few keywords and start looking up some related images and visual cues I can pull out and use within the final illustration. From there I’ll start sketching tiny little thumbnails just to make sure I get the composition right before heading on to create an initial sketch. Once the feedback has arrived I’ll get straight onto turning the sketch into an editable digital file where I can chop and change according to the clients preferences. Personal work, however, is completely up to me. As so much of my work is created on screen, I try and create something that’s a bit more tactile where I can make use of the local printers near me and experiment with different print finishes.

Which commissions have you most enjoyed?

I created a poster for the Oscars ceremony last year, which I really enjoyed. The art director I was working with let me have complete creative control over how I wanted it to look, which is always a blessing and it was fantastic to see it plastered up all over LA during awards season.


What are you currently working on?

I’m currently finishing up a few editorial spots for GQ magazine, which should be out soon, as well as creating some work for this year’s London Illustration Fair, which will take place at the OXO tower and around the Southbank in December. As well as that I’m working on a personal project making a concertina book, which I’ll be sending out as a personal mailer for new and existing clients in the New Year.

What’s your dream brief or project?

I’d love to see my illustrations move, I think working on some kind of animation would really shine a new light on my work as well as bringing it to life.


View more of Jonny Wan’s work on his website www.jonnywan.com.