[Image: Yorkshire Post © Simon Lewis]
Since graduating, Leeds-based illustrator Simon Lewis has pursued his passion through an unflinching series of detailed ink drawings and printmaking studies for both personal and wide-ranging commissioned projects. Focussing predominantly on the intricacies and socio-aesthetic dynamics of buildings and architectural structures, much of his work highlights the existing urban spectacles that are so easily missed within our own streets; particularly those that sit above shop level. When I caught up with him, we discussed the complexities of sustaining one’s creative practice post academia, and the pressures of opportunity, influence and time. Here is what he had to say:
TSOTA: Tell us a little bit about your practice and how you got to where you are today.
SL: Well I’ve always done it; I studied illustration at university and so I’ve always done it from there. I tried to get into it straight from uni: trying to get into jobs and stuff, sending work to illustration houses and magazines, but I never really got many commissions. I got the odd one, but nothing really paid or regular enough. So I have always had a day job for my main income and carried on doing it on the side. I have had some success, I did a children’s book a few years ago which was published and I thought that would be my way in. Since then I started doing my own stuff, like screen printing again rather than trying to adapt my work to what was out there: I try to just do what I enjoy doing!
TSOTA: That’s quite a healthy and honest approach really, to keep the work genuine and see what comes along.
SL: It’s annoying when you do something (and you keep doing it for someone) and then it doesn’t get anywhere. It’s good to have a piece, but then it if it’s not really your piece then it doesn’t necessarily mean much to you. I wanted to create things that I could exhibit, so I started doing my own drawings again. At university they always said you should try and find your style, and I’m not sure if I have yet or not, but I think trying to adapt my style didn’t work. You get so much advice and completely different opinions. If I was to go back I would probably do more of what I actually wanted.
TSOTA: It’s a difficult balance at university isn’t it, because naturally you strive to make work that is true to yourself and your agenda, but against that there is the (increasingly expensive) tension of objectives, criteria, qualifications etc, and of course the future.
SL: Exactly, you have to find your niche.
The Barbican © Simon Lewis
TSOTA: So what drew you to urban landscapes?
SL: I’ve always enjoyed drawing skyscrapers; I think it’s easier with my style of drawing to draw these kinds of buildings. I like drawing shapes, I like repetition and detail, like the one I did of the Barbican. That was perfect because part of me is really attracted to things like that- just the shape of the building and brutalist architecture have always seemed appealing. As I got older I think I liked the history of the building more as well, and ones that are not unpopular but not particularly ‘beautiful’. The Yorkshire Post building has just been knocked down which is a shame, but I quite like how it changes (not that I want them to get knocked down!) There are I few that I have drawn which have ended up getting knocked down, and I like capturing it before.
TSOTA: Why do you feel that drawing, printing and etching are the most appropriate methods through which to express these interests?
SL: I like etching because of the amount of detail you can get- I like that it’s a really old technique- for example I like the drawings from the 1800s of buildings then. So it’s a good format for my drawings and I like the bit of texture you get. With screen-printing, I think I started doing more because I wanted to bring colour into my work. So that was an obvious way to do it rather than just colour it digitally another way: it gives a nice finish and you still keep the detail, so as I’ve gone on it’s developed into a detailed drawing for each stage of colour for more detailed print. I did an evening screen printing course and it just felt right and looked good. If I had more time I would do more lino printing and experiment with etching, but it’s finding the time and facilities to do so.
Harehills © Simon Lewis
TSOTA: Tell us about your company Floois and how this goes hand-in-hand with your own work.
Well my wife is an upholsterer, and we came up with the idea of doing stuff together like our custard cream footstool. At some point we decided that it should have a name, and that became a mixture of our surnames at the time. It’s hard to think of a name, so that worked because it’s a bit of a mishmash – she does some of her stuff and I do some of mine, so I have Simon Lewis Illustration and I sell stuff on Folksy with Floois.
TSOTA: And you had quite a bit of success with the footstool didn’t you?
SL: Yeah when it came out there was one shop that picked it up from Folksy, a lady in Newcastle from Hunkydory Home, who had certain contacts etc, and it ended up in the Sunday Times magazine a couple of years ago, and it sold loads! It took ages to make them and it’s kind of dwindled down now but we still sell the odd one or two. They’re still popular but we never really mass marketed it. It’s good to have a variation within your work, it was good fun but quite a challenge!
Custard Cream footstool © Floois
TSOTA: What inspires you to create?
SL: I just like the process of drawing, making, finishing and completing something. If I’m not working on something then- well I suppose I’m not one of those people who can just not do anything- so I guess it’s a part of my personality to create. Plus I find it relaxing, I draw while listening to music and I find it really enjoyable, especially when working around a day job- you can allow yourself to just switch off. I don’t struggle for inspiration at the moment so I’ve got plenty to do!
TSOTA: And how do you overcome those times when perhaps you do hit a brick wall and struggle for inspiration- do you think it’s best to have a break and return with fresh eyes, or do you prefer to persist until something happens?
SL: Well nowadays I write lists, so I have lists of all the things I need to do, whether it’s particular buildings, scenes or techniques I’d like to do. I find I’ve probably become more inspired the less time I have! You end up thinking of more things you want to do. It’s just like sod’s law. When you have time you can struggle for ideas and when you don’t, suddenly there are about twenty things you want to do! So yeah at the moment I have plenty of ideas, and then occasionally commissions too which are good to have.
TSOTA: How about deadlines then, would you say therefore the pressure of a deadline enhances your creativity in the same way as time restraints?
SL: Well no actually I’m not sure that deadlines are good for me! I like to get towards the end of something and have time to reflect on it and then go back to it, because I don’t necessarily trust my decision making in the heat of the moment! So sometimes you’ve got to sleep on it, which is good because when it’s just my own work I have as much time as I like.
TSOTA: If your work is successful what does it do- how do you measure the success of your work?
SL: Well at the moment to be honest if I sell a few, because I do want to make money from it! (laughs) It’s nice having ones that you like but ideally you want to try and make some kind of living out of it one day so that’s what I would deem success- if I get a commission or sell some. I think people like the Leeds drawings because they can relate to them. It would be nice to eventually branch out from Leeds and do some more externally etc. But at the moment as I say I have plenty of ideas, so until they dry up, I’ll carry on!
TSOTA: What is it that gives illustration such longevity- why is it still so important today?
SL: I’m not sure really, I mean I like things that look nice or interest me in that sense. I’m a fan of older painting for example like Impressionism.
TSOTA: So would you say that a fundamental appreciation of the visual and an admiration of craftsmanship are key to its survival?
SL: Well I think that’s what it is really, there’s a lot of skill there. I mean you look at some of those paintings, especially considering the scale of them, and you know you’ve got to have something special to do that. I like to look at something that has had a lot of effort put into it- something that’s taken a lot of skill. Sometimes that alone can impress you. And then of course if it looks great as a whole, then that’s even better! It’s nice to see that printmaking is now very much back in fashion!
TSOTA: Indeed it is! Well it wouldn’t really be a proper interview without the classic ‘desert island’ scenario. So if you could spend the rest of your life around just one particular piece of work, what would it be and why?
SL: Oh god. I have no idea! I’d find it hard to look at just one piece constantly. I don’t really have a favourite… What’s inspired me recently… can I get back to you?
Later that evening… (via email- we weren’t still sat there!)
SL: I like Chuck Close- I can stare at the detail for hours, and they’re so massive they would make good shelter!
Great answer! Many thanks Simon.
Simon’s work is currently on display at Nichols Deli, Chapel Allerton.