Rupert Smissen is an illustrator living and working in London. Having graduated from Norwich University College of Art last year, he has since worked on a variety of projects with clients including Little White Lies, Popshot and D&AD. He has pencils, will travel, and often does.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
My name’s Rupert, I’m a 24 year old freelance illustrator with greying hair and a barely contained tree obsession. I work primarily in pencil, combining a fascination for the intricacies of hand-drawn texture with a love of portraiture and natural imagery. Love a good zombie drawing too.
Are you right or left-handed?
I’m right-handed, but after a bunch of nightmares in my second year at uni in which I lost my right hand in various horrific or horrifically unlikely circumstances I learnt to draw with my left too. Just in case.
You use a lot of graphite in your illustrations… what appeals to you, or attracts you to, working in pencil?
I like the immediacy of it. I love how accessible it is, . But beneath that, there’s an infinite subtlety to the marks you can make, so you never stop learning, picking up new skills and honing your lines. I feel at home modelling and rendering form in pencil in a way that I can’t quite seem to replicate in any other medium.
What’s your favourite pencil… Brand? Wood? Mechanical?
I had a very ordinary Faber Castell 0.7mm mechanical pencil for about six years, which I grew pretty close to, but lost in my final year of university. Apart from that, I don’t really have any particular brand loyalty, although looking at the shoebox lid I keep all my stuff in, I seem fond of Derwent pencils. I like mechanical ones for roughs and small studies though, 2B 0.7 does the job nicely.
Other than pencil what materials do you enjoy using?
I love Pentel brush pens. Not a massive leap I know, but they make me think about my drawings in a completely different way, all fluid lines and shapes. I find it fascinating how with one extra mark I can ruin a drawing, a concept totally at odds with a lot of the pencil work I do. Every so often I use dip pens for observational studies and wonder why I don’t use them more often too, far easier to embrace happy accidents with ink splattering everywhere.
You’re portrait work is stunning to say the least. Have you always enjoyed drawing faces/likenesses? Why do you think faces are so fascinating to artists?
Cheers! Theres something incredibly satisfying about capturing a particular person. From birth we’re wired to recognise the most nuanced differences from face to face, minutiae that distinguish individuals, and its an almost ubiquitous skill that’s unique to our observation of faces. I think it makes for a particularly challenging test of proper observation, trying to hone in on someone’s key features.
I’d be fascinated to know what its like for artists with ‘face blindness’ (Prosopagnosia). I imagine it allows you to see the structure more clearly, and not get distracted by what you already think you know about the face, which I reckon is one of the biggest barriers to actual observation when trying to draw anything, but especially the face.
On your blog you have some new portraits in pen and digital colour, and you say that you enjoyed working faster and working in colour. I think most pencil artists can relate to wishing they could work faster… is this the end of the pencil portrait for you?! Or will there always be a place for pencil in your heart?
Not at all. Being able to produce images I’m satisfied with at a faster rate is certainly an attractive prospect, but I’m totally hooked on the wholly rewarding feeling of finishing a drawing that’s taken more than it’s fair share of hours to complete. The faster work does however give me an opportunity to experiment with other elements, such as line and colour, that aren’t often integral parts of my usual work.
How long does it take you to complete one of your more complex graphite illustrations?
Of course it varies, but generally about 10-20 hours or so, although some have taken a lot longer. Sometimes I get lost in arguably irrelevant detail, but I’m getting better at managing my time. I generally work on images one at a time, not moving on until I’ve finished, but occasionally I’ll have a piece on the back burner, and spend an hour or so noodling away every so often whilst working on other stuff.
Could you tell us a bit about your creative process, from the initial image or idea to the finished piece?
I don’t think my process is particularly unusual. I really enjoy doing thumbnail sketches, so I usually start with a bunch of those. I’m pretty indecisive, and this probably slows me right down as I give myself far too many options. Alongside this, I’m also looking for reference for the elements I want to include. I love working in natural textures, foliage, bark, all that stuff, and usually find a way to weave and layer these within my pieces. Generally, my images start to evolve when I’ve chosen a simple composition and begin to play around with my reference material. I overlay all sorts of images on tracing paper and in photoshop to try isolate a composition I’m happy with, then I guess I just dive in and see how it goes.
How do you conceptualize/construct a piece? Do you think of it as a story, snapshot, or abstraction?
I tend to have a vague sense of what I want the work to provoke or evoke that grows and morphs whilst I’m drawing. I suppose I begin with a feeling or emotional response and work backwards from that to discover whether or not it has a narrative. Sometimes it doesn’t, and the resulting work is just me playing with the technical aspects of drawing, but more often than not I find something emerges during the process. I think I tend to either do fairly literal work, or work without a clear subject or narrative, and not much in between.
What size do you tend to work at, and why this preference?
I tend to work between A4 and A2, depending on how much I want to pack into a piece, and how long I’ve got to do it. As a rule, its usually got to be at least half as big again as its intended printed size. I’d love to spend ages on some much larger drawings, but at the moment time always seems of the essence. Plus those A0 drawings are a right pain to scan.
Tell us a bit about your comic The Misanthrope. Are you interested in making more comics in the future?
Comics are such a demanding medium, and I’ve got huge admiration for anyone that tackles them on a regular basis. I feel like they’re the ultimate illustrative challenge. It took me ages to work up the courage to see a comic project through to completion, so much in awe of the process was I, but I loved making The Misanthrope, and felt like it just sorta fell together. I’d relish the opportunity to do another, but perhaps I’m just holding on for a story to come along that I feel compelled to have a crack at.
Can you tell us about a favourite piece of yours, or a favourite creative experience?
Having just mentioned making The Misanthrope, I probably shouldn’t pick that. It was great though, immensely satisfying. Earlier this year I worked with the charity Only Connect, running 2 weeks of workshops about comics. I was surprised how much I enjoyed leading a class and attempting to relay my enthusiasm for what I do in a way that was actually useful for others. I’d love to do something similar again.
Do you have any early memories of drawing or, what’s your first memory of an image?
My mum always says that I drew a mean bicycle when I was really young. Shame I didn’t hold on to that skill, I find ’em proper tough these days. I think the first thing I can remember drawing was Sonic the hedgehog.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I keep a few. I’m finishing up work on some illustrations for a kids book at the moment, so I’ve got a couple of sketchbooks for roughs and ideas specifically for that. I’ve always got a Moleskin on the go. I used to be really precious about them, as I’m sure everyone did, but I’m less bothered now. I like leafing through old sketchbooks for ideas that I forget to follow up, and feel more able to pursue now.
You studied illustration at Norwich University College of the Arts… did you enjoy the experience? What do you think were the most useful aspects of studying illustration, for you?
Prior to Norwich, I had done a foundation course in Fine Art at Chelsea, which I didn’t get along with at all. After that I spent a year out, doing the odd bit of freelance work, mostly concept art and storyboarding, figuring out what I wanted to do. By the time I applied to Norwich, I knew I wanted to be an illustrator, but I also got the chance to try out different disciplines. I loved the environment, by and large, and the city is great, so I think I got a lot out of it. I think the single most important part of the whole experience was seeing the way everyone around you works, and being gradually opened up to different ideas and approaches.
What are you working on now? What can we look forward to from you next?
I’m finishing off some illustrations for a kids book that should be out by the end of the year, and slowly trying to add to my set of musicians portraits that I started earlier this summer. I also recently started being represented by Folio Artists Agency, and am enjoying tackling whatever they throw at me.
A Sneak peek of Rupert’s work in Issue 3 of Tiny Pencil!:
What was the last film you saw in the cinema?
‘In a World….’. It was brilliant, thoroughly recommended.
What are the books on your bedside table?
Film Directing Shot by Shot by Steven D. Katz, encyclopedic volume of storytelling and compositional techniques, brilliant book.
Coffee, nicotine, or booze?
Coffee, with booze a gracious second.
Favourite city in the world?
Living in London is great, but I visited Berlin last year, such a laid back atmosphere, real regional diversity too so I don’t imagine it would get boring easily. I don’t think I’ve been to enough to make an informed opinion yet though, so I’ll hold off on a definitive answer.
Favourite city to draw/sketch/illustrate/create in?
New York. I can’t wait to go back.
Where can people get a hold of your work, or find out more about your previous projects?
You can find my work at my site, www.rupertsmissen.co.uk, on Folios site www.folioart.co.uk/illustration/folio/artists/illustrator/rupert-smissen and my tumblr www.rupertsmissenillustration.tumblr.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @rupertsmissen.
Rupert’s work appears in Issue 3 of Tiny Pencil: The Beast Issue… Monsters, Machines and Unnatural Things! Available to buy here.
This interview was brought to you by The Tiny Pencil – fine purveyors of the pencil arts.