BEHIND THE SCENES
Meet the über-talented graphic artist who adorned our Illustration Annual with fluid type and vibrant splashes of colour
When we asked mixedmedia maestro Nikki Farquharson to help us celebrate the Computer Arts Collection Illustration Annual with a touch of typographic magic, we knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. The London-based graphic artist pulled out all the stops, handcrafting 10 elaborate images to mark each different section inside the publication. We caught up with her to find out what inspired her intricately patterned designs – and what else she’s been up to this year.
You often create your drawings with a “made-up story” in mind. What’s the story behind your openers for our 2014 Illustration Annual?
I knew straight away I wanted to illustrate the type itself. After a little thought, I came up with the concept of having each opener in the typographic set look as though it was made up of small, primitive-style creatures that had clustered together to form groups of random shapes, which happened to mimic the basic appearance of recognisable characters.
With the concept for the section openers nailed, where did you start in bringing your ideas to life?
The first step was to choose a typeface for my templates as I very rarely draw type freehand. Once I found the typeface with the right frame to aid my illustration, I put together some rough compositions and printed them out. I used those templates to sketch the illustrations in pencil, which then became the template I used for the final ink outlines.
On separate sheets, I mocked up colour and pattern combinations until I was happy with my final choices. The next stage was to start inking everything in. It’s a slow and methodical process – but it’s the stage I enjoy the most.
The lettering almost appears to be moving on the page – was this intentional? How did you achieve this effect?
I wanted the overall aesthetic to have a very organic feel. I chose a bold typeface for my initial template, but deliberately softened its framework by sticking to fluid, curved lines in order to create these little, individual shapes. I hoped to generate a sense of life, as though these pieces really are otherworldly, invertebrate creatures.
Why did you break the type so unconventionally on each spread?
One of the design problems I was struck by straight away was working with titles of varying lengths. I knew that not all of them would be laid out ‘whole’. Sticking with the concept that these aren’t really letters anyway, I concluded that having every word
“I try to walk the line between consistency and spontaneity: I want some sense of order combined with little, unexpected surprises”
broken up haphazardly not only made more sense, but also added some playfulness. There is no necessity on their part to be conventional.
However, I can only be unconstrained up to a point. I have a background in graphic design, which still heavily influences how I treat type in my illustrative work. In this instance, I wanted the type size to remain the same throughout, regardless of word length. Another example is choosing to align the type to the left. As much as my work looks impromptu, I try to plan everything I draw.
Given that your work is hand-drawn, was it tricky to meet the deadline?
As much as I enjoy creating work with whimsical stories to inspire me, I also had to be very practical. Knowing that I had a short space of time to produce 10 original pieces of artwork by hand, I had to bear many things in mind – but the main one was time. I often do quite structured pieces with the aid of rulers, which tends to mean lots of measurements and calculations. In this case, I deliberately chose to abandon those extra steps. Working with soft, flexible lines is not only one of my favourite styles, it also has the added benefit of being quick. Apart from the pens, my hand and my imagination were the only tools I needed.
What was the most challenging aspect of the brief?
Unexpectedly, it was finalising the colour and pattern combinations for the four palettes. The original idea was to keep it basic by alternating between red, green, yellow and blue. I didn’t want to create anything too plain; but I wanted to avoid combinations that could be too time-consuming. Also, I wanted the patterns to resemble one another, while letting the palettes exhibit their individual personalities.
A task I thought would take me 30 minutes took considerably longer – but it paid off.
I try to walk the line between consistency and spontaneity in my work: I want there to be some sense of order combined with little, unexpected surprises. In this case, once I decided I was sticking with one style for the typography, it was necessary to break up that repetitiveness with alternating palettes. It wouldn’t have felt right if I didn’t throw as many colours as I could at this huge project.
Your portfolio is full of vivid and intricate pieces. Where do you stand in the minimalist versus expressive debate?
Believe it or not, I do have a really strong affection for minimalism in design but, if I’m honest, I don’t really keep up with what’s on trend. One reason I changed my creative path from graphic design to illustration was because I desired the freedom to be more expressive without the obligation of sticking to ‘design rules’. I think it’s far more important for creatives to be authentic to themselves and produce work that matches their own personal aesthetic, regardless of how popular that style is in the moment.
I don’t want to get lost in chasing fleeting fashions. As a commercial illustrator, I realise I create work for an audience but I also draw for myself. The hardest jobs to complete are when it feels like I’m compromising my personal aesthetics to suit another.
What’s been your favourite project in the past 12 months?
A recent project I’m proud of is the illustration I created for AnyForty, a UK-based streetwear brand founded by [ex-Computer Arts staffer] Alan Wardle. It got a lot of great feedback and sold really well, but I regard it a success because the final visual outcome was exactly what I intended. I was trusted to create whatever I wanted and was also given the opportunity to take my time, which is so rare in this industry.
Illustration was a challenging field to work in a few years ago. Is it an easier career choice these days?
It isn’t easy freelancing in illustration, especially if your specialty is regarded as niche. I construct most of my artwork by hand so I often have to turn down great jobs simply because the deadline is too tight, and it could be a little while before the next great opportunity arrives. Having said that I love what I do for a living.
What do you have in the pipeline?
I’m currently working on a new mixed-media set called Mythos with international photographer, Scott
“I don’t want to get lost in chasing fleeting fashions. As an illustrator I create work for an audience – but I also draw for myself”
A. Woodward. With this project I’m taking my mixed-media style in a brand new direction, so I’m looking forward to showcasing that. I’m also planning to start producing politically motivated typographic illustrations and I’m interested in creating mixedmedia art based on photos of myself, too. I really like the idea of being in full control of the whole image, from original photo to final outcome.
What would be your dream commission – and who for?
I would love the opportunity to collaborate with an iconic fashion label. Brands like American Apparel and Nike are working with designers to produce beautiful, unique patterns for their clothing and footwear. I’m often told my illustrations would work well on fabric so a commission of that calibre would be perfect.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I still go by an old piece of advice from a tutor at university who encouraged me to swap ‘clever’ concepts with little meaning for ideas I genuinely believe in. More recently, Adrian Shaughnessy tweeted that we should never agree to do anything in the future that we’d say no to if it presented itself tomorrow. That’s really smart advice.
Tell us something about you that we don’t know…
My friends and family would say I’m a bit of an over-organiser – from colour co-ordinating my clothes, cataloguing my shoes and categorising books by genre to arranging where food is placed in the fridge and on the plate. But I simply believe that a tidy space goes hand-in-hand with a tidy mind.