“that’s time you want to spend” — ben lamb, illustratorBack
“A while ago I was saying to someone that I didn’t think I really had a recognisable style,” illustrator Ben Lamb told us, as we sat with pale ales in the back of Terrace, talking things over. “I work in lots of different ways, and sometimes I’m trying to work in a style I’ve never really worked in before.
“And they said, that sometimes style is not just about having one identifiable visual style, but it can be other things that come through. Like humour. And I think humour is something I like to put into my work from time to time.”
Which is not to say that Ben’s work is funny like it’s a clown, with punchlines or props. But his deck-out illustrations for Oi Polloi’s Pica-Post zine, stitch and line perfect recreations of men wearing Y.M.C. sweatshirts, Beams fleece pants and checker Vans, placed atop a BMX bike on top of a lightning-struck mountain, are so loaded with retro youth culture references and absurdity it’s impossible not to smile.
Or if you’ve seen Ben’s work in The Guardian every week, illustrating Caroline Bennett’s Modern Tribes column and its survey of millennial types and tropes, like the off-grid holidaymaker and the craft vlogger, then you’ll know that you’re usually laughing before you start reading, either through grim recognition, or by spotting the expert rendition of mania through a few key lines around the eyes. A mania for almond milk, for example.
“That job essentially involves drawing a different kind of arsehole every week,” says Ben. “But I always think, well, I can’t make them too much of an arsehole. I’ve got to pitch it so you know they’re an arsehole, but it’s still a nice thing to look at.
“Sometimes that’s just about trying to put something in the expression that people will connect to. And I have no formal training, so all these are things I’ve figured out how to do along the way. I look at some other illustrators and they have a really good grasp of the basics of anatomy and things like that. I don’t really have that. I just sort of wing it.”
Ben isn’t formally trained as an illustrator because it didn’t occur to him, when he went to university in Newcastle to study fine art, that he could have studied illustration instead. A degree of struggle followed until, with the degree out of the way, Ben was able to get back to what he enjoyed doing, which was not conceptual art.
“Comic books were probably one of the biggest influences on my style, but also on what I like to look at,” says Ben, and we wonder how many comic book lovers have done, like Ben, fine art degrees, because they knew they loved art, but everyone told them that what they loved wasn’t art.
“I’ve loved comic books since I was a kid, and that style is all about line art and dynamic drawing. When I was doing my fine art degree we’d be learning about conceptual artists and I wasn’t that interested, but I loved to look at some good comic books or a bit of Robert Crumb. I think Robert Crumb is one of the greatest artists alive, and when he’s gone he’s only going to be more revered.”
Perhaps that delineation where fine art acquired a capital-A for Art, and drawing kept its small-f for fun, is the source of the humour in Ben’s work; he’s never had the fun trained out of him by the pressure of pleasure becoming work.
Some of his earliest published drawings were for the listings guides produced by Night & Day Café, where Ben would mix up portraits of the artists playing that month with whatever off-kilter idea came after a few beers. “One time I drew a load of old ladies, and then a load of biscuits. And you had to work out which old lady smelled like which biscuit.”
Jay Taylor, then promoting at the Night & Day, was rewarded for giving Ben this gig with artwork for the inner-gatefold sleeve of an album by his band Bone Box; a boxing kangaroo, drawn by Ben, “And I did these really giant kangaroo testicles on it. I don’t know why they came out so big, but I was looking at some reference pictures and some of them had these quite big furry nuts, so I drew them on. Everyone was fine with it, but when I look at it years later, I’m like, wow. Your eye just goes to them.”
For a change of pace from lines and imagination, Ben digitally paints pubfronts and shopfronts from around Manchester and from Nashville, Tennessee, where he takes photos while visiting his wife’s family.
“That started as a personal project and in many ways still is,” says Ben. “I lived in the Northern Quarter for about seven years, and it’s hard not to be seduced by some of the nice old architecture, especially the bits that are a little bit crumbling. I was wandering around one day and thought, this is great subject matter, I should draw some of this, and on one of our trips to America I thought it might be a good way to expand the project a little bit, and started snapping interesting buildings.
“I have a huge archive that I’m yet to get around to, because there’s no shortcuts with that sort of work. It’s very labour intensive. The drawing can take the best part of a week, then the painting can take a couple of weeks sometimes, so I can only turn my attention to it now and then and chip away.
“I really love doing that work. I found some really good digital brushes a while ago and they opened a new door for me. They allow you to make any sort of mark you want, from fine penliner, to different kinds of pencil, watercolour, gouache, you name it. They’re really interesting to work with, and I really love the painting part of those.
“Drawing is one thing, you’re trying to make those lines go in just the right place so they describe what you want them to describe, but when you’re adding colour it’s just a different sort of thing. I love when I get a little sense of light, the light you would see standing on the street looking at one of those shopfronts. A nice bit of shadow somewhere that tells your brain what it’s like to look at that kind of brickwork or texture. It’s a bit more meditative.”
We talked for a while about how doing paid work to a deadline makes it difficult to find time for weeks to paint personal projects, and the different techniques some illustrators have learned so they can work faster and do more, either to make more money or make more time. That’s not really Ben Lamb’s jam. Instead, he spends the time enjoying what he’s doing, and again, this feels like another inkwell from which he draws his humour.
“By my nature, I just take my time about stuff,” says Ben. “Not just work, but making decisions. I don’t do anything too impulsively. At a certain point I recognised, this is just how I work; it might be longwinded at times but that’s just how it is, I’m not going to fight that.
“There’s a pleasure to be had in doing the work. When I’m doing a drawing and the lines are going down right and I know it’s going to work out okay, and I can relax into it, that’s time you want to spend. It’s not just a case of trying to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. Why not enjoy the time doing that thing?”
If such things can be transmitted to the viewer through line and colour, and surely they can, then it’s no wonder that we get such pleasure from looking at Ben’s drawings. This morning we went on eBay, hunting copies of the Levi’s Vintage Clothing lookbook for SS15, because Ben’s retro Americana drawings of newly invented and fresh fifties teenagers fuse comics, vintage references and an on point bop in a way that hits us all over.
“Those Levi’s things are some of the most fun jobs I’ve worked on,” says Ben. “I feel really fortunate to have done those because it came about through friends I made in Manchester. My good friend Nick went to work for Levi’s and he made those illustrations happen.
“They were so much fun, because Levi’s have this incredible archive of advertising material, which we would root through and pick out certain pieces to riff on, and I would try to recreate the style. A perfect blend of fun with a little bit of nerdiness, because you’ve got to draw the clothes just right, but also reference an old style. It’s a technical challenge of making the clothes look right and referencing the vintage material.
“And I love doing that sort of thing, it’s the perfect kind of work for me. I like to get lost in the details, and I like drawing clothes a lot. There’s a lot to get right, to make sure the fit is right, the colour’s right, the stitching’s right. It’s pleasant for me to work on.”
And what’s pleasant to work on is pleasant to look at, which must be some sort of definition of art, we reckon. ••
Originally published in The City Talking: Fashion