Art director Ellsphee: ‘we’re constantly suspended in a state of self-discovery’

It’s not often you come across somebody whose artwork is like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Sphelele Gumede aka Ellsphee’s work is exactly that, a true original with energy and social commentary all of its own. We spoke to Sphelele about what inspires him and how his work has been an ongoing interpretation of the world.
Barbershop.
Tell us about yourself and how you got started as an illustrator.

My name is Sphelele Gumede aka Ellsphee and I’m a multidisciplinary Art Director from South Africa. My work encompasses several disciplines such as Design, Motion Graphics, Animation and Illustration. I have been illustrating for as long as I can remember. It was the thing I did to stay out of trouble when I was young, and I think it eventually became a safe space for me. I started off with pencil on paper and it wasn’t until I was studying Animation that I started working digitally. The earliest memory I have of drawing was the one time I drew a pencil sketch of my great grandmother. That’s the first drawing I remember being really proud of.

“The earliest memory I have of drawing was the one time I drew a pencil sketch of my great grandmother. That’s the first drawing I remember being really proud of.”

How would you describe your style and the themes of your work?

My work is an introspective exploration where personal life experiences and the ceaseless search for my own meaning often cross paths. Over the years I have explored various themes such as coming to terms with my own mortality and being able to see the world as more than what meets the eye. The use of vivid colours is quite intentional. The aim is to bring my audience closer.

Where do you find inspiration?

I’m inspired by people and various art forms such as music, film and photography. Seeing how other people interpret the world is always interesting to me.

Talk us through your workflow; how do your designs tend to develop and how long do they take? What equipment do you use?

Each one of my artworks begins its life on my sketchpad as a very rough sketch. The aim at this point is to get the main idea out. I then scan the sketch and use it as reference for the illustration on Affinity Designer. I work monochromatically at first as this helps me set the tone for the artwork. The emphasis at this point is creating contrast. I prefer using my Wacom Intuos Pro to draw because this gives me better control. The amount of time each piece takes differs. I generally don’t like to finish my work in one sitting. I like being able to go back and add to it until eventually there is nothing more to add.

Which illustrators/designers do you admire the most?

I’ve drawn immense insight and inspiration from many different people, from street artists like Faith47, Banksy, Jamie Hewlett, Jon Burgerman, Sindiso Nyoni, Shepard Fairey, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and last but not least, Takashi Murakami.

How do people typically react to your work? And what do you hope they take away from your designs?

I am often caught by surprise by how positively my audience reacts to my work. From my perspective I have never thought I was particularly very talented; I just really like what I do and put in the hours towards it without any kind of expectation in return. I am grateful that people generally show love for the work and are kind enough to purchase some prints from time to time and also leave positive messages of encouragement. I hope to have made the world a bit better and a bit more colourful. I would hope that each time people see the work, they find a detail they hadn’t noticed before and so on.

What is the creative scene like in the area you live?

We have an incredible scene in S.A. From DJ’s to Street Artists to Fashion Designers, we have it all. It’s a uniquely diverse country that is rich in heritage and oozes potential from every corner. From Kwa-Mashu to Cape Town there isn’t a shortage of incredible work.

One of the best things about it is that it feels like it still has a great life ahead of it. With new musical genres and dance moves popping up every other day.

Bubbles.
How did you discover Affinity and what made you continue using our apps?

I must’ve been reading through one of the inspiration blogs I follow and I came across an article about Affinity Designer. This was back in 2014 and I remember the day because I sent an email about it to a good friend of mine with the subject “The game is changing”. We were just excited that there was a new player in the game who seemed to be just as good as what the industry standard was at the time. A little while later I jumped in and found it very easy to use. One of my favourite things about Affinity Designer is the way it bridges the gap between vector and pixel workflows. I love being able to push the artwork all the way to completion in one app. Being able to colour correct within a vector app is amazing. I kept using it because it is a very powerful app!

“One of my favourite things about Affinity Designer is the way it bridges the gap between vector and pixel workflows. I love being able to push the artwork all the way to completion in one app.”

How do you hope your work will evolve over the next five years?

More than anything I am a big fan of creativity in all of its forms and I am happy to be able to contribute to a thing that I have a lot of respect for. Over the next couple of years, I want to tell better and more meaningful stories through my work. More and more I want to create work that completely draws the viewer in.

What would be a dream commission or project for you?

I would absolutely love to collaborate with a streetwear brand for a sneaker and t-shirt collection. I think of fashion as a very powerful medium of expression. So, if anyone out there is reading this, hit me up and let’s work!

Illustration for Inktober.
Artwork for Inktober.
What’s your ultimate goal as an illustrator/graphic designer?

Over the years it has become clearer to me that I want to contribute in more meaningful ways to society through my work. One of the things I have been actively trying to do with the prints that I sell is to donate a percentage of the profits to charity. I think there’s a certain peace that comes with being able to do something for someone other than yourself.

“One of the things I have been actively trying to do with the prints that I sell is to donate a percentage of the profits to charity.”

I think the role that art plays in society is often downplayed and my aim is to gradually transform that perception, even if it is at a small scale. I want to be able to tell that little girl or boy that “Hey, you can make just as good a living painting, singing or playing your piano.” It’s not about fame but rather helping each other. Art and other forms of creative expression are ways of telling and archiving our stories, and as Plato put it, “Those who tell the stories rule society”. Perhaps not directly, but in that way, we influence what people think and feel.

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

Keep doing what you do. No, really, KEEP DOING WHAT YOU DO. On the good days and on the bad days. Keep doing what you do. One of the best things about what we do is that we’re constantly suspended in a state of self-discovery. Which is in equal parts intimidating and beautiful. So, keep doing what you do. You will thank yourself someday.


You can see more of Ellsphee’s work on his website, Instagram and Twitter.


Artist relations
Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.
Credits & Footnotes

All artwork copyright of Ellsphee—Sphelele Gumede 2020 and used with permission.