Chris Rathbone: illustrating Ronnie O’Sullivan’s 1000th Century Break

We’ve long admired the sports illustration work of Chris Rathbone, so we were excited to commission him to create an illustration of Ronnie O’Sullivan, the world’s number one snooker player, who we recently sponsored​ in the Snooker World Championships. It seemed the ideal time to profile Chris and talk about his work…
How did you get started in illustration?

I have always been drawing since I was a kid. I loved drawing but as I went through school, I was always led to believe that it wasn’t really possible to get a job as an artist. As I was discouraged from pursuing it as a career I started getting into graphic design. I then went on to university and studied graphic design, but my love of drawing never went away, and I was always drawing as a hobby and trying to learn new techniques—especially with digital art which was relatively new at that time.

It was only once I joined Instagram and Twitter and started sharing some of my work that I really had the confidence to think that there was potentially something there for me when people started liking my work. I had worked my way up the ‘ranks’ as a graphic designer, and in my most recent role I was leading and managing a team of graphic designers and artworkers, but my illustration work was being really well received and I started getting some cool projects come in. So I made the (at the time!) scary decision to quit my job to focus on my illustration career and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

We love how you are able to convey motion in a static image—what techniques do you use to get this effect?

For me, that’s the biggest challenge, and the most fun aspect of drawing. I love trying to capture energy and emotion in a static image. I purely work in vector, and I love working with solid shapes and colours. When I first started out creating digital art, I loved the old screen printed posters, and so I decided to try to avoid using motion blurs and gradients and things like that which wouldn’t lend themselves to being screen printed. I guess that early decision kind of set the style for my artwork, and I like playing around with motion lines, shapes and flashes to convey speed, motion and movement. I’d say perspective is the main thing though. If you play around with, and exaggerate perspective, you can create a real sense of energy.

What other creatives do you respect and admire?

I’m a big comic book and movie fan. When I first started drawing digitally, I would always look at the work of Matt Taylor, Dan Mumford and Matt Ferguson. I love their use of colour—especially the way they would often stick to a minimal colour palette, and that is something which has stuck with me. They also seemed to just use solid shapes and colours and didn’t use gradients, fades, or filters etc.

A vast majority of your work is for motorsport, is there where your sporting passions lie?

When I used to draw as a hobby, I would always draw things that were of interest to me, which was mainly sport, comic book and movie pieces. There were so many artists (including the three I mentioned above) who were killing it in the comic and movie industry, so I wanted to do something different and focus on my other passion which was sports and motorsport. I remember watching an interview with Matt Taylor who mentioned the importance of building a portfolio of work that was of things that interested you when you first start out. If you’re drawing as a hobby and giving up your free time it needs to be interesting and exciting to you. It also shows through in your work if it’s something you are passionate about. As I started doing this, I then was lucky enough to start getting work with some race teams and it just kind of snowballed from there. I’m a huge sports fan generally, and I’ve recently started getting projects outside of motorsport which is really exciting!

Tell us a little about your workflow. Has using Affinity Designer changed it?

Definitely. When I first started out, I would draw by hand and then scan my drawings in, trace them in Photoshop or Illustrator, and then colour them. It was such a long process. I actually bought and sold several iPads at various times over the last 3-4 years as I would get one and think (hope!) I could skip the pencil drawing and go straight into drawing on the iPad. I would try various programmes but none of them really worked for me and so I would sell the iPad and then carry on with my usual workflow. I did this various times with several apps and pieces of software, none of which really fitted into my workflow.

I had read some very good things about Affinity Designer and so I decided to buy an iPad again and try it out, and that was the game-changer. Up until then I did all my work in Adobe Illustrator, but I couldn’t work on ‘the go’ or away from my studio. Affinity Designer is awesome as it enables me to draw directly in vector which save so much time, and the interface and many of the tools are similar to Illustrator so I feel at home when I’m using it as I can layer up all my work and use the same tools and techniques I had grown so familiar with. The best part about it is that there is obviously the desktop app too so I can chop and change from my iPad to my Mac and work on projects anywhere, anytime. I also love being able to jump between Affinity Designer and Adobe Illustrator when I need to as both programmes work differently and have different tools depending on what the project is you are working on, and what you’re trying to do.

How do you define your prominent colour palettes in a piece?

I start every piece in black and white. I generally tend to try not to use more than five or six colours in a piece unless the client is after a more ‘realistic’ style of illustration, and so working in black and white, and a couple of shades of grey allows me to focus on the composition, lighting and drawing without getting bogged down by colour in the early stages. Then, once I’m happy with the drawing, I start replacing each shade of grey with a colour and go from there really, and because it’s all vector, you can change and tweak the colours super easy and you can experiment.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Mainly from my love of sports and the emotion it brings. It sounds cheesy, but I love trying to capture the emotion of a particular race, game or event etc.

What has been your favourite commission to work on to date?

That’s a tough one. I have been fortunate enough to work on some awesome projects and I really couldn’t chose just one as my favourite. I will always say that the Goodwood Festival of Speed project from 2018 was my most important project as that was literally the project that made me realise I need to quit my job to do this.

Tell us about your career so far? What’s the secret to your success?

Going freelance was one the best things I ever did. Confidence plays a big part in it, and I think being asked to work on so many awesome projects really gave me the confidence to keep doing what I’m doing. I genuinely love drawing, and I’m lucky that I’ve been able to build a career around drawing the things that I enjoy drawing, so it doesn’t feel like ‘work’. I would definitely advise people to focus on building up a portfolio of the kind of work you want to do—that’s what I did outside of my day job. Hopefully people then see that work and you get more work in that area.

What is your ultimate ambition?

To be able to have a long career as an illustrator, and to keep doing what I enjoy every day, whilst being able to provide for myself and my family by doing so. That’s pretty cool, and not everyone gets the opportunity to be able to do that in life.

What has been your proudest achievement so far?

It’s so cool being able to go to an event and see your work on display, or to go into a shop and see your work on the shelf. Most recently I was commissioned to help create the cover of Top Gear Magazine. I’m obviously a huge motorsport and car fan, and so to have the privilege to work with Top Gear was very special. I’d always wanted to do a magazine cover, so to illustrate the cover of the magazine that is on sale worldwide was a very proud moment, and to walk into any supermarket or newsagents and see it on the shelf is so cool. I work with several magazines and I love being able to create something that can be picked up by anyone, anywhere.

Talk us through how you planned the composition of the Ronnie O’Sullivan piece.

When Affinity contacted me and asked me to create this piece, I was really excited. Obviously, the illustration captures the moment when Ronnie O’Sullivan got his 1000th Century Break, so I began by watching the video of the moment it happened. Affinity also sent me some reference images and so I just began by sketching out ideas based on the photos I was sent and the video. We wanted to have a large ‘hero’ illustration of Ronnie celebrating, and then also have a smaller image of Ronnie taking the actual shot. I played around with several different compositions before I got to one that I felt worked best. Like I said, I always start my work in black and white, with shades of grey for the lighting, and with this piece I wanted to give it a subtle tie back to Affinity, so I introduced the blue accent colour from the Affinity website and app. I felt the grey and blue tones worked really well, so although I experimented by adding other colours—such as green for the table and a darker grey for Ronnie’s clothing—I decided to stick with the grey and blue palette, and then just add some red tints to the balls.

What would be your dream commission?

I am a huge fan of American Sports and I’d love to do some work for the NBA and the NFL. I think to do some official work for the NBA finals, or the Superbowl would be my next goal. I’ve recently started doing some football projects, including a project for Match of the Day which was very exciting, and I’d like to do some more football related projects. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some of my favourite teams and brands already in the world of motorsport, and some of the projects I have worked on are the kind of ‘bucket list’ projects I dreamed of doing when I started out, and I’m excited to see what other motorsport projects are around the corner too!


You can see more of Chris’ amazing vector illustrations over at chrisrathbone.com, and on his Twitter and Instagram pages.