Tell us a little bit about your history as an illustrator.
I started drawing from an early age, like so many other children do. I was mainly inspired by comics and wanting to create my own. So drawing became my main childhood pastime at first, and then what I wanted to do for a living.
After finishing high school I went to the Comics School in Milan and got a degree in Architecture and Design at the Milan Politecnico. Probably my work today is a direct result of these studies—as it ranges from pure illustration and sequential art to something more design orientated, but along the way inspiration kept on coming from all sorts of sources, basically anything I saw and liked!
Tell us about the freelance work you do now and/or describe your typical work week in brief.
Well it differs immensely from one client and commission to the other. Some of it is totally illustrative—editorial illustrations, storyboarding, advertising and graphic novels—while other work has much more to do with design, such as with infographics, branding etc. And I often work with film and animation, but often one thing spills into the other, so it’s really hard to find a clear cut definition of what I do!
In terms of my typical week—I don’t really have one, it depends on what’s going on, and often there is no real difference between a week day or a weekend. I work mainly from home—with a lot of online meetings, which on the one hand allows me great flexibility but on the other can also become quite a solitary thing. Therefore I love having the opportunity to work with others and collaborate on projects.
You’ve worked in Milan and Tokyo and are currently based in London. How did being an illustrator and designer differ in those vibrantly different cities? Have they inspired your artwork?
They are three really exciting cities, and they undoubtedly have their different traits that affect one’s work. Milan is where I grew up, studied and started working—and although I am no longer based there I often visit, so I’ve really seen it flourish over the last few years. I often point out how it is a relatively small city (especially compared with London and Tokyo) for the amount of things that are going on. Therefore there are very few degrees of separation between people within the creative industry regardless of one’s own individual specialization, everybody seems to know each other, which obviously encourages collaboration and opportunities to learn one from the other.
While London, as it’s so cosmopolitan and international, really gives you the opportunity to work with and for all sorts of different people. In London you’re talking with and to the world, and one’s work can’t help but be affected by it. While the most striking feature of Tokyo (and Japan in general) is the notion that beauty can lie within everything and it can be expressed through extreme simplicity. Moreover I found that there is less of a clear-cut distinction between what’s considered high and low culture, which allows the two to meet and blend seamlessly. While from a more technical point of view I’ve been heavily influenced by the approach of some local illustrators and photographers to light and colour.
“In London you’re talking with and to the world, and one’s work can’t help but be affected by it”
What or who else inspires your illustration work?
Everything I see inspires me. Travelling, meeting people, learning about different cultures and stories, other people’s work, regardless of the media used. Sometimes I find inspiration in film, photography, architecture and probably any kind of artistic expression.
You create graphic novels, tell us a little bit about this and what challenges there are when creating narrative artwork.
Graphic novels were pretty much responsible for revamping my interest into sequential storytelling after my childhood years reading comics. I found that they had the potential of telling a story in a different way compared to other arts. And there lies the challenge—a graphic novel is not (or should not be) a sequence of pretty drawings, but it has to, first and foremost, tell a story in a convincing, enticing and entertaining manner. Storytelling is the thing I really love and on which lately I have been focusing the most.
Can you explain a little about your creative process? Do you start working by hand and then transfer to digital? Do you work in layers?
I always start from a sketch—usually just pencil on sketchbook, although I have been sketching more digitally recently, but mainly for practical reasons of skipping the scanning process. So it often happens that I have on the same sketchbook, or even on the same page, sketches for completely different projects, or personal ideas, thoughts, notes. And besides making it easier to find things, it’s nice to have them as a personal archive.
“So it often happens that I have on the same sketchbook, or even on the same page, sketches for completely different projects, or personal ideas, thoughts, notes.”
Absolutely, I do work in layers. Not only for basic tidiness and to find my way around the piece, especially when I pick it up after a while, but also because by doing so it’s then way easier to apply effects, try out blending modes, play around with channels or curves, or use masks, especially when I want to add textures to the composition.
Your illustrative compositions are really dynamic, how do you approach composition when you’re creating your work?
I tend to find it all boils down to the very first sketch and concept, which I try to keep small, quick and straight to the point, hence stripped of any unnecessary elements. Basically I tend to draw a thumbnail of what I’m about to illustrate, as it helps me focus on the composition and gesture. My sketchbooks are filled with tiny little ideas, unfortunately I only get around to developing just a small percentage of them!
What has been your favourite client project and how does creating client work differ to your self-initiated projects?
I don’t really have one favourite client project, I’d say that I have series of projects that over the years have marked a sort of milestone in my career. Be it because they were high-profile, or because I managed to use a certain kind of style, or because I really enjoyed working with the people involved in the project. And generally speaking these milestones are those jobs that helped me improve or move forward as a professional.
Being an illustrator is not an easy career to pursue, and it is often accompanied by uncertainty and self-doubt, so I’d include all those jobs that for one reason or the other made me think that somehow I can make a living with my drawings. But on the top of my head, one job that combined so many of the above-mentioned elements—i.e. graphic novel style, theme, working with some extraordinary people and a high profile client which helped me further establish myself in the UK—was 2016’s BBC iWonder “Tell me your secrets” project. Moreover it’s something my late father would have especially loved and been proud of, so it probably does have a special place in my heart.
While in terms of difference between personal and client work—I’d say that when I’m actually working on the illustrations, things don’t change much. The big difference is the before and after. Before as sometimes it’s hard to work out what is needed and get into the client’s head. The after because with a client I have two parties to please—the client and myself. And of course clients have deadlines, but that sometimes is a good thing as I often find that people perform better under pressure (although they usually hate that pressure when actually carrying out the work!).
“Being an illustrator is not an easy career to pursue, and it is often accompanied by uncertainty and self-doubt”
How did you hear about Affinity Designer and what inspired you to start using it?
I googled it! It was around 2015, and at the time I had been left ‘orphaned’ by the vector software that I had been using for over ten years, Expression 3. Although I have always been a Photoshop user, I somehow never clicked with Illustrator. Therefore when I discovered Expression 3 at the agency I used to work for, it became my software of choice for vector jobs, along with Flash. But as its development had been abandoned, it unfortunately became incompatible with more recent MacOS versions.
So one day I typed a very simple “Illustrator alternative Mac” search, and amongst the results I found an article praising Affinity Designer. I downloaded the trial, found a good tutorial with a workflow that made totally sense to me, tried it out on one of my mini-sketches—and I found after a couple of days that it was the software I had been looking for. The main reason being, besides its various features, is that I felt at home with the whole logic and layout of the software, the UI, how it manages shapes (or encourages the shape management), colours and so on. It just fits my workflow like a hand in glove. And also taking into consideration the very affordable price, my mind was pretty much made up on day two of the trial!
How has using it changed the way you work?
Besides considerably speeding up the way I do certain things, I’d say it has added a process that was already potentially there but I hadn’t really fully developed. I’ve always been torn between expressing the beauty of simplicity and wanting somehow to show off! In the past I had approached the theme of simplicity of the lines, mainly inspired by Japanese traditional art and calligraphy.
With Affinity Designer I started to think in terms of how complexity can be achieved through simple shapes (or shapes deriving by more or less simple geometry) and the use of colour. It therefore shifted the focus on seeing or observing shapes and colours rather than just imagining or guessing them.
Moreover by developing its export capabilities, and compatibility with various formats, it made it easier moving from one software to the other, hence opening up all sorts of different possibilities. I even used it for some graphic novel panels, especially when it came down to more precise and technical elements. And lately I’ve been making a greater use of the Pixel Persona to add an extra element of texture and warmth to the pieces.
What achievement in your illustration career are you especially proud of?
There are various defining moments of my career, or obstacles I had to overcome, and times when I had to start over—especially when relocating. But I think that the main thing I’m proud of is actually having an illustration career—as I was saying earlier it’s not the easiest of careers, and of course many times I’ve wondered whether I could have chosen something more straightforward and safer! And I’m also proud that the best things have come as a result of my research and studies to constantly improve and add tools to my skillset. I like to think that I’m a better illustrator than I was a year ago, and hopefully I will be an even better one next year. At least, that’s the goal I always set for myself.
“I like to think that I’m a better illustrator than I was a year ago, and hopefully I will be an even better one next year”
Does your process for creating commercial work differ from your personal work?
I think that the main difference is what initiates it. Commercial work is initiated by a brief, and so from that I try to chase down an idea to answer that brief. While personal work is usually initiated by the idea, a quick sketch, something I’ve seen, or something I want to try out. I’d say that after that, they are pretty similar, as anyway I am often harder to please than some of my clients (not all though!).
What would be your dream commission?
Obviously from a very practical point of view something high profile, that gets seen by a lot of people. But generally speaking my dream commission is a combination of many things—purpose and destination of the piece, the people I work with and for, and probably above all something that allows me to explore and improve on all the things I’ve seen, the references, my personal studies and ideas, or even travels and experiences.
I often find myself thinking how cool it would be to have a commission where I can employ a particular style and approach I have been admiring over the years. And if I can also tell a story, in some way, that would be the icing on the cake.
What do have planned for the future of your illustration work?
I don’t really have anything specific planned—just improve, push and challenge myself more and more, so as to do things I can enjoy and then look back and be proud of. Where this may take me I really don’t know, I think I’ve stopped worrying about the destination some time ago, and at the same time I started trying to enjoy the journey a little more.
It’s been a pleasure talking with you… any final words for us?
I think what you’re doing is really important for our industry. Developing tools that are not just an imitation of the established ones but seeking another approach to the creative process. As well as recognizing that nowadays people in the industry need more and more flexibility, both in terms of software and platforms, and in terms of tools used (PC, tablets etc). So anything that helps to seamlessly bridge the gap from one stage to the other is a huge asset.
There isn’t a clear distinction between amateurs and professionals, one often becomes the other through gradual improvement and individual circumstances. Therefore providing means that are affordable, with reasonable learning curves, and are just as powerful as the more established names, is very much needed and a breath of fresh air.
And on a small personal note… it’s nice seeing a UK based developer doing all this. So in short, thank you, and I’m really looking forward to your future developments.
You can see more of Robert’s work at www.deadbyxmas.com Instagram and Behance