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U.K. Digital Art: New Rules, New Techniques, New Collectives

Michael Burns surveys the U.K. digital design scene for exciting talent, styles and trends.

There is a dizzying variety of digital art forms in the U.K. Renown designer John McFaul co-founded the art collective Black Convoy to facilitate collaboration between artists and designers. © McFaul 2005.

Its hard to define one overriding feature about the digital art scene in the U.K. like most other nations it has a diverse culture and this is reflected in the type of work that is produced here. However, perhaps more than most countries, this little subsection of the global design community celebrates the cutting-edge and retro together, drawing on cross-cultural art forms and inherent British humor and sensibilities to create something new altogether. A nation of magpies then? Perhaps not, but there is certainly an open-minded attitude to external influences that continues to bear exciting fruit, almost on a daily basis.

It isnt realistic to look at the U.K. design scene as one movement any more than one could the U.S. scene. There are such a dizzying variety of digital art forms here that the task would demand far too much space on this site. Instead weve cherry-picked from established artists and recent graduates, design duos and digital art collectives to focus on a few familiar and not-so familiar names.

Charles Darby works in 2D digital matte painting and 3D visual effects design. He has created majestic set pieces for many features, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Courtesy of Sony.

From L.A. to London

Working as he does in the field of 2D digital matte painting and 3D visual effects design, readers of VFXWorld may well know Charles Darby already. If not the name, then certainly his work will have been seen, providing majestic set pieces in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Fifth Element and Minority Report, to name only a few. Leaving London for L.A., Darby worked for Digital Domain and Cinesite L.A., as well as his own Digital Firepower studio. Now, though, hes back home and ensconced at Rushes Postproduction in Londons Soho. It seems like a good move for all concerned: Over the past few years, Ive taken longer on my designs and become more meticulous about thinking them through, says Darby about the developments in his career. If I believe in a shot being correct conceptually Ill be able to better supply quality work. Im never happy when a bad idea is expected to end up being a great matte painting it just doesnt work like that. At Rushes, I hope to further define that importance and make sure that Rushes is well known for the finest matte paintings in Europe.

Darby uses Photoshop because of its layering system, but mainly sticks to the paint tools rather than play with the latest filters. I use few of the new features and keep things simple, he adds. I start everything as a pen and ink drawing with watercolor and continue to create the initial ideas this way to keep my ideas fluid. My clients tend to prefer the process as well. I think they appreciate it being in their world rather than in the virtual and so they give more accurate animated response than if they saw some digital mockup.

A typical example of Darbys work will be seen in Rome, a new HBO mini-series. The artist designed many of the vfx while living in that city for three months earlier this year. My time there was very creative I probably painted over 70 watercolors whilst there, along with hundreds of sketches. To produce that kind of work in the city of Rome was such a pleasure. Ill continue to create matte paintings for the show back here in London and then Ill take a break for a while.

Katie Tang and Mike Doney comprise Tado, one of the most distinctive illustration teams in the U.K. All Tado images © Tado.

Darby has no problems working with mainly 2D elements in an increasingly 3D-heavy field. Indeed, hes very comfortable with his own approach. All things change and Im sure the advance of 3D and 2D will make it easier to emulate realistic natural subjects. Some 3D gets better and better, but I feel quietly safe about the future in regards to bringing a sense of beauty to a shot and designing compositions that add to the visual story of a film. I prefer to think of my job as less about the head and more about the heart. Good luck to any computer trying to better that.

Interactive and Static

Andy Potts is another London-based artist whose work is seen all over the world, but in two rather different forms. For several years this illustrator has been lead designer at Abbey Road Interactive, numbering DVDs such as U2 at Slaine Castle and O Brother, Where Art Thou? among the projects for which he provided interactive menus. For the past five years, he has also been working as a freelance illustrator with commissions ranging from advertising and book covers to editorial spots for clients on both sides of the Atlantic.

I feel quite lucky at the moment in that most clients approach me to create the kind of imagery I love creating, so the creative and commercial are mostly in tandem and not in conflict, admits Potts. Since Ive been working for more of an international market I can honestly say that most clients have been very willing and open to my interpretation of their briefs and Ive not noticed any obvious working trends in any particular country.

However, things are different on the creative side. I think there is a resurgence in illustration on a global scale and I feel the U.K. has many examples of exciting new talent, adds Potts. I think the U.K. is pushing forward new approaches to the use of illustration, probably due to a more receptive creative market willing to take a risk on original ideas. The U.S. has just as many if not more exciting artists but, due to sheer size, the industry has a wider turning circle and will take time to adopt unconventional ideas and break out of a pattern of quite safe and traditional illustration styles.

Tado produces its own toy lines, as well as other products such as clothing and stationery.

West Meets East

There is a movement in the U.K. right now, perhaps driven by shrinking fees and turnover for design since the crash, for smaller and smaller design companies. One such creative outfit is Sheffield-based Tado, one of the most distinctive illustration teams in the U.K. at the moment and composed of Katie Tang and Mike Doney. Set to be big in Japan, Taiwan and the U.S., as well as the U.K., the duo have a unique fun style, populated by cute animals, odd dogs and weird monsters, that has already scored big hits with the likes of MTV, British Airways and Honda. Generally we are very lucky in that most of our clients want us to simply do our thing. Having to compromise is all part of the fun, but its never been a huge issue to us, says Doney. We do think our work carries a certain U.K. humor, in that its odd and sarcastic but there are definitely a lot of recurring elements. Certain characters, features and objects will crop up time and time again, as well as certain themes and general styles. For commercial work, we usually create new sets of characters for each individual job, so they are always tailored to what we need.

Away from commercial illustration, Tado also work with companies like the Hong Kong-based Flying Cat and Kidrobot in New York, producing their own toy lines, as well as other products such as T-shirts and stationery. The duo are based in the north of England, putting paid to the notion that U.K. design has to come from London; in fact, highly successful companies like The Designers Republic and DED Associates are close neighbors. The pair are also vociferous about their love for U.K. design: For such a small place we seem to have an abundance of amazing companies producing incredible stuff at all levels. The U.K. as a whole seems to be very design-aware at the moment.

McFaul created a series of eight images for Virgin Atlantic, which will form the basis of branding for each of the companys VIP Trans-Atlantic flights. He enjoyed working in only two colors and white to create simple imagery. © McFaul 2005

The Rise of the Collective

Possibly as a reaction to the aforementioned commercial pressures, many designers here are choosing to form or join art collectives. Tado are part of the nascent 10b group, for example, while the newly formed Black Convoy is making waves already. Founded by renowned designers John McFaul and Richard May, this latter group intends to promote and make publicly accessible image making, illustration, animation and design. What started as a meeting of minds ended up as Black Convoy, explains McFaul. Tired of being labeled as illustrators we intend, as a group, to encourage our talents in other, otherwise seemingly prohibited, creative disciplines.

McFaul himself is certainly no mere sketch artist, having just finished a huge billboard for Casio watches as well as a series of eight images for Virgin Atlantic, which will form the basis of branding for each of the companys VIP Trans-Atlantic flights. It was a perfect job for me as I was working with a company whose principles encouraged me to create beautiful, simple imagery, says McFaul. The companys palette reduced me to using just two colors and white which was quite a refreshing change and something that took me back to my screen-printing days.

Like many of the other leading U.K. designers, McFaul has agents in both Britain and North America. Im now represented by the U.K.s leading illustration agency CIA and the very highly respected B&A in New York, he explains. This representation, along with a constant bombardment of self promotion has allowed me to venture into territory I ordinarily wouldnt have even dreamt of.

Another U.K. illustrator working recently on cross-Atlantic projects is Miles Donovan. Ive just done a huge job for Target stores in the U.S., who are taking out all the advertising space in The New Yorker in August, he says. Im currently working on some outdoor fly posters for a number of hip hop artists on J Records in New York and an advertising campaign to raise awareness of infant mortality. With fellow illustrator Spencer Wilson, Donovan is co-founder of the design collective Peepshow, now five years old and hugely beneficial for everyone involved. I think the U.S. is catching up to the U.K. with regards to contemporary illustration, but is still a number of years behind, says Wilson, though he adds this is largely due to conservative commissioning. What we have here in the U.K. at the top end is a group of illustrators that are embracing technology, combining it with hand-drawn elements to create hybrid art, which is essentially digital, continues Wilson. Additionally, illustrators are getting involved in moving images, 3D creations and multimedia projects. Boundaries are being blurred as a result of new software and opportunities.

Miles Donovan and Spencer Wilson have formed the collective Peepshow. Left is David Banner Spot Illustration for Complex magazine by Donovan (2005) and I Lift Things, a personal work by Wilson (2005). © Miles Donovan and © Spe

Organic Edge

Non-digital media is a major factor in our design and illustration, says Rob Hare of design collective BWB. Crayons, paint, felt tips, pencil, toothbush and mud! Anything we can get our hands on that makes a desired mark.

An example of Charles Darbys matte painting from Minority Report. Courtesy of Fox.

Art that has strong organic elements to it has been around for a while now continues. It still looks great, but its cool that designers are now taking it to the next level. Creatives arent churning out innocent and pretty pieces anymore; theyre using organics in dark and twisted artwork.

I think things are getting a lot more vibrant, adds his BWB colleague Kev Speck. People arent afraid to experiment with color. Illustration is also being used very closely with photography at the moment. As an example, Speck describes his design process when preparing a recent T-shirt line based around the theme glam rock. I used this brief to go back to non-digital methods, so I hired books and bought magazines, then spent time collaging, tracing, photocopying, making hand made marks, and then compiling everything on the computer as a final stage.

Id say that digital art in terms of illustration is fading fast, suggests Donovan. Many people are returning to hand crafted mediums, but still utilizing the computer to construct the work in some way. Its really good to see many of the students coming out of U.K. colleges doing really exciting work. The days of vector illustration are thankfully behind us.

Michael Burns is a freelance journalist and author with more than nine years experience of writing about creative computer graphics, TV production, CGI & animation and the new media and design industries. He contributes regularly to U.K. design and TV industry publications and still finds time to produce books on digital content creation.