Ben Tallon, Willa Gebbie, Alice Bowsher and Mr Doodle tell us their approaches for drawing, painting and 'performing' in front of an audience.
Illustrators who can live draw are in high demand right now, with commissions covering everything from football billboards to tote bags – basically anywhere with a surface and a crowd. The artwork can be temporary, such as a store window, or there to stay, such as in an office. As we become numb to digital images and familiar with the convenience of online shopping, commissioning an artist to live draw is a smart move for a brand or retailer.
Experiences such as live illustration, murals, art battles and customisation of products are tangible, raw, imperfect and tactile – people enjoy seeing art formed by a human hand, not just as another digital image to be scrolled past on their social feeds.
Live illustration attracts a crowd, raises a brand's 'cool' level, creates a social media shareable experience and draws people out from the comfiness of their sofa. We’ve seen live illustration pop up on our Twitter feeds and weekly newsletters – everything from graphic designer Timothy Goodman’s live art for clothing store Uniqlo to Good Wives and Warriors’ recent mural for Samsung.
"People still crave live performance when they sit in front of screens longer than ever before," says illustrator Ben Tallon. "For the same reasons, organic processes have a prized role in digital media because it's very easy to be lost in the sheer quantity of content out there."
We wanted to know how artists really feel about being asked to 'perform' in front of a crowd and the practicalities of drawing for a long amount of time (surely their arms must get sore?). Artists are also usually representing a client when creating live illustrations, so there’s expectation to look and play the part too.
UK illustrators Ben Tallon, Willa Gebbie, Alice Bowsher and Mr Doodle all have substantial experience in live drawing for a wealth of big name clients. In this feature they give us insight into their approaches to drawing and painting in front of an audience, its highs and lows and some tips for artists whether you're embarking on your first live illustration project or are a dab hand at live art.
"I think a lot of people like the idea of being creative, but maybe don't have the time in their lives. Maybe it's a little bit of inspiration. A lot of people tell me that they miss drawing," says Willa, who started Lil collective with Emma Block and Miss Magpie after realising the demand for live illustration.
Willa’s first event took place six years, when she was still early in her career and more than happy to be working with a great client. But she’s says there is always tension.
"I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with live art. On one hand, I love being out of the studio, talking to people and building real-life relationships with my clients, but I also find it quite exhausting and draining," she says.
"Creatively too, on one hand I am being paid to sketch and to create quick, intuitive drawings, which is great, but I miss the opportunity to spend time creating something more detailed and accurate."
Others like one of the up-and-coming illustrators of 2018, Alice Bowsher, who recently decorated the office of Seven, don’t naturally enjoy the attention.
"I try to block them out and just get in the zone. But its hard when you hear people’s immediate opinions good or bad," says Alice.
"As then you remember people are watching and judging what you are doing whilst you’re doing it. I’m getting better at taking instant criticism although sometimes it can be a little soul destroying."
Here is a video of her work for marketing agency Seven's offices.
It won’t always go to plan
Similarly British artist Ben Tallon – who was asked to create hand lettering onto an A0-sized billboard for a Premier League television promo for the Liverpool vs Manchester City fixture – says pressure is definitely felt.
"I was mindful of a previous occasion when they had me draw onto a phrenology head with marker pens," he says. "I misspelled 'psychology' and thankfully, there was a stationer within walking distance who sold Tipp-Ex and it saved the day. That's the kind of pressure at play when you work live. It's not something everyone wants to subject themselves to but I've always responded well to the intensity of this kind of work."
Ben’s brush lettering was directly painted onto large scale images of Pep Gaudriola and Jürgen Klopp. Check it out in the video below, filmed and produced by Richard Holt.
Together with the director, Ben selected words and phrases that embodied Liverpool and Manchester City’s season and the managers depicted, choosing a hierarchy for their prominence and placement. But a lot of it is improvisation on the day too.
Ben’s created live drawings and murals in Minsk, Tokyo, Osaka and Hong Kong as well as many UK gigs for G-Star Raw, Peugeot, bars and creative agencies. But it doesn’t always go to plan.
"I worked live whilst Kendrick Lamar performed for a tiny, intimate crowd at a Reebok event and spilled black ink all over a pristine white stage floor. In the panic, I removed my T-shirt and tried to mop it up before the event organisers and creative directors found out. At the worst moment, Kendrick's entourage walked in with the top guy and there I was, topless on all fours in the corner, losing my mind."
Sounds obvious, but work spontaneously
For some artists it’s hard to embrace imperfection with the spontaneity and fast pace of live illustration, but for someone like Samuel Cox, aka Mr Doodle, it’s an opportunity to rise to the challenge.
"The time pressure is a good thing because it's challenging," he says. "I find it really fun to work quickly. Not being able to erase what I have done is something I've come to live with in all my work – if something doesn't look right within the drawing then I tend to morph it into something else."
Mr Doodle has been creating live doodle masterpieces ever since university (we spotted him at the D&AD New Blood festival in 2015). His work consumes walls, furniture and many surfaces and is often described as 'graffiti spaghetti'. This is because his clusters of characters, objects and patterns group together in a formation that appears to continue to grow relentlessly. Check it out in the video below.
Mr Doodle usually arrives to a live art commission in his full doodle suit, with a big bag of markers and begins to create something spontaneously and quickly, generally based on a theme that is relevant to the client or event. Sometimes people watching interact with him by suggesting items to be doodled.
Mr Doodle says it’s best to stay consistent from start to finish.
"Usually I'll measure the surface out with my eyes and that will determine how big or small I doodle and I'll keep that scale from start to finish," he says. "It's important to me that every inch is covered in doodles so I just need to pace myself correctly to complete the work."
To practise live illustration, he suggests filming yourself live drawing and watching it back, and have friends and family watch so you can see how people react from the activity. Mr Doodle has a lot on his YouTube channel that's worth checking out. Here he is doodling on a table surface.
"Try and create something that you think doesn't already exist or at least add something new to an existing form of art," he says.
“It's good practice to create live art that you personally enjoy, that way the audience stands a greater chance of enjoying it too.
"It's about having a belief in what you do, it shows you have confidence in your work and that becomes a more enjoyable experience for the audience."
Yes, your limbs will get tired.
More than three hours of non-stop drawing in the same position will likely leave you with a sore back or wrists, as Willa points out.
Or if you're painting murals, you have to look after your knees.
"I prioritise regular yoga classes to combat this, and if I'm particularly busy, then I'll book a massage. It's really important that clients are aware of this, and will provide you with a decent, well-lit working space," says Willa.
"An absolute minimum is a chair with a back, and a table or desk high enough for your legs to slide under. Otherwise, you could be doing yourself some damage."
Equally, Alice says how important it is to stay hydrated and bring plenty of materials.
For most of Alice’s artwork for the interior of Seven, she used brush and acrylic, incorporating her illustrations into the corners of rooms and objects, as seen here.
"I like to have the drawings mix in with reality. It’s a real treat to work on something that isn’t a sheet of blank paper and presents a set of new challenges in the form of architecture and permanent objects," she says. "It’s fun to make the drawings work around them so it seems like the characters are in our world."
It’s about performance
But as well as making sure you have a good experience, it’s important to remember it’s also about performance.
"I work with some big brands, so I'm always aware that I should represent their brand well," says Willa. "That means I have to put much more thought into what I'm wearing, and wear makeup. Also, even when you're having a really bad day, you have to be smiling and confident."
You need to practise loads and be confident in your own work. If you’re not, then the audience isn’t going to enjoy it either.
Willa now works with Miss Magpie Fashion Spy and Emma Block, both who were doing a lot of live illustration at the time, for Lil collective. The collective provides each artist with moral support, help with pricing, and negotiating reasonable working environments.
But also about having fun
Ben has always loved the loose nature of inks, paints and drawing, and says with live illustration it’s best to exist in the moment. In this video he live illustrates for Aresnal vs Man City television trailer.
And people love the insight into an artist, musician or performer's practice, says Mr Doodle.
"It's really cool to see how someone works. Lots of people also want to have fun experiences that they can remember and share with their friends and I think live art has thrived from this. "