In the Studio: Bruce Emmett

Montigny-Montfort, France

Bruce Emmett’s rich colour palette, developed through traditional oil painting, brings a tactile quality to his apparently time-travelling illustrations, which utilise both painterly skills and digital sleight-of-hand.

What three things are most valuable to you in your studio?

Without hesitation, I’d say the drawing table, the easel and the computer (not necessarily in that order). Though I have been working digitally for almost 20 years, my beat-up old drawing table and the easel that accompanied it here from New York are my dear friends to whom I return regularly for that much needed “real media” fix.

Working within illustration can have its highs and lows. What are your three constraints and three motives to work during the day?

Motivation has always seemed to me an amorphous thing: a shape-shifter that constantly needs redefining. Sometimes the very thing that stalls me one day will be the motivator the next. Having said all that – to avoid getting to the point? – my three biggest motivation barriers are: not enough work (I like to juggle several assignments at a time), hunger and fatigue. Three things that motivate me are: lots of different kinds of assignments, hunger and … I can’t think of a third. (Couldn’t be money!)

Who and what keeps you inspired?

I need to go to museums and exhibitions. Paris calls me often – not literally! Films also inspire me.

My illustration hero is NC Wyeth. His bold, passionate – even macho – application of paint in the service of storytelling is truly inspiring. It’s not like my style in general or even applicable in today’s market but, if I could, I would love to be able to wield a brush like NC.

Describe your work’s style in five words.

Realistic, perhaps too much so.


When for you does illustration have more power than words?

This is a bit like the old apple/orange comparison. NC Wyeth’s approach for illustrating a book was: make a picture of something that’s “between” the descriptive passages in the novel, short story, whatever. Why illustrate something that has been already been described with eloquence by the author?

If you were to complete your dream commission, what would it be?

It would be fun to produce a series of paintings or drawings for a swashbuckler-type book (see NC above). It would also be fun to be commissioned for something that pays an astronomical amount – so I could afford to do that series of swashbuckling paintings!

How do you maintain a stream of illustration work?

Variety of assignments keeps me going. I’ve known illustrators who were “typecast” as romance or western cover artists, for example, and, though I have done my fair share in each of those genres, I think I would have taken the pipe a long time ago if that was all I did.

How do you feel being part of an agency represented as a freelance illustrator has helped with your work?

There’s no question that, given the competition out there, it helps to be represented. Some of my most prestigious and satisfying assignments have come through Folio.

I know I’m not being too original if I remark on the solitary nature of the illustrator. But, because of this, an essential part of the artist/agent relationship is the exchange of ideas and I feel that being part of this agency has helped me in that regard.

When you are given a commission, what are the three initial steps that you take before commencing the rough?

An interesting question as I’m not sure how many steps I take before actually “dirtying the paper delicately” (as John Ruskin wrote). I think, as with so many things, it depends upon the project.

I know, for example, that if I have an assignment that involves some storytelling (a book cover, magazine illustration, etc) I often pretend I am a camera on a crane with no limitations. This way I can ‘look’ at a given scene or set-up from any angle and determine which angle would best tell the story – or sell the product.

A rough that a client will see is several (if not many) steps removed from the roughs that only I would see as I develop approaches or ideas for an assignment. I may produce a number of scribbles – a shorthand – that will help me establish a design, layout or feel for a job, and I am sure that only I would want to see these. The backs of envelopes and napkins were invented for just this reason!

The most important step – even before illegible doodlings have been perpetrated – is to gather as much information as possible from the client. Not merely what they say or show in a brief, but a kind of reading between the lines or hearing the pitch of a pitch – if a conversation is involved.