In the Studio: Nicholas Stevenson
Meet Nicholas Stevenson. When he’s awake he finds himself in North London, but he once lived in the Seychelles and dressed up as Peter Pan most days, made tin foil swords and got inspired by fish identification cards and sea life.
An illustrator who makes illustrations that are fun, lively and at times mysterious. What five words would you choose to describe your illustration style?
Not using those three words above: Intuitive, Narrative, Strange, Playful, Exploratory
Pick three things that are most valuable to you in your working studio in north London and explain to us why you have chosen those and what story there is behind them.
My postcard box is great. It’s actually a super-kitsch, faux-ormolu tissue box. I’ve always collected pictures that interest me, and they usually wind up in here. In the town where I’m from there’s a great antique shop with a really organised postcard collection, so you can ask at the desk for volcano’s or airplanes or Halloween costumes and they have their own section for all of them. I often empty the box out for reference, collaging, textures and inspiration.
Part of what makes me an illustrator is my love of print, so naturally I have a few books… It’s hard to pick a favourite. The children’s book Goodnight Moon has a wonderfully weird atmosphere, and an entirely woozy colour pallet. I have a pile of quilting and folk art books, which are super for finding patterns or weird ways to draw trees.
I also keep a bit of a cactus collection. Luckily for them, they thrive on neglect. There are so many different kinds, I especially like the hairy ones.
What are the first three initial steps that you take when a commissioner approaches you for an illustration project?
The first step I’m sure for most illustrators is to research. Great illustration has the potential to stick around for a long time, and has the chance to inform people’s feelings and ways of seeing things. I feel so responsible sometimes to research things properly, especially historical figures, or events that took place before photography. I’ll grab books, watch videos, listen to podcasts, call knowledgeable friends, whatever I can find.
The next step for me is usually to start drawing quite freely. I try to let things happen, and react to the source material quickly. My favourite images have often surprised me, when my hand has had an idea before my brain has. I typically aim to capture something atmospheric and emotive that works on a tangent to any accompanying text, rather than simply reiterating it visually.
Sometimes the automatic drawing works fantastically, sometimes less so. My next stage is to assess and judge what I’ve got. Sometimes it’s a case of discarding the unsuccessful drawings and keeping the winners, other times I need to go back to research and construct a more concrete idea. Once I’m happy I can start refining the image and taking feedback.
Who and what keeps you inspired?
Living in London, it’d be pretty hard to run out of inspiration, great bookshops museums, endless people watching…
My fiancé Gabrielle, also studied illustration and isn’t too easily impressed by my drawings, so she certainly keeps me on my toes!
With an extensive client list, you’ve worked your magic within the publishing world having recently worked on ‘Diary of a Time Traveller’ with Wide Eyed Publishing. Which would you now like to direct your work towards?
I’m working on my own children’s book idea at the moment. It involves insects on a journey and the world seen from their view point. I’m also enjoying the odd editorial piece. My working style really suits quick turn arounds, and I love having to generate new ideas all the time.
Collaboration as a freelance illustrator tests your style and ideas, so having presented ‘Home Sweet Home’ alongside Angela Dalinger would have been a great insight. What were the highs and lows of this exhibition for you?
We collaborated on a few murals in the gallery, it was fascinating to see the differences in how we work, Angela is actually quite controlled in the way she paints, despite the quite free and loose appearance of her pieces. I’m a little more wild with my brush work, not many straight lines, or flat and even colours… Angela’s pieces often connect to her personal experiences and ideas about the world, she has a great sense of humour in her work.
The lows? Angela and I maybe over-did the sightseeing, our feet hurt. She also beat me at scrabble, a lot.
When for you do illustrations hold more strength than words?
Drawings allow us to share something that the viewer has no reference point for, something they’ve never seen or heard of, or something that doesn’t even exist in the real world. Someone can see an image and instantly understand a purely imaginary space, or get an unnamed feeling, or be sucked in to a dramatic moment. I think illustration is at its best when it does something that language or photography can’t do. When illustration plays in the realms of ambiguity, emotion and feeling; when it makes you know something you don’t quite have the word to describe, its pure magic.