In the Studio: Ricardo Bessa

London, England

Combining both hand-drawn and digital elements, Ricardo Bessa creates beautiful, otherworldly illustrations that blur the lines between realism and fantasy.

When for you do illustrations hold more strength than words?

I feel they’re strong in different ways, so it’s hard to say when it’s stronger. But there are a lot of visual clues that can be hard to evoke through text; a strong illustration makes use of these clues in a way that text can’t. You don’t need to know a language or even how to read when you look at an image. A good, single illustration may very well, at a glance, express something that would take pages of words to be communicated.

How do you feel your personal work feeds into and influences your commissioned work?

Well, for starters, I think all illustrators are aware of how important personal work is before you even begin getting commissions, specially when you’re a beginner or budding illustrator. But more than that, personal work is usually what really allows you to find your voice, as it allows you to just experiment without the pressure of deadlines or stylistic expectations. I think that, for most people (and definitely for me), personal work is what allows your commissioned work to evolve and become better with time. On top of that, when you get to explore concepts and themes that are relevant to you in your own work, you might start getting commissions about those very themes. And those are just the best commissions to get because you get to put even more of yourself into them.

Working across social media can definitely have its pros. How have you found showcasing your work through your social media channels has helped with your work?

I know everyone has a different experience with it, but to me social media was pretty much fundamental. Right from the time as a 15 year old whose only connection to any kind of creative community was the internet, which made it natural to me to try and get my work seen as much as possible. I’ve had clients find me on Behance, I’ve made friends with other illustrators on Twitter, I’ve learned about great projects and anthologies on Tumblr. This has all helped me advance as an artist, be it through feedback, getting my work to the right people or simply making friends who inspire me.

A lot of people say they don’t “get” social media, but really, it’s just about finding a community and participating in it, building a presence over time. That’s the key thing for me – not so much about reblogs or favourites (although those are great too!); it’s about how you truly get to find (and sometimes eventually meet) some wonderful people who make up your community, who keep you inspired and make you feel like you belong somewhere – when most of the time you would feel like you’re just drawing somewhere on your own.

Where do you find most of your influence comes from for your illustration work?

I’m going to be a simpleton here and admit it – I just get super inspired by other people’s work. Not necessarily illustrators – painters, designers, photographers. Of course, your own life experiences are important too, and they shape the way you think and carry yourself, which in turn will absolutely influence what you create. But the way you build a visual vocabulary, from the very beginning, is usually by copying and trying to figure out other artists. While I don’t really copy anymore, I definitely catch myself staring at other peoples’ work in awe and wondering how the heck they did whatever they did. I’ve had illustrations come to me as literally a mashup of 3 images I’d recently come across – that really happens.

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

There’s one big constraint – the internet. It’s so easy to get stuck in a cycle of checking your social media incessantly and procrastinate for way too long without getting any work done. And if my Twitter feed is anything to go by, this is a common problem for freelancers. This is particularly true if I decide to work from home, so usually going somewhere, like the library or a coffee shop helps me get in the mood (like right now, as I answer these questions in a cafe) – so location is definitely a factor too. If I’m not getting any work done, I try to just grab my laptop and go somewhere else. And a third factor is people! I live with great people, including my best friend, so when they’re home and feeling chatty it’s really hard to leave them to go into my dark lonely corner.

As for what motivates me to work – deadlines. More than anything. Deadlines will kick my butt and actually force me to finish (or start, actually) whatever I have to do because it HAS to be done, otherwise I could very well spend ages just drawing a bunch of stuff for other projects that are NOT what I should be drawing. Immersing myself in the community helps me a lot too – talking shop with peers, getting on board with new projects, keeping up with what’s happening. It all helps me stay inspired and feel like I’m moving forward – this is essential to me. And last is, of course, actual work. Usually the hardest part is to start, but once I get going and get warmed up, it’s much easier to just keep going for hours. So basically, the more I get done, the easier it is for me to do more!

Pick three things that are most valuable to you in your working studio and explain to us why you have chosen those and what story there is behind them.

I’m very used to using my own laptop and tablet when working, but otherwise I’m not very precious about my working environment as long as I can be somewhere comfortable. Although you could say my digital tablet is that one thing – I still use the very first one I got for Christmas when I was 16 and it’s honestly the most trustworthy piece of technology I’ve ever had. It looks incredibly worn out but still works perfectly, and I’m not looking forward to the day I’ll have to get used to a new one.

I guess I’m also very partial to my own red mechanical pencil. I kept losing mechanical pencils in school and in uni – I think people would take them thinking it was theirs – so I decided to get a red one because no one else had one, and it worked. It’s got to be like 6 or 7 years old by now.

(I guess the things I value are just old tools that still work!)

How do you maintain an ongoing stream of work?

While I try to keep myself active, there are definitely times when I am a lot more active. Having a routine helps, as does participating in many different group projects and anthologies to keep you going. I feel like I’ll be repeating myself, but it’s all about not losing sight of what you love doing and why you’re drawing in the first place. Keeping a sketchbook definitely helps too.

Tell us one fact about yourself, which not many people know…

Oh man, I feel like I say way too much on Twitter as it is. There’s no mystery left in me. We could go for favourite Disney princesses? Let’s do that. Hands down, Pocahontas, Ariel and Mulan.