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A Magazine for Sheffield

Robbie Porter: A Dab Hand

Robbie Porter is a Scottish illustrator currently based in London. After studying visual communication in Leeds and working for a printmaking studio for a couple of years, he did an MA in Illustration at Camberwell, where he completed his first children’s book, The Librarian’s List. Since then he has been making his way in the world of freelancing. Robbie’s work is witty and eye-catching – two qualities that he has honed through his editorial work for the likes of New York Times, Random House and New Scientist. Certainly it was the sense of humour conveyed in his illustrations that caught our attention when browsing his work for the first time, as well as his immediately identifiable visual style which combines digital work with good old fashioned pen on paper. Why did you start creating art? I guess I’ve always made art. What I wonder is why didn’t I stop. I know a lot of people who are incredibly creative and talented but for whatever reason they stopped making things. I think that I’m quite stubborn and that probably helped. I was never the best at drawing but I always wanted to get better. For me that is one of the most driving factors. Loving the process and the environment is one thing, but just wanting to develop is key. What is your working process? Does everything start from hand-drawn ideas? For me the starting point is usually the idea. Whether it’s a professional project or a personal one I’m interested in communicating something. I usually start with brainstorming and research into themes, then I’ll do little rough sketches to get a more solid idea of where the piece is going. From there what I usually do is work from photographs – a mixture of pictures taken by myself and found online or in books. I copy from the pictures in pencil then trace them with a 0.1 pen – I make a lot of mistakes at this point – then scan the inked image into the computer and clean it up in Photoshop. Once it’s in the computer I feel a lot safer and find it easier to experiment and add colour, generally finishing the image and making it look professional. I also try to make it look less digital by adding textures I’ve found over the years. What inspires you? My friends mainly, usually by making me jealous. When I was little I really loved the comics Calvin & Hobbes and Tintin, and although I generally don’t make narrative work I do like there to be a hint of a story within my pictures. I also really liked surrealism when I was young. There is something about the weirdness that appeals to kids I think. I still want my art to appeal to children. If kids like something it’s probably a good sign. When I finally figured out what illustration was I geeked out on people like Craig Frazier, Guy Billout, Brendan Monroe, Marco Cibola, Paul Blow and Andrew Rae. Now that I’ve been doing illustration for a while I kind of look elsewhere for inspiration. I watch a lot of movies and series. I also listen to a lot of music whilst I work. Oh, and podcasts. I listen to a lot of them too – This American Life, The Moth, RadioLab, The Nerdist, WTF. Humour seems to be important to you as an artist. Do you find yourself drawn to humorous art? I actually start every day by watching a half-hour comedy show, so maybe that is affecting my work. If the first thing you encounter in the day is an episode of Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation then it probably adds a tone to the day. One of the perks of being your own boss I guess. I also love the artists Maurizio Cattelan and David Shrigley because they poke fun at the art world whilst being in it. How has your approach to art changed over the years? I guess it has become more commercial purely because I need to pay the rent. I hope the tone of voice within my work is still my own though. Even if the balance of personal and professional projects is changing I still want it to be obvious that it was made by me. Are you currently working freelance? Do you find it challenging? Yeah I am. I’ve just gone back to freelance work after studying for an MA last year. Freelance is challenging. You’re basically running your own business so there is a lot of organisation. You have to do your taxes, not to mention you have to find the work in the first place. It gets easier with time but starting out can be tough and work isn’t always regular. It helps to diversify by doing commissions, selling prints and cards, having exhibitions. I remember not wanting a ‘normal’ job when I was little because I thought the idea of working 9-5 and getting a few weeks holiday a year was terrifying, but now I work longer hours than most of my friends and I haven’t been on a proper holiday for years. I love it though. Tell us about your children’s book. The book is called The Librarian's List and it's about a librarian who’s read all the books in the library and knows all the stories off by heart. But he doesn't have a story of his own, so he makes a list of all the places he wants to go and all the things he wants to see, then sets off on an adventure. Do you plan to make more? I'd love to make more. I'm going to look into getting it published and if that goes well I'd like to try it again. The only problem is having the time to do it. What are you working on at the moment? An editorial piece for an American university magazine. It’s about interviewing techniques. That might not sound like the most fascinating subject, but what I often enjoy – and what illustration is good at – is taking subject matter that can be a bit dry and trying to look at it from a new perspective, to add content and liven it up whilst helping to explain the article. Good advice you wish you’d been told earlier? Go on Youtube and watch Ira Glass talk about storytelling. I don’t want to try and summarise it because he explains it so well in his utterly charming voice. He’s the best. 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