Kam Tang has produced graphic work for clients ranging from Sony and Nike to The Chemical Brothers and Gnarls Barkley. Paula Carson meets the illustrator as he moves from book covers to a personal book project
Before Kam Tang learned to use a computer, he used to painstakingly hand-render his detailed, complex drawings using Rotring pens and French curves. His working process still involves hand-drawn originals, although the computer allows Tang to tighten up work in a fraction of the time. For a perfectionist like Tang, vector-based illustration is a mixed blessing. ‘It opens up another can of worms. With pen and paper you try to be the best draughtsman you can. With the computer you try to be the best line manipulator you can,’ he explains. ‘Nobody is ever going to see that detail; the reproduction is never going to capture that finesse. But you know deep down, and you’re the one that’s got to live with the image. If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it properly.’
Ask Tang what inspires his exquisite images, and he’ll talk about the delicate nature of lace, birds, plants, ‘natural phenomena, strange bulbous turnips and stuff like that’, he laughs. ‘There’s something very pure about why a vegetable or a turnip is the way it is; how it functions either to survive or just to be beautiful.’ He’s got a pragmatic side too, though – both Tang’s degree and his Royal College of Art MA are in graphics. ‘I thought design would be the best way to develop [my skills] while also aiming towards a living of sorts,’ he explains. He doesn’t like the label ‘illustrator’, preferring the more ambiguous title ‘creative’. ‘To be honest, I’m more interested in the ideas than the physical, artistic process of image-making,’ he says.
Working from his south London home, Tang likes to get out and about when drawing. ‘It makes me feel a bit more detached from my work,’ he explains. His clients include The Guardian, Wired, Arena, Wallpaper, Adidas, Nike, Sony and the Royal Mail. His designs have appeared on packaging for artists such as The Chemical Brothers, Athlete, Manic Street Preachers and Gnarls Barkley. You can even buy a Kam Tang mural, in four rolls of wallpaper from Maxalot.
Commissions have been steady enough in the past ten years for Tang to be selective about projects he undertakes. ‘I tend to go for either hugely paid commercial jobs or hugely creative jobs with no money,’ he says. He enjoyed working with design group Tappin Gofton on the cover of The Chemical Brothers’ last album Push The Button. ‘It was exciting because it was taking [my work] in a different direction,’ he comments. Tang’s also rightfully proud of the Design Museum identity and logo he developed in collaboration with Graphic Thought Facility. ‘I was asked to develop a visual language that could encompass all the different faculties and design eras,’ he explains. ‘GTF came up with the idea of creating a constantly evolving, changing logo made up of small elements. It was almost like an alphabet of shapes, and you could create your own language or logo with them,’ he explains. ‘Every shape that made it into the finished job had about 20 prototypes, so it was very considered, but it didn’t feel like work, it was something I really enjoyed.’
More recently, he has designed the cover of Simon Armitage’s Kid, for Faber & Faber. ‘The idea was to capture the poet’s dark humour and British sensibilities,’ Tang explains. He is also pleased with his contribution to a book by his agent Big Active, called Head, Heart and Hips/ The Big Active Book of Sex. Tang’s offering is a personal study. ‘I was interested in liquid forms such as smoke and oil at that time, and I was learning about how to render transparent objects like jellyfish and glass. So this project was a mixture of all these things. It came very naturally and maybe that’s why I like it, and felt happy about the job, it wasn’t too torturous.’
He’s developing a series of new images that he hopes to turn into a book. ‘It’ll be a process of discovery for me,’ he explains. ‘It’s about things that have stimulated me through their form or colour or texture. I’m looking at the frost you get in the icebox, and how you render that… I’ve just worked out how to draw really nice fur… it takes ages.’ You get the sense that Tang quietly relishes the pain in the process. ‘It can be hugely frustrating,’ he concedes, ‘but I don’t want to just do the job well, I want to do the job supremely well.’