Profile: Ben Newman

Bristol-based illustrator Ben Newman has a strong, simple style that wins him a wide range of idiosyncratic commissions. Garrick Webster chats with him about Japanese spirits, Californian wine and extinct birds

I love the flat quality of print, and the way that certain inks will lay over each other and create secondary colours,’ says illustrator Ben Newman. ’I’ve got a big collection of old European matchbox labels and a ridiculous number of books. I just love anything to do with print. I have always loved how flat it sits on the paper, and yet it also really sinks in.’

One of Newman’s latest projects is The Bento Bestiary, which the 29-year-old designed and illustrated. The book is inspired by the bento lunch, but instead of sushi, you sample Newman’s interpretation of 14 characters from the Japanese pantheon of yōkai spirits and demons. Accompanying each image is a passage of creative writing by author Scott James Donaldson.

The Bento Bestiary is, in fact, a reboot of a limited edition, threecolour screen-printed book that Newman and Donaldson created for publisher Nobrow Press in 2009. Despite its theme, there isn’t much of a Japanese feel to the illustrations in the new book.

’Having looked at all the old Japanese drawings of these monsters, there just didn’t seem any point in rendering them in a similar manner to the way they had already been illustrated. It seemed more fun to break them down into simple shapes and circles and squares, and put them together in quite a graphical way,’ says Newman.

Besides a love of print, simplicity is at the core of Newman’s current approach to illustration. In his youth, he wanted to be a comic book artist for Marvel or DC. After studying at the University of the West of England in Bristol, and eventually becoming a freelance illustrator in 2004, he began formulating his powerful style, which has since become heavily influenced by mid-century graphic design.

’What I’ve always tried to do with my work is just sort of pare things down to their absolute bare essentials, but to somehow retain warmth as well,’ says Newman. ’I suppose that’s the difficult thing. You’re trying to simplify something so much, but without losing its humanity. I just try to do as much as I can with as little as possible.’

The warmth in Newman’s work is maintained through colour and humour, but it also owes a great deal to his creative technique. Each piece begins with hand drawings of various layers of an image that are scanned in and composed on his computer. He uses his scanner, he says, like a print bed. The hand-made imperfections that make it through to the final image endow it with some of the warmth and humanity that he refers to.

While there is an esoteric side to Newman’s work – such as The Bento Bestiary, or his comic book Ouroboros – he also undertakes the sort of commercial jobs that many illustrators would envy. His T-shirt designs, for instance, make up part of the Tate Gallery’s line of merchandise, and next year, Fearless Chocolate, the American candy company, will be releasing Halloween chocolates packaged in material bearing Newman’s artwork. Also in the US, a Californian wine called Rockus Bockus can be found, adorned with Newman-designed labels.

’Working as an illustrator, I always have a little list in my head of things I’d like to get to do, and I think last year quite a few of them came true. I’ve always thought, “I’d like to have a go at doing a wine label”, and luckily I got to do that. I also had a piñata made by some artisans in Mexico for an exhibition on piñatas, and I had a six-and-ahalf inch vinyl toy come out. I also had my first comic published and I had a hardback book come out,’ he lists with enthusiasm.

He can’t really explain why his range of work is so varied, but his next project is a screen print for a May exhibition about extinct birds entitled Ghosts of Birds Gone. After that, he hopes to bring out a book about space.

’I’ve been investigating lots of old science books from the 1950s and 1960s to help get me started,’ says this man of many interests.

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