Profile: Simon Spilsbury

Despite impressive work with digital and moving image, this illustrator’s skills are most spontaneous in simple pen and ink. Garrick Webster talks to the award-winning artist from Bath whose latest project is a Government-backed online archive

There’s something incredible about Simon Spilsbury when he’s drawing. A few little motions of the pen – slapdash almost – and instantly a character and scene are taking shape on the paper in front of him. It’s effortless and he never seems to get it wrong, smudge the ink or have to start again.

This spontaneity runs through both the portfolio and personality of this Bath-based illustrator. Gesturing, turning and leaning while he talks, he starts to doodle on his pad. ’If I do a drawing like this, it happens once,’ he enthuses, and in a few strokes a face appears. ’That’s it. You can’t do that again. There’s a process going on in your brain. It doesn’t happen again.’

With a D&AD Yellow Pencil and Association of Illustrators’ Images awards in his cabinet, his reputation for skilful drawing precedes him these days. Recently, he was asked to create a video introduction for the British Cartoon Archive online, which launches later this month. It includes a narration about cartoonists who have inspired him, stop-motion footage of his own hands creating an homage to Carl Giles, and other animation. It’s one of four pieces he’s art directing for a Government body called the Joint Information Systems Committee.

To support education and research, JISC is digitising various cultural archives and putting them online. The cartoon project has escaped the Tory cuts, and is being uploaded alongside the War Poetry Archive, Herbert Ponting’s photography of Captain Scott’s mission to Antarctica and an archive of 19th-century pamphlets.

Spilsbury is working on the introductions as part of the Creative Federation, a new Bath-based collaborative group that includes Mark Humphries and Simon Deshon. His other venture is Art Bombers, a design and image-making studio set up with Richard Chant. Both enterprises share the same studio space, with Spilsbury literally sitting in the middle. While Creative Federation puts together the archive intros, Art Bombers is creating JISC’s new website.

Filled with whimsically drawn elements and painted textures, this site’s style has a touch of Monty Python about it, but is typically Spilsbury. He produces a lot of mixed-media work across his illustration projects, even for jobs with a quick turnaround. His spontaneity has survived the move to Photoshop. ’I know that if I have an hour’s deadline and I scan in a background that texture can be colourised, and I’ve got all my line work, which I scan as well. I know that I can patch it all together in time. Then all I’ve got to do is press a button and it’s with the client.’

Despite their efficiency, he laments the effect that computers have had on humanity. According to Spilsbury, the gluteus maximus muscle is disappearing because people sit in front of their screens all day. He wants people to get out and see public art, and he wants to get out there and create it too. ’I’m a very social person. I’m not a garret artist,’ he explains. ’I can’t sit there and slave over things like Mark Thomas or Mick Brownfield can. So being out in the public is completely the right place for me and I don’t do enough of it.’

Earlier this summer he decorated one of the many sponsored lion statues that are dotted around Bath, raising money for local charities. He gave the creature a ferocious mouth and then drew people fleeing from it on the lion’s body, mainly congregating towards the rump. He did it all live, in public, with little planning, and made no mistakes.

’That boils down to the amount of life drawing I’ve done throughout my life, which is a hell of a lot,’ he says. ’Just drawing, observing figures. It’s the only way to have that bank of knowledge that you can pluck things out from without using a reference and tracing and all that malarkey. It’s very much a spontaneous thing.’

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