The morning we met with Bristol-based illustrator Owen Gent, Hamilton House was opening its doors to the public for the annual Open Day event, aimed at offering everyone the opportunity to get a glimpse into what is happening behind its friendly doors and to discover the abundance of creativity thriving under its roof.
Owen warmly welcomed us in his spick-and-span studio space, and the moment we started to engage in conversation, we discovered that he is not at all the sombre and melancholic figure that one might imagine when looking at his visuals. On the contrary, he spoke openly and passionately about what inspires his artistic vision and how he developed this moody, atmospheric and dreamy style of illustration that depicts a wide spectrum of themes and narratives ranging from racism and religion to mental illness and happiness.
Leaving his studio behind, we stopped by Owen’s house to pick up his expertly self-built campervan and then drove to Snuff Mills park, where we went for a long and invigorating walk, chatting about the graphic novel he’s working on, the Uncle Ginger project and his plan to move out of the city and become a narrowboater.
What is your fondest memory from your student years?
Falmouth (Cornwall) was such a beautiful place to live and study, and many of the people I met there are in Bristol and are still very close friends. There was something incredible about being able to walk to the coast and dive into the sea between lectures, or whilst waiting for a painting to dry.
How about your most vivid childhood memory?
I have a very distinct memory of losing my favourite blue hat during a sandstorm in Greece when I was four. I’m being carried down the beach by my Dad, who’s shielding my face from the sharp winds. First, I can feel the cap lifting off my head very slightly, and the second my hand reaches up, it’s gone. Then I see it fade in slow motion as it’s engulfed into a thick grainy mist.
It’s a beautifully choreographed, cinematic memory, so I’ve definitely done a fair bit of editing over the last 25 years.
Who or what sparked your interest in illustration?
I’ve always drawn and painted, but it took me a long time to realise that illustrators did more than the cartoon strips in the paper. After discovering artists who cross the boundary between more conceptual art and illustration (such as Henrik Drescher and Lorenzo Mattotti) I started to become really fascinated with how much scope there was in the world of illustration.
Why narrative and sequential illustration?
I just really love a story. Whether it’s in music, film, visual art or whatever, I’m always really drawn to a narrative, even if it’s just the slightest hint at a story that’s not fully being told.
How did you develop this moody, atmospheric and dreamy style?
Space, subtlety and quiet are things that I’ve always been drawn to. Painters like Vilhelm Hammershøi and Leon Spilliaert are a big inspiration, their work manages to convey such poignancy but does so with so little and such delicacy. That sparsity is definitely something I try to achieve in my work, and something I’m continuing to explore.
How did your caravan building experience and the time spent in Cornwall shape your artistic vision?
There’s definitely a lot more mist and coastline in my work since living in Cornwall!
After graduating I spent a couple of years renovating and living in a caravan on a llama farm in the Cornish countryside. Having that space and living quite basically allowed me the time to explore the direction I wanted to go in with my work. It’s a strange time after studying and it’s easy to get swept up in the need to take any work that’s going. Instead I got by painting signs and boats, and eventually I found work that I was genuinely interested in.
You have become a very successful illustrator in a short period of time. Why do you think this is?
I honestly just feel very lucky that people are interested in working with me on projects that I’m passionate about. I do think there is perhaps more room in the industry for artists who are interested in approaching more sensitive subject matter, such as mental health, death, religion etc.
Your works show a wide spectrum of themes, from racism and religion to mental illness and happiness. How do you approach a new project and what informs your artistic vision?
I’m fascinated in finding ways to approach difficult subjects, and the tone and directness of the artwork can be a really difficult thing to get right. How I approach a project completely depends on the audience, and I try to avoid thinking about anything visual until I understand exactly what the audience needs to experience from the artwork.
What is your approach to finding work, and retaining clients?
I wish I had a clear answer but honestly, there’s so many elements that may or may not play a part that it’s hard to say. I try to keep on top of social media, and when I’m not working on client work, I focus on my own projects and promote those, which seems to help in getting the type of work that suits me well.
Being friendly, professional and most of all honest with existing clients definitely helps. Really discussing, and (if it’s appropriate) sometimes even disagreeing with art directors on creative direction can lead to some really interesting conversations, and more often than not the best work. The clients who I work with on a regular basis are the ones who share a balanced, open creative approach, which can be a rare thing to find!
Is there anything that you find frustrating about the industry? How would you change it?
Hehe, don’t get me started! There is a real issue with both clients and illustrators undervaluing the importance of what we do. Very often clients will use ‘exposure’ as a replacement for pay, which is infuriatingly ridiculous! What you are doing as an illustrator is helping them look good, not the other way around.
It’s a very over-saturated industry, and there are a lot of illustrators who are eager to work for little or no money if it offers them a chance to get noticed. What’s harder to see is that every time this happens, it undermines the industry as a whole. Clients will very often say that they haven’t got a budget set aside for illustrators, and the reason the money isn’t there is because they know someone will take on the work for no fee. If everyone stood together and demanded fair fees, the mysterious missing budget would no doubt, miraculously appear again.
It’s like if you invited a plumber to your house to re-fit your bathroom: You tell him you really love his plumbing work, but that unfortunately, you haven’t actually put aside any budget for plumbing. However, you’d be really happy to tell all of your friends about his brilliant plumbing, and that if you get the downstairs bathroom done in the future, you’ll definitely ask him to do it and might even be a quid or two in it for him! If that ever works, I’ll eat my scanner.
It’s an issue I’m very passionate about, and I can definitely be a bit of a bore about it! Sorry.
You are half of Uncle Ginger, an animation studio founded together with Hugh Cowling. Tell us how this collaboration come about and how do you see Uncle Ginger evolving in the near future?
I met Hugh whilst studying illustration at Falmouth, and we’ve always enjoyed working on projects together, and share a similar approach to what we do both individually and when collaborating. We started Uncle Ginger completely unexpectedly, and by saying yes to a project and finding our feet as we went along!
It’s gone really well since, and we’ve had the chance to work on some really amazing projects. We’re currently putting together a new showreel and having bit of a website relaunch, hopefully we’ll continue to be surprised by what we get up to in the future!
You have recently travelled in your van around Ireland writing a graphic novel. Can you share with us some of the most memorable moments from this journey?
I’m genuinely terrible at telling anecdotes, but as a whole the trip was an incredible experience. I’m a big believer in the benefits of taking yourself out of your routine and comfort zone and living at a completely different pace for a while. It was an almost embarrassingly zen couple of months! I travelled up the west coast and meditated, hiked, played music and swam in the sea every day, and slowly started to gather fragments of the story for the novel.
What about the graphic novel? How is it coming together?
It’s at a good place at the moment. The story feels complete, rounded and everything feels at home. It’s a slow, oddly personal thing, as is the process of putting it together, so there’s no huge sense of urgency to get it finished. It will happen when it happens, and if I have to go on another trip to do it, so be it.
What is your favourite folk tale or legend?
Currently I’m slightly obsessed with a sea shanty from the West Indies called Shallow Brown. It’s the simplest thing but something about it is heartbreakingly beautiful.
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in Bristol?
My studio is in Hamilton House, which sits conveniently above the Canteen in Stokes Croft so I end up there quite a lot. Apart from that I love how green the city is, to be a stone's throw away from Ashton Court and Leigh Woods is an incredible thing. I do have a favourite spot in a tiny pub, which has a perfect leather armchair next to a wood burning stove which is miraculously always free.
What book can we find on your bedside table?
Apart from reading a lot of Murakami at the moment, I always try and read the books I’m illustrating covers for. It’s a nice way of reading a range of interesting stuff, though, like the location of the armchair pub, I’m not allowed to tell you about them at the moment!
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
I’m pretty open to whatever direction things happen to go in, in both work and life. I hope the graphic novel I’ve been working on plays a big part in the next year or so, and I’m always excited and pleasantly surprised to see what happens working with Hugh and Uncle Ginger. I’m also currently looking at buying and renovating a canal boat to live on, which I’m incredibly excited about. The process of making a new home, moving out of the city a little, and the inevitable change of pace is bound to have an effect on my work. I guess I’ll figure that out as I go!
Can you recommend us:
A song: Grioghal Cridhe by Band of Burns.
A book: CoDex 1962 by Sjon.
A film: Manchester by the Sea
Thank you, Owen for sharing with us your thoughts on illustration and for the insight into your creative and personal realm.