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Jeffrey Phillips

Studio Visit

24th January, 2014
Lucy Feagins
Friday 24th January 2014

Melbourne illustrator Jeffrey Phillips in his Richmond studio.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.

Jeffrey’s impressive self portrait as a 17th century French nobleman! Photo – Sean Fennessy.

A commission of sketches of Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen in action during rehearsals for Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Melbourne. Hand drawn in pen and ink on fine art paper by Jeffrey Phillips.

Jeffrey’s experimentations with calligraphy.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.

Jeffrey’s Richmond studio.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.

I have always had a fascination with people who can draw.  There’s just something so raw and honest about putting pen to paper, and being able to generate a story, an idea, or a character with just a few lines.  No technology, no post production, no camera filters… it’s the kind of old-fashioned talent you just can’t fudge!

One guy who possesses an incredible talent in this field is Melbourne based illustrator and designer Jeffrey Phillips.  He really is amazing.  Working primarily simply with a crow-quill nib and a bottle of Indian black ink on white paperstock, Jeffrey creates the most intensely detailed illustrations, seemingly effortlessly!

What’s interesting about Jeffrey is how versatile he is; his illustrative style is surprisingly varied, so much so that it’s actually quite hard to pigeon hole his work into one distinct category.  His commercial work varies from vibrant comic-book style storyboards, whilst personal projects include an endless stream of sketchbook portraits, life drawing, caricatures, as well as group projects with an art collective he is involved in, called Joining Forces.  (Last year the group awarded the opportunity to create an artwork for one of Melbourne’s Art Trams, as part of Melbourne Festival. )

I first discovered Jeffrey quite by chance – I was sitting in the audience at last year’s Field Trip creative conference, and, as I often do, found myself glued to the official instagram hashtag during the presentations.  One fellow ‘grammer immediately caught my attention – Jeff was sitting up the front sketching some of the speakers, and instagramming his work live.  I was blown away!  (His instagram is well worth following actually, he often shares his amazing sketchbook scribbles, and some of his most spontaneous work is often my favourite!).

Aside from illustration, recently Jeffrey has also been experimenting with modern copperplate style calligraphy, and it’s no surprise he is ridiculously good at it!  This guy just really knows his way around a pen…!

Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming an illustrator, and to creating the style of work you are currently making?

I definitely took the scenic route to becoming an illustrator ha!

I was born and raised in Bombay in the eighties. My background is of mixed Indian, British and Portuguese heritage. Our family immigrated to Perth, Australia when I was about 13 years old. I moved to Melbourne just over a year ago, so I’m still newish to this town.

As a child, I drew a heck of a lot. But it was always viewed as nothing more than a hobby, and eventually I grew up to treat it that way. Maths and sciences were far more important for young Phillips to master before he could indulge in those other decadent pastimes.

So graduating high school, and armed with decent grades, I tackled a degree in Communications Systems Engineering. After a solid crack at it, I decided that was way too much calculus to handle, and quietly switched to an easier but still ‘respectable’ double major in Finance and Marketing.

Illustration and design was probably the furthest thing from my mind at this point. When I graduated I started working in financial advice, and did reasonably well initially, but soon faced a gradual spiral into a crisis of motivation. This inevitably led to suddenly finding myself unemployed. I felt at this point a serious change was probably in order, and enrolled in a graphic design course at Central TAFE in Perth.

It was probably the single most life changing decision I have ever made. I loved it.  I wound up excelling at my course, outpacing my coursework, and finding clients on the side. I was already getting full-time freelance work by the time I graduated. I haven’t looked back since.

Since then I have developed a ravenous appetite for self-improvement when it comes to my craft. There are so many different ways to illustrate, and I believe versatility makes you commercially viable. Also experimentation and learning new skills definitely keeps you on your toes, and creatively open to change.

All that tinkering and experimentation has definitely helped me discover and gravitate to the styles that leverage my abilities best.

How would you describe your work?

I like to create work that is quirky, funny and clever. I like hidden meanings and double entendre. I don’t mind being a little cheeky at times too.

If my work serves to entertain, brighten moods, and summon smiles, then I believe it has been effective. Even if I am the only one who’s smiling at the end of it.

Illustrations inspired by one of Jeffrey’s all time favourite illustrators, Edward Gorey.
Your illustration style is very diverse, ranging from quite intricate life-like work to caricature style drawings, more commercial ‘cartoony’ work and storyboards. What inspires and influences these various styles, and is there one style you consider to be your ‘natural’ style of illustrating?

I feel my style is still evolving, and I suspect this will always be the case. Of course given the option, I naturally go for the old pen and ink.

You can create pretty much anything with just a crow-quill nib and a bottle of Indian black. But even within that narrow constraint, there is so much variety to my eye. Different nibs lend themselves to different ways of hatching or drawing lines, subtly influencing whether a drawing is neat and tight, or scratchy and loose. And where possible, a small witty remark sets the whole thing off.

I’m greatly inspired by the work of artists like Quentin Blake, Edward Gorey, Al Hirschfeld and Ronald Searle – all masters of the pen and/or a clever little line or two.

Of course this is a far cry from my commercial work – which is basically created to serve a purpose and not necessarily an outlet for my own self-expression. For example, with a storyboard for a television commercial, as long as the angles are right and characters are in the right place, folks are happy.

I guess as a working illustrator it’s healthy to have the distinction between commercial work where you are not necessarily ‘personally invested’, versus personal work which can still be commissioned, but retains more of the artist’s personality as a key component.

Melbourne illustrator Jeffrey Phillips in his Richmond studio.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.
Creatively you work across a broad spectrum as a commercial illustrator, storyboard artist and graphic designer? How do you manage your time across these various disciplines?

Swiss precision time management all the way!

Every morning I open my journal and make a list of things that need to get done, and do my best to cross them off as I go. If I don’t get around to something it rolls over to the next day. The method is old school but it works fairly well. Besides I need to use all these lovely pens and beautiful notebooks I have an annoying habit of accumulating. #makelistsforeverything

Like a typical freelancer my life ranges from tranquil zen-like peace to frantic hell-spawned chaos. Take this week for example, I had to move out from my house, juggle deadlines, deliver final artwork to printers, and a myriad other things. But I don’t mind it, frankly I embrace the challenges that come with being a freelancer. The pressure and the expectation to deliver pushes me hard to improve myself.

Working across a broad spectrum also keeps me reasonably busy on a full-time basis. And the skills tend to overlap in ways that benefit each other. For example I don’t mind working on the graphic design of a publication for which I was originally hired just for the illustrations. That way I get to look after my babies all the way to print, like an overprotective mother hen.

Jeff’s desk!  Photo – Sean Fennessy.
Can you give us a little insight into your process? What materials do you use? Is each work pre-planned or created very intuitively?

A great part of the creative process happens in my mind before anything else takes place. I like to let my imagination wander freely, day dreaming, devoid of any deliberate distractions. I try to avoid using my phone or tablet, unless I absolutely have to. It has proved invaluable to my creative output.

I’ve learnt that this process isn’t lucky, or up to chance. Everyone’s subconscious is adept at coming up with connections and associations between seemingly unlikely concepts. This can lead to great leaps in solving creative problems, stubbing your frontal lobe on an unexpectedly great idea. Ouch.

So once the hard thinking is out of the way I break out a few of my favourite tools. My favourite pen is neon yellow Lamy Safari with an Extra-Fine nib (neon yellow because I ordered the wrong colour). I use ‘Noodler’s Bullet Proof Black’ ink in it because it’s one of the few inks that are both waterproof and safe for fountain-pen use. These two combined with the amazing paper quality of the Fabriano Artist Journal create a lovely tactile feedback loop. The way the nib glides over the paper in the right way, tapering off at each stroke, with its unique imperfections is a recipe for a great illustration. And while I can draw with pretty much anything at hand, this particular combination of ink, pen and paper works really well for me.

I also use a plethora of drawing and calligraphy nibs for pen and ink work (Gillot, Hunt, Zebra G, etc.). Their amazing little imperfections and line weight variation create just the right nuances I like.

For most commercial work though, I resort to working digitally, emulating the above using my trusty Wacom Cintiq Graphics tablet. While it’s not as visceral as working traditionally, the trade-off is the added flexibility of Ctrl-Z, the ability to make changes on the fly or accommodate unexpected changes to a brief.

Melbourne illustrator Jeffrey Phillips at work in his Richmond studio.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.

Jeffrey works on a commercial illustration commission.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?

First things first, coffee from my regular spot ‘Cheerio’, Richmond. Then it’s straight into the studio, I chuck on some music and I hit up my favourite design blogs for a little inspirational boost to start the day.

Once I’m suitably charged up with inspiration and caffeine I tackle the first job on the list and work my way through them until it’s all done. It can be anything from storyboarding a new commercial for McDonald’s China, to an editorial illustration for a literary magazine, to the promo artwork for a MICF show. There’s usually a good bit of variety in the work, which keeps things interesting.

If I have no pressing work to deal with I’ll use the time to try something new. Lately I’ve started getting into modern copperplate calligraphy in a big way. And that was simply because I tried some new drawing nibs and then realised they had a great secondary application. Or vice versa, I can’t remember. But either way the result was incredibly satisfying and addictive.

Melbourne illustrator Jeffrey Phillips in his Richmond studio.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?

1. I love ffffound.com, designspiration.com, ineedaguide.blogspot.com.au and any site that basically has a frequently updated list of randomised quality creative images. Unlike something like Pinterest which is very categorised, you never know what is going to come up next, and I love that.

2. That massive dump of archival images the British library unloaded all over the internet a few months ago. Such a great resource!

3. The NGV. There is so much going on there, especially during Melbourne Now. I get a massive hit of inspiration every time I walk into that place. The most unassuming things just pop out at me, giving me great little ideas for projects and so on.

4. I enjoy photography blogs focused on people or fashion like Humans of New York, The Sartorialist etc. They give me great ideas and direction for creating and dressing characters.

5. Libraries. The City Library and State Library are awash with resources, not to mention they have a good bit of art, as well as people to draw.

Studio details.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you liking at the moment?

I’m loving the work of those crazy guys at Canary Press and their amazing little short story mag. Their passion for what they do is so infectious, I can’t help but get caught up in their madness.

Also absolutely loving getting down to Melbourne Now – that show is just dripping with talent and amazingly inspiring artwork.

And lastly the great work Veronica Grow is doing with Old School New School is really fun and refreshing.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

About six months ago, our hastily thrown together collective ‘Joining Forces’ won the opportunity to design one of the eight Melbourne Art Trams. It took us completely by surprise.

We followed that up by winning the People’s Choice Award, which was an incredible double whammy. The feedback from that project and being a part of Melbourne Festival was thoroughly amazing.

What would be your dream project?

This is how I imagine it would unfold:

*phone rings*

‘Hello, Jeff speaking…’

‘Hi Jeff, I’m the art director at The New Yorker and we’d love to get you on board for a few strips in our next issue’

*melts into puddle of joy*

‘….hello?’

What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to the upcoming SuperGraph Expo this Feb, where I’m going to be working on some really cool stuff with my collective ‘Joining Forces’.

Aside from that, I’m just super optimistic about 2014. I want to continue improving and pushing boundaries with my craft to see where it takes me.

Studio details.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.

MELBOURNE QUESTIONS

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

Hahaha this changes by the day!

Last month, it was Carlton. Last week it was North Fitzroy. Everytime I go for a little wander I’m like ‘Wow, could this be my favourite neighbourhood?’

I feel like a child in a toy shop. This is my favourite thing ever! No wait, THIS IS!

This morning, I stopped by the Rowena Parade Corner Store Cafe while walking through Richmond and I instantly had a new favourite.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

Once a year I hit up the NoteMaker warehouse sale for bulk supplies of journals, sketchbooks, paper and whatever else I can get my grubby bargain crazy hands on.

My favourite sketchbook the ‘Fabriano Artist Journal’ can be bought from most art shops so I just pop into the nearest whenever I fill one up. It has two alternative paper stocks in a single book, both with their own unique characteristics.

Most of my other materials comes from Melbourne Artist Supplies or Deans Art.

Where / what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

The absolutely decadent fried chicken experience at ‘Gami’. A sticky, hot mess of unholy spiciness, gooey cream corn sides and kimchi washed down with a lot of cold beer. Class act. Probably a bi-annual affair at best though.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Out in the city or northern suburbs somewhere, exploring the odd laneway, enjoying some of Melbourne’s frequent public festivals or markets, coffee in one hand, sketchbook in the other.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

I don’t know how much of a secret this one is…

We once stumbled upon a Giant California Redwood plantation deep in the Beech Forest, off the Great Ocean Road in the Otways. It was quite some way off the beaten track but was so worth it. They tower high over you, and the whole area has this deathly quiet, muffled atmosphere. The ground is covered in a thick, soft layer of pine needles. A magical place.

Calligraphy experimentation.  Photo – Sean Fennessy.

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