Louisa Lee: I’ve noticed that you’ve got a fine art background, health how did this develop into illustration?
Zöe Barker: Since I was a kid I wanted to be an artist. I loved drawing the most so it seemed an obvious choice. I headed straight to University onto a Fine Art degree after school. I hadn’t considered anything other than being a painter. University was interesting; realism and portrait painting were not trendy and I struggled for a while with explaining my thoughts and concepts. The ideas that were getting great reactions – dark, patient crude or shocking, information pills whacko performance art – were a bit frustrating and I didn’t know where I fit. I came close to transferring onto an Illustration degree, but decided that Fine Art was a great platform to work out my ideas and style. I began to understand how I wanted to communicate. I am really pleased that I stuck with that decision; during the last year of Art School ideas started forming that are still very much key in my work now. I started drawing in a way that achieved the right balance between craft and concept. When I left University I felt a bit stuck because I hadn’t received the advice or direction that a young illustrator could feed off, and my portfolio was essentially that of a fine artist. I kept getting told that my work wasn’t illustration but ‘real’ art, and I didn’t understand why illustration had to be so dumbed down, or why I had to be one or the other. I then started producing more drawings, giving them more of a purpose. I still felt like I was totally “blagging” it when I went for interviews, and was terrified to show my portfolio. I now have a better awareness of the sort of projects suited to me. It’s really important to not change the core of my art to get more work, but striving at refining and specialising.
LL: Does your fine art background affect how you respond to commissions?
ZB: I hope so. I don’t like the idea that illustration is seen as a commercial cop out, and Fine Art as airy-fairy business. When I was studying fine art I found it so demoralising walking around galleries and studios seeing stuff that didn’t mean anything. People explained their ‘work’ with sweeping intellectual breakdowns. I only really discovered illustration at Uni. I thought illustration was people doing cute little watercolours for kids books, or people who could draw pretending they couldn’t. Then my housemate showed me Charles Anastase fashion illustrations and it changed the way I looked at drawing.
I don’t see why illustration can’t be as weighty and thought provoking as fine art – I wonder whether we aren’t thinking enough of the reader when we use illustration merely to decorate a text. Fine art taught me to think about how I wanted to communicate most efficiently. I am not limited by ways to approach an idea, which helps in handling wider ranges of projects. I prefer to call myself an illustrator because it sounds like a proper job!
LL: Which artists or illustrators influence you?
ZB: Dryden Goodwin has been a huge influence. When I was in university he had produced a portrait of Sir Steve Redgrave. He’d meticulously drawn the same photograph 25 times and then animated it and looped it. All of the images are practically identical, but when animated the variations in the shading become apparent and suggest changes in the light. It’s beautiful; so simple but says so much about the nature of drawing and photography. When I first saw it I was having one of those days of cramming as many exhibitions into one day as I could, getting pretty demoralised by the work that I was seeing. Then I saw Sustained Endeavour and was blown away. I went to see that drawing so many times; when I had been having a bad day, when I need inspiration or reassuring. That sounds so cheesy, but I think that’s what art should be able to do. I have spent hours staring at his drawings, analysing his mark-making, literally breaking down how he uses a pencil. I’m pretty sure the Gallery staff thought I was mental. Justin Mortimer is also a massive influence on me. He’s done everything with paint that I wanted to do but didn’t come close to. Also Gerhard Richter, Chuck Close, Hellovon, and Billie Jean.
LL: Your work manages to make the ordinary e.g. old cars, Tesco, Brylcream funny and interesting. What else inspires or influences your work?
ZB: I think I have a weird sense of humour! I get inspired to draw by lame things that everyone loves, like Coronation Street, or things totally unnecessary or ugly. I like looking at everyday objects/adverts and taking them out of context to show how bizarre they are. Especially stuff from when I was younger that I thought was super cool and then grew up and was like, really? Like Old Spice. You know that men’s fragrance? I’d buy my Grandad that every Christmas and think it was swanky as. I love seeing how time changes your perception. What I choose to draw is just funny, odd, awkward or outdated. I have a large collection of old National Geographics, suitcases of family photographs and other books and magazines from the 60s-80s. I love how excited everyone got about things like Thermos flasks. The sense of wonder you can see in people discovering these crazy ‘modern’ inventions. It seemed way more exciting back then; none of this Iphone, plasma TV, Playstation stuff. I found this advert in my book of modern day marvels describing the “new” ticket machine in the London Underground. It was describing how it ‘thought’ like some modern crazy robot, making sure it gave you the right change every time you used it. All of these things that we make out to be the best thing yet, and then the following year they get trashed for some slightly better update, and before you know it we’re laughing at our massive ‘brick’ phones. It just shows how fickle we are.
I’m probably most inspired by past ideologies; my Parents and Grandparents talk about how they lived when they were kids, and I think we’re missing out! I grew up in Suffolk, and going back there feels like a different time zone. Up until a couple of years ago the beer from the local brewery was still being delivered to the local pubs by a horse and cart. The contrast between the countryside and London living is fascinating; taking old-fashioned ideals of family, community and the local, and then mashing that up against power-dressing and corporate empires. That’s where the Tesco Values drawing came from. Tesco opened in my tiny, sleepy little town where you know every shopkeeper and where Woolworths had once been the peak of the high street shopping experience. It made me angry. And then I laughed at the obscurity of it and made a drawing. I think my drawings are kind of a nostalgic bid to hold onto outlooks on life that seem to be fading. That’s where my fascination with Volvos comes from. The family car encompasses an ideal of a family unit; safety and practicality over shiny good looks. What does life in England look like when these ideals have disappeared, and have been replaced with slick corporate efficiency and independent living?
LL: Most of your work seems to be in 3H pencil, why is this? Do you ever work in different colours or mediums?
ZB: I think pencils are underrated. I usually use 3H pencils. It’s just such a beautifully simple, honest process and it’s so delicate. I’ve done many drawings where I’ve obsessed over a particular area, and then realised the drawing has got over-worked. I usually bin it. If you start bombarding a pencil drawing with stacks of colour and different texture it loses its gentle and fragile charm. Drawing shouldn’t try to be high tech, showy, glossy, perfect thing, because it goes against everything that’s great about it. I like that it’s a process that everyone can get in on. There’s no mystery to it. You can say so much with a pencil mark because it’s so direct and undiluted. I like things simple and the idea of my equipment costing £3!
LL: I like your pixellated work on graph paper, how did this come about?
ZB: During my degree I lost interest in painting portraits. I wanted to produce intricate paintings. The whole idea of re-mediation and reproduction fascinated me. I was getting really interested in photography and truth of representation theories. In my third year of my degree ahead of my final show, I stayed late in the studio and was sat in front of some painting I had done of a fisherman from an old National Geographic. I had loved the process and the realism of the painting, but was totally unimpressed with the concept of the finished piece. I hated the composition and was in a real state of frustration. So, I pulled it off the stretcher and started cutting it into little squares. I think my friends thought I’d gone a bit mad. But I was on some quest. I had to find a purpose for the work, a question I was trying to answer. That was the last painting I made. I started making drawings from photographs but using abstraction and pixilation, using different layers and materials, trying to understand photography through drawing. The pixel drawings came from the idea that photography had this privileged link with truth and representing the ‘real’, yet was totally flawed – taking old imagery and cropping it awkwardly and distorting it, then locking it behind an envelope window or a piece of tracing paper to show some kind of finality or impenetrable surface. I enjoy trying to push what drawing can do.
LL: What would be your ideal brief?
ZB: A hand-drawn billboard campaign for Volvo! My favourite jobs come from working with people who are passionate about what they’re trying to achieve. If I really believe in a project or a vision I’m sold. I’ve loved working for Howies and Bobbin Bicycles because they are clear about what they’re about and won’t compromise. People going against the flow get me excited. Obviously I’d also like to do the artwork for my favourite bands’ new albums and stuff like that, but then I sound like a 16 year old. That’s ok though. I’d love to collaborate with a musician or a band and produce artwork that is as important as the music it’s encasing.
LL: Where will we see your work next?
ZB: I have a couple of collaborations coming up. I’ll be contributing to each of Patrick Fry’s next set of No.Zines. The last three were ace! I’m also starting work for an exhibition with a photographer friend, focussing on ‘Tesco Values’, exploring how technological and cultural advances are affecting rural areas.
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