Rob Turpin uses line, form, color, and imagination to create the fantastical cities, landscapes, and spacecraft found on his blog, This Northern Boy. We asked him about his artistic influences, his drawing process, and how he got started putting pen to paper.
Tell us a little bit about how you got into drawing.
I’ve always drawn — from a really young age, I’ve just loved drawing.
At primary school in the UK, I was the kid that drew. I was fine at everything else, but drawing was my thing. It stayed that way through high school, too — regardless of what else I was into, I always drew. I’d draw sci-fi or fantasy stuff, spaceships and aliens, orcs, and dragons.
When I went to college to study graphic design, the illustration sessions interested me most. If I’d had more confidence in my ability then, maybe I’d have gone on to study illustration instead of graphics. As it was, I was interested in typography and editorial design, so drawing started to take a bit of a back seat. I was also a rubbish student, so after getting kicked out of two different art colleges, I ended up managing bars.
Half a dozen years later, after running bars all across London, I finally got back into design thanks to a friend who commissioned me to do illustrations for a magazine. But getting back into design — and building a career in it — didn’t get me drawing again. The weird thing was, if you had asked me about my hobbies, I’d still have put drawing at the top, even though by this time in late 2012, I probably hadn’t done any drawing for 17 or 18 years. I hadn’t realized that I’d stopped drawing. Looking back, it seems insane that for so long I didn’t do something that I’d always loved.
Draw every day. Even if it’s just a doodle on your lunch break, or a five-minute sketch before bed, draw. There’s no substitute — if you want to get better, you have to draw more and more.
What got me back into it was a little doodle of a hamburger I did while I was on the phone. It was drawn in black pen, on some sample paper — nice stuff, with a real grain to it. And I really liked it. So I started drawing more often, and then decided I’d start my blog as a way of documenting my stuff, and hopefully to get me to draw more often. That kind of worked — for a year or so I did draw more often, but not often enough, and after so long not drawing, I felt I had a lot of catching up to do.
What are your most tried and true creative influences? Which artists inspire you?
When I was a kid I was an avid reader of 2000AD, so all my heroes were the artists who drew the stories for it: Mike McMahon, Simon Bisley, Carlos Ezquerra, Brian Bolland, and Dave Gibbons. I used to copy their stuff a lot — which isn’t a bad way to learn, provided it’s not all you do. When I got more into illustration, I looked at the work of British illustrators like John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Aubrey Beardsley, and E.H. Shepherd, while keeping an eye on sci-fi stuff like book covers by Jim Burns and Chris Foss.
Now I find inspiration on Twitter and Instagram. There are so many amazing artists posting fantastic stuff — it’s almost overwhelming. My current favorite is Ian McQue: he’s a concept artist and illustrator. He draws robots, spaceships, little flying ships, and amazing cities. His work is fantastic.
You mentioned that “I very rarely know what I’m going to draw before I put pen to paper.” It seems as though each drawing is a process of discovery — tell us what that process is like.
Sometimes, it’s the very first line or scribble I put down that determines what I’ll draw. That line could just as easily end up being the line of a mountain ridge, or cowling of a spaceship’s engines. Just as often, I’ll start drawing, with no plan, and absolutely nothing suggests itself. I’ll doodle and scratch around feeling for something — and it just doesn’t arrive. For those moments I have a waste paper bin.
You created a robot a day, for 365 days — tell us about how you became inspired to do the project and what you learned from working on it.
I wanted to draw more. I definitely needed the practice, and I wanted to get into the habit of drawing often. My initial thought, after doodling a few robots on a piece of scrap paper, was to draw one robot a day for a month. I honestly don’t know why that changed to a year.
Maybe I needed more of a challenge. My first couple of drawings were quick, five- or ten-minute doodles really, and that was the plan at first — one quick sketch or drawing each day. That changed on day three. This was a much more involved drawing, and it set the tone for the rest of the year. I’d spend as much spare time as I had on each robot. If I had ten minutes, I’d spend ten minutes. If I had two hours, I’d spend all two hours. It became quite a burden. Just after starting, I changed from pretty irregular freelance design work, to a full-time (although still freelance) gig at an agency in East London. With a full working day, and three hours commuting each day, finding time to draw was a challenge.
When I finished the project, I think that simple fact was the thing I was most proud of. I’d proved to myself I could accomplish something substantial — which means I can look forward to projects now with a greater sense of confidence. My drawing definitely improved.
I was determined to draw every day. No cheating. No drawing two on a weekend and posting one on a day I didn’t draw. I drew on Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, on a long-haul flight, every day of a vacation, and on my birthday. When I finished the project, I think that simple fact was the thing I was most proud of. I’d proved to myself I could accomplish something substantial — which means I can look forward to projects now with a greater sense of confidence. My drawing definitely improved, nowhere near as much as I hoped it might, but there were some skills acquired. My line work got a lot better, and my range of tools to create volume, or texture, or shapes expanded.
Drawing a new robot each day for a year is a tremendous accomplishment. What kept you going when the project became a burden?
I think as each month went by, with another 30 drawings behind me, I got more and more stubborn. I got a kick out of persevering, out of carrying on despite the struggle with time and inspiration. Once I was past halfway, there was no way I was going to fail. I didn’t finish art college (twice) so I became more and more determined to finish.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about being creative?
I think there are a couple of things:
Firstly, you need to absolutely drink in every influence and visual reference you can. Look at other illustrators’ work, look at paintings, book covers, record sleeves. Take photos of weird stuff you see, read about stuff — science or wildlife, history or engineering. Give yourself a library of stuff to call on. Be a magpie — grab and collect stuff that’s cool or stuff you like the look of.
Secondly — just draw. Draw every day. Even if it’s just a doodle on your lunch break, or a five-minute sketch before bed, draw. There’s no substitute — if you want to get better, you have to draw more and more. The best bit of advice I ever received at college was from my illustration tutor. He said: “Listen to Radio 4 every day. You’ll learn more by doing that for six months than you will in any number of years at college.” It took me twenty years to take him up on that, but he was right. Radio 4 is a BBC spoken word radio station that is chock-full of documentaries, dramas, plays . . . You never know what you’ll hear there. One day you could be listening to a radio play of a John Wyndham novel, the next you could be listening to a documentary about the female pilots who trained for the Mercury space missions. It’s a wonderful thing.
What has drawing taught you about yourself?
It’s taught me, a little late, that you should never give up doing something you love. Whatever that thing is — do it. Drawing, singing, writing, football — do that thing and keep doing it as long as you love it. For whatever reason I gave up drawing for almost two decades. I’m drawing a lot now to try and make up for lost time.
Tools and materials! Which drawing implements do you prefer and recommend? Are there particular notebooks or paper stock that you favor?
I’ve recently become a bit of a nut for pens. I have mugs full of them on my desk, and a shoebox of them on the floor. When I go to work I carry about a dozen different pens — you never know what you’ll need. You might get an urge to sketch with a fountain pen, or to scribble something down with a pencil, or you might need a thick black Sharpie.
A lot of my drawings start off as a proper scribble, usually done while I was supposed to be doing something else. It’ll be drawn with whatever is at hand — that might be a biro, or a Staedtler Pigment Liner, or a Faber-Castell Pitt artist pen. The pen at this stage doesn’t matter because I’m just doodling or making some shapes. I very rarely know what I’m going to draw before I put pen to paper. Those first couple of marks might suggest a spaceship, or they might suggest a landscape.
I’m often surprised by where that first line can take me. That initial doodle, probably on a Post-It note or a bit of lined notebook, then gets taken home where I’ll sketch out a new, bigger version in pencil. I like Staedtler Tradition HB pencils, the black and red striped ones with the eraser on the end. I’ll draw a pretty rough sketch, keeping things vague before I pick up a pen. At the moment, I reach for either a Sakura Pigma Micron, or a Staedtler Pigment Liner (0.2 or 0.3), and I’ll ink out the outlines and some broad shapes.
Next, I add weird little details (I’m kind of describing the way I draw a spaceship here), panels, cowling, nacelles, and vents. I might add some color and tone next using Copic Ciao Marker pens (they are fantastic); Chrome Orange is a real favorite. I go back and noodle in gritty little bits of dirt or damage with a really fine Copic MultiLiner (0.03), and finally I give the whole thing a slightly thicker black outline with another Pigment Liner.
If I’m not drawing spaceships, I like to use a Kuretake Nib Pen. I use Manga G-Nibs and Sumi Ink. It’s a lovely pen — you can get astonishingly fine lines, or broader ones with a bit of pressure. It sounds great scratching across the paper! I’ve also got a really cheap packet of colored pencils that I’ll sometimes use to add a bit of color here and there. They cost me about $2.
I draw on any paper, from cheap copy paper to super-smooth Bristol Board. But the vast majority of my drawings are done in my Moleskine sketchbook. It’s A5 so nice and portable, and the paper has just enough tooth for pencil or pen work.