Thursday, 15 January 2015

Interview: Becca Tobin

Becca Tobin is a cartoonist and illustrator from Glasgow, Scotland, whose work I first came across online last year. Her rich and lurid watercolour painted art is at once attractive and appealing while the wavers of her lines hint at emotional psychologies. Tobin has self-published various comics- largely to sell at conventions and festivals or digital editions available online, and this year she is one of the artists making up Youth in Decline's 2015 monograph series, Frontier. Like Ines Estrada, her use and command of colour is superb -it's rich and bright, and plays into the tone and pressures implied within the work, but it never seems wrong. Towards the end of the last year, she published Night Florist, a collection of her paintings and a few comics strips with Scottish publishers, Do-Gooder Comics. Tobin's work speaks for itself, but I'm particularly excited to see her emergence as a British artist; one of the things the UK comics scene has suffered from in the past has been a lack of diversity in styles which fed into a staidness, and she is one of a number of cartoonists whose work feels fresh and vibrant and modern.

How did your interest in art and comics develop- was there one facet that came first, or have you simply always read and wanted to make comics?

Comics have always been a part of my life, when I was small I used to read a lot of Tintin comics and Far Side collections and in my teens I was obsessed with manga. As a kid I read European comics that made it over to the UK, a lot of Tintin and Asterix books. I loved that they were fun adventure stories full of great drawings and expressions. My grandparents owned a LOT of Far Side comics and a big collection of Peanuts, and I’d read them repeatedly whenever we went to stay. Then I was a teen in the 2000s manga boom, so for years manga was pretty much all I read! Reading shoujo titles was the first time I’d encountered comics by female artists and it really blew my mind. Before that comics seemed impenetrable and kind of a boys club to me, seeing cool, interesting work made by women made it seem like something I could do too. I drew so many bad romance comics in my teens as a result, but it was important and kept me drawing and writing!

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t draw and making comics developed kind of naturally out of that. For a long time I used to agonize over devoting time to drawing or writing, and eventually I decided to mash them both together! For me comics is the most fulfilling way of engaging in both disciplines, when I’m bored of writing I can draw and vice versa, it keeps me constantly interested. Illustration is something I’ve only been doing professionally for about six months, it emerged out of art directors seeing my personal work and comics. It’s very different to working on my own stuff but I love the challenge of learning and improving! I still feel like I’m feeling my way with it though.

These days I read a bit of everything, most of the comics I buy are ones I pick up at shows, I go for whatever looks interesting and appealing to me, or stuff I’ve seen online that I want to grab. I’d like to buy more comics but I’m usually broke so I have to curtail my spending!

Was there a definite point that you can pick out when you decided this is what I want to do as a living/career?

Probably in 2012, at that time I was living in the US studying abroad and I went along to the Small Press Expo in Maryland. It was the first comics show I’d ever gone to and it was the first time I met people who were making a career out of their art and comics. It seemed like an achievable thing to do and it made me really energized to go and make my own stuff. 

Did you pursue a related qualification in art or illustration, or are you wholly self-taught?

I’m pretty much entirely self taught! I did a traditional oil painting course for a few months in my third year at university and I have an A level in art, but most of the stuff I’ve learnt has just been from sitting around, drawing a lot and trying different things.

Do you draw digitally or analogue? Or a mix of the two?

I pretty much draw entirely analogue. I use a lot of traditional media, I love watercolour paints and I’ve been enjoying using soft pencils for toning recently. I’ll often mess around a little with levels and stuff on photoshop after scanning, but I try and get the art looking as close to how I want it on paper. I’d like to improve my digital skills but I love drawing on real life paper too much, I’m a messy artist! I clean my brushes on my hands and use my fingers to blend paints and pencils. It’s much harder to physically affect a digital drawing so I get more frustrated with it. 

You're one of a group of notable cartoonists online. When did you start sharing you work on the internet? How helpful has it been to have an online presence- in terms of people being aware of you and your work, or to you in terms of having an audience?

For me, having an online presence has been completely vital to showing people my work and having an audience. I’m able to share work and talk with people all over the world, a lot of my peers and friends in comics I’ve met through putting my work on the internet. I started putting my work up in 2011 when one of my friends convinced me to get a tumblr to my put my art on. I feel like starting out putting art online is great because it’s free and pretty easy, anybody can see your stuff, despite its problems, the internet is a level playing field in that respect. 

I love your style, especially your use of colour, which is an instrumental facet in making your work so distinctive and special. Is colouring something that you spend time considering- the effect and interplay of, or is it more organic?

My colouring process is pretty intuitive, I don’t know much about colour theory so I end to go on what feels good rather than fixing a colour scheme or anything. When I go into colouring a comic or picture, I usually have an idea in my head of what kind of atmosphere I want to convey, and that’s a good starting point colour wise. After that I usually let things grow on their own as I go, I never really know how things are going to turn out until they’re finished which is exciting. Recently I’ve been trying limiting my colours, experimenting with one or two tones, especially in comics, so I can try and communicate more simply with line and shape and develop that part of my drawing. 

There are a few recurring themes in your work- connectivity, the mystical and spiritual- are these things you have an interest in exploring, or an affiliation with the imagery?

I was raised in an evangelical church with Roman Catholic grandparents, so for a lot of my life growing I was surrounded with really vivid religious imagery, unexplained symbols and sacred objects. Evangelical Christianity has a lot of linguistic focus on fire and blood and intense feeling, and although I’m no longer religious it left me with an interest in that intense spiritual mindset and I’m still fascinated with how people interact with invisible, magic stuff. 

I love that through comics and paintings I can explore my own idea of the spiritual and the magic, for me these concepts lie in nature and personal connection. I like exaggerating both of those things and making them dreamlike and a bit uncomfortable, undulating forests and people who can’t stop touching each other. I think maybe by expanding them I hope to create more room to understand them?? I get to pay close attention to small feelings and simple moments and invent worlds around them, and it’s something I don’t really get tired of exploring because my own views and experiences are always changing.

A lot of your comics are humorous- I always imagine that making people smile or laugh is one of the hardest things to do. How do you approach that, as opposed to say a straight comic, and what do you like about doing it?

I usually just write what makes me laugh! Sometimes I’m writing a straight comic and lose my nerve at the last second and make it into a joke, usually if I feel I’m being corny or self indulgent, I’ll turn it on its head. I usually write out parts of the joke before I draw anything, just to keep it tight and not too overworked, more serious comics tend to be more steam of consciousness for me. Really the best way I’ve found of writing funny comics is just to make myself laugh with them, those tend to be the ones I feel are the most successful. 

Your characters and the sheer mix of plant beings, animals, humans, all manner of creatures- is it fun to come up with a different. Is there a particular reason you chose to use these sort of characters rather than humans?

I tend to use anthropomorphic characters because I think they provide a blank space on which the reader can project whatever they want onto them in a way that’s harder to do with exclusively human figures. I think non-human characters can act as a way of making a story non-exclusive to one race or gender, which is something I’m interested in exploring. There are no rules to how dogs or cats or plant people behave! It helps me be more creative with narrative, I feel like I have more licence to create my own universe rules and structures. Plus on a basic level it’s really fun to come up with cool designs for characters!

What is that you get out of comics, as a reader, and as a creator? What do they give/offer you?

I think comics give me a lot of versatility, both in what I create and what I consume. I like how they can read very cinematically or like poetry, and how it’s easy to make anything happen quickly and with next to no budget. Really there are no rules as to what a comic has to be, and I think we’re in a time where people are making comics that look interesting and different: totally varied dependent on the person. I think that out of all mediums, comics really benefit from people being able to do what they want and people being able to carve out their own look. That freedom is great!

Do you take much notice of the culture surrounding the medium- issues affecting it, changes taking place- do you see those as affecting you ever, or something that you keep abreast of, to be aware?

I try to keep informed about issues and changes facing the industry, but I tend to leave the commenting to people other than myself. There are often people who are more informed than me, saying intelligent things about comics already, and I’d rather provide a space for those voices rather than add my own. So yeah, I guess I try to keep informed but I don’t engage all that much.

What do you draw influence from? Who are some of your favourite comic creators/books?

I love psychedelic and visionary art from the sixties and seventies, it’s so unabashedly beautiful! I especially like Joseph Parker’s big paintings of kaleidoscope sunsets and tropical islands, they’re gorgeous to look at. I love looking at any cool watercolour paintings (cartoonist-wise obviously Simon Hanselmann the paint wizard), also anything kind of lavish and kitschy: old fantasy novel illustrations, B movies, the X Files. I love stuff that is kind of silly subject wise but is executed seriously with care and attentiveness.

I’ve been loving Lala Albert’s comics recently, her dreamy stories and fleshy naked people are amazing to me! Also Sophia Foster-Dimino is producing so many consistently great comics right now, I’m excited by everything she puts out. I’m always a big fan of Lynda Barry, I’d love to get a hold of her new book sometimes soon, and anything by Mare Odomo. 

Here are some other people I think are making great stuff: Iasmin Omar-ata, Madeline Flores, Laura Knetzger, Brian Fukushima, Eleanor Davis, Mia Schwartz, Kelly Kwang, Lauren Jordan, Jake Lawrence, HTML Flowers, JMKE. 

You're doing a book with Youth in Decline next year- is there anything else in the pipeline for 2015, in terms of what you want to achieve, goals?

I’m doing a minicomic with Comic Book Slumber Party, tentatively called Hotel World that’ll be out before TCAF and will be coming with me there. As I’ve only been drawing as my full time job for about 6 months, a lot of my aims are learning more about how to be a professional artist, I’d like to do more freelance illustration, and grab any opportunities that come my way.  I want to keep making a lot of new stuff, I really want to focus on storytelling this year and make a lot of comics. I feel like I’m off to a good start so far, I want to continue it through the new year.

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