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Doncaster-based illustrator Al Heighton is probably familiar to a lot of our UK readers, as his work has graced the pages of many publications and is a regular contributor to the Guardian. His deceptively simple illustrations, teamed with his love of humour, have given his work a distinctive style which jumps off the page. We managed to steal a bit of his time to talk about doodling, postcards and “the big Spadoosh”.
Hi Al, welcome to Thunder Chunky. How are you doing today?
Yes I’m good today thanks I’ve managed to sample some fresh air on a 14 mile bike ride early morning; I’ve managed some drawing and I’ve had a brew or two. So I’m good thanks.
How would you sum yourself up in 3 easy-to-follow steps?
How would I sum myself up in three steps. Hmmmm step one I’m single man on an illustration mission. Step two this man hopes he take the correct steps to engage with an audience and make them laugh. Step three to keep on grafting on step one and two previously mentioned.
What does a typical day-in-the-life of Al Heighton consist of?
A typical day for Al heighton starts at either 4:30 or 5am. If I sleep in till 6.30 am I have a feeling of guilt. I find early morning I’m at my most creative; recently there was a thing in the Guardian’s G2 section, an article claiming 10:10pm is the most creative time. It’s not! Its early doors for me. Always start with a cup of tea, then it’s clear my space and start drawing in one of my sketchbooks – there’s 4 on the go last count [I upgraded and started buying moleskine books this year]. About 8:30am update my blog usually? Check emails, write some emails, scour some websites for reference points, research. More emails. Then another brew, more drawing / doodling, break for lunch. More emails, look over some sites, afternoon break, walk to the shop, return pick up the sketchbook and draw some more, make notes, scan the paper for interesting articles which could inform the next drawing. I then break off to eat in the evening, watch some TV or read a book or go for an evening bike ride depending on time of year or draw some more before going to bed then repeat the next day…
Many people will have first noticed your work when you were runner-up for “Creative Futures” in Creative Review. How did that affect your introduction to the illustration world do you think?
I guess people did take notice of me; with being selected for Creative Futures with Creative Review. However, I’d been going a few years before that and I’d had work selected and published through the student D&AD book for my work on Superhumanism, which was a series of lectures that Richard Seymour had written in 2001 about how with technology we have dropped the ball and made everything too complicated. Getting published in the D&AD student book came at the right time for me as it restored my confidence, having made an application to the RCA and not winning an interview. I’d also been published in one of the Aoi Image annuals in the Unpubished section – doesn’t sound glam but its all jury selected so I can be proud. I’d done some work for a few trade magazines titles that you don’t find in WHSmith’s but were good training grounds.
Al’s work for the Aoi Unpublished section
Again, going back to Creative Futures, that came at the right time. I’d made another application to the RCA the year before again, I didn’t get selected for an interview and privately I really got upset about it. Getting selected for Creative Futures made me sit up a little and restored me and made me think all the long hours have been worth it. I’d longed to study at the RCA on the communication course; I think getting selected for Creative Futures helped get that concept out my system. It made me stop and take stock and think Yep maybe I have a creative future, let’s just crack on and enjoy it now. I also gained some lovely emails from across the country from professionals and students which were really nice to read about my work.
You’ve recently been featured in POSTCARD, which is a book showcasing… postcards. How did the opportunity come about?
The Postcard book came about from myself doing lots of mailouts for a number of years. I’ve been producing postcards and mailing them out and Tomi at Flat33 had collected them and included me in that great book. I’ve done lots of other self promo items but I think the postcard for the illustrator is still King! It’s just the honesty of a postcard I like, and I think others like. Plus people collect and do keep them.
Al’s submissions to the Postcard book
Could you tell us a bit about your postcards in the book?
There are two of my postcards featured and one features two potential lovers balanced on a piece of sculpture by an artist that I drew… I forget who but I thought it would be good to have these characters balanced on this great piece of sculpture?? But basically it’s an image about being an optimist I guess. The other image is quite well known… it featured in the Picture book by Angus Hyland. That was a fun image which can be read into it’s subversive I guess? But I was making a comment about being sexually frustrated using an image of the wrestler with the stripper in the background.
On the other end of the print spectrum you do a lot of editorial illustration, particularly for The Guardian. What are some of the biggest challenges about doing work for newspapers and magazines?
Working for newspapers like the Guardian and magazines is like going on a rollercoaster ride. The deadlines always seem to get shorter and shorter and from the worrying of waiting for the copy to arrive in your inbox to illuminate, to getting a black and rough completed and approved, to colouring the illustration up, the adrenalin is pumping right untill you have pinged it off via email. But I love it. The following day you see it printed up in all its glory and you cringe and hope people like it and smile whilst enjoying the article. Why did I choose that colour, why did i do it that way are questions you ask yourself afterwards always… or maybe that’s just me?
Some of Al’s regular work for the Guardian sports section
What’s the most interesting article you’ve illustrated?
The most interesting article for me to illuminate was when an article got pullled by the editor midday because it was offensive to a footballer. He had to do a rewrite but tell me verbally over the phone what he planned to write about next. Being up against the time till the deadline was a challenge. Likewise, when the olympics was on I waited hours for the chap to file his copy and again when it was in I was up against the time. They were interesting jobs being really up against the clock.
You also contributed to the cover artwork of the hugely successful Arctic Monkeys “Favourite Worst Nightmare” album. What was your involvement in that and what was it like working with a number of different contributors on the job?
The Arctic monkeys album cover was great to be part of. I got a call asking would I like to contribute. I was sent some snippets of Mr Turners lyrics, I produced about 18 images, I emailed them off and forgot about it? I really did. The other 11 or 12 artists I had no idea how much or little they had produced. I didn’t know the full plan by Scott at Juno was to select bits of art by everyone and fill the house with it all. They used a tree of mine by the big “Spadoosh”, as my mate Louise Taylor calls it, thats cock and balls to you and me, they used a dripping tap of mine and a chap hanging from the ceiling. I only found all that out two or three weeks before it was released, about what they had done and put it together. The monday it was out I rolled up on the train in Manchester and started clocking all the ad boards at the train station and it sunk in this album is a massive release.
Arctic Monkeys album sleeve
What sort of music do you listen to when drawing? Are Arctic Monkeys on the playlist then?
I do listen to the Arctic monkeys, I love the Shadow Puppets, the last two tracks on that album I love to bits. I like John legend, Sting, the Police, some Seal playing while drawing is always good.
A key part of your work in humour. What are some of your comedy inspirations?
Humour is important to my work, I wonder myself where it all comes from??? A mate once remarked that I don’t take life too serious, thats what he likes about me. I guess that’s correct. Then I’m like a a natural worrier. I’ve always read comics, I like a lot of comedy films with Vince Vaughn and all his crew, Ben stiller etc. I liked all the old Will Hay and Carry On films. I read everything from the Sun to Woman’s Own, the Guardian to GQ. Somehow I’m digesting all these reference points and it comes out in the illustrations. Of course there’s a lot that comes from real life and overhearing chat on trains which informs the humour. I do worry if I’m lacking in humour… I meet people who I think are funnier than me I’m sure?
You claim almost all your work starts in the sketchbook. What are the 3 latest sketches you’ve done in your sketchbook?
Last few things I’ve drawn is a bloke getting kissed by a busty lady in a naughty santa outfit! I need to redraw it as I’m not completely happy with it. I’ve drawn a weird sculpture type thing – its weird by my standards, it was a really forced doodle. Plus this strange plant.
Sample pages from Al’s sketchbook
What would be your top pieces of drawing kit that you’d recommend to readers?
Top drawing kit is the plain old Bic Biro. I should be sponsored by BIC. I still use them cheap orange razors to shave with aswell. Forget them razors that Tiger Woods plugs on the ads.
You also tutor at Salford University, what do you think are the top 3 things students should do to prepare themselves for the real world?
I do work at Salford Uni one day a week but finish at christmas which Im a little sad about. I think the one thing students should do is believe in their work and themselves… an old adage I guess. But they must believe in their work and keep the faith and be prepared to graft!
In the lead up to xmas, everyone’s looking for random gift ideas. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve bought recently?
Last thing I bought was a Barbour bag; it’s waterproof and it’s gonna look great after some use. It houses my paperback book, current one being an Ian Fleming biogaphy, newspaper and moleskin sketchbooks. It’s a must-have item for a gent about town to give out the country twang.
Finally, what’s the one thing everyone should do today?
Everyone should get out on a bike and do some miles and rediscover country lanes and do some exercise – it makes you feel great. And make a joke or two and oh… have a cup of tea!
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