Playing with form, shadow and colour— Owen Gildersleeve creates emotive illustrations with paper. We had a chat with Owen where he filled us in on how he got into this niche field, some awesome highlights and lessons he’s learnt along the way.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs? I studied Graphic Design at the University of Brighton but I was always interested in image-making primarily. So alongside my course work I’d often go out into town to local record shops or approach promoters at shows to see if I could create posters or prints for their events. A few of my friends on my course were also working on personal illustration work in their spare time, so we decided to team together in our second year at Brighton to start a shared website under the name Evening Tweed – so a collective of sorts, but we were all working separately.
Because we had a collective name I think people thought we were more established than we actually were, so we started to be asked to be involved in little projects, collaborations and shows. This then lead to my first paid commission, which was a small editorial for the New York Times. I remember being in shock that they’d found my work, which goes to show the importance of having some online presence as you never know who might stumble across your site!
‘I love how through collaboration ideas are often pushed to new places and possibilities, that you often might not reach by yourself’
How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others? Even though I’d begun working on a few illustration projects during university, I didn’t really work out my style until a year or so after I’d finished. The initial work I was doing was using various mixed media, inspired by designers like Stefan Sagmeister and Alan Fletcher who used a lots of hands-on processes in their work. Then over time I started to find materials and techniques that I enjoyed working with and that gave me more flexibility than others. This is how I came into working with paper, which is a very versatile medium whilst also being affordable and easy to acquire. Then for me it was a case of creating a few papercut images and then people seeing those and asking me to do more work in that style.
I’d very much recommend to students not to feel the need to rush their style. A lot of students I talk to think that they need to have that all sorted before they leave education, but I really feel that people should see their studies as a time to experiment, even in their final year. A lot of people are so lucky at university to have so many great facilities around them, which are often hard to come by or expensive when you leave. So I’d recommend people to keep playing, trying out different methods, and then when you finish your course you can keep developing the things you enjoyed the most until you find a way of working that suits you.
Whats your take on internships? (do you take interns now?) I think internships are very important. They’re a great way of gaining experience and they really did help me to workout what I wanted to do with my career. After university I felt quite lost as I’d been playing with so many styles and ways of working, and didn’t really know what path I wanted to take. So I decided to go to New York for three months, to have a break and hopefully have some new experiences. During this time I reached out to an artist I liked called Mario Hugo, and he kindly took me on as a part-time intern for the whole three months that I was in the city. Before then I’d only interned at larger design studios and kind of assumed that was the only way to work. So the time with Mario was a huge eye-opener and helped me to workout that I wanted to become a freelance illustrator too.
I’m now in a lovely position where I’m able to take on interns myself. The people who come through my studio have often never experienced freelance studio life before, so it’s a good way for people to get involved with that, see what it’s like and workout whether it’s right for them. If anyone is interested in coming to help out at my studio please do get in touch and send me some of your work!
What has been your highlights since you started out? I feel lucky to have had many highlights over the last few years, working with some amazing people. One project that immediately springs to mind is the window displays I created for LUSH last winter. They approached me to create displays for fifteen of their stores around Europe, including their flagship Oxford Street store, inspired by their ‘Self Preserving’ flower designs. For this we decided to make large three-dimensional paper versions of the flowers, which we shipped out to each store. This was a huge undertaking, and so I brought in some assistants to help share the workload who were an amazing help. We also decided to push things even further with the Oxford Street store and make the flowers move. For this we brought in 3D designer Thomas Forsyth who designed some bespoke moving mechanism using custom coding so that the flowers ‘looked’ around the windows at passers-by. A really challenging but fun project! Take a look here.
I also love getting to travel with work and see new places, which has been helped by now having agents in Europe and America. I’ve had some really lovely trips around Europe over the years working on various set design projects. I’ve also been lucky to have been involved in the last two Silicon Valley Comic Con shows in San Jose, USA. For this we were asked to create life-size paper sculptures of different characters to display at the event, and again collaborated with Thomas Forsyth. The first year we made a life-size paper Iron Man model, which went down so well that we were asked back again last year to create another. This time we decided to push things even further, creating a life-size K-2SO with a moving head. This will be a hard one to top if we’re ever asked back! Take a look here.
Tell us about any collaborations you have been working on. As you can probably tell from my work highlights collaboration is a hugely important part of my work, and has always been. At university I was lucky to be surrounded by lots of great creatives and so was regularly teaming up with people to collaborate on projects and develop new ideas. I have very much carried on with this approach throughout my practice and I love how through collaboration ideas are often pushed to new places and possibilities, that you often might not reach by yourself.
Alongside the Lush and Comic Con projects I mentioned earlier a recent collaborative project I really enjoyed was a short film I worked on with photographer Stephen Lenthall. It was the first in a new series titled ‘Forms’ by sound design studio Mount Audio, who each month are asking a creative to make a one-minute film which they’ll then score. For our film ‘Forms I’ Stephen and I decided to further our exploration of space, light and shadow and how those effect form. We’d started playing with this concept in a previous personal series called ‘Shadow Spaces’ where we created a series of miniature white paper sets, using hard light to define the forms. It was then great through motion to be able to explore these spaces even further, introducing subtle movements and additional light sweeps to highlight intricate architectural details. Mount then took our film and did an amazing job of adding atmosphere through their sound design, which really helps to narrate the journey through these seemingly epic spaces.
‘The projects that scare you the most are the ones to take on’
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way? 1. Be true to yourself and what you want to achieve as an artist. Its easy to be led down a path when you get caught up in the world of commissions, so it’s important to take stock every now and agin to have a look at where your work is currently and where you’d like to take it.
2. As a follow on from the previous point I’ve learnt over the years the importance of personal work. It’s a great way of pushing your work in new directions and filling gaps in your portfolio if say there’s a certain area you want to explore. But it’s also just very good for the soul to be able to create something fully of your own choosing. I always try to have at least one personal project on the go alongside my commissioned work.
3. The projects that scare you the most are the ones to take on. It’s a sign that you are being pushed out of your comfort zone and I think that’s a really good thing, to make sure that your work doesn’t become stale. The Lush project I mentioned earlier was very much one of those, but by bringing in the right people and breaking the job down into simple steps we were able to make it work.
4. As I’ve already mentioned collaboration is a great way of pushing ideas into new places. Also if you are stuck for a solution there’s never any harm in asking for help from another creative who might be more skilled in that area. For example I often bring in photographers to collaborate on projects when things become too complex for me to handle by myself. That then allows me to focus purely on the image-making in the knowledge that the photography is in safe hands.
5. Reach out to people and make personal connections. Sometimes people are scared to reach out to clients and creatives they admire, but I’d always recommend people to go out and try to meet as many people as they can. Clients seem to appreciate your work even more when they can put a face to the names and you can then show them your passion behind the projects. Reaching out to creatives you admire is a nice way of finding out more about their work, and might possibly lead to internships or collaborations. It’s also a really nice way of building up a network, which is important in the freelance world to help keep you connected and to allow for support and guidance.