Giving Your Right Brain a Regular Workout

Artist to Watch: Ben Sanders

In “Artist to Watch,” we choose a Redbubble artist who has signed up for the site within the last two months and shows incredible promise, skill, and overall awesomeness. We’re proud to present our first in this monthly series, illustrator Ben Sanders.

"I’m heavily influenced by commercial art from the mid-'40s to the mid-'60s. It’s fun with a hint of sophistication, like a monkey in a dinner suit."

Ben Sanders self-portrait

Ben Sanders may be a new kid on the Redbubble block (he only started his RB account about 6 weeks ago), but he is an old hand in the art and illustration business. He got his first paid gig at age 12 – only a year after he took up drawing! – and managed to avoid the usual indignities of teenage jobs through on-going paid art gigs. We managed to track the Australian artist down in Bolivia, where he is currently setting up a studio and volunteering for various worthwhile causes. Luckily for us, and for you, he managed to find some time from his perch 3,000 meters above sea level to share a few tidbits with us about his books, his style, and what his art would sound like if it was a music genre.

When did you first become interested in art and design?

My mum still says that out of our family I was the one that showed the least amount of “promise” creatively. It wasn’t until my dad gave me a visual diary at age eleven that I displayed some kind of artistic ability. I filled the pages with quirky animal drawings, which lead to my first paid illustration gig with a local publisher a year later. During that summer of 1987 I illustrated 32 stickers – things like elephants riding bicycles, walruses smoking pipes, apples with bites out of their bottoms – stuff that only a twelve year old would find amusing. Each summer holiday throughout secondary school I illustrated a new set of stickers. They were quite popular and the publisher found overseas markets for them, so it was nice to know my work was getting out there. It also meant that I didn’t need to get one of those summer jobs as a spotty-faced supermarket trolley-boy [Ed – for all you non-Aussies out there, he means the guys that have to collect up the shopping carts in supermarket parking lots].

Did you go to art school to develop your skills?

I delayed going to university to study design. Study didn’t seem necessary to me as I was already working in the industry. I eventually saw the value and enrolled when I was 25. University widened my options considerably and gave me a new perspective on art and design. My career quickly took off in the direction of advertising soon after graduation.

Ben Sanders with his book, “I’ve an Uncle Ivan”

I believe you’ve written two children’s books and that some of the art in your Redbubble store is based on characters from these books. Can you tell us a little about the books and that process? What comes first for you – the story, or an illustration/character you then want to write about?

Yes, my first book “I’ve an Uncle Ivan” was released in 2013 and my career has changed considerably since then. And now with a second book, “I Could Wear That Hat!,” on the shelves I’m starting to think that writing kids books is a good career move. I have loads of ideas, it’s just getting the stories into a manuscript that will blow the socks and sandals off the publishers that’s the challenge.

As far as process goes, the story comes first for me. The characters are then tailor-made to tell the story. The tone of the tale is what determines the style and look of the characters. Last comes the composition of the pages and structure of how best to let the story unfold. In the case of “I’ve an Uncle Ivan” the words simply introduce the characters. There is no story in the words at all. The story is all in the pictures, so it is quite different to read than most children’s picture books.

I thought it would be nice to have some of the characters from my books come alive outside the pages. So now they are available as prints and tote bags on Redbubble.

"In the Town Square" by Ben Sanders

Your style gives a nod to mid-century advertising art, how did this genre influence the development of your style?

Yes I’m heavily influenced by commercial art from the mid-’40s to the mid-’60s. It’s fun with a hint of sophistication, like a monkey in a dinner suit. I don’t think art from that era takes itself too seriously, so it suits my personality. Early in my career I wasn’t very deliberate about my style, now I am more conscious of creating illustrations that take people back to a certain time period.

I love the color palette you use throughout your portfolio, all those greens and pinks and oranges seem to jump right out at the viewer, like little pieces of candy you’re irresistibly drawn to and want to gobble up. What thought goes into your palette selections? Have your palette choices always remained consistent?

The muted tones and weathered textures have been a part of my work for quite a few years now. Recently, I’ve brightened things up a bit when illustrating for kids. My general method is to pick only two or three colours for a scheme. Reducing the palette creates a challenge, but I think the results are better and helps the illustration to leap off the page a little more. I tend to select oranges, plums, and limes because they’re not as commonly used by other illustrators. Gives it a citrusy taste too.

You’re from Australia but are currently in Bolivia. Where are you off to next? What are you doing on your global travels?

I’m planning to be in Bolivia for a while. It’s business as usual here, but for the first time I’m volunteering my time as well. There are a few very worthwhile projects that I’m helping out with over here – including illustrating for a children’s educational curriculum and helping out with the Annual Reading Festival in Sucre. I’m passionate about social issues and literacy for kids, so South America is the perfect place to volunteer.

I’ve been to about 30 countries now, but this is the first time I have set up a proper studio outside Australia. It’s great to have a change of scenery. In this case the backdrop is the rarified air of the Andes Mountains. I’m 3,000 metres above sea level here, rich with ancient Incan culture, so that’s going to have some kind of influence on my illustration work.

Some of your work reminds me of old school jazz record covers. I picture someone sitting in a comfy old recliner, scotch in hand, as the record turns and the trumpets soar. If your art was a music genre what would it be? And more importantly what would you be drinking while you listen to it?

Ah yes, I love old jazz records, especially those illustrated by the likes of Jim Flora. Maybe a Martini is the appropriate drink for those? Some of my other work is a little more “Lemonade” though. But probably the home-made kind, in jugs rather than the plastic bottled variety. Maybe my work will be more like a Cuban Rhumba in the near future, who knows?

Massive thanks to Ben for sharing his work, art, and words with us, and for being our first “Artist To Watch.” Head over to his portfolio to check out more of his work, and be sure to leave him a comment below.

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