The characters created by UK-based illustrator TonyRiff are pulled from non-existent cartoons full of madcap adventure and inspired insanity. There’s a wild spirit to Riff’s designs, they’re full of hyperactive smiles and moon-eyed laughter. He has an incredibly cohesive style – no matter how different his designs are from each other, they speak the same language.
Riff is an artist who continually throws his work out there. Friendly and visible, he brings to life a wonderfully playful and vivid world of ghost cowboys, diamond thieves, and collegiate werewolves.
Tony’s illustrations, no matter how impromptu, are backed by his strong sense of composition and color. If you have a minute (one minute and thirty-two seconds to be exact) watch this video of Tony cranking out a quick drawing. It’s a thirty-minute job condensed down into seconds and worth the time to watch:
Chris Jalufka: Your style has a wonderful sense of fun to it. There’s an intelligent whimsy to designs like “Lavalumps” and “40 Thieves,” and I can see “Junkyard Gin” becoming something that could absolutely take off. You’ve created designs for tee shirts for clients like Gap, Threadless, and Exhibit Kids and as much as your style has kid appeal, it’s not too child-like that adults wouldn’t wear it. When starting out on a design do you have an audience in mind? Kids? Parents? College students?
TonyRiff: Thanks! Unless I’m making a design specifically for kids I tend not to over think things too much in terms of targeting a specific audience. Right now I just focus on doing stuff that appeals to me, so maybe as I get older the subject matter will shift into something else.
I always try to keep a clear head and just follow my gut in terms of what ideas I think would appeal to kids and which ones are more suitable for adults.
Chris: You’ve created an amazing stable of characters – “Abominable Broham,” the wizard from “all this could be yours,” and my absolute favorite – the ghost cowboy of “Rhinestone.” There’s a zany darkness to each of them, like characters from a cartoon. Is narrative work something that you’d like to do? Comic book or animation?
TonyRiff: Animation has always been a big source of inspiration, as it really helped me focus on making my characters as expressive as possible; I love the challenge of bringing personality to a static image.
Although there was a time where I wanted to do animation (I actually made a traditional frame by frame animation for a college project and it almost drove me to insanity), I don’t think I really have the patience for it!
Once I’ve created a character I tend to just move on to the next one, so it would be hard to focus on just one for an extended amount of time.
Chris: Your catalog of work shows quite a bit of live events and murals, creative projects that are different from sitting at home alone with pen and paper. Is your process different when you start a mural as opposed to a T-shirt design? How do you approach the huge scale of a mural versus the relatively small-scale canvas of a tee shirt?
TonyRiff: I’ve been sitting at home alone with a pen and paper a lot longer than doing large-scale work that’s for sure! It’s a pretty interesting transition, sometimes it feels like I’m learning to draw again, which can be frustrating yet humbling, as it makes me less complacent in general. In terms of the process they both always start with rough sketches, the only difference is that my rough sketches for large-scale work is a lot looser and less precise. I find it harder to get a large scale drawing to look exactly like the initial concept sketch (unless you’ve been doing large scale work for a long time) so I try not to get too precious over getting a mural too look exactly the same as the initial small version.
Chris: Your mural work has fantastic line quality – they’re so clean and drawn with such purpose. For something like your “Modern Day Warrior” design, is that 100% hand drawn? Is it pencils to pen, or is it colored or cleaned up digitally?
TonyRiff: “Modern Day Warrior” started out as a pencil sketch, which I then scanned into Photoshop and drew over using my Wacom (digital tablet).
I tend to use this approach when it comes to making shirt designs, but I still do a lot of hand drawn straight to the page drawing, as I still prefer that over glaring at a computer screen for hours on end.
Chris: With having spent time creating designs for T-shirts and murals, have you ever made a design specifically for items in your Redbubble store? Would you approach the design of a pillow or a sticker differently knowing the end product? Do some drawings work best on aT-shirt?
TonyRiff: It really depends on the piece, for example when I first made “Lavalumps” I made that purely as an art print, but then I realized that it looked pretty nice as a pillow / iPhone cover, etc. So I tend to just make stuff first, and then figure out what it would actually look good on after it’s all done and dusted.
As a default I think of most of my work as art prints these days, I’m slowing down a bit on making stuff specifically for T-shirts.
Chris: As an illustrator you are quite prolific. Going through your Tumblr, Flickr, and Behance pages shows a mountain of amazing art. Are you drawing daily? Do you set aside time to draw or is more about doing it in your free time?
TonyRiff: I try to draw everyday. Even if its just absent minded doodling in my sketchbook, I still enjoy it, so it never really feels like a chore when I’m sketching for myself, I tend to draw more at night for some reason, and most of my ideas for t-shirts / prints seem to pop into my head just as I’m about to fall sleep.
Chris: As a freelance illustrator, how much of your time spent creating art is for work? Is art your full-time gig?
TonyRiff: I’m freelancing right now, so it’s very unpredictable at the moment, you can go for a long time without getting any work, especially if you’re not a big name in the illustration industry.
I always try to use any free time productively, whether that’s working on promoting myself more, or just creating more personal work that can be sold at some point, it’s tough but I really can’t see myself doing anything else at this point.
Chris: Your drawing style is incredibly consistent throughout all of your pieces – your voice comes across. It’s distinct. Did you have any schooling or was it all self taught? Did you struggle with various styles until you landed on what it is you do?
TonyRiff: It was all self taught, as a kid I would just copy all the cartoon characters I’d see on the telly, and then eventually I started to try and make my own characters.
I don’t feel as if it was a struggle to get to the drawing style I have now though, as it was a very organic process, it’s all just a mish-mash of things I’ve seen and experienced over the years.
Chris: You’ve only been on Redbubble for a few months and your work immediately popped out at me. Did you start the store with any goals in mind? Any set path for selling your work?
TonyRiff: Like most things I do it was pretty impulsive, I just stumbled across the site one day, and the next thing I know I’m uploading stuff to the shop!
I’m just taking it one step at time, I don’t really expect to sell an awful lot of stuff, but it’s nice to think of my work being on someone’s wall somewhere across the globe.