Another autumn, another troop of students trudging back to their studies. But as London Graphic Centre’s annual billboard commissions prove, if you go to art school, the return isn’t the dreaded shiny shoes, new pencil case furore of Year 9, it’s a rather celebratory thing.
This year’s billboard has been illustrated by Clay Hickson, who’s turned his surreal style towards rendering art and design tools into a bonkers outer space landscape. It feels fun fresh, perhaps a reflection of Clay’s on memories of back-to-school time. “Returning to school was always an exciting time for me,” says Clay. “I went to art school so going back meant getting access to all the print studios that had been closed for the summer. I would usually be ready with a sketchbook full of ideas so I could hit the ground running as soon as classes started.”
Our teacher’s pet set about making the work with a series of quick pencil sketches to lay out ideas, before fine tuning the composition “with lots of erasing and cutting and pasting” before scanning in his work and developing it in Photoshop. “This is usually the longest part of process because it’s so easy to obsess over every line when you work digitally. There’s a lot of drawing and undoing and drawing and undoing… All the while I continue moving things around and tightening up the composition.”
“Next I start to add shadows, highlights and textures. This is always my favourite part because it’s when the image starts to really come alive. All the flat objects enter a new dimension and begin to occupy the space. You start to feel like you’re creating an actual world.”
This little world has been blown up to a rather large scale for the billboard – four metres by three to be exact. “Working at such a large scale was a totally new experience for me. Mostly, I just didn’t want it to be boring,” says Clay. “I wanted to make sure that it would have an impact in the space and be exciting for passers-by, so I tried to cram a lot of action into the image. With the help of some amazing art direction from Jamie McIntyre, we decided to make everything maximum velocity and capture the excitement of returning to school…It puts you on high alert knowing that every mistake is going to magnified several times and put up on display. So there was a lot of going back in and cleaning things up.”
Clay’s multifarious reference points may seem gloriously dream-like and strange, but Clay says his illustrations come from relatively straightforward starting blocks. “Obviously, the internet is a big source for ideas. I also spend half of my time working in an art and architecture library which is an endless supply of inspiration. I absorb a lot of different kinds of imagery while I’m there and a lot of it comes out when I sit down to draw.
”I don’t usually start with a specific concept when I’m making my own work. It usually just grows out of lots of little bits and pieces of images and ideas. That fractured approach is probably where the surreal feeling comes from. I just draw whatever’s on my mind and just see where it leads. I’ve got a lot of bad art in me and the sooner I get it out, the sooner I can get to the good stuff (hopefully).”
About the Author
Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.