Tess Smith-Roberts is an illustrator in her final year at Kingston School of Art. Originally from Norwich, she uses bright, bold colour and simple compositions to tells stories, her characters never complete without two black dots for eyes, and a straight line for lips.
“I try to approach my work with humour, bold shapes, and a playful use of colour,” she tells us. “Everything is usually really bright with a stupid little smiley on it. Lately, I’m also really into adding stars to everything.” While she dips between digital and analogue methods of making, a strong foundation in printmaking guides much of Tess’ decisions, largely influencing her naive aesthetic. “I always like to have a physical object to hold rather than it being stuck on the screen,” she continues. “Also, every time I draw now, I use a limited colour palette, always considering how overlaying colours can affect each other, like you do when preparing a Riso or screen print.”
On what it is that excites her the most about her chosen medium, it’s the former method of printing that reigns supreme for Tess: “When you do a multi-coloured Riso print and it comes out perfectly aligned straight away! That shit is magical.”
Although clearly a creative with a genial approach to producing work, Tess tackles some more serious themes within her practice. In a recent graphic novel, Missed Connection, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Hamburg Book Prize, the illustrator explores the issue of loneliness with young people when they move to a new city, approaching the subject with subtly in an attempt to normalise the issue through narrative techniques. “The light-hearted illustrations in bold colours contrast the bleakness of the topic and the narrative’s sensitivity, yet also make it more relatable and easier to talk about,” she describes.
The project, despite its hand-drawn almost childlike aesthetic and colour palette, encapsulates the overwhelming sense of isolation that many experience when living in a new place. The authenticity with which Tess tells the story is in part the result of her own experience of studying and working abroad in Hamburg and Barcelona, as well as from the stories friends told her.
In collaboration with her friend and housemate Connie Noble, Tess also runs Desk Jockey, a Risograph-printed (of course) zine “by illustrators, for illustrators”. Issue one asked the question: “What the fuck is illustration?”, “a question I find myself asking every day,” Tess jokes. The project was the first time the pair had used a Risograph machine and, naturally, a few mishaps occurred. “Articles were cut off, it accidentally printed a lot smaller than anticipated (its smaller than A5)… we perfect bound it too so obviously some of the pages fell out…”
All’s well that ends well, however, as the duo are currently working on a second issue suitably themed around “mistakes”.
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