Since we last spoke to (now) London-based illustrator Tess Smith-Roberts, things have really kicked up a notch. She graduated from Kingston University, acquired an illustration agent, moved to London and now has her own studio space. “It’s really great having a separate space to do all my work in,” Tess tells us in wonderful disbelief, “I’m doing freelance work full time now too, which is crazy!” With an ever-present optimism and positivity, Tess remarks: “I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of my dream clients too, I feel like a right jammy dodger and I am so grateful to be doing what I’m doing!” It’s a personality that translates directly into her practice.
Still putting “stupid little smiley faces on everything,” Tess explains “my work mainly consists of big fat bold colours, funky shapes, and happy people,” producing playful and characterful work, “sometimes dancing, sometimes cooking, but always cheerful.” Fun is crucial to both Tess’ visual style and creative mindset, telling us “if I'm not having fun, then I’m not doing it right.” Also rife across her portfolio is fruit, checkered table cloths and happy scenes. “I once said that I like to draw parties I’ll never attend, and this is definitely still true, especially in the world’s current situation,” Tess tells us. Justifying her obsession with fruits due to their “simple shapes but bright, fun colours,” Tess had somewhat of a fruit-related spree, creating “a fruit scarf, a fruit vase, a fruit rug, fruit badges, fruit plates, a fruit tote bag, fruit prints, and a fruit T-shirt… maybe I should move onto vegetables next?” With a lot more spare time on her hands, recently Tess has become drawn to kitchens, telling us “I love cooking so much, and most of the time the kitchens are variations of my dream kitchen.”
Since her move to London, Tess has felt more confident, with a more direct focus on her editorial practice – “editorial work is so fast and fun, and it’s so great to have really varying briefs to create ideas from,” she remarks. Having worked with her dream clients, the likes of the New York Times and the New Yorker, Tess tells us: “It’s such a pinch myself moment... it just doesn’t feel real! It’s complete and utter madness.”
When discussing her motivations though, Tess remains unsure, telling us “the only thing I can do well is drawing so it’s the only thing I will do until I can’t do it anymore.” With this feeling deeply ingrained into her, the act of drawing becomes her response to any given situation: “If I ever don’t know what to do with myself, or if I’m bored, I will just draw something.” Questioning whether it was selfish to make work that she likes herself, Tess is her own worst critic. The result, however, is work that always feels original and new.
This acknowledgement of what she finds most fun led to recent success for Tess in the form of a Risograph publication in collaboration with Can Can Press. Tess explains: “[Can Can Press] said I could do anything I want, and at first, I was like, great!” Enjoying the freedom given in contrast to university briefs and editorial work, Tess later found it more difficult than originally thought, telling us “not having a structure or clear focus and suddenly having so much freedom… I was like oh shit… what the hell am I gonna do?” In the end, Tess took a lot of direction from classical “fruity still life paintings,” crafted by master painters the likes of Cezanne, Fantin Latour and Dupuis. The result is a six-colour Risograph book that radiates truly joyful and beautiful scenes. Tess’ command of character and colour forms work that makes you feel at ease, positive and optimistic – finding contentment in the colourful everyday. This is the product of having fun while drawing without thinking: “It was so relaxing and I think my most favourite project to date.”
“After this book, I carried on my obsession with fruit and still life paintings doing lots of drawings, and with my wonderful friend Zena,” Tess says. The pair have been collaborating on a project entitled Still Here Still Life in which they upload still life photo prompts weekly for people to draw. “I had a lot of fun making and photographing my own still life setups,” Tess tells us, “and we’ve also used other people’s photos for prompts too.” Harbouring a genuine sense of community, the project has been very successful, continuing to draw insightful responses across Instagram. “We also collaborated with Dizzy Ink, a Risograph press, and for the past couple of weeks, it has printed a drawing from each week to sell on its shop,” Tess adds. Although initially setting the project up in response to the lockdown, they now fully intend on continuing it afterwards – “I’m really excited to see where it goes!”
Now that the work has somewhat slowed down, so too has Tess. “I used to feel so much pressure from myself to be working on a commission every second of the day in the studio, and feeling weirdly guilty,” she tells us. Now appreciating how “dumb” that feeling is, she has started “really appreciating taking my time with projects, whether it’s for a client or just myself!” As well as her newfound appreciation for taking things slowly, Tess has also learned “how beneficial taking a break is, whether that’s to bake something, or to play Animal Crossing.”
Looking ahead, Tess hopes to soon be making more books, be it a cookbook, a children’s picture book or “maybe another graphic novel, this time about how shit dating in your 20s is,” adding “that would be fun, I have a lot of funny stories I could put into that.” Tess is also planning an exhibition after lockdown, revealing only that it will be (unsurprisingly) fruit-themed. “I’m thinking lots of fruit paintings, prints, my still life book, giant fruit sculptures, some fruit plates, fruit rugs… anything I can make into a fruit, I will!”
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.