When French illustrator McBess (aka Matthieu Bessudo) started drawing it was a way to combat his boredom from the 3D computer-based work he was doing at the time. “I would draw on paper and it became more interesting than the computer, so I kept drawing instead of doing my actual work,” he tells me after his Offset talk a couple weeks ago in Shoreditch. “Eventually I decided I wanted to leave but turns out they wanted to fire me anyway!”
McBess first rose to fame following his involvement in Sigg Jones, a short 3D animated film he made in 2006 as part of his final project at multimedia school SupInfoCom in Arles. After graduating the illustrator moved to London to work on freelance projects, but kept working away on a series of illustrations that eventually gave way to the work he creates today.
McBess’ monochromatic style is what set him apart when first starting out. Heavily influenced by mid-century cartoonists like Max Fleischer mixed with contemporary shapes and a mischievous tone, his work is detailed with long-limbed characters devoid of defined wrists and ankles. “My style started as an unconscious thing. Like everybody when I first started drawing, I was just ripping off people whose work I really liked,” he explains. “It’s like a bad recipe where everything is off. But then you start to concentrate and – this is going so poetic which I fucking hate – but you have to try and put yourself back into the shoes of your six-year-old self,” he says. “Where nothing else mattered and you could be drawn to a piece of plastic or a symbol and make a whole world out of that.”
Working on Photoshop more often than pen and paper now – “The smooth lines and curves are much nicer than on Illustrator. I hate Illustrator, it’s so cold.” – McBess’ work is focused around three main themes; girls, food and music. “Food is really fun to draw because it never takes the same shape,” he explains. “If you type ‘ribeye’ into Google you’re not going to get the same piece of steak in each image. I try not to look at references when I draw, I like to do it like kids do where you have a certain way of thinking about an object.
“I’m actually really bad at drawing realistic things, like I can’t draw buildings. If I was to start drawing now it would be horrendous. I have to construct my illustrations, lay bases and foundations. It would be boring if I just drew from life.”
McBess: Portait Sliced
McBess feels it’s his attitude towards his work that has helped his success, in that he’s never seen his illustrations as a viable career. “It’s helped that I’ve never consciously tried to make my illustrations into anything, it’s hard but I try to do it for myself,” he says. “I try to think of illustration like photography, you capture a moment and people interpret it how they want to.”
Creativity and freedom is key to McBess’ practise: “Every time there’s less imagination or creativity to what I’m doing I fall back into doing gimmicks or trying to recreate stuff I’ve done before. I can instantly tell it’s not as successful as a result.” Over the years the illustrator has taken on many commercial jobs for brands and organisations like Converse, Jack Daniels and even Transport for London, but it doesn’t always sit well with him. “Every time I do a job, I never feel good about selling illustration for money,” he says. “I have to compromise all the time but it depends on your definition of compromise of course. Personally I feel like I compromise every time I receive the smallest piece of feedback to change something,” he explains. “I don’t mean to sound egocentric, but every time I follow the advice of someone else, even if they are right, I feel like I can’t take the credit for that illustration. I do it because I like getting paid, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it.”
But as the years have passed McBess has become savvier to the demands of a client or agency. “You have to set up boundaries of what you’re willing and happy to do,” he says. “Many times I’ve not budged, for instance I’ve lost count the amount of times I’ve been asked to do something in colour that wasn’t in the original brief,” he says. But the illustrator feels it’s imperative to try and stay true to your style: “All the commercial work I get is commissioned from someone seeing my personal work. Agencies never come to you and reference a commercial project.”
It’s rare to find someone so open about the realities of working for other people and making money from illustration. But despite the challenges, the illustrator is happy to admit that he’s had an easier ride compared to some of his peers: “I’m really lucky because people picked up on my illustrations and they’ve given me money to keep doing them, which has helped me do the other things I like. Maybe in five years when I have no money it’ll be a different story.
"A high point has been people coming up to me and telling me that I was the reason they started drawing"McBess
“While I live really well from illustration now, how long is it going to last? It’s always a question of trends. For the last two years illustration has been more about simple, naive styles and I can definitely see myself as not being as trendy as I was. But it doesn’t matter, I’m still going to carry on. That’s why I don’t care about making money out of it because if money were an issue I’d have to nudge my work in certain directions to stay on trend.”
With this in mind, McBess is blunt in his advice to other aspiring illustrators. “I wouldn’t recommend trying to make it in illustration because it doesn’t pay that much. People don’t like paying a lot for drawings, even though they should. I sell my name basically, and like I said sometimes you have to compromise too much,” he explains. “It’s also quite hard to create illustrations for anyone but yourself. If you’re doing a job and people are asking you for work you have to force an idea and do it on demand.”
With his band The Dead Pirates, his work with The Dudes Factory and his continuing flurry of illustrations McBess has on the go, each strand to his creative bow is just as important as the other. “I don’t like hobbies. I don’t see the point of them. There are things that I want to do so I make it happen,” he says. “I’ve been playing with the band for four years now and it’s been largely unsuccessful [laughs], but fuck it I’ll just spend more time on it.”
Investing so much time into everything he does leads to McBess often featuring in his illustrations. “Maybe it’s that ego again. I guess it’s similar to people taking selfies,” he says. “I don’t think the audience really like it when people do that, but what I draw is distantly what I aspire to be. So most of the time I draw myself playing instruments and eating food.” While he remains aloof about illustration and the money-making side of it, he is thankful of the opportunities he’s been given. “It’s great when people come up to me with the tattoos that I’ve designed plastered on themselves. I’ve literally made a mark on them,” he says. “The high point though has been people coming up to me and telling me that I was the reason they started drawing, nothing beats that.”