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Artist profile on Southampton based illustrator Jonny Hannah

PUBLISHED: 11:52 13 May 2014 | UPDATED: 11:52 13 May 2014

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With a good sense of humour, Southampton based illustrator Jonny Hannah has utilised a tangible link between comics, broadsheets and one of our most well known publishers to establish a rewarding career

If anyone had asked me first thing this morning to pinpoint a common denominator between those comic classics The Beano and The Dandy, the timelessly conservative Daily Telegraph and the internationally recognised brand Penguin Books, I would surely have struggled. True, they are all published works. And each is designed, in some measure, to entertain. Yet the odds of my determining a more substantial connection would have remained unlikely.

But that was before I’d spent several hours interviewing Jonny Hannah, a thriving illustrator, commercial designer and screen printer. We haven’t long been in conversation when I discover the link between his childhood interests and a career that has embraced an envious list of top notch clients.

“It’s slightly ridiculous but comics have played a massive part in my life,” the Southampton based artist muses. “Mom and dad were keen that my sisters and I all did something in life that gave us fulfilment. They knew I could draw and were very encouraging; so were my teachers.”

Given his obvious talent and resulting achievements, his first encounter with Art College is somewhat surprising. To be specific, he was kicked off a course. Did such a setback deter him?

“I failed because I was too young, too immature and too stupid. It was the wrong time and the wrong place for me.”

I’m gripped by such honesty. Yet just three years later, Jonny recognised the need to return to education and enrolled on a Graphic Design course at Liverpool School of Art, which was an infinitely more positive experience.

“I had three very happy and hard working years there. It was a key time for me. Then they suggested I did an MA at the Royal College of Art. I didn’t believe I’d get in but I applied and by a miracle was offered a place. I studied Illustration and this laid the foundations of my career.”

This likeable artist, who is as grounded as he is successful, understood the importance of being based in London where he rightly anticipated sourcing the bulk of his work. Still, he insists that many of his fellow students were more professional than he’d expected.

“At Liverpool we drew pictures and had a laugh. But at RCA I felt like an amateur. Then Jonathan Hodgson, an animator from Liverpool, got in touch and we worked on a film together: The Man with the Beautiful Eyes.”

Jonny mentions this adaption of Charles Bukowski’s poem if not in a dismissive tone then certainly with a degree of humility. Yet the five minute film, which took a year and a half to make, was commissioned by Channel 4 and went on to achieve success at the BAFTAs.

Meanwhile - and crucially - Jonny also appreciated the significance of building a portfolio as well as developing relationships. He introduced himself to Penguin HQ and was given a book cover commission. A visit to the Daily Telegraph offices was subsequently followed by a commission to design the front page of their book section. From there, of course, his career blossomed. Not that this is an artist who takes success for granted, as he advises: “You should never get too complacent about who you are. As an illustrator I’m always promoting myself. The idea of standing still doesn’t appeal to me. I have to keep trying new things.”

So he’s a risk taker?

“The more I challenge myself, the better. You can’t be scared; it’s important to take chances, to continue to develop and grow.”

As well as illustration work (“Book covers are just mini posters”), designs for commercial clients and screen printing, Jonny is also Course Leader for Illustration at Southampton Solent University where he teaches three and a half days a week. With so many professional demands to juggle, I presume he must be both organised and focused?

“Well, I haven’t time to procrastinate and deadlines are a good pressure. Although my schedule at home is flexible, and sometimes I work odd hours, having two children means working late at night isn’t so good these days.”

But he does make sure weekends are devoted to his family. Trips to the beach or the New Forest are popular destinations, whilst he is also refurbishing the house they bought last year.

We move on to discuss the process of his work in more detail and I’m taken aback by Jonny’s admission to being, “a bit colour blind.” Hard to believe given the vivid tones evident in much of his work.

“My colours are bold and brash,” he announces. “When I’m doing a screen printing I always try and use different colours so as not to repeat myself too much. I just squeeze the paint straight from the tubes and mix it up.”

He goes on to describe his method: “Screen printing begins with a drawing onto a transparent surface; it could be with Indian ink or acrylic paint. This is then exposed onto a screen and coated with a special emulsion.”

The procedure involves using one colour at a time, generally starting with the lightest. No two prints are the same and he’s constantly improvising.

“There’s a depth to what you can do. I screen print in a factory style, often doing 50 copies at a time. It’s quite a commercial thing making it available and affordable.”

He explains, too, how his initial idea of a screen print often turns out differently. As a result, he is denied an element of control though this provides an excitement, that something new is about to happen.

The breadth of this artist’s skills means that personal work often overlaps with commercial projects. For instance, he has recently been commissioned to provide illustrations for a book about ukuleles (“I play one myself”). He has several exhibitions scheduled for this year, including one at Portsmouth Guildhall during the summer, and a book which he describes as, “An overview of my work with a story attached to it: Greetings from Darktown.” Darktown is his own imaginary place, a fantasy world, and the book is due to be published in September.

He obviously relishes new challenges and the opportunity they provide to learn. “My first love is commercial illustration. I’m really half way between an illustrator and graphic designer and I love it when the phone rings and I’m given a commission.”

After 20 years, he admits there are no hard and fast guarantees. It is also clear he is steeped in the world of pop culture, “Reinventing the past for a modern audience and always looking for something to uncover.”

In a society in which a degree of selfishness not only accompanies, but is deemed to be an integral part of success, Jonny Hannah is a refreshing antidote. That he is determined is in no doubt. His talents, too, not to mention his willingness to take chances, are key ingredients in the accomplishments he has generated. Yet, more importantly, here is an artist devoid of ego who has graciously and with good humour utilised a tangible link between comics, broadsheets and one of our most well known publishers to create a rewarding career.

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