"I want to go on to do bigger and better things. I don't want my highlight to already have happened." Deputy art editor Luke O'Neill meets a true visionary of modern illustration.
CA: Let's start by talking about your recent solo exhibition, Poster Girls. This style of work is quite different to what people might expect from you - can you tell us a little about how this new approach came about?
JG: I think it started when I was doing the swimwear line. We didn't have any money and we had to shoot one of the collections. I'd got interested in photography and bought a reasonable camera, and so I thought, 'Okay, I'll have a go at shooting the line] myself,' and did. It was the first time I'd used flash photography and proper lighting and all that stuff - and it worked; it turned out really well and I just got more and more into photography. I wanted to try and sort out a way of getting it into my work.
I kept shooting things and gradually got better at retouching. I've always really loved Allen Jones and his Pirelli calendar - he would airbrush over a photograph so that half of it would kind of be his own painting and the other half would be the photo. I was really inspired by that difference between reality and fantasy. I was also very interested in texture - the whole fetish and latex thing. It's not like I'm into that scene, but I think it looks amazing. The way it looks when you've got a female body, or any body, wrapped in latex! It makes everything look super hyper-real. So I wanted to get a bit of that feel into the work, even if it wasn't obviously a person standing there in latex.
CA: Plagiarism is something you've been quite vocal about, in particular people ripping off or imitating your own illustrations. How does this affect the way you work? Are you conscious of it?
JG: It was interesting when I was commissioned by Muse and started working with smoke, and got quite a high-profile campaign out of that. Straight away you're getting students and designers - but mainly students - saying, 'I really like that Muse image, how did you do that?' Sometimes I think they presume there's some sort of 3D rendering program that has a button you can press that'll make a smoke effect - you know, you scan in a picture of a horse and press a button and some sort of smoke happens.
I can only assume that they ask that because they're interested in doing work like that. When people email me, I'm just very brief and say it's photography of smoke and a lot of knowledge of Photoshop and a bit of drawing and leave it at that. That means that they have to work it out for themselves.
CA: You've been working as a professional illustrator for a number of years, but your work really came to prominence after being featured in The Face magazine. What was it like working under the direction of such an influential figure as Graham Rounthwaite?
JG: He was one of the best art directors I've ever worked with - he completely understood illustration, because he straddled those two worlds. Graham influenced me, made me realise that illustration could be a cool medium and it could get the level of respect that people were affording photographers at the time. The way The Face was written as well, it was very much about trends; it didn't want to explain too much, it would just say, 'We think this is really cool'. It wouldn't want to go into the whole reason why too much. Graham would phone and just say, 'Yeah, this thing is going to be really cool this year,' or, 'This page is all about pirates or about zombies, so do us a really cool image to do with pirates.'
CA: Do you think illustration's renaissance is set to last?
JG: Someone said to me the other day that illustrators do well out of a recession - it might help us if advertising agencies are looking to spend less money. Obviously, big budget photoshoots cost loads of money, and it's always cheaper to change the ad campaign and go for a more ideas-led illustration. That might help it last. I'd like to think it will.
But I think the way the world is, everything goes in fads and it will eventually go in a cycle - that's just the way things work. I've never seen anything that lasted forever. I might be wrong and people might take offence at this idea, but I kind of get a bit tired at the sheer number of illustration books getting churned out. Every other week there's another illustration this or illustration that, or fashion illustration, music illustration... I think it over-saturates [the industry] and it will make people bored of it.
CA: In terms of your own personal influences, are there any artists, contemporary or otherwise, that you really admire and take inspiration from?
JG: At the moment one of my favourite artists is a guy called Richard Coleman. I think he's based in San Francisco or LA. His work is many miles away from what I do - it inspires me but it doesn't feed my work. I also like Kustaa Saksi - all his intricate patterny things. Mat Maitland has influenced me to a degree. He's a designer but, a bit like I championed vector art in the days of The Face, I think he's done the same thing for collage.
CA: Now you're an illustration lecturer at the University of Brighton. Has working with budding young creatives had any influence on your own work?
JG: Yeah, I think it does. I think it's a two-way thing. You help push their ideas and they'll make interesting discoveries and they re-inspire you. I think you have to be really careful as an artist, because sometimes I think - and I've never done this - but sometimes someone has such a brilliant idea that you think, 'God I could make loads of money out of that,' but that would be against all my ethics and against any of the plagiarism things I've talked about. But I could see why that might be tempting to some people, because [the students] do come up with some gems sometimes.
CA: You make a clear distinction between your commissioned/commercial work and the work you create for pleasure. Why is this?
JG: Because the work I create for pleasure is not commercial. It's as simple as that, really. Aside from a very edgy music campaign, you couldn't really use it. And actually, where I earn my money is advertising, and advertising, on the whole, can't [be allowed to] offend anyone and it has to appeal to a very broad range of people, so that's why there's a difference. I can't do the work I want to do because no one would use it for advertising. So I don't put any of that on my website. It stays on the agency site.
CA: What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
JG: I don't think the highlight has happened yet. I mean, I want to go on to do bigger and better things and I don't want my highlight to already have happened.