A fireside chat with This Northern Boy

What is a fireside chat? Firstly, there’s no fireside: Health and safety gone mad. I’ve been wanting to write about the artists on Ellipress for a long time. So this will be a series of conversations about their work and lives.

I’ve known Rob aka This Northern Boy for a few years now. We met on Twitter and we’ve worked together at an agency in Twickenham, near to where he lives in Hampton Wick. Rob is the reason Ellipress exists. He was, quite frankly, too lazy to build an online shop so I built it for him.


Some art prints by This Northern Boy

Rob has just published his first Kickstarter-funded book: Weird Field World. The book is about a series of strange spaceships built by mankind using a series of instructions sent by an unknown alien race. Weird Field World is crammed with illustrations, technical drawings, maps and short stories.

It’s been, unsurprisingly, a runaway success and hundreds of copies are winging their way around the world. I caught up with him for a chat.

Okay, so this is my idea for this new section on the site I'm calling a fireside chat. I want the questions to be a bit like what you get in Sunday magazines: day in the life or whatever. I haven't really planned out yet so you're kind of my guinea pig…

The questions from the Sunday Telegraph? Am I going to be asked about my first appearance on stage, or when did you realise you want to be a thespian?

Yes. How did you handle the nude scenes in Sense and Sensibility? I didn't want to ask those usual questions that get asked, “what pencil do you use?”. I just want to talk about your work and a bit about the actual art of illustration. If that's okay?

Knock yourself out.

Do you call yourself an artist or an illustrator?

Illustrator definitely. I had a very brief period, calling myself an artist at about the age of 17 and a half. It only lasted about three weeks. I painted a huge canvas that looked like some sort of nightmarish revision of York Minster. It was on a piece of wood about eight feet tall. I was in the studio in York Art College covered in paint. I think I was inspired by one of my college classmates, who had the tendency to paint things with their top off.

Being an artist didn't last long. I am very much in illustrator. I like drawing pictures of things that could be from a story. Even if they are viewed on their own, they don't tell a story. In my head, it's always something that’s going on.

Luis Mendo, a Spanish illustrator, calls himself a drawer, rather than an illustrator. I didn't want to get into semantics, obviously, but I was wondering if you think that distinction matters? Or is illustration more submissive, where you're drawing for somebody else, whereas being an artist or a drawer, which is a terrible word by the way, you’re doing it for yourself.

For me, I'd probably say that I aspire to be an illustrator. And when I fail, I'm a drawer. You know, if I just end up drawing a picture, rather than producing an illustration, I feel like I've failed.

I feel like that a lot. Because a lot of time I just draw a thing. And when it lacks context, I think it's lessened. I think to an extent, if you're an illustrator, you are so slave to a story, whether it's yours or someone else’s.

Do you create your worlds in your head and then create the drawing? Or do you find that you have to put it down on paper to make it real?

I think they kind of go hand-in-hand, one isn’t subservient to the other. I can’t draw without having a story developed in my head, and I don't think I can write something without seeing it visually. So they are very much connected.

When you call yourself an illustrator, it's bestowing a professional title on your head. Whereas if you just say you like drawing there's less pressure. I think if you say you're an illustrator, there's a sort of professional standard that you feel you have to live up to, whether that's in the quality of your work, or the quality of the storytelling in the work.

And how do you think we can get illustrators to feel more professional about their roles in terms of blurring that boundary between amateur and professional. There’s a lot of illustrators who aren't making any money or can’t make a career out of it.

I think it's a blurry line, because there's an awful lot of people who were really good at what they do (and making some kind of a living from it) who struggle to see themselves as professional, or perhaps if they've got another job on the side as well.

I think social media stokes both fires. It's really easy to get disheartened in your art, even if you're producing good work and you're selling it. I think a lot of people don't realise how long it takes to kind of develop an audience and how long it takes to develop your own style.

There was the traditional way of going into illustration where you would be represented by an agency or an agent. And it's those relationships that really built your career. But now it's very easy to bypass that entire level of experience. So do you think the traditional way of becoming an illustrator is dying off?

I have no experience of it at all. I've never had an agent or agency represent me. Maybe that's because my work is genre work and I think it’s less important for that.

But I do know a lot of illustrators on social media who who've gone down the traditional route, they've got an agent who gets them work. They are nearly all editorial illustrators, or fashion or book cover designers. I do wonder if the illustration agency thing has just shrunk to a much smaller list of outcomes.

There's an illustrator called John Vernon Lord, and he said that to be a successful illustrator, you've just got to draw everything. And you've got to be able to fit into whatever the client is telling you. I'm not sure that's a philosophy that applies today. Because I would say that the clients go to agencies, and they pick a style that they want from that illustrator, rather than strolling up to the in-house illustrator, and saying “can you draw a banana?”

He's right, to an extent, in that an illustrator should be able to draw most things, particularly if you're editorial, but you're right completely in that clients will just pick a style.

So if you know if your portfolio is people or coffee shops, then you're not really going to get asked to draw Hannibal crossing the Alps on an elephant.

You're defined by your last job, I guess.

Yeah. The flip side of that, for me is that, you know, I draw spaceships and I just get asked to draw spaceships.

Draw within their own narrative? So do you think that's the future of illustration? Or do you think the two will exist side-by-side forever?

I'm sure there'll be scope for both. I think one of the reasons that more and more illustrators are producing their own IP, I guess you'd call it, is because you can. Because there's probably a market for it.

30 years ago there was less scope to produce your own work or your own worlds. I think it would have been harder to market that without having an author's name attached or something like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars attached. But now I think illustrators themselves have followers and fans. People who appreciate their work for what it is regardless of what IP they're drawing for, which allows artists to create their own stuff, and they are not going to lose that audience.

Let's talk about the work that you've been doing recently. You've been doing this Weird Field World Kickstarter project which was an enormous success, wasn't it?

The campaign met its target in 36 minutes, and ended up raising £32,000 from 900 backers: 830 books sold just through Kickstarter.

Weird Field World Kickstarter campaign

You've never done this before – so how was the experience?

I guess I had a head start in producing the book because I'd been working on it as a little sideline, doodling these little weird field ships and writing bits of story, and then I decided to put that into a Patreon account.

So for a year and a half, I'd been writing and drawing. I'd developed a bunch of content. So when it came to producing the book, I guess I was 80% there with the content. So producing the book was reasonably simple.

The process of Kickstarter, I found brilliant. It's an amazing platform. I found it really easy to use. It’s brilliant at getting updates out there. I think it surprised me that a lot of people found the book just through Kickstarter. So I wasn't just relying on my following on social media or word of mouth. Well, maybe it was word of mouth. But, you know…

You had a fixed perception of your audience and then suddenly you're outside that world?

Yeah absolutely. I guess I'm seeing that now the books out and people are posting pictures of it. It's reaching more and more people and they're asking about it. And I'm getting more followers.

So followers are growing again, and you’ve had good feedback?

Yes. It's all been good so far. I think the nicest comments really have come from those artists that I admire. Some concept artists are saying really nice things about it. So it's been really nice to get it out there. I've had it in my head for three or four years now, on and off, so the fact that it’s out there in people's homes is lovely.

And what do you think it is about the Weird Field World that captured people's imagination?

It's just the spaceships, isn't it? Because no one who bought the book really had any clue about the backstory, apart from a few Patreon backers. Although I've mentioned it on Twitter and stuff, not many people know much about it. So I think it’s reached a new audience just because it’s full of colourful spaceships.

I’ve had some weird comparisons. People have said, Oh, you can tell you’re a Calvin and Hobbes fan from that, I get that a lot. I don't know what it is they see in the works that makes them think Calvin and Hobbes. It is one of the weirdest comparisons I get.

Your work is quite different. It's not trying to be too technical. It's not trying to be the Chris Foss visual style of staring into the unknown. It's much more, like you say, about the moment and about a little snippet of time in a story.

A lot of the a lot of the reasons for why my drawings look like they look like it's because I'm terrible at kind of trying to make 3D drawings or perspective.

I don't think that's true. I don't think you're shying from 3D. I just think you don’t need to do it.

I guess the thing is I like the way the drawings look as well.

That's a start, isn't it?

Yeah, it is!

So if you did another story that was based on other types of space flight – your mining story or whatever, you'd get the same response?

I think it's purely a visual thing. I hope that anything else I produce outside of the Weird Field World, because it's my style and it's going to have a certain look about it would would attract an audience But I don't think it was the story. Hopefully the story's a pleasant surprise for people.

I love the stories, I can't wait to see where Weird Field World goes, or if you know if it is going to go anywhere. Any clue as to what’s going to happen?

Definitely Volume Two. But not for couple of years. I think I'll take some time and build the story up.

On your Patreon page?

I think so. I'm going whittle Patreon down. I have too many levels of rewards. And it's a bit too much like hard work!

So I'm going to try and simplify that but I'll still produce the same content for it. It isn't like Kickstarter, where it's easier to keep track of rewards and things. I'll just make things a bit easier for myself.

The book ends with on an ominous couple of paragraphs. And that's where the next book will start think. No spoilers, obviously, for the people who haven't read the book!

And so what's next then?

Innsmouth sketches by This Northern Boy

Well, I've got Innsmouth, my vaguely Lovecraftian Twitter story at the minute, which I'm really enjoying. So that's a possibility. And I think I want to do a couple of small print projects. Definitely not Kickstartered. I'm probably going to do a little book of isometric drawings. And I really want to do a little book of my photographs of mushrooms. Almost like a tiny little Field Guide. Take some really nice photographs of mushrooms, and do a little description. Maybe 30 pictures in the book. So there's quite a few little ideas kicking around in my head before the next big

So do you hope that your future of your business is completely non-commercial? Are you enjoying not working for someone else and getting financial satisfaction from creating your own worlds?

The Kickstarter has been financially good. For the amount of time it's taken, it's given me a decent return. If I could replicate that kind of return for all the work I do, then I'd be more than happy to never work for anyone else again. And I do kind of feel like that's the way I should go.

Earlier on this year I did some work for a big video games company. I worked on it for nearly two months. And it didn't get used. In the end, they just said, “oh, it doesn't really fit what we're doing.” So that was a bit crushing in a way because I'd really want it to see my spaceships flying around in a PlayStation 5 game. But the process itself was kind of fun.

So I don't feel like I failed. It was just a bit of a downer in terms of commercial work. And that's happened three times, I think, with bigger computer projects.

I've worked on computer game projects where things just fizzle out. You work on them and then the developers go “we've gone in a different direction”, or “we're not doing that now”. I think that's just pretty typical. You look at a lot of Ian McQue work that he has posted is title with “this was for a thing that never saw the light of day”. So there's a lot of that. But I like the work that I do to be seen. So producing my own stuff seems like a better fit for me. I'm a sharer. I like to see my work out there.

What about social media then? How do you cope with that? Do you spend a lot of time on it?

I spend way too much time on social media. But I like it. I like Twitter, particularly. And it's a community for me. I don't follow people I don't like, I'm very quick with the mute and the block button. All these people who think that Twitter is this screaming abyss of horror, they've really only got themselves to blame. If you're following Donald Trump and right wing people and you're a left wing person then, of course, it's going to be horrible. So I don't follow people I don't like, I don't interact with accounts that I'm not interested in.

People say that increases the kind of echo chamber thing. But that's only an issue if Twitter is the only place you go for news. If you read the papers, you've got all your news. And then Twitter is a community for me. I really like it. I've met lots of really nice people. And you know, chats with people I'd never have expected to chat to before.

Instagram is less so these days. It used to be my favourite place to post work, but it's really tough to kind of get any engagement or traction anymore.

There was a thing going around on social media the week before last, who knows how true it was, but someone got some inside info on how the algorithm works and how you're rewarded for using it. Basically, you have to be using it all the time, you have to be using all the different tools Instagram gives you. So you have to be using Reels four or five times a week. You have to be putting up Stories every day. When you post photos to Instagram, you should be using the in-app camera. You'd have to be obsessed with it to to kind of get any traction.

I still like Instagram as a place to see what people are up to. So for me, I still get enjoyment out of that side of it. I've given up caring what sort of engagement my pictures get.

The Top Nine thing going around at the end of the year, when people post their top nine pictures of the year; I'd look at mine and I compared it to the last time I've done the Top Nine which was about three years ago. I've got 20 or 30,000 more followers now, but my average likes per photo went down by 30%! Growth doesn't even mean growth and more followers doesn't mean you're going to get more engagement. I'll still post stuff but whatever.

So here's one for you. What question would you like to be asked but never have? That's my Smash Hits question.

A question I very, very rarely hear, I’ve only been asked it once or twice, is why I like orange. And the answer is it was complete fluke. I was working at a studio in Shoreditch and I was doodling a little spaceship and I wanted to colour it in and the only thing I had to handle was an orange highlighter.

And that's it?

Now I really like orange, as you can see from this really nice can of beer from ‘And Union’. I saw this on Instagram. I think I'm gonna drink all four cans when I've posted the last book out.

And how much how much longer have you got to go – a couple more weeks?

It'll be done by the middle of next week. I packaged up 170 yesterday. I'm quite enjoying the process of packaging stuff up. Only today my shoulder aches from rubber-stamping all the envelopes!

What do you do when you're away from the desk?

I'd say I'm a reader, but I haven't read for a year really. And that's partly because I think my head has been scrambled by global pandemics and anarchy. And partly because I really need to get to the opticians but I don't want to go during a pandemic. So reading is my thing that I do most when I'm not at my desk. And I like getting out for walks into the park and photography is becoming a bigger part of my life.

I think that answers my next question: The best bit of kit that you own

… is my new camera a Fujifilm X-T4. It is such a beautiful bit of engineering. It's amazing. To look at and use. I am in love with it. The images are great, and it's encouraging me to get out more because it's a better camera than I had before. It's pushing me to learn a bit more with my photography.

Mushrooms by Rob Turpin

So, these two questions kind of go hand in hand: What keeps you awake at night. And how is the pandemic affecting your working life? Or is it?

Coffee keeps me awake at night. I don't drink caffeine anymore. So if I have a caffeinated coffee that's my night's sleep ruined.

The pandemic hasn't really kept me awake. I think that is more of a waking hours horror for me particularly at the start. In the spring I really struggled with doom scrolling on Twitter for the latest bit of horrible news to come out. I couldn't concentrate on anything else for more than a couple of minutes. And I guess we just got used to it so that side of things has calmed down a bit for me.

The advantage I had over a lot of people is that I'm used to working on my own from home so there wasn't that kind of culture shock of that side of my life being radically different.

And okay, some quick fire questions: University or work

I'd say University even though I got kicked out of art college twice. So I have no qualifications above GCSE. I'd go back in a flash to do it properly, because when else are you going to have three years to concentrate on drawing without anyone criticising you for it?

My problem with that was I wouldn't do the drawing.

That's exactly why I got thrown out!

Monochrome or colour

Monochrome. I like drawing in ink. Colour is always secondary. I never really think about colour when I'm drawing anything and I really like looking at other people's black and white work. I love seeing black and white comic art and usually prefer it to coloured stuff – particularly more recent work – it's just got more impact to me.

If I could draw people I would love to do a Judge Dredd strip. And it would have to be black, white and red.

Judge Dredd strip by Carlos Ezquerra

Ellipress brand colours.

Yeah, exactly. That was that was my thinking.

Pencil or pen.

Pen

And north or south?

North Jonathan.

Backwards or forwards.

Forwards

Football or cricket

Cricket

Armstrong or Gagarin.

That's tricky, that one. Maybe I'd go with Alexey Leonov instead.

Okay, let's finish off with, again, a recommended book to read?

The Shipping news by E.A. Proulx

Music to listen to?

At the minute: Folklore by Taylor Swift

And a film to watch while you're working all that you recommend?

Alien

Perfect. And thank you so much

Pleasure. See you later. Bye.

I hope you enjoyed the chat. Please leave your comments below. I’d love to hear from you. Transcribed by https://otter.ai and turned into human language by myself.

A fireside chat with This Northern Boy