Ben Sanders worked as a designer and art director in advertising before returning to his first love, illustration, in 2006. As well as creating images for clients like Saatchi & Saatchi and Wall Street Journal, Ben has written and illustrated two children’s books, both published by Thames & Hudson. He talks to us about living in Bolivia, starting with words and taking drawing seriously.
I got my first illustration job when I was 12
My dad was in the printing trade and an excellent artist in his own right. One of his clients needed illustrations for a sheet of kids’ stickers and, because child labor laws were easier to ignore in the late 1980’s, my dad encouraged me to submit a few drawings. During that summer I illustrated 32 stickers – things like elephants riding bicycles, walruses smoking pipes, apples with bites out of their bottoms – the usual stuff. Each summer holidays throughout secondary school I illustrated a new set of stickers. They were quite popular and the publisher found overseas markets for them. Not only was my work getting out to the world, I didn’t need one of those summer jobs as a spotty-faced supermarket trolley-boy.
Nothing compares to drawing for a living
In the early 90’s I left illustration because I didn’t take it seriously enough. Actually nobody took anything seriously back then — remember MC Hammer? I didn’t think illustration could provide a stable career so I went into design and art direction. But as much as I enjoy advertising and design, an outright fondness for illustration brought me back to it as a fulltime job.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
Like me, my work is uncomplicated. I learned very early in ad school to create simple concepts and I strive for that with my illustration work. My philosophy is to deliver an idea as simply as possible, whether it’s an editorial spot for Wall Street Journal, a TV commercial for Vodacom or packaging for the Natural Confectionery Company.
My process is different for children’s books
I also write and illustrate books for kids where you need to add a little more detail. With my first book, I’ve an Uncle Ivan, the words are simple but the illustrations are designed to engage the attention of children for longer periods of time.
I start with words rather than pictures
I’ve witnessed many a surprised look when I tell other illustrators that. I try to break down a creative brief into two or three key words. This reductionism helps to clear my brain of unnecessarily complex thoughts. Next come the sketches, which usually start out as messy as an Oscar Pistorius alibi. But just a few sketches in, I’ll erase the clutter and be left with a nice succinct composition. The rest is just a bit of back-and-forth with the client and hours of mind-numbing fun on my Mac.
I provide an overnight service
My clients are mostly in Australia but I live in South America, so while they are sleeping, I’m working. It’s perfect for the client who has a brief to send out at 5PM but still wants a sketch on his desk at 9AM. I prefer to communicate by email and, when necessary, Skype.
Hightail is like the Little Red Caboose
Remember the classic Little Golden Book story? The Little Red Caboose appears at the end of the train and finishes the job after all the huffing and chuffing up the mountain. In the story the caboose saves the day. Hightail feels a lot like that when you see the little red line move across the screen and you get that message, “We have successfully sent your file.”
I started illustrating with ink pens and watercolor brushes
Decades later, I primarily work digitally. I’ve had a fascination with mid-century illustration styles since my awkward university days, so there is a strong element of the 1950’s in my work now. I moved from Australia to South America in 2014 so I suspect that a dramatic change in scenery and culture will have some sort of strange Andean influence on my style sometime soon.
It’s difficult for illustrators to make a living in Bolivia
After being in Australia throughout my career, I’m now based in Bolivia. Being a developing country means that there isn’t much of a structure to support creatives and many illustrators have to look beyond their borders to make it work. I have had the pleasure of meeting two of Bolivia’s finest illustrators, Ada Esquirol Ríos and Marianna Dotzauer at their funky studio, Cocina Gráfica. They provide a benchmark for other Bolivian artists to follow.
I owe a lot to fellow illustrators
I spent a lot of time working alongside two illustrators from my hometown, Travis Price and Sam Harmer. I learned so much from this one-on-one contact. It’s so good to see first hand how other people approach their work and produce such clever results. For shape and color, one of my favorite illustrators is Jim Flora, especially his editorial work and album covers. I have a classic Hervé Morvan poster on my wall at home with one of his usual clever visual twists.
My studio in Australia was a converted 1950’s garage
My workspace is very different now that I’m in Bolivia. I have a completely portable studio with just my notebook, laptop and me. It’s a quasi pop-up shop. I can move about, change location at anytime. It’s great to be light on my feet and not feel like I’m stuck in one place. I find a room with a view of the mountains and start creating.
I split my day between clients and volunteer work
When I’m not fulfilling client briefs I’m writing children’s picture books and volunteering my time on a Bolivian children’s curriculum (that’s why I’m here). I have to be flexible because every day is different, but the main ingredients are usually:
• Two mugs of coffee.
• Three briefs (two on the desk, one under my jeans).
• 15 sketches.
• 1/2 hour of design.
• One lunch.
• 30 emails.
• One bucket of mouse clicks.
• Two Redbubble sales.
• One or two Hightail uploads.
Stir well and season to taste.