Illustrator Profile - Nigel Buchanan: "Aim for a timeless appeal to your work"

By Robert Newman   Thursday February 2, 2017

Nigel Buchanan is a New Zealand-based illustrator who recently moved back to that country after living and working in Sydney, Australia for over 30 years. He began his career as an airbrush artist, but transitioned to Photoshop “as soon as Macs were user-friendly.” Buchanan’s bold, colorful, graphic portraits have been a mainstay of 8by8, the quarterly soccer magazine edited and designed by Priest + Grace, but he also creates conceptual illustrations and is working on a children's book.

I am a New Zealander from day one and trained in New Zealand in the late 1970s. My mother was a well-respected painter and my father was an engineer with a fascinating history of flying aircraft. He was a Spitfire pilot in WWII and a Wing Commander, meaning he commanded several squadrons of Spitfires at the tender age of 23. Both were encouraging of my graphics career after I abandoned my university architectural studies.

I went through a three-year course at what was then Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey University). It was very broad and intense course covering things that I still draw on today; basic color theory, two- and three-dimensional design, typography, life drawing, marketing and more.

The tutors I had in those days were absolute enthusiasts. One in particular was an advertising illustrator from the Mad Men era of London’s advertising heyday. He told of illustrating a Firestone tire with an airbrush and getting his perspective right by fixing threads of cotton from the corner of his studio to his work board. Perfection was the only goal in the days when deadlines were longer.

I have spent more than 30 years in Sydney, Australia. I went for five and stayed. New Zealand is a small place and before the days of the internet it seemed a long way from the movers and shakers of the illustration world. We used to devour Communication Arts and American Illustration. They were our connection with the world. So the move to Sydney was my attempt to connect with the wider illustration community. It worked—I loved it and was able to develop a good number of local clients. I made small inroads to the American, European and Asian markets during the 1980s but getting the final illustration delivered overseas was problematic. Packaging up a piece of artboard and sending by courier often ended up by a non-arrival, a late arrival or damaged goods.

For about 17 years of that time I have shared a fantastic studio with other creatives. It is a large room in a 1930s warehouse which I set up with two textile designers. Over the years we have had writers, fashion illustrators, fashion designers, interior designers, photographers, film directors, illustrators (of course), book designers and many more. The background buzz of people working and the easy source of opinion and comment were very conducive for work.

In the last few weeks I have made a huge change. My family and I have moved back to New Zealand and bought 10 acres (four hectares) of vacant land in the South Island and intend building a modest but beautiful house with a purpose-built studio. I know I will miss my studio mates but I’m very much looking forward to fewer big city pressures. We may house swap in places around the world when we have built.

I started with the Photoshop of its day: airbrush. It was very exacting—no undo function which made you think carefully ahead to color combinations and things like contrasts between foreground and background. It was imperative that the end result was secure in your mind during the rendering. It was a most excellent training of the mind- and hand-connection.

As soon as Macs were user-friendly I jumped on board and was hugely relieved that the transition was easy. So much of the terminology of airbrushing had been preserved in Photoshop and had similar functions: paths for mask cutting, brushes for paint flow, etc. But of course Photoshop had a huge depth which I still have not fully plumbed.

I always sketch my ideas and working drawings on paper—the best way to get the images in my mind’s eye recorded. I try to keep the spontaneity of those drawings in the final rendering by scanning the rudimentary sketch as a basis for rendering in Photoshop.

There are way too many options in Photoshop for my purposes, so I restrict my tools to a few favorites.

I started work in the graphics department of a television studio straight after college. My big break was being contacted by ex tutors and local agencies who had come to the end-of-year college exhibition.  

I was soon freelancing on the weekends. Not only did I earn more, but I realized that I enjoyed the variety of jobs, and I was very excited by the prospect of working freelance. I left the television studio after six months. The advertising industry was in full swing and illustrators were in demand.

The re-release of Miroslav Sasek’s series This is London, This is New York, This is Edinburgh books made me realize how much of an influence they had been in my early childhood. I hadn’t seen them for 30 years but I could recall every page of the original books my parents had given me as a youngster. I still love the way he observed people and gave them rich character so simply. The cityscapes he produced look accurate but they are done with abstraction and impressionism. Just beautiful.

Another illustrator who I admire is Edward Gorey. He depicted Edwardian English folk with a dark gothic humor, but had barely left New York during his entire career. He had a vision all his own. I’d love to know what his influences were.

Ray and Charles Eames. They produced beautiful practical furniture of a timeless design. To design a range of things which look as good now as they did 60 years ago is a rare achievement. Although I would never compare myself to them I do try to keep my work not of one particular time. If a style of illustration is fashionable then by definition it will soon be out of fashion. I actively avoid taking on styles of the moment because if they are popular then others will surely be jumping on the bandwagon. It’s best to have your own thing going.

People. There is such a wonderful variety. People-watching is one of my favorite inspirations. I suspect I am always making mental notes of faces, body shapes and poses, clothing styles and attitudes.

Also color combinations wherever they crop up.

This comes back to the Eames factor: how to stay current and in-demand for decades. Adaptation and evolution are certainly part of the answer but I think a better approach is to aim for a timeless appeal to your work; to have a style of work which is yours alone and which transcends the fashion of the time. I often suggest to students to think of their favorite or a successful illustrator and invariably they will have a signature style which they do very well for a long time. The hard part is finding your own and finding one which has a broad appeal.

The portrait of Paul Pogba for the cover of 8by8 magazine was a highlight this year because it was the second of two consecutive covers for Priest + Grace. Paul Pogba is an excellent subject with lean features and distinctive hair styling, but add to that the nickname “The Octopus,” referring to his limbs which seem to go everywhere, and we have a great assignment. The brief included making reference to his French-ness.

I would love to be commissioned for a series of theater posters with the brief being the script of the performance. If marketing could take a back seat I would be in heaven.

Robert Priest and Grace Lee of Priest + Grace in New York have been wonderful to work with. Robert has a very strong design sense but a broad range of illustration likes. They commissioned me to illustrate the cover of the second edition of their passion project 8by8, a magazine dedicated to football but designed with their signature flare. We have had an ongoing relationship with several more covers, culminating last year with 8by8 winning Magazine of the Year at the annual Society of Publication Designers awards in New York.

Their enthusiasm is infectious and the caliber of illustrators they use puts a subtle pressure on me to deliver my best. Robert’s faith in my portraiture, of which I had done very little prior to 8by8, has led to a major shift in my workload. Portraits have become a mainstay.

Illustrators who show a bit of their soul by illustrating from the heart! John Cuneo is definitely in that category. Philip Burke’s portraits, Christoph Niemann’s clear ideas, Maira Kalman’s wonderful observations.

I try to supplement my editorial work with a few advertising commissions. I don’t actively seek them but I am very happy when they come along. I am currently finishing off a children’s book, which—if all goes well—will be a series about the origins of everyday and familiar food.

I try to remain open to opportunities as they present themselves. I have illustrated for a few apps and interactive books. Technology changes all the time but it seems an easy process to determine if the changes can help you in your work. I like to have a look at all the new bits of the Adobe Suite as they come along but I make sure I only use those that make my work easier. There is a temptation to overload the tool palette with things that are not necessary.

My reps are very proactive advertisers, which takes a lot of the work out of promotion for me. I do a bit of social media although I am not so proactive as I think I should be. An uncomplicated and easily-navigated website will always be essential, perhaps not for getting noticed but certainly as a follow up resource and reassurance for clients. It absolutely must look professional.

Competitions have been a great way to get work noticed. Even if you don’t win anything the caliber of judges means that you get an audience with potential clients. Several times now an art director has told me that they first saw my work whilst judging.

Most of my current work is for repeat clients. It is worth remembering that the client remembers what sort of experience they have with individuals, so apart from excellent work, meeting deadlines and being easy to work with will help get repeat business.

Simply put; do excellent work and tell people about it. Excellent work comes about when you find your own illustration voice. Nothing can help more than drawing, a lot. Don’t be too shy to closely study illustrators you admire, but avoid imitating any in particular. I would guess that illustrations that you admire are probably closer to your own innate style than those you don't notice. Work out why you like a particular illustration; is it the simplicity, the intricacy, the subtle or bold colors, the way figures are drawn?

Study illustrators and painters of different eras, travel and observe, make mental notes about how light works, how colors work together.

Illustration is hard work. It takes dedication and time, but if you put the hours in and seek feedback on your work it can be a hugely rewarding career.

Don’t work in a vacuum. Talk to others; ask advice. If you get some great work happening tell the world about it.

See more Nigel Buchanan illustrations, new work and updates:
Nigel Buchanan website
Instagram: @nigel_buchanan/
Twitter: @NigelBuchanan2