Illustrator Profile - Neil Gower: "When the design world went digital I stuck to my paints"

By Robert Newman   Thursday August 3, 2017

Neil Gower is a Lewes, England-based illustrator, designer, and book cover artist. His brilliant watercolor and gouache paintings have appeared on series of book covers by William Golding and Bill Bryson, as well as many others. Gower had a longtime regular gig creating illustrated maps for Conde Nast Traveler, and has also been a regular cover artist for his local regional publication, Viva Lewes. Gower’s vivid bird paintings are featured in his new book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, created with writer Alex Preston. He explains that his illustrations are made the old-fashioned way: “I create my images entirely by hand using traditional materials.”

I am based in a town called Lewes at the heart of the South Downs in England. I have been a freelance artist for 33 years and I have never done a different job. My summer work as a student was drawing/painting people’s houses to commission. My art teacher at high school was a tremendously inspirational man named Tom Hutchinson. He taught me a lot about drawing and painting but, more importantly, how to cultivate and cherish a lifelong passion for it. I graduated from Brighton Art School in 1984.

I had always worked in the large loft of my house, but six months ago I moved into a space in a converted brewery in the center of Lewes. I was apprehensive about leaving my precious “Ivory Tower;” but the move has proved tremendously stimulating. I am surrounded by other painters, potters, sculptors, guitar-makers, framers, and jewelers. What’s more, being in the center of town makes it easy—maybe a little too easy—to meet friends for lunch, or to roll into a pub at the end of the day.

I work in a wide variety of media, but most frequently, gouache and watercolor. I create my images entirely by hand using traditional materials. I eagerly embrace technology and social media to distribute and promote my work, but creating it digitally doesn’t work for me. I love the process and discipline of mixing colors and the ageless feel of beautiful paper beneath a brush or pen.

One moment of clarity sticks in my mind: in my second year at art school I realized I was no longer enjoying what I was creating, that I was striving to produce the kind of work that I imagined was expected of me. I had lost that visceral thrill I’d experienced as a child when I would feign illness to stay off school to draw with abandon. As soon as I refocused on that, rather than the “forced” stuff, not only did I begin to enjoy it again, but the quality also improved drastically. It is that gut-feeling I still try to tap into to find the most fulfilling, thrilling solution to a brief.It is hard to recall a big break as such. I guess being asked to design a special jacket to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lord of the Flies for Faber & Faber was one moment that made me think “maybe I AM doing this for real…”. The success of this design led to me devising new jackets for all 13 of William Golding’s novels, and to working closely with his daughter Judy—both huge honors. I would also cite painting jacket-designs for Bill Bryson’s entire back-list last year—15 titles in all.

Working for the first time as co-author and collaborating so closely with the writer Alex Preston on our book As Kingfishers Catch Fire has been a huge “pinch-myself” experience, too.

I have a magpie approach to influences. I am a keen collector of ephemera and old books (old atlases and guidebooks in particular have fed into my hand-drawn map work). I have a collection of 140 espresso cups which I find way more exciting than a grown man should. I love the paintings of George Bellows as well as the obvious illustrative masters.

This has proved the toughest question! I have always been in awe of Joni Mitchell for the grace, honesty and art which she applies to her words, music and the interplay between the two. And for The Hissing of Summer Lawns cover design, which perfectly captures the marriage between rawness and elegance, atavism and sophistication, that suffuses the album. I can never run in Central Park without that image, or indeed that lyric, coming into my head.

I have a magpie approach to creating designs, trying to spot combinations of style/color/letterform in disparate places and then combining them to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. My old atlases, guidebooks, and maps seldom fail to get the creative juices flowing when I’m wrestling with a tricky brief.

I find the biggest challenge in working on my own—particularly when I worked at home—was knowing when to leave it alone. There is always something to be done, something to be worked out, something to be drawn... Now that my home and studio are separate—if only by 150 yards—I am finding it much easier to walk away and switch off.

Most of the last year has been taken up with the 21 paintings and 50 drawings for As Kingfishers Catch Fire. It has been the most wonderfully stimulating and all-consuming project.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a “literary ornithology”—a celebration of how birds have been portrayed in literature, ancient and modern. It is a book Alex Preston (my co-author) has been planning to write for a long time. It differs from much of my other work in two ways. First, it is more painterly; there is no type/lettering involved. Secondly, the paintings didn’t follow the usual pattern of roughs/approval, etc.: I had much more freedom to interpret. I was tentative at the start of the project because I had never painted birds before, but I resolved to embrace that as a positive in that it enabled me to “find the birds through the words,” unhindered by knowledge or convention. I am aware that this leaves me open to accusations of ornithological inexactitude, but I felt my first loyalty was to Alex and the other writers featured in the book. My hope is that the paintings capture the spirit of the birds as they are described and thus portray them in a vivid new light.

To read more about this transformative project, see this piece I wrote for my website on the collaboration process and on distilling birds from words into paint.

The New Yorker cover has eluded me to date; now that WOULD be a dream come true. I often remind myself, however, that I’ve already been lucky enough to work with some remarkable people on the kind of wonderful projects which, as a student, I could only have dreamed about.

Oh, a set of postage stamps might be rather nice, too.

I had a very enjoyable eight-year spell as contributing artist to Conde Nast Traveler with art director Robert Best. We developed a great rapport, and it was my first experience of a real, sustained working relationship. He put some great assignments my way, including two memorable working trips to Naples and Barcelona. I also enjoyed the times when I’d travel to New York for a week to work in the Traveler office; they had a great team there, including John Grimwade and Joyce Pendola.

I was in the same year at Brighton as Chris Riddell and P J Lynch, both of whom were intimidatingly natural draftsmen then, and whose work now leaves me in awe. My work sits between the worlds of illustration and design so I also find myself admiring the work of designers: the “three-headed monster” of British book cover design that is Jon Gray, Jamie Keenan and David Pearson, along with Clare Skeats, Coralie Bickford-Smith,Peter Mendelsund.

And Christopher Corr’s Instagram feed is a constant source of color and delight.

I also produce very elaborate plans and bird’s eye maps of gardens and estates. These are private commissions as pieces of art rather than for print/mass reproduction. This allows me to work at a larger scale and to be totally indulgent in terms of detail. Producing such images for print reproduction is always restricted by space/time. The gardens themselves are complex and layered works of art in their own right and I aim to attain a level of detail in painting them that comes as close to doing them justice as possible. Here’s a link to a piece about my plan of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s spectacular Michelin-starred restaurant and garden near Oxford in England, and Sir Roy Strong’s Herefordshire garden, The Laskett.

It may sound perverse but I think, taken over a long period, it is the fact that I have not changed the way I work that has benefitted me. When the design world went digital, I stuck to my paints—not out of any kind of snobbery or purism, but because I just could not make the switch. I was concerned at the time, and wondered how long I’d be able to get away with it before being forced into pixels, but now it seems this is what makes my work distinctive.

I don’t actively promote myself as such, or monitor what’s successful. I rely on people finding my website, I suppose. I am very active on Twitter and Instagram. It is very hard to quantify how beneficial these are, but they are undoubtedly effective in maintaining a profile, generating new contacts and getting your work in front of the right, interested eyeballs.

I think it is tougher for young illustrators setting out now than it was for me. There are many more ways to get your work seen, but it is harder to convince people to pay to use it. I always advise young artists and designers to be wary of working for free. I know it is sometimes necessary to make that trade-off for getting your work seen, but it is also worth weighing the “good shop-window” argument against the fact that they will also have to rely also on “word-of-mouth”—and with that in mind, a reputation for working for free is a hard one to shake off.

Use social media to network and get your work seen—Twitter and Instagram work very well for me— but be judicious; the same rules about making a nuisance of yourself apply in the virtual world as they do in real life.

See more Neil Gower illustrations, new work, and updates:
Neil Gower website
Twitter: @neiljgower
Instagram: @neiljgower


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