The Q&A: Harry Tennant

By Peggy Roalf   Monday December 4, 2017

Q: What are some of your favorite things about living and working in London?

A: I’ve been here my whole life really, apart from a few years away at university. After graduating around five years ago I moved to East London. There’s lots of creative people to meet around here, and good galleries too. The galleries and museums in central London are great and not too far from here. I studied illustration in Falmouth, Cornwall, a beautiful little seaside town, which was a great place to work too. It’s very expensive here in London so maybe I’ll go somewhere like that again someday.   

Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper or with printmaking versus in the computer?

A: 'Yes I do and I try and use my sketchbook as much as possible, just for fun really. I do a couple of sketches every morning just to warm up for the day’s work. Also I tend to get ideas for projects later on from sketchbook stuff I've done earlier. I definitely find this useful if I’m struggling for ideas for a project later on. Of course I take it with me on any holiday or any kind of trip. I get a bit restless if I can’t draw for too long!

As for the balance between hand made and digital work: I started out as an illustrator pretty much only working in traditional media, drawing everything by hand and using different types of printmaking to make the final illustration. While my work is all composed and finished digitally now, it always starts with drawing it out by hand; the final drawing done with a Wacom tablet. Though I try to approach each illustration it as if it were an actual screen print, working with the same limitations of colour and detail, so it still has the feel of a hand made print. The exact same thought processes go on, like using only 2 or 3 colours maximum, as if I were going to screen print the art when it’s finished. 

Q: What is the most important item in your studio?

A: I've got some books on traditional printmaking, and lots of books of artist’s work that are great for inspiration. But I would say it’s a decent pair of headphones I got recently. Sometimes working in silence is good for me but I can get lots of drawing done listening to a good album. If I had to pick one of the books though it would be the one of Frans Masereel’s woodblock prints; they have always been a big influence on my work. 


Q: How do you know when the art is finished?

A:This is a difficult one. With printmaking I think it’s good to keep the shapes, colours and other elements quite simple. Once the idea is there and it’s composed well, I try not to work into it too much. Also, I like the look of artwork that’s slightly unfinished. This gives it character. When you are screen printing, there are times when you often don’t know what the layer you are printing will do to the image, and there’s little bit of a surprise at how it turns out. Also, once you’ve printed that final layer, there’s nothing more you can do to that piece of work. Neither of these constraints are there when working digitally, so I just have to tell myself to stop working, even if there could be more detail to add. Sometimes I go back and remove a layer or colour the illustration if I think i’ve overdone it. 

Q: What was your favorite book as a child?

A:Where The Wild Things Are. Great illustrations! 

Q: What is the best book you’ve recently read?

A:  Maus, the graphic novel by Art Speigelman. It’s such an amazing story. The drawings are so simple and understated at times, and they work so well with the text. I think this might be the best graphic novel I’ve ever read! 

Q: If you had to choose one medium to work in for an entire year, eliminating all others, what medium would you choose?

A: I really like using gouache. I use it for a lot of sketchbook work in a way that’s kind of in between drawing and painting. I also like to use it in a more traditional way with flat colours—it’s a good way of planning for the illustrations I make. Or maybe drawing with charcoal, which is what I’d use for life drawing or location drawing. I think this is the drawing I enjoy doing the most, as you get such expressive lines and marks from charcoal, and you can work on such a large scale. Not sure that it would work very well for some of my commercial briefs, but that year would be a lot of fun. 

Q: What elements of daily life exert the most influence on your work practice?

A: Meeting people, talking with friends. Illustration can be a fairly solitary job but all my illustrations are about people so there needs to be lots of human interaction. Having a strong coffee in the morning to wake me is of course a big one, as the morning is often when I get most of my work done. I try and take lots of little breaks and go for walks. I’m working from home so getting outside for a bit is important. 

Q: What was the painting or drawing or film or otherwise that most affected your approach to art? 

A: Being a teenager and seeing and old book of Ralph Steadman's drawings and political cartoons. I hadn’t seen illustration like that before and I loved how subversive it was, and the expressive way he used just a pen and ink. I hadn’t been so interested in drawing up until then, but I thought It looked like it would be so much fun to make. It had a lot of his early reportage drawings from around the world, and it really inspired me to draw wherever I went. I started drawing caricatures too, which isn’t something I do much of anymore, but it definitely shaped the way draw now. 

Q: What was the strangest/most interesting assignment you've taken that has an important impact on your practice, and what changed through the process?

A: I would say my first illustrations for Libération a couple of years ago. I had done a lot of conceptual illustration before, but these were much more heavy sorts of subjects around philosophy and psychology. I found it quite challenging at first, as my work is usually more figurative and the subjects are quite intangible. But this made me think more about what the purpose of my illustrations should be in these kind of jobs, and how to get a good balance of the figurative and conceptual sides of my work. I still illustrate for Libération regularly.

Q: What would be your last supper?

A: Mac and cheese, and a good beer! 


Harry is a freelance illustrator living and working in Hackney, East London. He is represented by Central Illustration Agency. Past Clients include; Radio Times, WIRED, Le Monde, Libération, Penguin Random House, Thames & Hudson, Walker Books, BuzzFeed.
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