The DART Interview: Calum Heath

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday May 9, 2019

Peggy Roalf: Which came first, the pen or the brush?

Calum Heath: The pen definitely came first. I do love painting, especially the feeling of applying paint can be really satisfying, but drawing has always been the driver for my work. A lot changed for me when I started using brush pens, I love the varied weight of line and heavy ink.

PR: Please describe your work process—is most of your work done directly, or do you also use digital media? 

CH: Most of my work is hand drawn and scanned, and I use a tablet to colour digitally. If a project or piece allows more time I try and add some physical paint or pencil textures, but especially on fast paced editorial work, the tablet is a lifesaver.

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from in your work?

CH: I get a lot of inspiration from music and art, especially fellow contemporary illustrators such as Paul Blow, Lucinda Rogers, Christoph Neimann amongst others. It was really through music that I found illustration; in my teens I was obsessed with Radiohead, The Verve, The Horrors, sort of indie groups like that. My taste in music is wide, but it was those sort of groups, and the visuals that they attached to their music, which turned my head onto illustration.   


PR: Do you keep a sketchbook? If yes, how does that contribute to your work process?

CH: Yeah this is probably my main long-standing ethos. I've been keeping sketchbooks consistently for the last 7 years. I try my best to capture any thoughts of moments in my life in my books. It helps inform ideas in my work, and it helps ideas to evolve. Often I will draw things in my sketchbook over and over again even without realising it. For example, recently I kept drawing a tiny man leading a giant dog; I must have drawn this in varied contexts around ten times in my book, and eventually used the image as a central component in a commissioned mural. It helps me to let ideas develop in my sketchbook instead of my head. I would highly recommend keeping a visual diary to any other creative or illustrator. The main thing is to not be precious about how the book is looking; being too precious will stop you from drawing.

PR: Where do you live and how does that place contribute to your creative work?

CH: Me and my girlfriend Charlotte (who works as an illustrator/graphic designer) live in a canal boat in London. It's a cheaper way of life than renting in London, and it allows you to get away from the hectic madness of the city. Living on a boat has it's ups and downs, it's not all plain sailing, but the more low key, cheaper way of life can take the pressure off freelancing, and can give you more of a perspective on what it is you want to do. 


PR: Please describe your workspace and how it contributes to the illustrator’s basic condition of working alone.

CH: Charlotte and I rent a space in a shared studio in East London. The studio is made up of a range of illustrators, photographers, and graphic designers. It's been great to work around other creative people, to give you some grounding in your work.

PR: What kind of breaks do you take when working to a deadline? 

CH: I like to work a hard five-day week and then take weekends off if possible. Short deadlines obviously demand less breaks and more working intensity, but this often produces rawer, more exciting results. Sometimes a long, drawn out deadline can kill the spark in a project. More recently I've found that taking a break from a piece, and working on something else, has allowed me to come back and improve on that artwork.

PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

CH: I stop working on something when I feel I've overworked it. Often I know when it's done because I'll start adding unnecessary decorative elements that don't help to communicate the message of the work. It's at this stage that it helps to go backwards, simplify, and round off the piece.

PR: What are your favorite kinds of assignments, and how do you market yourself to attract that kind of work?

CH: I really enjoy fast-paced editorial work. Often there's not enough time to question your ideas too much so the work has much more of an instinct to it. I also loved working large scale on the mural I mentioned earlier. That was a dream project in the sense that the client gave me free reign with the design. In terms of marketing, I think it's just about getting your work under the nose of art directors that you respect. Often the best illustrations are produced in conjunction with good art direction, so find out who those characters are and try and connect with them.

PR: I noticed you have brought animals—from dogs to vicious wildlife—into your art. What is there about drawing animals that appeals to you?

CH: I wouldn't say animals play a huge role in my work. But they are often interesting to draw and observe. There is an innocence to animals which can draw the audience in, in contrast to humans, and animals can be used to communicate particular messages. 

PR: Do you use photographic reference materials very much? If yes, how do you avoid the pitfalls that can arise when working from reference? 

CH: Yes I do often use photography as a reference. I think it helps to not 'copy' a picture, but to let a picture be your guide for the drawing. I think It helps to draw at speed, and to be decisive with your lines. I will often cut together elements of photographs to make characters. I always feel that the less photography you reference, the better.

PR: If you could live and work anywhere, where would that be?

CH: I love living in the UK, I'm very lucky to be here, so I haven't thought much about the ideal place. Probably somewhere I can have a nice long walk through some fields, I love getting out of the city when I can!

PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment? 

CH: I would love to illustrate a magazine cover, there's loads of assignments I'd love to do. I guess I'll just keep going with my work and see where it takes me.

Calum Heath is a London based illustrator. He specialises in editorial work and was shortlisted for the 2018 V&A Editorial Illustration award. More dart-interview