Legendary illustrator turns mentor (Part 1)

Here, we explore one of the many connections and creations produced by FuelRCA's Royal Designers for Industry Mentoring Programme. Legendary illustrator George Hardie worked with NTA Studios in the 1970s designing some very famous album covers, and now teaches at the University of Brighton. Here he discusses his RDI mentoring relationship with the illustration collective INK, made up of RCA graduates Chloé Regan, Rachel Gannon and Fumie Kamijo (Communication Art & Design, 2007). Read INK's perspective in Part 2 of this article.

Slave - George Hardie (2004)

I felt very trepidatious about mentoring, but Robin Levien [then Master of the Royal Designers] just said it would be good to try it, and I’m very glad I did because it was great fun.

Recently I did a bit of writing for INK for the catalogue of their show, The Wondering Line. I sent my piece with a note, “Reading back over my INK Illustration file I’m rather embarrassed by how little mentoring I did!” Rachel (and all) wonderfully wrote back to me and said, “Please don’t feel embarrassed, the time you gave us was invaluable. We found your help on finance and working in a group really useful, at the time we couldn’t envisage these issues so it was great to have them raised as concerns we should be considering.” That was the small contribution I made. Later, reading their application to choose me, I realised that of course I had worked in a studio with other illustrators in almost exactly the same way almost 36 years ago. Writing for them made me realise that I’d got quite a lot out of it myself, basically because they’re really on the cutting edge of reportage. I’m still a teacher, I teach a lot about storytelling and so on, and it made me re-examine the whole business of why people do that kind of work. It certainly strengthened my belief in drawings in sketchbooks being better than illustrations made from drawings in sketchbooks.

I certainly got a lot out of the mentoring – of the four of us I think I had the best deal! You could see they were going to do well – they had so much energy, and the strange approach of all for one and one for all, that seems to work out very well for them.

I had several conversations with Robin about mentoring. He said you should never expect that what you think will be useful is actually useful, but they will find useful things in what you say. Everyone’s doing their own thing and they will get what they can out of what you say. My main advice generally about illustration would be that it’s a thought process rather than a drawing process, which wouldn’t apply to INK because they have lots of ideas. Their ideas are about drawing rather than philosophy or graphic design. I come from between the two disciplines, design and illustration, which I love but it doesn’t suit everyone else. Basically, style isn’t very important at all, but ideas are. I gave them quite a lot of advice of people to see, but again, the three INKs already had great contacts, partly to do with having been at the Royal College. They had so many ideas about making contact with people who wouldn’t normally employ illustrators.

When I took the whole thing on I wrote that what would really worry me was that I would just become a teacher, which is why I didn’t sit with them saying things like “don’t concentrate on style”, because that would just have been teaching. In a way, when they wrote back to me saying the practical stuff was really useful, I was delighted because I’d thought it rather dull. I equated practical with how to run a business and all those kind of things, like how you divvy the money up if you’re working together? Are you a co-op or do you get rewarded for how much you bring into the firm? All personal experience from my being part of a small co-operative.

This picture, a collaboration by the three illustrators at NTA Studios (Hardie, Harrison and Hollyhead), illustrated an article for the Association of Illustrators Survival Kit, circa 1974. In 'Setting Up A Studio', George Hardie described how three illustrators managed their working together

I think illustration really has changed in the sense that it’s so broad, even 36 years ago it was already getting like that. I saw an ex-student of mine from Brighton called James Jarvis who’s now famous for making toys. He was one of the best student illustrators ever, and he set up a lot of joint projects for the staff and students when he was at Brighton – we all joined in. He was already thinking of new ways of doing things, and now the designing of toys is huge, there’s a lot of it around and it’s very international. I spoke with him at Parsons and half of the people there were inventing characters that were then merchandised. It’s incredibly inventive.

The thing about being a sole trader is you’re doing it just so that you can find an area in which you can work and make a living, as opposed to being a huge business success – I’ve never been interested in that. I’ve made money because of the clients I’ve had in the music business, but that’s never been my interest.

I can still recognise the people [working in illustration]; there are still people who are really genuinely interested in making images that communicate; people doing a lot more than just illustrating books or designing stamps or any of those things. It’s quite common still for people to both make images for print, and perform in other areas, and teach in a way that moves their subject on properly.

I think everyone gets one or two breaks, and it’s whether you can rise to those occasions – that makes it not just luck. I don’t like talking about music business stuff, but our big break came in the 1970s and we did a lot of work, some of which was good, some of which was multiplied a lot just because the bands were good. But then along came punk and we were suddenly the establishment, and bands were not very keen to use us because we represented the equivalent of Hollywood, not real music, so you get bad luck as well. Really simple cultural things like whole eras of time when illustration was considerably less pop than photography: that’s a helter-skelter ride if you are working between photography and illustration, heaven help you, you’d never be able to get it right. The one bit of advice I would give to illustrators, and that they might not agree with, is that although it’s very nice to have a style that everyone recognises, it’s dangerous, because of fashion, which comes and goes. It’s much more important to remember that you’re trying to communicate something. But I’d never say that to a good illustrator because they’d already know it.

George Hardie

You form a group of friends at university and you then leave, and you haven’t got anyone with a like mind to hold a piece of work up and say, “What do you think of that?” If you like the debate about your subject that you had at college, you’re maintaining it by working in a collective. So the best advice is, don’t work in a cabin in the woods, work with other people.

INK had already discovered that, and the rest of the advice is how not to have rows about silly things like money and the best advice there is make some rules and stick to them. NTA did fantastically financially well because we’d bought a studio. We didn’t realise what would happen with real estate, we bought a studio to work in and it was cheaper and more secure than endlessly moving from district to district of London. We were very lucky; we got a very cheap studio in Charterhouse Square. I was speaking to an Italian designer recently who said he didn’t need to work any more because of the house he bought. That would be practical advice, but no one leaving college could afford to buy a house now!

I’ve never been driven by money. The naked advice is that illustration is not a very good business to make a lot of money in! It’s a great area to work in because it’s wonderfully exciting and you can invent your own problems but you’re also being asked to look at other people’s problems, some of them terrific people, but it doesn’t seem to be to be set up as a fantastic way to get rich.