My Creative Life

Darren Bell, Creative Director at MET, shares his love of illustration, both as a creative practice and a communication tool.
September 10, 2023
Reading time
3 minutes

When I was a child, pencils and Lego were how I got what was in my head out onto paper or into a 3D shape. That’s carried on throughout my life. With a quick sketch you can convey the feeling of a space and the emotion of an idea without anyone getting worried about a detail that’s not actually fixed yet. But you’re not born with the ability to draw – it takes hours and hours of practice.

I’m inspired by artists and designers. Drew Struzan is one of my biggest inspirations. You’ll almost certainly recognise his movie posters, like Indiana Jones or The Shawshank Redemption. I used to be obsessive about getting a likeness right; I have synaesthesia and I hear a sound in my head when I’m looking at the person I’m drawing and a different one when I look at my sketch. When the sounds are the same, I know I’ve captured their likeness. I admire more deconstructed art, like Javier Mariscal or looser lines, like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s, but I always end up somewhere closer to Struzan’s style. And like Gil Elvgren, who created 1950s pin-up style illustrations, I try to make people look their best. I took a sense of form and hyper-shading into my work from Simon Bisley, who drew for 2000 AD, and Tamara De Lempicka. I’m inspired by industrial designers like Doug Chang and Sid Meade too.

Practice makes perfect. You get better at perspective and proportion simply by doing it. When I started working, I used hand-drawn sketches a lot, but it’s labour intensive. Then I moved onto hybrid sketching, working with a combination of pens, scanner and photoshop. You can scan something in and sketch over it and add elements in Photoshop. It’s a great communication tool, but it’s time-consuming. Then the iPad came along and changed everything. Digital sketching is a quick and brilliant communication tool. You can overlap sketches onto photos, sketch to scale quickly, add detail where you need it or show a narrative sequence. A sketch can disintegrate the detail in the same way the mind does and take your eye around the picture. I can work up a sketch in 10 minutes and create a few more versions of it in another couple of minutes on an iPad – it’s game changing. But I still draw in sketch books continually, filling up seven or eight a year.

I sketch all the time in my working life, but I do it out of work hours too. I’ll set myself a challenge, such as to see how tightly I can draw, or to play with light, colour and form like Vermeer. One of my favourite paintings is of my sister and brother-in-law in Dublin. I’m really pleased with the atmosphere, you can tell that it’s evening and it’s cold. The individual elements are hard to read but they come together as a picture – it’s hard to achieve that.

I think that designers should be sketching all the time, but it’s a useful skill for all kinds of jobs. Anyone can get better at it and learn to use it as a tool to communicate. To me, the best illustration is the economy of just a couple of lines. That’s what I aspire to.

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