Artist Interview with Stephen Collins
14 November 2023
Meet Stephen Collins, an illustrator who began his creative career as a journalist at The Times. This November, we sat down for a heart-to-heart, delving into the tale of his incredible career. From doodling in the student newspaper at UEA to freelancing as an illustrator, Collins unfolds his artistic saga with a touch of humour and a lot of heart. Now, he's the maestro of storytelling in comics and children's books, and he's got a graphic novel up his sleeve…
Can you tell us about your journey as an illustrator and how you started in this field?
While art was always my primary focus at school, I later developed an interest in studying English at university, with the idea of maybe ‘coming back’ to art later on. Despite not attending art school, I edited the student newspaper during my English and Philosophy studies at UEA. This role introduced me to Photoshop, and I began incorporating my drawings into the publication. Through student journalism, I entered a feature-writing competition, winning work experience at The Times.
This led to a nearly two-year stint as a 'researcher,' essentially an informal, untrained journalist. Being a freelancer for them allowed me to pitch the idea of including my illustrations in the paper, which I would do when I got home from the office at night. I did that until one day I realised I was better at the drawings than the journalism, so I left The Times and embraced full-time freelancing as an illustrator. So in the end, I did manage to come back to art.
What inspired your transition into the world of comics, and how has this shift impacted your creative process and artistic style?
In my teens I liked writing as much as I liked drawing - I even loved writing essays! But I never found a form of writing that I felt “oh I can do this”. As I said, journalism really wasn’t for me, so when I became an illustrator I shelved the writing bit. But I found that I missed it. I also found that I *hated* doing single-panel cartoons - I always felt like I wanted to write a comedy sketch when I was doing cartoon commissions. But no UK newspapers would accept long strips - they were all a maximum of four panels.
I had to spend a long time convincing editors that if they gave me a bit more space, I could ‘draw’ them a comedy sketch. I did it for The Times at first, then Prospect magazine - and then a friend said “oh you make comics” - and I’d never really thought of them like that, but he introduced me to the world of ‘grown-up’ comics, and I started contributing stuff to small press anthologies. I found that that scratched the writing itch again.
What role does humour play in your work?
I think it’s the main element - whatever I’m illustrating I’ll try to find some sort of humour to lift it a bit. The nice thing about doing this for a few years is that people tend to see that and only come to you for work that would suit your style.
Winning an Observer/Jonathan Cape Graphic Short Story prize was a significant accomplishment in your career. Could you tell us more about the winning story and why you feel it stood out to the judges?
I’d already started my career by entering a competition at uni, so I felt like entering another one might help me along a bit more. I had looked at the competition and realised I could do it well - it was a full newspaper spread, and I realised that I just had to do something interesting enough for the judges and ‘worth reading’ enough for the readers. It was on my honeymoon and we were camping in rainy France, not wanting to get out of the tent, while I was in the campsite laundrette waiting for our clothes to dry, I scripted a story about a couple who decided never to get out of bed. It was a simple story-starter, but I realised I could go quite ‘dark’ with it - a sort of body-horror thing which had this nice visual metaphor to hang the design around. Design, story, visuals, tone, meaning - competitions are all about ticking the boxes!
You've illustrated children's books, including the "Baby Frank" series. How does your approach to illustration differ when creating art for children's books compared to your other work?
I started getting interested in that after the birth of my first child - also called Frank - and like all young parents going “I could have a go at that”, I gave it a try. It’s a lot harder than that of course, but it was very fun to tweak my style for a kid's book. My first draft had *way* too many panels so the excellent Art Director Stephanie Amster at Bloomsbury encouraged me to see the images through a young child’s eyes - how they interpret them narratively.
What is the dream project or client you would love to work with?
I love to work with anyone! It’d be great to get involved with advertising creative a bit more - I always have a lot of ideas of how I could do that sort of stuff.
Any exciting projects on the horizon?
I’ve been finishing off a graphic novel for Faber and Faber for a long time now so I’m really enjoying getting that into the final straight. It’s a funny-sad sort of thing called Susan Wogan’s Journey To The Stars, and is about two rival waxworks museums by the sea.
Explore Collin's portfolio on our website now...