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Drawing the Best out of Things

Lara Medlam talks to illustrator Izzy Johns about pens, paper, imagination and the challenges faced by fledgling artists

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Image: Izzy Johns

Izzy Johns has been busy with a commission. And when you look at the intricacy and verve in her work, it's no wonder that it wasn't easy to find a calm moment to shoot the breeze about her art, ideas and the biting challenge of actually earning proper money for your talent, time and originality. Izzy's talent and originality are undeniable. Her main focus is illustration, and the drawings she creates are clever, authentic and often mind-bending. Crammed with strange, flowing curlicues, the black lines whirl around and interlace to create intriguing, playful and occasionally unsettling images.

She uses colour sparingly, focusing more on the shapes that bloom from her inquisitive imagination. When it comes to inspiration, Izzy possesses this sparky openness. "I like moss, synths, pixels, all types of music and everything else really." These off-hand mentions of seemingly unrelated tit-bits highlight a wild visual appetite and Izzy's willingness to play around with whatever's out there is partly why so many ripe commissions have come her way. She's designed heaps of posters, generally focusing on club nights. Her work for the Leeds-based Loop Hole Dub night and House for the Homeless are some local Yorkshire examples, but you're just as likely to see her work adorning walls, windows and even the occasional lamppost in London and Brighton. Oh, and did I mention she designs LP sleeves as well?

Image: Izzy Johns

Currently an illustration student at the University of Brighton, she dabbles well beyond pen and paper. "I love working with plasticine, my laptop, records, hair. Lots of stuff - I like book binding and sewing. Maybe I have too many half-baked hobbies..." How ever, it's the connections she's built with fellow enthusiastic creatives that are especially striking - all the while trying to work out how the hell you can actually make a living from something you love and are good at. While everyone in her university arts faculty would happily be a freelance artist, Izzy notes "that's a job that barely even exists." When it comes to getting your work noticed, it's inevitably an uphill struggle and it's no understatement when she describes that world as "competitive and generally quite brutal. Frankly, most aspects of today's creative industries are stacked against people starting out. The difficulties (competitiveness, rejection, disagreement with clients) are always going to be there, so I just keep my headspace clear when I'm working and rarely talk about a project till I'm done. The secret, I suppose, is to keep what you're doing low key and maybe the world will approach you in a more relaxed way."

It's true for everyone - a little chill goes a long way. But more seriously, Izzy makes a very salient point. Rather than get bogged down by the challenges and aspects you can't change, it's best to work out how to expand opportunities and get the most out of your projects. "When I do commissions for people I like to work with them quite closely. Particularly if I'm promoting something they've made, like with a record sleeve or a poster. The collaborative aspect of what I do is one of the best bits. It's better going on a creative journey with company." It sounds like a pretty idyllic situation, working alongside people you get along with, supporting each others' projects with your own creative contributions. This is also a valuable way to get your work seen in the early stages. Indeed, there's another valuable aspect to collaboration: "Almost every commission I've done has ended up looking completely different to how it began. Having a strong second opinion makes you notice new things about your work, it's really useful. And sometimes they just aren't into it, which can be incredibly confusing, but ultimately even more useful. It makes you realise how subjective visual preferences are."

Image: Izzy Johns

For any creative pursuit, it can be all too easy to get caught up in your own ideas and projects and forget the wider context. Izzy appears to have established a happy balance between working to other people's briefs and dredging the depths of her own effervescent imagination. For instance, when you really examine and get caught up in her drawings, it's hard to fathom exactly where they come from. "Meditation, for an illustration or com mission, that's the first practicality - I consider it to be a medium in itself. I find that the ideas for my own projects are the ones that spring up out of nowhere. Sometimes this happens when I'm just doing meditative activities like gardening or DJ-ing. Sometimes I find myself meditating in really unorthodox situations. Those are when the best ideas come. I can't tell you how many aubergines I've burned when I've been caught out by an idea." And this one goes for everyone (creative or not): don't underestimate the power of getting out and about, noticing fresh spots of novelty in amongst the everyday - Izzy agrees "Really, fresh air is a medium too."

No wonder that someone who gets so caught up in ideas is able to create images that so comprehensively capture the observer. However, this is just the initial moment in the process. "After I've had an idea and have put it down in a medium I trust, the rest is just tweaking. Ideas can keep changing while they're still going, which is why I need to keep printing, scanning, photoshopping, over and over. Because illustration isn't technical, you can kind of make up your materials as you go along. Someone who is very wise and better at photoshop than me recently said "it's not the medium, it's the vision" which is pretty spot on for illustrators." While Izzy has fun, both creating her individual pieces and working with others, she's clearly thought deeply about the implications of pursuing art fruitfully in the big, wide world. She offers some sage advice: "If you want to feel fulfilled as an artist, face up to your personal challenges. Don't shy away from things. For instance, some of mine have been: What am I trying to achieve with my art? Do I want to make art to help myself or to help the world? Do I want art to be my full-time job? Do I have a vision or do I want to help others to formulate their visions? Of course, those questions are specific to me, but you can pretty much adapt them to whatever kind of art you do."

Image: Izzy Johns

She's right; those questions can apply to any kind of creative leaning, or even business ideas or career considerations. I was struck by Izzy's perceptiveness. It's wrapped up in a cheeky, flippant package, but she possesses this deep-seated wisdom - an understanding that you have to think as well as do. With to day's art world as unstable and competitive as it is, you're obliged to recognise the difficulties as well as the pleasures, and make sure you're pursuing your ambitions for the right reasons. But clearly, some things are meant to be: "I always will and always have needed to be doing something with my hands. It started out when I was really tiny; mad hands shaking uncontrollably. To stop me from hitting people in the face, I was given a pen - a real game changer. I began with simple, abstract lines and dots (pre-1 year old territory) which I've returned to a bit lately. Over the years I've dabbled; fidget spinners, cigarettes, cat's cradle and origami - but nothing quite cuts it like pen and paper." You know that whole ten thousand hours principle, those who've spent a hell of a lot of time working on something will find their talent becomes self-evident? I'd say Izzy's work is vivid, idiosyncratic proof of that.

Image: Izzy Johns

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