Adam Larkum is a freelance Illustrator who grew up in Cambridge, England, and went to Edinburgh College of Art. His medium of choice is ink, and he primarily illustrates books and does illustrations for magazines in the UK and America.
“There are times as an illustrator where things seem impossible, but it all works out when you come out the other side. So believe it will be ok, and it generally is! That is my motto.”
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Can you please tell us a bit about your background?
I grew up in Cambridge, England. My Dad worked in banking, and he spent a fair amount of time off on foreign travel for the bank. Wherever he went, he tried to spend his time off at the art gallery. He brought slides of his favourite paintings from every gallery. My favourite memory of childhood was the slide show.
My Dad would buy a tin of chocolates for the slide show. The game was to be the first one to name the artists. Whoever shouted out the name first got a sweet thrown at them. I wasn’t very fast compared to my older brother and younger sister, but I memorised as many names as I could and did get a fair share of the sweets.
I went to art college at Edinburgh College of Art and studied Illustration and Animation. It was a fantastic time to be at Art college. We were left alone to develop our own ideas. I think I experienced the last of that type of art education. It was in a time when we didn’t in any way think of what came next, which maybe sounds wrong, but we were not under pressure to spend time thinking about our future careers. We just got totally immersed in creating artwork.
After I left college, I first worked in post-production on the graphics for adverts and tv shows. Then I was offered a job as an animator in a computer games company. That suited me much better as I was able to draw and animate again.
I worked in games for three years and then decided that I wanted to move into traditional animation. So I went back to art college and did an MA in animation at Edinburgh College of Art again.
My post-graduate time was possibly the best time I’d ever spent in education. As I’d been working for the previous three years and suddenly I was able to just focus on my own work again, I loved every day of it. For example, I made a short animated film about a boxing match.
I also had a part-time job in a local cafe. One of our regular customers was a Boxercise teacher. One day I mentioned that I was making a film about boxing but didn’t really know any moves. He said, come out into the cafe, and I’ll show you some moves. “Put your hands up like this,” he said, and he started throwing punches toward me, very fast and only just missing my head by inches. We luckily had to stop as people were looking in through the window thinking that a fight had started in the cafe. Funny to look back at but a bit unnerving at the time. I did manage to get a basic understanding from that day in the cafe. The film went well, and I went in for an animation competition with Channel 4 (a British TV station). There were four places on the scheme that were being competed for, and I got one of the places.
I moved down to London, and I was set up in an animation studio in Islington to make my film.
While making the new film, my wife suggested that I look around for an illustration agent. So I sent out CDs with my work to loads of agents all over London, and I found one, and from that moment on, my Illustration work became busier than my animation work. By then, I was working in studios across central London on TV shows and adverts, but the illustration work became more regular than the animation commissions, so I decided to focus entirely on the illustration from then on.
All of this had been entirely down to my agent finding me work with a publisher called Usborne books. So first, I worked on a book about the Roman Empire, and then from then on, I worked on book after book for them, producing around 40 books over the next 15 years. If it hadn’t been for that early break with Usborne books, I know it would have been harder to get the momentum going.
What inspired you to make art?
I just love art materials! Every time I found a new material to work with, it was just so exciting. I also grew up in a home where art galleries were a typical day out. Our bookshelves were also full of coffee-table-style art books. My Mum also loved art, and we spent every summer holiday drawing and making Lino prints and painting.
Actually, as a child, I did have a really naughty streak in me. Whenever we did the painting, I loved trying to splash my little sister in the paint from my side of the table. Finally, one day my Mum had obviously had enough. She calmly reached across the table, picked up my paint water, held it over my head, and tipped it over me. I was so shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I must have been about five years old, but it did sort of focus me from then on, and I stopped trying to do Jackson Pollocks on all the surfaces around me and got more focused on the paper in front of me.
Did you study at art school(s) or are you self-taught?
I went to Edinburgh College of Art. The competitiveness among the other students at college was as strong a motivation as the teaching.
How did you develop your own art style?
During my time at art college, my brother came for a visit to see me. When he left, he’d forgotten to take a small bottle of ink and a dip pen that he’d bought at the local art shop.
I love all art materials, so I tried playing around with them and found a naturalness to the medium that just clicked.
Certain lines and marks that you can make with ink and a dip pen I felt I recognised from Ronal Seattle, E.H.Shepherd, Jill McDonald, Peter Arno, Edward Ardizzone, Graham Laidler, and Jean Jacques Semple.
I’d grown up with this work around me, but it wasn’t till I started playing with the dip pen and ink that I saw the connection, and it felt like my thing.
I think, when you work in a medium, then it’s like you are talking in that language, and I felt I had a lot more to say in ink than any of the other mediums that I’d been working in before that.
How did you start making a living as an artist? What was your first paid art job?
My first paid job was for the Scotsman Newspaper in Edinburgh. I was in my final year at college, and I decided to print off Christmas cards and give them to friends at college. I gave one of the cards to a friend / now my wife. She put it up in her flat. Her flatmate, it turned out, was going out with a graphic designer from the Scotsman newspaper, and he got in touch with me and commissioned me to do a Christmas front cover for the TV Christmas guide. Looking back, I really didn’t know what I was doing, and at times I felt I couldn’t do it. So I kept on going, and it turned out ok. Many times, a commission has something that you just feel you can’t do, but the answer is just to keep on chipping away at it, and it always turns out fine.
Recently I found myself in a very similar situation. It was pre-pandemic, and we were on holiday in the south of Spain. I was producing two weekly illustrations for the Telegraph weekend newspaper. So I was taken aback when the designer emailed and said how I felt about producing a cover and eight small illustrations for the weekend paper as well as my usual two illustrations. I had to go sit down and calm my thoughts because I felt totally overwhelmed at the prospect. Then I got down to it, and my family went off and sat by the pool all day while I stayed in the hotel and got on with it. I had no scanner, so I had to take photos with my iPad and email them to my laptop, one drawing at a time as the email was so slow. I sent them off, and then on the way home, I brought a copy of the newspaper at the Airport when we landed in the UK.
There are times as an illustrator where things seem impossible, but it all works out when you come out the other side. So believe it will be ok, and it generally is! That is my motto.
What are you currently working on?
My latest book, “One Hundred Reasons to Hope,” came out in the shops last Thursday, and that’s taken all my time. So it’s great to have that out there now in the book shops and actually see it on the bookshelves. Around that, I’ve been working on several one-offs and illustrations for magazines in the UK and America.
What do you think are the most important characteristics of an artist?
I always keep a sketchbook with me wherever I go and a pocket full of pens. I draw whatever I see whenever I find I’m waiting somewhere. For example, I got stuck at a train station last week, and so I did a sketch of the taxi rank. I so often find that drawings that I’ve done in my sketchbooks end up as part of future commissions. Sketchbooks are rather like a gym for illustrators, the more practice you put in the better it flows when a commission comes in.
What are the art tools and other products and services you can’t live without?
Lately, I brought a stack of different nibs for my dip pen and was amazed at the difference the nib makes.
I’d been stuck just using the same type of nib for years and never considered changing it before. I love using heavy-weight Fabriano Hotpress watercolour paper. The stuff I use is as rigid as a card. The ink I use is Daler FW Purplack ink. Originally I started out using black ink but then I progressed to using Winsor & Newton Nutbrown ink. Once in a while I shake things up and change my materials so as to stay focused when I illustrate and that’s when I started buying purple ink, which looks amazing on the page and the ink washes are great also.
What are your favorite art and other books (fiction, non-fiction)?
I’m reading a book at the moment called The Fortnight in September by R.C.Sherriff. It’s the story of a family in the 1930s going off on their summer holiday at the seaside. It’s so cleverly crafted and the ideas and feelings are so well observed. It’s quite amazing how similar we are in 2021 to those people back in the 1930s.
What is your favorite quote?
Grayson Perry said that art styles are like bus stations.
You develop a style at art school and when you go out there the style is like a bus that you got on at the bus station. Then, eventually, when you are really pleased with your work you go out and show people what you’ve been doing, and they say, “Yes I like it, it kind of reminds me of,” and they will name an artist or two that you like. And so you get off that bus and get on another bus, a different style, and you get so far and decide to show people again, a publisher, for example. And then the very same thing happens, they say, “Hmmm, that reminds me of,” and they will real off a number of your new influences.
Grayson Perry said just to stay on the bus; don’t switch busses, styles, and influences. By staying on the bus you allow the work to develop and for new influences to come in and inspire you, and for your own life experiences to come into the work.
I think this is so true.
Get in touch with Adam
Thank you, Adam, for joining us today!
All artworks by Adam Larkum, used with permission.