East London, UK
John Devolle, aka Clear As Mud, has a distinctive illustration style that creates seamless digital infographics and diagrammatical images sought after by business and educational publications alike.
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Describe your working style in five words.
Simple, clumsy, humorous, bold and flat.
How do you feel your personal work feeds into your commissioned work?
Sometimes I go for great periods without doing any personal work at all, especially when I’m very busy with client work. Ironically, I find I have the most ideas for personal projects when I’m at my busiest, so I often end up frantically working on some personal project when the client work deadlines are stacking up. I find personal work does definitely feed into and help with the commissioned work. It is a chance to develop your style and experiment; you never know when something you created through pure experimentation will come in handy for a commissioned job.
You distinctly work in the vector format, but what was it that led you to this style of working and what benefits does it include within working on commissions?
I’m not exactly sure what led me down the path of vector illustration. I studied fine art at university and during that time my work was much more hands-on painting, printmaking – very much rooted in drawing. Post university I ended up working in graphic design for many years (as you can’t really earn a living as an artist) so, from then on, I was always working on computers. I guess I just realised that I like the simplicity of drawing with vectors. My work is quite simple and graphical, and mostly made up of geometric shapes, so the quickest and easiest way for me to work is using Adobe Illustrator. That said, I do sometimes include additional, hand-made textures in my work but the drawing itself is very much vector-based. When working on commissions it is helpful to be working in vectors as it’s normally very quick and easy to edit files. Though sometimes this can mean clients want to tweak things too much. I prefer it when I’m working quite quickly, spontaneously even, as sometimes things don’t quite line up, or are a little awkward. So, although I work in vectors, I work very much by eye rather than being too mathematical about it.
Working within illustration and creativity can have its highs and lows. What are your three constraints and three motives to work during the day?
I’m a great believer in having constraints, whether self imposed or client imposed, so I find that most things that are constraints are also motivations for me. The main ones are:
Clients. Clients bring opportunities and constraints in equal measures. Normally this relationship works just fine, as I quite like to have a clear, tight, brief. It forces you to come up with creative answers and focuses you on what is really important. The times when it becomes a problem are usually when the client has an unrealistic idea in their head already, which is totally outside your style and/or not a good idea anyway. Alternatively, the old favourite “We want you to come up with lots of ideas, be really creative and go for it!” when they already have a very specific idea of what they want in mind. So that kind of constraint can be a nightmare but most of the time it works pretty well.
Having a dog. I have a beagle called Joe, who I usually bring to the studio. Walking and looking after him means I have to get up and out of the house by a certain time every morning to give him the exercise he needs. This discipline really helps with my work practice. Being a freelance illustrator means you can generally get up whenever you like, even working into the night if you want, but I don’t think that is very healthy long term, so the dog gives me a routine and a reason to get dressed and leave the house everyday that I otherwise wouldn’t have. It also helps me switch off from work mode, which is when I find I’m normally struck by ideas for work! I have got into the routine now of reading a brief and then trying to forget about it. When I’m walking the dog or on a train not really thinking about much, or looking at a leaf or whatever, that’s when I’ll usually have an idea. However, at times it can be a real hassle when you’re juggling multiple jobs or if you’re really up against it; the last thing you need is a needy mutt hassling you because he wants to be taken on a walk (it can be really frustrating). So, like most things, it has its good and bad points – I’d say mostly good though.
Money. This can be a good motivating factor; I need to pay my mortgage etc every month so I have to work, even if it’s sometimes on pretty unexciting stuff, but it’s good to be working as it keeps you in the right frame of mind. I often find myself having more creative ideas when I’m at my busiest, whilst I’m thinking about one job I’ll have an idea for another. Obviously you can be too busy and I have had a couple of periods recently where I have had to turn down work, which feels so wrong. It’s always tempting to take on the extra work because in the back of your mind you’re thinking “next week I might not have anything!” but there are definitely times when you do need to just say no. I suppose I need to get better at making the most of the quiet times like my own promotional work and personal projects etc.
How important do you feel it is to exhibit your work?
I haven’t really exhibited my work much so far, so not that important at the moment. I know other people who have found it to be a benefit though. I have had the odd illustration in a couple of group shows and I do intend to get involved in more exhibitions in the future but it’s really a matter of finding the time at the moment.
What three things are most valuable to you in your studio?
Adobe Illustrator: Pretty boring choice but it’s the tool I use to do pretty much all of my work.
Coffee plunger: Helps me get through the day – I can’t function without it, plus I like the ritual.
Being around other Illustrators / Designers: Very useful when you need advice, a fresh pair of eyes on something or just some mindless banter.
How did you find the transition between working in a solo studio to a joint space? Were there any obstacles you had to face that you didn’t expect?
It was something I had thought about doing for a while before I did, but I had to get to a point where I felt I was earning enough to justify the extra expense. But now I’m here I am really enjoying it. I work in a shared studio space called Millers Junction in Dalston. At first I was a little intimidated walking in there with all these people because previously, having been used to working on my own, I wasn’t used to other people being able to see what I was doing. Once I got know a few people and realised we were all in the same boat, I really began to appreciate the camaraderie and the social side of things.
How do you feel being part of an agency represented as a freelance illustrator has helped with your work?
Prior to having an agent I had done a fair bit of client work, but when I was taken on by Folio it was a massive boost to me mentally as it felt like I was a ‘proper’ illustrator. This gave me more confidence about my ideas in general and made me less afraid to put forward things that might be rejected. More directly, Folio has won me jobs that I wouldn’t have otherwise had and also built up a couple of regular clients/commissions.
What one quote keeps your inspired?
I don’t really have a quote that I keep in mind but one I read recently that I love and is sort of relevant is by Douglas Adams:
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”