Harry Tennant's brilliant conceptual illustrations capture his screen printing roots

London illustrator Harry Tennant on using a limited colour palette and little detail in his observational drawings.

Personal work

Harry Tennant is a master of bold conceptual and figurative illustrations with a simple colour palette.

The previous Falmouth University student now lives back in London, where he was born, creating observational drawings with block colours which reference his background in traditional screen printing. This can can be seen through his use of texture and overlapping layers.

Harry doesn’t like working in too much detail; but emphasises shape and composition. Represented by the Central Illustration Agency, his style is described as "narrative driven work with a healthy does of grit".

After graduating with a first class degree from university specialising in editorial illustration in 2012, his work has featured at D&AD New Blood and in numerous editorials such as BBC Wildlife Magazine, Buzzfeed, WIRED and Libération.

He tells us how his approach to illustration is identical to preparing a traditional screenprint, loose observational sketching and how to find clients after graduating.

Personal Work

Miriam Harris: How is your background in traditional screen printing evident in your current work?

Harry Tennant: "The most evident part is the use of texture, overlapping layers and large areas of block colour. In terms of making the illustrations, the approach is identical to preparing a traditional screen print.

"I start with a sketch, then draw and compose each layer (which will be an individual colour) separately. The only difference is that they are then overlaid digitally, rather than exposing on to silkscreens and screen printing them. For most commercial work it’s simply not feasible to make an actual screen print, though I still do it wherever possible."

Personal Work

MH: A lot of your illustrations are observational. How do you determine the composition of these scenes?

HT: "It all starts with very loose observational sketches, and the composition evolves from these. Sometimes it’s a case of collaging the sketches together, and sometimes it’s about cropping small areas of drawings to find a composition from my initial work. It can be that a composition will be integral to a concept and so I’d start with thumbnails and more observational drawings will follow."

MH: Talk us through the creative process of your work.

HT: "It starts with researching the subject or reading a specific article, text or book. I don’t really have a set order of things I do to create a piece of work, I tend to just look at the project and decide how best to approach it. Usually it’s a case of lots of reading, and trying to understand and analyse the subject. Then lots and lots of sketching and doodling follow, until I find a visual concept of some kind. This is how most of my time is spent on a project. After all this I move onto the final illustration."

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'Fake News' for Libération

MH: Why do you add a lot of texture and pattern to your work, but remain in a small palette of colours?

HT: "The limited colour palette is something I’ve always liked. It used to be in the form of small gouache paintings when I was at university. I love the effect of bright, vibrant colours against more subtle, de-saturated hues. Later whilst studying I got into screen printing, which is well suited to using a limited colour palette.

"I like this approach as you have to choose the colours very carefully as they have so much impact on the image. Similarly to the use of positive and negative space in printmaking, you have to be economical with the use of colour. It’s something that underpins my illustrations and I enjoy working this way."

'Memory' for Libération

MH: What’s been your favourite illustration to date and why?

HT: "I would say my favourite is one of my illustrations for Libération, the one on the subject of memory (seen here). I’ve done a lot of illustrations for Libération, always for their section on philosophical issues, so it can be quite challenging to come up with concepts as the features deal with subjects that are quite intangible, though it’s a challenge I really enjoy.

"I feel this one worked well as a visually interesting representation of a very intangible concept – the idea that our memory is a kind of fiction that each of us create through our perceptions and experiences, and exists in our minds."

For Thames & Hudson

MH: You’ve only graduated a few years ago but have a large body of clients. What advice do you have for newly grads in illustration?

HT: "It actually took me a couple of years after graduating to really start getting any commissions. In fact I think I only had one commission in the year following university. I found it hard to keep motivated at times, but I spent as much time as I could just drawing or doing personal work, printmaking, entering illustration competitions and illustrating short comics too.

"All this really helped to develop the kind of visual style my work has now. Though my course was fantastic, and I learned so much, as a student I think I focused too much on trying to emulate what I saw successful illustrators were doing, in the years after it was more about working the way I enjoyed the most, and was most personal to me. I started picking up a lot more work after this.

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'Birds' for Quartz

HT: "In terms of getting new clients, just try and get your work out there as much as possible and meet as many people in the industry as you can. Twitter and Instagram are perfect for showing all your recent work or even just pages from sketchbooks. After graduating it was difficult to adjust to not getting constant feedback on work from tutors and students, and I tended to keep a lot of my work to myself. Make lots of illustrations and show them to people even if you’re not entirely happy with them yourself. Even now I have to tell myself to do that, but it works."

Personal Work

MH: What projects are on the horizon?

HT: "I’m working on a very exciting book project at the moment, a cover illustration plus some reportage style black and white drawings inside. I’m also in the early stages of illustrating a graphic novel, collaborating with a writer, though finding time for this amongst commissions is not so easy. It will happen at some point."