Illustrator Harry Woodgate on his abstract collage-infused scenes

Harry Woodgate won third place at the Penguin Student Design Awards 2017 and was shortlisted for the Batsford Prize. He tells us about his latest projects and unique style.

Illustrator Harry Woodgate beautifully combines mixed-media and collage with digital processes to create unique and eye-catching scenes. Using this style for a whole range of purposes, Harry is currently working on a daily Instagram project, a graphic novel and editorial illustrations alongside his own more abstract personal pieces. 

Studying at the University of Hertfordshire, Harry’s talent has already been noticed and appreciated. This year alone, he was shortlisted for the Batsford Prize 2017 and earned a commendation in the YCN Student Awards. His most prestigious prize was earning 3rd Place in Penguin’s Adult Fiction Cover Award for his brilliant cover of Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

He designed this illustration for the Turn Up! Campaign which encouraged young voters to participate in the UK general elections. He's also drawn wonderful pieces in response to current social issues such as Pride 2017, and is working on a graphic novel.

Inspired by activism, nature, psychology and literature, all of Harry's drawings encompass his main aim in illustration: storytelling.

We speak to Harry about his creative process, biggest inspirations and upcoming projects.

Miriam Harris: Tell me a bit about yourself.

Harry Woodgate: "I decided I wanted to be an illustrator as soon as I could talk, and although I went through phases of somewhat more impressive career ambitions - architect, psychologist, film director - I eventually realised that drawing things for a living was, and always had been, my inescapable fate. I'm currently studying Illustration at the University of Hertfordshire and plan on going into editorial and book illustration.

"Apart from drawing things, I spend most of my time cycling, petting my two gorgeous dogs, wasting too much time on social media, and existing in a perpetual state of low level existential crisis. Even in the summer, I drink enough hot chocolate to sink a battleship."

MH: How would you describe your overall style?

HW: "It’s always hard pinpointing your own style, but people tell me I have one, so I’ll trust that judgement! I love collage, quirky characters, and being able to tell some kind of a story through an image, so I think those are probably key elements. Illustration for me has always been a way of understanding the world and the people in it, so I hope that my images have their own unique personality, and hopefully a sense of the enjoyment I get out of making them."

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MH: Who and what inspires you? 

HW: "Those are definitely a few main threads that run through a lot of my work. I’m really interested in psychology, and in particular issues surrounding mental health, so that often crops up in my images, along with things like LGBTQ+ rights, politics, current affairs. I was really bookish as a kid so that’s probably where the interest in narrative and storytelling comes from - it’s just such a great feeling being immersed in a fictional world, that sense of escapism you can get.

"Overall I think what motivates me the most is being able to say something through illustration - like, without sounding too high and mighty, it’s a heck of a privilege to be able to do this in the first place, so if I can communicate something important or make a tangible difference then that makes it a lot more worthwhile I think."

MH: Tell us about your design for To Kill a Mockingbird, which won third at the Penguin Design Awards?

HW: "It actually still feels a little surreal that that happened if I’m honest! It was a really cool experience to be listed alongside some other brilliant designs and to meet some of the folks at Penguin.

"The biggest thing that stood out for me when I read the book were these conflicting ideas about racial discrimination versus childish innocence, so I wanted to make something that explored that opposition in an interesting illustrative way. The dual image of the mockingbird and the profile of the face encapsulated that for me - I quite like how it’s not clear which character the face represents - is it Scout, looking on at things from the point of view of a child, Atticus as the moral authority, or maybe a symbol of white American society and its prejudices? That was pretty much the kind of thinking behind it."

MH: Talk us through your creative process.

HW: "Most of the time I work digitally - I’ll scan in hand-painted textures along with old bits of newspaper or sheet music, and then put it all together in Photoshop. There’s still something lovely about cutting out and assembling collages by hand, but when something invariably goes wrong and you have to carefully peel it off the page and pray the paper doesn’t rip and ruin everything, it reminds you how much easier things would be on the computer.

"In terms of coming up with ideas, usually I’ll just sketch out some basic concepts and then just see where an image takes me. I’ve tried planning things out more carefully but it’s more fun to have that spontaneity I think, to just play around with things and see how they grow by themselves."

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MH: What is your 'Wild Country' series based on?

HW: "Wild Country was the first project I did at university - we were given the task of visiting two locations around Bournemouth and coming up with an ‘illustrated universe’ inspired by those places. I took a train out to the New Forest and also over to Corfe Castle, which is this beautiful old ruin up on the top of a hill that looks as if it’s straight out of a children’s book, so that’s what those illustrations are based on. I wanted to capture a feeling of adventure and mystery, of escaping into this imagined wilderness like Narnia or Middle Earth or something."

MH: Your personal illustrations are abstract and surreal, yet many of your editorial illustrations are more figurative. Do you prefer one style?

HW: "Recently I’ve been getting more into abstract work I think. Figurative stuff is good for communicating something very quickly, but I do enjoy it when an illustration is open to interpretation, where the viewer has to think a bit more about what’s being portrayed.

"My tendency always used to be to add way more detail than necessary so it’s been a process of consciously stripping things back and getting rid of all that extra fluff that gets in the way. I remember my university tutors always told me that less is more, and they're 100 percent right even if I didn't want to admit it at the time."

MH: What are some recent projects you've finished?

HW: "Besides my university work and editorial commissions, I’m doing an ongoing project where I illustrate one character every day and upload that to Instagram and other social media places. It’s just for fun but it’s good practice and it keeps the inspiration flowing. I was lucky enough to have my work awarded a commendation at the YCN Student Awards this year so there’s that as well, which is pretty neat."

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MH: What's on the horizon for you?

HW: "Off the top of my head I’m working on a graphic novel, which is this weird as hell metaphysical tale about a ghost girl, a talking magpie and Pieter Bruegel’s renaissance painting ‘The Hunters in The Snow’ - as well as a children’s book based on my two rescue dogs, and then a bunch of commissioned projects on top of that.

"A few years ago I started this online comic about a man in a post apocalyptic world who manages to rig up a computer and somehow log into Twitter, and each illustration is like him live-tweeting life in the apocalypse, and trying to find out if there are any other survivors out there. I still find the idea kind of funny so maybe I'll start that up again one day."