Illustrator Richard Wilkinson on turning pop culture icons into insects

Plus how Richard brings so much emotion to his portraits of people, how much detail is too much and what he still finds challenging to draw.

Richard Wilkinson is best known for producing digital editorial illustrations heavy with emotion. We even got him to do a masterclass on bringing emotion to digital portraits a few years ago. But recently he's turned his attention to more quirky subject matter - though still rendering them with intense attention to detail and lighting.

Arthropoda Iconicus sees figures from Star Wars, Pokemon and Disney transformed - Gregor Samsa-like - into giant insects (ok, there's no sense of scale so they could actually be insect-sized, but permit we riffing on Kafka).

We caught up with Richard to find out more about the project, and his approach to his artworks whether the subjects are human, object or invertebrate.

"The thing I’m most excited about at the moment is a series of books I’m working on of imaginary insects that have subtle resemblances to pop-culture icons," says Richard. "It’s much less dry than it sounds.

"The first is part-finished and its working title is Arthropoda Iconicus: Invertebrates From A Far Away Galaxy and is pencilled for an October release."

"We’re working on making it look and feel like an old entomology compendium. I love these great illustrated catalogues that were so popular in the Victorian era."

DA: How has your style evolved?

RW: "It seems to evolve without me knowing it and I’m always trying to shepherd it in a direction I like!

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"I think I have a natural tendency toward more and more detail and more and more realism - but I try to steer myself a little bit away from these two impulses.

"I think what illustration does well is simplify and exaggerate so I try to remember that."

DA: What’s been your favourite illustration so far, and why?

RW: "Probably the Breaking Bad News illustrations for Intelligent Life (now 1843) [showing people in the middle of being given bad news about themselves or loved ones by medical professionals].

"Graham Black - the art director - was so open-minded and brave about how we could approach such a tricky subject and I’m really happy with how well the images worked in the magazine.

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"I was also really chuffed to be asked to make Historium by Big Picture Press for their Welcome To The Museum series. It’s really gratifying to see a book full or your illustrations front and centre on the shelf in the local bookshop!"

Image: from Historium

DA: What is your biggest source of inspiration at the moment?

RW: "It’s perhaps a bit corny, but it’s my son, Otto. He’s five and so his approach to everything is so joyful and in the moment which is something that we all tend to lose and is important to hold on to when creating.

"And I’m certainly not the first person to remark upon this, but the way kids make marks on paper when they draw is really inspiring. His lines are so uninhibited and full of life."

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DA: How do you capture such strong emotions in your life-like portraits?

RW: "I just look at loads of reference and sometimes act the emotion myself. I think a lot of emotion is ‘under the expression’. So I try to make the face look like it’s trying to hold the emotion at bay - which I think is our instinct.

"Then the eyes hold all the emotion. A lot of it is actually in the amount of water, and therefore reflection, in the eye and where we hold our lids.

"I think maybe we have evolved to be able to read a lot of emotion in just the tiniest clues in each other’s eyes so if we see eyes watering we assume sadness or nerves; if we see them widening we assume fear or excitement; and so on."

DA: How important is the detail?

RW: "Some detail is very important. I think a successful illustration - in my style or similar - is about choosing the right detail and highlighting it by removing details that aren’t as important. I can’t help adding more and more detail sometimes! I have to fight it where it’s not necessary."

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DA: What is the most challenging part of drawing a person to draw and why?

RW: "For me it’s the limbs and extremities - feet seem especially problematic. I’m not naturally great at drawing figures from imagination so I need to create lots of reference and edit the drawing a lot until it doesn’t look like an alien."

DA: What is your most treasured tool for illustration?

RW: "I would say it’s my Wacom Cintiq. It means I can sketch freely without worrying about mistakes. I’m thinking of investing in an iPad Pro for the same reason, plus portability, though."