Profile: Jo Ratcliffe

"I have eureka moments in the middle of the night." admits Jo Ratcliffe. From illustrating Sindy for Marvel Comics to drawing real-life supermodels and designing for leading fashion labels, this artist's career isn't short of breakthroughs!

"I don't really like creating illustration with a narrative," says Jo Ratcliffe. "I like iconic images. I'm interested in design, and typographic illustration allows me to include drawings of women - or whatever I want - without needing to describe or say something."

Ratcliffe's typographic work is but one part of a burgeoning career that has so far taken in pure illustration, editorial work, fashion shoots, album covers and more. Perhaps best known is her work for the likes of Dazed & Confused, Nylon, Vogue and Wallpaper, all of which showcase her adeptness for glam subjects - in contrast to the purely illustrative, generally darker pieces that she creates for music artists. But, as they say, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Although Ratcliffe has always loved drawing, and found it easy even as a child, she says it never really occurred to her to consider it as a full-time job. "The career grew organically rather than from a childhood determination to do what I do now... I didn't really think it was something many people managed to make a career out of."

After "much persuasion" by her art teacher and her parents, she went to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to study fine art, specialising in printmaking - the traditional way. While successful at the course, there was no plumb job to step into immediately, and Ratcliffe soon found herself working as "a bored receptionist" at toy company Hasbro.

First breaks
It was this position that led to her first real art job: drawing the comic book adventures of Sindy for Marvel Comics, one of Hasbro's many licensed properties. Was that something she ever expected to be doing? "No not at all! Although I loved Sindy as a kid, much more than Barbie for some reason!

Although this may not have been a traditional route into the industry, Ratcliffe was now on her way, gradually making inroads into the illustration business. "I was living with an art director, who asked me to create some illustrations for a magazine she was working on, then I was asked by another art director to create some illustrations and I started to put a portfolio together," she explains. "Then, about a year later, after seeing agencies and companies with my book, I was phoned by an agent who took me on. I think I was very fortunate."

These days her style is hard to pin down; it appears she can turn her hand to just about any form of illustration. From clean, lean magazine spreads to curling typographic experiments and photomontages, it's difficult to define the Jo Ratcliffe 'look'. It's not a deliberate strategy, she says, but it works to her advantage.

"I don't want to be pigeonholed - or haven't wanted to be yet - so it would go against the attitude towards my work to try to characterise it. I suppose I'm somewhere between a designer's illustrator and an illustrator's illustrator. However, now that I've been illustrating for a few years, I feel like settling down with a particular style!" Early influences included Raymond Pettibon ("Not that you'd ever know that!"), Gustav Dor© and Arthur Rackham, but now, she says, "I'm not sure I have a design hero."

Whatever style she adopts in the future, it's likely to be influenced by both portraiture and typography, two areas that Ratcliffe has grown to love - and in which she continues to excel. "I've drawn so many faces now that my ability to draw has increased tenfold. There's not many faces I can't draw," she says. "Although a couple of years ago I had a lot of trouble with Cameron Diaz€¦ Not personally, of course, but she was impossible to draw."

Self-taught
Coming from a background of working with traditional media, she later taught herself Photoshop and Illustrator - still her tools of choice. She approaches each job completely differently and with fresh eyes, which may explain some of the visual versatility: no two jobs ever look the same.

"There are so many things I experiment with," she explains. "I couldn't tell you that I have any specific method. I can be inspired by anything from a photograph to something I've seen at a gallery. Most of the time, if I keep my head buried in my work, I have eureka moments in the middle of the night and make a note of those ideas."

As always, being receptive to new ideas has to be juggled with deadlines. "If you can vary your approach then you will vary the result, but there isn't always time to experiment. In fact, there's rarely time. I gather quite a lot of reference material, which I'm still not sure I would advise, as it could just distract you for longer."

A commission from Sony gave Ratcliffe a taste of what being a pampered full-time illustrator could be like - in theory, at least. The brief was an ad for the company's latest Walkman products, and the idea was to create dynamic shapes using both photos of the gear and illustration, a task uniquely suited to Ratcliffe's skills.

Her butterfly design proved ambitious. "My little laptop at home couldn't take the size of the work we were making, so I worked in-house in Soho," she explains. "I'd been working from home in Buckinghamshire at the time, so having to leave the house to go to work was a welcome change, and it was the first time I felt like what I was doing was a real job.

"I had people making me as much tea as I could drink, preparing files for me to work with so that I just had to do my bit, and then I was taken out for something to eat each night and brought home," she laughs.

Particularly during her earlier career, Ratcliffe's work has also become strongly linked with the fashion industry. Labels such as Levi Strauss and Dolce & Gabbana have employed her talents, and society darling Sadie Frost has just commissioned a portrait. Unusually, she has also produced fashion spreads where she was in control of the initial photoshoots, mixing the results with her own illustrations - such as Wallpaper's summer fashion feature.

Keeping control
Is this level of control important to her, and would she consider moving further in that direction? "I'd love to do more projects where I have full control and a good budget, but I suppose so would everyone - that's half the challenge nowadays. Usually there isn't time to let something develop organically with magazine and advertising deadlines, so it's great to work out what you want from the start."

In fact, she reveals, this working method evolved out of necessity: "Early on, most of the projects where I used illustration with photography were due to the fact that the photography wasn't up to much -and there are some things you just can't rescue," she laughs.

What about the clich that fashion clients, art directors and photographers can be, well, somewhat tricky to work with? That's not necessarily the case in Ratcliffe's view: "I've done some fun and easy jobs - and some have been a royal pain in the arse!"

Understandably reluctant to name names, she cites a project for a product from a few years ago, in which she was commissioned for one part and ended up doing the whole thing. "A couple of years later, a different company who had taken over the product called me in to create another illustration," she continues. "The new company had a drawing of what they wanted, but the art director hadn't worked on the previous project, so hadn't been through the learning curve we had with that. Essentially, they were asking me to redraw their drawing and it didn't work. They stifled the process by being over-precious about their initial idea."

Having been through many such experiences, good and bad, Ratcliffe now feels it's time to take stock and work on personal projects. "I haven't given myself a minute since I started to let myself breathe," she explains. "I want to work on ideas that have remained as notes in my notebook for some time."

Such projects include a "huge" illustration of a building, more typography work, and an animation experiment with a friend. Barring distractions, she hopes all this will culminate in an exhibition planned for the end of the year or the start of 2008. "I've also booked some time in a print studio to make etchings and, finally, I'm working on putting together an A-Z of the prints on my website, which will feature in the forthcoming D&G book," she adds. Not bad for someone who never wanted to be an illustrator in the first place.

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