Swansea-born illustrator Gillette moved from London to San Francisco in search of a different way of life. He tells Julia Sagar how the Californian creative scene compares to his native UK
"San Francisco is definitely a much quieter scene than London," declares Michael Gillette, the man behind the iconic cover artwork for Penguin's 2008 James Bond series. Born in Swansea, south Wales, this illustrator, artist and die-hard Beatles fan is a good authority on the subject, having spent 13 years living and working in the UK's capital city before making the life- changing decision to move to the States 12 years ago.
"There's less of a 'hot house' environment," he continues. "Britain is like 'Novelty Island' - because it's so much smaller, things get played out quicker. It's a great laboratory of pop culture. I think America moves slower, but on a bigger scale. That also means things can mature more organically. The last decade, though, has seen a greater homogenisation all round, and I think that's a shame."
Gillette's distinctive pop-art style is threaded with a 1960s British mod aesthetic. It's won him an impressive client list over the years, and his portfolio boasts such names as the Beastie Boys, Urban Outfitters, Greenpeace, Oxfam and MTV. "I've always been inspired by pop culture," he says. "The Beatles were my initial guides into the world of music, art and culture, spirituality - the whole deal. I discovered Peter Blake through them, and he was a huge influence early on."
"In my teens I found visual representations of pop music and attitude really exciting - artists like David Oxtoby and Guy Pellaert," Gillette continues. "Then I discovered the 1960s San Francisco poster scene - Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin especially. I now live a couple of streets away from where Rick Griffin made his posters, so it's that music-art crossover really."
It seems fitting, given his roots, that Gillette was the illustrator chosen by Penguin to revitalise the jacket artwork for the ultimate international symbol of all things British: Ian Fleming's James Bond. "I got an email from Jon Gray, a designer who I'd known from my time in London," he recalls. "He sent me the original poster of Casino Royale and said that Penguin were interested in taking this as a starting point, and getting me to run with it. They wanted me to create 14 book jackets."
Inspired by his love for the 1960s and the Bond aesthetic, Gillette began doodling straight away - unusually, without any reference material to work from. Once he found the right vibe, he honed the design and sent it to Penguin as a visual. Two test covers and a switch to watercolour later, he was offered the job.
"The process was the same: I would draw the girl, trace her onto watercolour paper, stretch and paint her," he says. "Then I'd tint the colours in Photoshop. The type was hand-drawn mostly, refined over and over again, then converted into paths and tweaked some more. I tried to keep everything as organic-looking as possible. Despite the polishing, I wanted them to look as fresh and natural as possible."
It's rare for an illustrator to be asked to create the typography as well as the image, but the final designs achieve a striking unity with their minimal colour palettes and 1960s-inspired lettering treatments. The colours proved challenging, he admits, particularly with Thunderball: "Penguin insisted on a green one, which was harder to work with than the more natural skin tones; people started to look ill, or alien, so I really resisted doing that one," Gillette confesses. "Had there been time for proofs, the green one would have had a makeover she printed kind of grey."
The biggest test, however, was making the covers work as a whole when displayed in a bookshop. "I think they hang together as a set well. They're readable from about a mile away - they really catch the eye."
So what motivated Gillette to up sticks and move from London to San Francisco? The seeds were sown after taking a holiday in the area in 1997. "I immediately felt at home," he explains. "It made London look like a murky festival of litter and rain to me. London was all about 'the scene' during my twenties. I visited San Francisco and saw a different way of living."
A few years later he took the plunge, but not before first ensuring he had a solid client base. "It was a necessary step," he says, explaining that his visa, which took a year to process, required endorsement from 10 "design bigwigs" and sponsorship from an American agent. "Don't laugh," he grins, "but an O-1 visa is for 'exceptionally gifted aliens'. It [the endorsement] isn't so easy to come by until you've had fairly involved work relationships with these folks."
Being located in the States has opened new doors for Gillette, allowing him to meet clients and pitch directly for work. "There's always the novelty factor. There's still a cach© to being a British creative. They think we're classy," he laughs. "I have worked with many Bay Area companies now, including Levi's, Apple, Dwell magazine, Chronicle books and Mekanism production studio. Dwell magazine was a very face-toface relationship. The art director said to me: 'We want you to be Dwell's illustrator'. I thought she was joking, but they used me solidly for a couple of years. Saying that, most of the work I do is remote. I worked for Manchester City last week."
Uniquely, Gillette approaches illustration from a designer's stance. Instead of having a set style or medium, he chooses the most appropriate media to best answer a brief. "I think my work is at a nexus between design and illustration," he reflects. "At college I always felt more like a designer, but one who liked to design using his own images. I started out doing record sleeves - I did the layout as well as the images. Sometimes I'd collage; other times I'd paint, or have a 3D solution. Evolution wise, my style has changed visually, but at its core is the feeling that I'm always trying to evoke, which has been constant: to make images with the energy of rock and roll."
Gillette opted for a collage approach in his billboard work for Nokia. Briefed to create three sets of headphones that reflected the tagline 'music almighty', he chose a steampunk theme, reconfiguring some 19th Century etchings from a book of his into a set of very modern headphones. "No stylistic direction was given," he recalls. "The images were to be used alongside those from other illustrators doing the same brief, and separately on bus shelters, buses, billboards and in magazines. The main thing that I kept in mind was that they should work like T-shirt graphics, so I needed something that would hold up with very little colour, and had strong line work."
Facing a tight deadline - he was initially asked to pitch for the project, and given two days to create three images for the client to assess - Gillette began by creating a horned and clawed design, before scanning and manipulating it in Photoshop. Despite being deep in the heart of the Bond job when he received the Nokia commission, the project went unbelievably smoothly and the final designs were completed in little over a week. "I'm still in awe," he laughs. "The job just flowed. I'm proud that I managed to snap in such a totally different direction from the Bond covers so quickly."
There are advantages to Gillette's versatility. "The breadth of work I get as a result is interesting, and has kept me earning and learning," he says. "Sometimes people see my work and ask for a repeat, but others allow it to develop into a different place." His favourite works are those that are strongly ideas-based, he continues, where the content dictates the form. Other times, though, he'll operate in a purely aesthetic mode. "It's more a case of, 'What can I do now to make this more interesting for me? What does this weird pencil do?'" He grins: "After all, repetition turns a nice groove into a rut, and, after the rut, into rot."
The disadvantage of this approach, of course, is that a singular style makes it easier to identify an artist. Gillette shrugs: "I'm happier this way. I like a challenge."
His work for independent publisher Chronicle Books saw him creating 70 full-colour caricatures on the theme of music, and provided just such a challenge. "I had never done anything quite like it," he admits. "The fee and short deadline dictated that the work would have to be done very quickly. Also, we'd just had a baby, so the job had to be extra flexible. However, I'd been thinking about doing some caricature-based work for quite some time - although I had never actually done any - so this was a chance to take it 'live', so to speak."
Gillette was sent a PDF outlining the themes of the illustrations: some he liked; others less so. It was approximately a 50:50 split, so he set about proposing some new illustrations for approval, while also drawing the remaining designs. "My goal every week was to finish 12 illustrations," he says. "I wouldn't work weekends because of the baby, so I drew up to five illos a day, in black ink, from Monday to Wednesday, and then coloured them on Thursday and Friday. I have never worked with quite such discipline over such a long period of time."
The brief was music themed, and pop culture ran riot. Over the next two months Gillette created all 70 illustrations, facing only one major problem during that time. "The brief said '70 illustrations: four colour'," he explains, "but in my baby-addled mind, I read this as '66 black and white, and four in colour'." He grins: "I did the eight test illos all in black and white. Chronicle said: 'Very nice. Can we see them in colour?'" He laughs. "It's a really fun publication," he adds, "and another door that's opened up."
Looking forward, there's a retrospective book in the pipeline, which he says is well under way. "Once it's printed I'll have an exhibition to accompany it," he can reveal. "That's prime at the moment."
For Gillette, illustration is all about those "eureka" moments, and the "primal glee" of creating artwork that he's proud of. He lists an animation job for the Beastie Boys among his career highlights - "It was fun, I have a lot of respect for them and it was a good meaty project" - as well as an album cover for Paul McCartney. "Sadly, the whole project was cancelled," he says. "As a kid, I was obsessed with The Beatles. They cleaved my young mind wide open, so it was very surreal to think of Macca looking at my work."
He admits his style has been affected by the move. "Where you live definitely has an effect on your work," he agrees. "A huge draw here was the light and the look of the place. My work has become more nature-orientated - which I never touched in London - especially when I first moved. The Victorian and psychedelic aesthetics of this city really flooded in. I guess it's got more 'hippified' around the edges. These days I feel like something has changed in the way I think about my work. It's a freedom that has definitely been fostered by living here."
So, does he have any advice to anyone thinking about moving abroad? "Do it. There's so much uncertainty working as a creative, but there are incredible benefits too, and the ability to work anywhere is definitely one of them. Come get it while it's hot."