Ed Ricketts meets the Israeli illustrator whose humour is as sharp and economical as the vector lines that define his style
"Israel is a young country and there's a tendency to do things fast, to establish a lot of things as quickly as possible," says Noma Bar when asked about his place of birth. "There was a lot of use of 'ready-mades', or existing objects - in the 70s there was a style of ashtrays made from empty bullets, the base of bullets, just mounted in a circle - so in a way I'm following that idea of using ready-mades with my work, whether it's an icon or a pictogram, or whatever."
Up until now, at least, Bar has been best known for creating two styles of image - editorial illustrations for the likes of The Guardian, the BBC and The New York Times; and portraits of the famous and infamous, which subtly encapsulate both the subject's public image and a slyer, less complimentary aspect. He's also produced two books showcasing both of these fields, called Negative Space and Guess Who?
Both styles are remarkable for their simplicity. Bar produces ultra-clean, ultra-sparse vector illustrations in which the use of negative space is at least as important as the lines themselves, and in which the use of satirical humour is paramount. Sylvester Stallone's eye and mouth become boxing gloves, for instance, and Jeremy Clarkson's now familiar features consist entirely of a gear-stick diagram.
Born in a small town in Israel, where he spent his youth, Bar's first encounter with this style of pictogram is now well known. During the first Gulf War, he was staying with his family in a shelter and discovered an image of the radioactive symbol in a newspaper. He sketched an image of Saddam Hussein around it. While undoubtedly true, this glib piece of legend belies his long-standing interest in words, pictures and hidden meanings in general, which goes right back to his childhood.
"I have liked stories all my life," Bar says from his current home in London, to which he moved back in 2000. "Telling them, reading them - and I think the original inspiration for my work was more about that than just pictograms. I always wanted to express myself, but I couldn't really use my language. If I was still in Israel I might be an author rather than an illustrator, and actually I was trained as a typographer. On coming to London I discovered there wasn't much demand for Hebrew typography. So, looking back, I took a kind of a side path and started to play with stories in pictures."
It was during a visit to London's Serpentine Gallery - "I can't remember the exhibition" - that Bar underwent something of an epiphany, deciding at that moment that it was time to stop looking at other people's work and create his own instead. Not that it was as simple as that, of course.
"I'm now finding my own path - I find my way through each brief," he explains. "I'm still asking myself questions with every image I do. Although the results look very confident, I'm continuing to challenge myself and wondering if every detail is correct. If I'm doing a portrait, for example, it's probably a bit more clear as to how it will look, but when it's a more conceptual illustration, it's very open and I tend to produce many, many ideas, because I don't know exactly what's going to work. That's especially true when I'm working with words. Most of my work accompanies text - it's about taking 3,000 words and summarising them into just one image, so it's a challenge."
In fact, Bar believes he spends more time thinking about illustration than the act itself; it could be five or seven hours, or a few days, depending on the subject matter and, of course, the deadline. When we speak, he has just spent a weekend working on a cover for The New York Times, as well as illustrations for Esquire and The Guardian. Mixing several projects in his head in this way is a standard practice these days.
"I'm trying to focus a couple of hours on each illustration, but it depends," he adds. "If I'm doing a daily illustration for The Guardian, I have something like five or six hours to complete the whole thing. On a good day the brief will arrive at 12pm, and if it doesn't change - if we're not waiting for some Gordon Brown statement or something like that - I get it in by 4pm."
"But I enjoy that," Bar continues. "The process is liberating, and sometimes great surprises happen. It makes me feel that I'm doing what graphic design is supposed to be: cutting to the really basic idea, which is to illuminate text. Also, my work is very connected to a moment - a lot of that is because of the political content. There's a kind of buzz about it. It's a form of journalism."
All of Bar's images begin as hand-sketched ideas - once the concept has been decided upon - and then end up in Illustrator. The sparse, nothing-wasted style is no affectation: he finds he simply can't work in any other way. "I don't do waves of art as illustration, something that says, 'Look at me, I'm beautiful', which happens a lot today. Illustrators become artists," he says, with a slight hint of contempt. "If it's vector, let's be proud of it and keep it simple."
He has tried, though; particularly back at the beginning of his career, when he was often asked to produce illustrations with a lot of texture in them. "It just ended up looking like a fake old screenprint," he says. "Every time I try to create something that looks scratchy and handmade and cheap, which you see a lot of vector artists doing, I feel like I'm faking. In fact, I used to be even more strict about it, almost religious - I wouldn't even use curves, just these short, sharp lines: ch-ch-ch!" he says, mimicking the aggressive puritanism of the technique. "Ultimately, when the idea is there I feel like I'm just wasting my time on decorations."
Nearly all of Bar's work, portraits included, has some sort of political element to it, or at least expresses an opinion - often his own darkly humorous take. As he points out, this allows him the freedom to say certain things in an illustration when the journalistic reality of the text is not able to, and those things can be surprisingly edgy.
Occasionally, he will go further than a client is willing to tolerate. "For instance, I created an image to go with an article about the model Naomi Campbell's arrest [after she allegedly assaulted a police officer] and incorporated the judicial 'scales of justice' in it, which formed her eyes. I put cocaine in the scales leading in a line to her nose, but that part - the cocaine - was censored by the magazine that published the image. Of course, in my book I put it back. That was my personal revenge."
Would he ever do something he's not comfortable with, politically? "Never," he says. "I've been asked - I won't go into details - but I just refused. In one case it was a particular writer with particular views, and in another, a certain magazine. Similarly, sometimes people want to use existing images for their own causes or campaigns, but I don't like that either. I'm also not very interested in doing an image without an idea behind it. If someone says to me, 'Can you do a drawing of a cat?' - or someone watching television, or whatever - and if that doesn't lead to an idea for me, I won't do it."
Many of the subjects dealt with in Bar's book, Negative Space - rape, global warming, religious intolerance, war - aren't exactly a bundle of laughs on the face of it, yet in the style of satirists such as Chris Morris or Gerald Scarfe, Bar will always manage to incorporate some seed of humour. "I called my recent exhibition 'Bitter Sweet', because it has elements of both," he explains. "The idea needs to make me laugh - or at least make me smile, anyway. Not usually a loud laugh, but a smile."
"It's a fine line; it's not 'nonsense'," he continues. "There's a new generation of nonsense humour, and I'm trying to stay away from that. I think it has a very short shelf life. You know, the generation of series like Bo' Selecta! and Little Britain, although the second of those is perhaps a little more sophisticated. I don't know - that kind of thing makes me laugh once, but then it just repeats itself. My comedy, if you like, is slightly more extreme. It sometimes looks polite and gentle, but often it's very harsh."
Does he ever worry about typecasting himself? "Yes, absolutely. I don't want to be just 'the guy who puts things in people's faces'. The fear of being pigeonholed is there all the time, and I think it should be there." This is one reason why Bar's recently moved into the third dimension and begun working with wood sculptures.
"That was an unusual move for me, but I wanted to try something different," he confesses. "It started from trying to do 3D in Photoshop but I felt like I was faking it so I went for the real thing. It's still all about negative space and cutting away areas. It's fun! I'm planning to continue working more with mixed media."
Ultimately, Bar feels that this philosophy is once again influenced by his country of origin: Israel, he says, is a small place, and with a much smaller market on hand, artists of all disciplines often need to reinvent themselves regularly. "If you look at a comedy act, to use that example again, then there's usually one thing that they've done really well, and they'll just keep repeating it. Take Al Murray, for instance - he can do the same act for years and years and will still have people who want to see it."
"On the other hand," he concludes, "someone like Damon Albarn, who constantly reinvents what he does, is rather more like the Israeli example. So I'm trying not to tell the same story in different ways all the time - I'm moving on from negative space."