Computer ArtsInterview

Profile: Hannah Stouffer

With a stated aim of redefining 'classic' and a rich, elegant body of work, Hannah Stouffer mixes traditional opulence with modern-day influences to create a unique and heady style.

Hannah Stouffer's website address is the first immediate clue to her style. The 'grand array' of its title is an almost poetic summation of her opulent, elegant and beautifully intricate mixture of illustration and design. Her densely packed images consciously recall the Victoriana style of William Morris, yet the subject matter is fresh and modern, illustrating cigarette packets, T-shirts and glossy magazine pages.

Indeed, it's the polar opposite of the sort of grimy, minimal cut-and-paste technique which has dominated modern illustration for too long. Stouffer is happy to wallow in luxuriance, and her clients even happier to parade the essence of quality this projects. Not all are immediately obvious: Disney, Coca-Cola and MSN seem like perfect partners, but Sony, IBM, Camel and Levi's have also been catching on to her sumptuous ornamented style that's making a comeback.

Stouffer's artistic yearnings emerged in her early childhood, when she was continually drawing and experimenting. Her proud mother kept all the results and Stouffer still occasionally raids that 'archive' for inspiration. Her father's job as a wildlife cinematographer undoubtedly resonated with her too.

"I always want to show work I did when I was, like, four years old in gallery shows," she says. "I used to get in trouble for drawing in class; I think I figured everything out by trial and error! experimenting to find what was most comfortable. My work has changed a lot because of this, even in the past year."

She studied Fine Arts at San Francisco State University and, later, California College of the Arts, but didn't touch on illustration at all. "I learned about conceptual information arts and photography€¦ I think I always planned on doing what I wanted to. I kind of grew up learning that," she says.

Freelance freedom
This same determination applies to her working life. Unusually and perhaps bravely, Stouffer immediately dived into freelance work after college, unlike many other artists who first work for an agency or another fulltime employer to gain experience. "I really enjoy the freedom of it," she explains. "I find an excuse to travel as much as possible. I realised I can work anywhere. I could be on the beach, as long as there is wireless, and there probably isn't wireless at the beach, but the bungalow maybe has it." Agency work has neither been a necessity nor a particularly welcome option.

The intricate curling lines of a typical Stouffer might not seem so remarkable were it not for the fact that all her illustrations are hand-drawn - no FreeHand, no Illustrator. In fact, she says this intricate style has really only developed during the past year. "I was painting a lot in the past, but always trying to make my paintings more detailed, more illustrative... it never felt quite right." Eventually she decided to stop painting altogether, and, she explains, "I began some freehand illustration work, the really decorative, time-consuming pieces. It felt really great - really freeing, really comfortable! I can concentrate a lot better without the fumes."

Most of her work is ink on paper, occasionally incorporating gouache and watercolours for gallery shows: "I like gel pens, Uni-Ball Vision Exact rollers, pens I can really dig into the paper with. I get everything scanned and am then able to take them deeper in Photoshop. I can do some of the colouring a lot faster this way, and I'm able to combine illustrations, kind of like cut-and-paste."

Inspirations
Although she has general working methods, she never assumes the next job will be similar to the last, and approaches each with an open mind: "I like to take advantage of those times when I can experiment. I'll take that as an opportunity to actually learn something and branch out." Inspirations vary depending on the client and the detailed amount of research she undertakes for every job.

"Some things stay consistent, though," she adds, "like luxury and elegance," before reeling off a comprehensive list of loves: "French Victoriana. Icons. Solid gold. Classic contemporary. Femininity. Textile patterns. Pin-ups. Colour combinations. Si Scott. Deanne Cheuk. Andy Warhol. Baroque furniture. Old magazines. Vintage postcards. Wild America. Friends. Family. Love. Lust. Ornamental embellishments. Decorative text. Romance." It may seem impossible to mix Warhol with French Victoriana, but a glance at some of Stouffer's magazine illos might convince you otherwise. "I'm always picking up new inspirations, learning, discovering. I'm kind of like a sponge." She pauses. "One that can't hold anything."

Of course, one of the dangers of having such a distinctive style is that clients simply want you to repeat what you've done in the past, which can lead to boredom and creative stagnation. Given that her work is now seen on a global level, is this frustrating? "It depends," she says. "Sometimes they choose a style that I'm trying to get away from, but even if they do I can usually throw in something to mix it up. I really don't like doing the same things. I feel I can usually experiment a little, unless they want something really ugly to begin with; and I'll just have to bite my tongue and do it. This is when I realise that I am still working." As opposed to just having fun!

Growing trend
Fortunately for Stouffer (or inevitably, depending on how you look at it), extravagant patterns and ornamentation are definitely flavour of the year, so the style she's always favoured is even more in demand. Why is this? "I don't know," she admits. "It kind of coincides with the theory of original thought, and the idea that it's obsolete. Then there are these big companies that come around and reproduce the work of individuals, so that it becomes this huge trend€¦ and everyone is suddenly doing the same thing."

In corporate thinking, the very style that made Stouffer unique is suddenly becoming the must-have of the season, only to be diluted and imitated - poorly. "I hate that. I feel pretty strongly about this topic. It runs kind of deep with me," she says.

In terms of client briefs, she favours the all or nothing approach. "I love working with art directors that have a strong vision, or ones that have no idea and give me full creative control. The ones that aren't sure or keep changing their mind are the worst. I'll either get a full rundown of the layout and palette and how my work ties into that€¦ or something less than that. It's a funny thing." And as the client list grows in length and stature, she sometimes has to pinch herself, metaphorically speaking. "I haven't quite gotten over it yet - the fact that people call me to work, to draw for them"

In between the commercial work, there are the exhibitions - many, many exhibitions. Most take place in her local San Francisco area, at venues such as the Canvas Gallery and the Madrone Gallery, while others are further afield in Los Angeles, the Napa Valley, Portland and even Florida. These, she says, are the hardest work that she has ever done, "especially when they're in San Francisco, because I know everyone is going to see the work". Nevertheless, she enjoys the challenge, and, more importantly, the chance to showcase her personal work and meet up with fellow artists.

"I love getting all my friends to come out for shows - it's really just a great excuse to get everyone together and show them a little bit of what I've been doing. Sometimes it feels like a big selfish party and I just want to hang out and not look at art€¦ but I like showing my work; I like the feedback I get."

Solo shows
That feedback has inspired her to attempt some solo shows, if time permits, as well as explore new artistic areas. "I'm working on a new series that I'm really excited about," she says. "It's a lot more personal, concentrated, more portraits of friends, family and myself. I don't usually incorporate people so it's going to be a little different. I'm getting more into watercolour too, learning as I go along."

Making the time to produce personal pieces is vital to Stouffer, even if she's snowed under with commercial jobs. It's both a source of inspiration and a chance to grow. "I usually get all the basis of my style from personal work, and then take it into commercial work," she explains. "The illustrations I do for myself or for gallery shows are much more consuming€¦ I'm able to spend more time on them. I always feel better about them, more excited, more connected. I think that's why I got into using Photoshop with my commercial work - the deadlines are usually really short."

You can't help but feel that time will become ever more precious to Stouffer throughout this year, but she's more than up for the challenge. Her website declares 2007 to be "monumental", and she's currently moving to a new studio with "more space to breathe". Has she got anything else on the cards? "Big plans. Big things. Limousines." And why not!

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