Lee Crutchley: A life illustrated

“I guess in the end we all laugh at the same things, we all cry at the same things and we’ve all had our hearts broken by that bitch in year eight…” Lee Crutchley is discussing the appeal of Quoteskine, his book of illustrated quotes that he’s been collecting since the age of 14. It’s a ridiculously simple concept: one short, hand-lettered quote on each page, sometimes accompanied by an illustration, sometimes not. The source is mostly irrelevant; it could be a book, a film, a lyric, a bit of graffiti, things people said – the only criterion was that Crutchley finds it interesting in some way.

The book, with its ever-changing lettering styles and apparently random nature, evolved somewhat organically, born of Crutchley’s desire to just make something. “I started Quoteskine purely to do something that was fun,” he recalls. “I never intended it to be anything that other people would look at.”

The printed version of Quoteskine is subtly subtitled ‘Volume 1’, leaving room for further volumes – if Crutchley feels like it

For years after graduation, Crutchley worked as an in-house designer, a job he didn’t particularly enjoy or feel inspired by. Bored of that, he decided to sell up and take a year out of work to travel the world, as a kind of belated gap year. “When I got back to the UK, I spent eight months catching trains between my house and the local Job Centre, which wasn’t fun at all,” he says. So he began Quoteskine as an outlet for his creative frustrations.

‘Reservoir Birds’ is one of the more recent additions to Crutchley’s personal portfolio, and typical of his penchant for mixing and matching different references

It was when he later started scanning his pages and putting them onto a blog on Tumblr that Quoteskine began to take on a life of its own, and he decided to turn it into a professional project. “I wasn’t just a guy who was putting a bunch of random drawings on a blog,” he explains. “I was doing an illustration project with a name, a sort of manifesto, and a visual identity of its own. A few big art and design blogs featured the project, and from there I gained a stream of attention and people following the project, which ultimately led to the book being published.”

Part of the appeal of Quoteskine – aside, of course, from Crutchley’s inspired illustrations – is its random nature. One reader will recognise and identify with a particular quote (from cult sketch show Big Train, or Alan Partridge, or singer Tom McRae, for example) that means nothing to someone else. “That’s my favourite thing about the project,” he smiles. “I get so much feedback on specific drawings that strike a chord with people. Often it’s the most obscure references that get the most attention, too. The worrying thing, though, is that a lot of my followers are so young that they’re totally unaware of massive portions of history, and – even more worryingly – some have no knowledge of 1980s’ films.”

As an example, he says he was once credited with a quote originally from Richard Nixon simply because he’d drawn it, and to his horror, an image of David Bowie as the goblin king from the film Labyrinth was associated with insipid TV show Once Upon a Time: “Until then I was blissfully unaware that people existed in this world who hadn’t seen Labyrinth and didn’t know who David Bowie was!”

David Bowie as Jareth in the film Labyrinth adorns this piece that Crutchley created for a group show called Once Upon a Time in the Midlands

Because Quoteskine drawings are as much about getting the idea down quickly as the execution, he generally creates them quickly with “cheap pens”. For commercial work, though, Crutchley prefers to draw by hand, scan and then colour in Photoshop. Other client and personal work is something he’s keen to develop more extensively now that Quoteskine has become mainstream – and is perhaps in danger of defining his career. Put simply, he’s not keen on being just ‘the man who does Quoteskine.’

Quoteskine is packed full of doodles like ‘You Are Good (Enough)’

“It is a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster scenario at times, definitely in the past anyway,” he admits. “For a long time people would call me Quoteskine rather than my name. I was happy with that little smokescreen for a while, but as soon as I made the decision to go freelance, I realised that I needed to be pushing my own name out there more.

“I think people will still talk to me about Quoteskine for as long as I keep doing the project, but hopefully rather than overshadowing my other work it will be a good reference point for new projects I work on,” he adds.

With recent clients including the band Say Anything, the New York rapper OnCue and this very magazine, he’s making good on his plans. One of the advantages of having a well-known project under your belt, of course, is that clients can immediately see what they’re getting – and so far, Crutchley’s clients have mostly been a good fit for his style.

He prefers fairly open briefs, actively turning down anything too specific. “I would like to be hired to be part of the whole creative process rather than just the guy at the end who can draw,” explains Crutchley. “I think creatives are hired for their ability to be creative, and hiring an illustrator to draw your very specific idea is kind of like hiring Prince to do backing vocals.”

In addition, he’s branching out into what he calls ‘pure art’ projects, finishing work on a book about Banksy due out this summer and writing short stories for an independent art magazine. Then there are the shows: a small solo show called All These Lines, a group show based around the theme of fairytales and a large-scale typographic mural for the 48Sheet project based in Birmingham. “That mural is going to lead to a series of public art projects over the next year or so,” he says. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so it’s exciting to see that finally come together.”

As a self-confessed cynic, Crutchley’s doing pretty well for himself, all told. So does he have any regrets? He pauses for a moment, then comes out with the kind of quote that could happily grace the pages of Quoteskine itself: “The only thing I regret about my life is that I didn’t stay a kid forever.”

Crutchley painted a big mural as part of the 48Sheet project that ran in April. “It’s the first in a series of large-scale type murals I’ll be doing,” he says