Tom Gauld is a cartoonist whose clients include Coca-Cola, The Guardian and the New York Times. Goliath, a graphic novel reimagining the biblical character’s back story, was published this month. He tells Rob Fred Parker how to beat creative block, how he got his big break and why communication is more important than self-expression…
What were your first steps towards a career in illustration?
I studied illustration at Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal College of Art. After I left the RCA I made a portfolio consisting of about 20 images and some comics. I spent months cold-calling art directors, visiting with my portfolio and sending out postcards and samples. Slowly the work started to trickle in. One of the first successes was doing an illustration for The Guardian, who I've worked for regularly ever since.
Goliath, your longest work to date, began as an idea seven years ago. How does it feel to have the book completed?
Once something is printed I can start to forget all the ideas I had about what it could be, and just accept, and hopefully enjoy it for what it is. Ideas for short cartoons do come more naturally. But I suppose it's inevitable that if I want people's attention over a longer period I have to work to make sure the story is worthy.
How do you negotiate between physical and digital mediums?
Once I have an idea I’ll make a rough version through a mixture of pencil drawing and Photoshop fiddling. Next I trace a printout in ink onto paper and fill in details and crosshatching; I like the human imperfection this stage provides. Finally, I scan it back into the computer, clean it up and, if necessary, add colour.
Each Guardian Letters illustration has a turnaround of two days. How do you avoid creative block?
I think a tight deadline actually helps me avoid blocks: I just have to think hard about a good idea, and if I don't have a good idea I have to go with the least bad one. Sometimes that “least bad” idea can, when it's worked on carefully, unexpectedly turn out to be a really good cartoon.
Many of your cartoons concern creative dissatisfaction. Do you think it is part and parcel of being an artist?
Most of my time is spent failing to have ideas, write fluently or draw well. As an artist, I believe you have to simultaneously aim for perfection and accept that you won't get it. I think if somebody looked at a work and thought "that’s perfect!" then their standards are probably too low. But if your standards are too high you'll never get anything done.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learnt during your career?
I try to make the sort of work I'd like to see. That's slightly different from saying I just do what pleases me, as sometimes something might be fun for the artist but not terribly interesting to anybody else. I try to think about communicating (which acknowledges the audience) rather than expressing myself (which sounds like therapy).
I always try to present my clients with the idea that excites me most even if I think it might be a bit weird for them. You can usually tone down an interesting idea, but it's difficult to “tone up” a bland one.
Goliath is available now, published by Drawn and Quarterly.
Tom is appearing at signings and talks in the UK, US and Canada until May.
If you're an illustrator with an ambition to get on the cover of a magazine, check out our Long Live The New Flesh Brief with Anthology-winners Brainwash.
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