Patrick Vale: from sketchbook to grand scale

Interview with Patrick Vale by James Hobbs

Macy’s, New York

Can you say a bit about yourself? You’re an illustrator based in London and New York?

Yes, I’m an artist/illustrator based in London for now, but I have just come back from living in New York City for four months. I’m about halfway through the visa application, so all being well, I will move there at the end of the summer. I grew up in Bristol, which is a great city in the west of England, then moved to London, where I did a degree in graphic design at St Martins. These days I split my time between making my own work, which I sell, and taking on commercial and architectural briefs that interest me.

Where are people likely to have seen your work?

A lot of places! Most recently I have illustrated a book, This is Cézanne by Jorella Andrews (Lawrence King), where I got to imagine and draw Cézanne’s life in Provence and Paris. And before that I did a Christmas ad for BMW in Munich where I was filmed drawing with a pen that conducts electricity, so the scene I created ended up becoming a working electrical circuit that lit up lamps.

Junction of Allen Street and Rivington, New York City

So it seems as if drawing is fundamental to your illustration work.

My work is all about the drawn line. I want my drawings to have a life to them that makes them leap off the page. For certain jobs, the work may well end up on the computer, but the drawing part will always start on paper. Having said that, I have recently bought a Wacom Cintiq pen tablet and have been enjoying drawing on it. It’s great for colouring and doing quick roughs.

Outside Tate Modern, London

Tell us about drawing in sketchbooks on location: how much do you do that?

This is something that I used to do all the time as a kid and a student and if I’m honest, it’s something that I stopped doing until my trip to NYC in November. I guess I thought I draw everyday anyway, so what’s the point… Being there, however, and filling a few sketchbooks has made me realise how bloody important drawing on location is. When I do commercial jobs, it’s great to draw on location, but the reality is that you often don’t have time and the client doesn’t have a budget to send you across the world.

C Train, New York subway

So what effect does working on location have on the way you work? 

I have noticed how drawing on the fly has made my drawing so much sharper. When you are on the tube or subway you might have seconds to capture the essence of someone’s character. It’s brilliant drawing practice. I now keep a small book in my pocket and a larger book in my bag and draw when I’m travelling. I’m also going to try to dedicate at least an afternoon a week to drawing on location. Most recently I have been revisiting places I used to draw as a student, which has been fun, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum.

Imperial War Museum, London

How does work you do on location feed into your work in the studio? Are you using particular drawings or do things come from other sources? 

When I’m making large-scale works for myself I always draw on location and make a series of sketches. I take photos and more recently I take a video of the scene. I have just finished this huge drawing in New York, which is the view from the Rockefeller looking back down towards the Financial District. It ended up being about five or six feet wide. When I went up there it was minus 15C (5F) so I could only manage a couple of hours, but I did lots of quick sketches and took high-res photos that I then stitched together. I shot a video as well.

Back in the studio: from the Rockefeller Center, New York: click the image for the video

Back in the studio I spent a month drawing the scene – a time-lapse film will be out soon [available now at]. The sketches and especially the video remind me of being there and I can see the city as a living, breathing entity and not a static image. I try to bring the spontaneity of the drawings on location back into the bigger, studio-based work. When I’m working on something this size it is exactly the same as on location, just with more detail I guess.

A detail from the view from the Rockefeller Center (above)

What do you use to draw with when you’re working outdoors?

I use a Lamy EF and recently I have been using a Pilot Fineliner. I think I own a Moleskine in every size they do.

Your time-lapse Empire State of Pen drawing has been viewed more than 600,000 times – why do you think that is?

Hopefully because people thought it was a decent drawing. I guess I drew a view that everyone is familiar with and one that you can’t fail to be awestruck by. When I get to see cities like London and New York from these high vantage points my jaw always drops and I just stare and stare. There’s so much to see, so much history and it’s constantly changing, being knocked down and rebuilt, rediscovering ancient parts that were once lost. These cities are centuries old, therefore my drawings take a long time to do them justice. When this is sped up as a time-lapse perhaps you see the city being built from a blank sheet of paper, and it reminds people of the scale of it. My line is loose and expressive, which I hope gives the city a character of its own.

Patrick Vale

Is your work changing? Does success as an illustrator lock you in to a particular way of working?

I’m learning all the time. It’s true that you get known for a certain thing, which is good commercially, but I think it is up to you as an artist to be always thinking of other ways to work and experiment. I don’t want to be working this way in 20 years. I have been doing a lot of portrait work recently and am going to start to paint with oils, having never used them. I am getting to a point where I can work pretty hard for a month or two on jobs, and then take a month to do my own stuff, which is a nice balance.

You can follow Patrick Vale on Instagram and Facebook.


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