Creative Lives — A window into the colourful, collaged world of graphic artist and director Jimmy Turrell

Posted 31 January 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Jimmy Turrell has never enjoyed conforming to the grid. Dabbling in the peripheries between art direction, illustration and video direction, his work is characterised by skilfully constructed and abstract juxtapositions of painted and found images. Even his search for materials sees him turn to the outskirts – scouring eBay for unique finds to add to an eclectic collection of ephemera. Creating predominantly analogue work, his process sees him drawing from (and onto) a range of references – from 1920s skiing manuals to vintage scrapbooks featuring the Norwegian royal family. An avid music fan, Jimmy’s music videos, merchandise and stage visuals for American singer-songwriter Beck naturally drew the attention of several other musically-inclined clients. He tells us about early starts, and why young creatives should aim to master their chosen methodology. 

Jimmy Turrell

Job Title

Graphic Artist and Video Producer

Based

Newcastle and London

Selected Clients

Universal Music, Nike, Colette, XL Recordings, Teenage Cancer Trust, Pentagram, MTV, Adidas, The New York Times, Frame Magazine, Channel 4, Baycrews, DC Shoes, Sight & Sound, Wired, Uniqlo

Previous Employment

Freelance Illustrator for Seven Magazine, Dazed & Confused, Wallpaper, The Fader, Complex, Spin, The Guardian, Swindle Magazine, Tokion, New York Magazine

Education

MA Graphic Communication, Central St Martins (2006–2008)
BA Graphic Design, Liverpool School Of Art (1995–1998) 

Website
Social Media

Jimmy Turrell

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
For lack of a better expression, I suppose I’m a graphic artist (I realise thats a bit of a poncey term, but it best describes what I do). The removal of of the boundaries between the different disciplines – art direction, illustration, video direction – allows me to work across all these different fields, which is really inspiring.

What does a typical working day look like? 
I try to work at least 12 hours a day. I’m usually in at 8am and out by 8pm, but this really depends on the project I’m working on. Some of my most recent video work for Beck has involved pulling all-nighters because of the sharp turnarounds. In fact it can actually be really liberating sometimes – you feel more at one with the world creating things while everybody else is sleeping. Just you and the sound of the larks as you work away!

Jimmy’s artwork for Beck’s album ‘Colors’, 2017

What do you like about working in Newcastle? 
I recently moved back to Newcastle after 14 years in London. I’m in London a lot of the time but Newcastle is an amazing place to work and live. Not to sound too soppy and sentimental, but I moved back primarily because I missed my family. I’d been away a long time (I also lived in Liverpool for three years) so it just felt like the right time. 

Newcastle is definitely not the same place I left when I was 19. It’s always been really friendly, but the creative scene up here is really buzzing with amazing galleries, arts venues and a thriving underground live music and club scene. There’s no more commuting on the tube in the morning (my studio is a three minute bike ride from my house) and I get to live directly on the river with amazing views – something I’d have to be an oligarch to do in London. The coast (Tynemouth) is also a 20-minute drive away, so you can be scoffing fish and chips on the beach in the blink of an eye. 

“I’ve always been obsessed with finding the beauty in forgotten and discarded materials and bringing them back to life in a completely new context.”

A collaboration with Braulio Amado

How does your project-based work usually come about? 
Work can come from various sources. It can be word of mouth, through an art director seeing a project on my Instagram or website, or it can come through my amazing agent, Heart, who I’ve been with for 12 years. 

How collaborative is your work? 
Again it can really vary. If it’s a simple editorial or advertising job, it’s just me on my lonesome. But for something that’s much more involved (like my video for Beck’s ‘Dear Life’) it’s very collaborative, with animators and cinematographers involved.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
I hate organising the financial side of things: self assessment, VAT and so on. I have a bookkeeper and an accountant to help with the more mundane tasks, but even invoicing and scanning in receipts drives me bananas. But it’s really a very tiny part of my practice so I shouldn’t really moan to be honest.

Personal work

The cover for Beck’s single ‘Wow’, 2016

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I created the campaign for Beck’s new album ‘Colors’, which was pretty exciting. I also directed two videos for the first two tracks from the album (‘WOW’ and ‘Dear Life’), collaborating with brilliant people like Braulio AmadoAntonio VicentiniArjun PulijalBrook Linder and Computer Team. And for the actual artwork and print campaign I worked alongside Steve Stacey to create all the deluxe vinyls and die cut special editions.

What skills are essential to your job? 
An instinctive eye is really important. And also the ability to embrace chaos and recognise that sometimes the mistakes or hiccups are actually just part of the “true path” of a creation, which invariably throw up more interesting results than if you’d followed to your original plan.

Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects? 
I’ve just created an exhibition, Unforsaken (Part 1), as part of Northern Design Festival. I’ve always been obsessed with finding the beauty in forgotten and discarded materials and bringing them back to life in a completely new context. I decided to base this exhibition around this concept. 

I bought a job lot of 1,000 vintage books and objects on eBay, ranging from 1920s skiing manuals to vintage scrapbooks of the Norwegian royal family. From this collection, I then cherry-picked the best pieces to screenprint, draw and paint on top of, sometimes using the existing imagery and book titles as the source for ideas and concepts, and at other times relying on happy accidents and randomness to create imagery of a more abstract nature.

The reason the exhibition is called Unforsaken (Part 1), is that Part 2 will take place in New York next year as part of a collaboration with graphic designer Richard Turley. He will take some of the existing material I’ve already created and add to it, and then we’ll also work together on new creations using the vast wealth of material I didn’t use this time around. 

What tools do you use most for your work? 
I’m pretty much completely analogue to be honest: hand collage, screen printing, painting and drawing. I’m actually pretty lame when it comes to Photoshop and Illustrator. I can use them in a basic way, but it’s much more about using the screen to alter colours or shapes.   

Jimmy’s video for Beck’s single ‘Wow’, 2016

Still from Jimmy’s video for Beck’s single ‘Wow’, 2016

Still from Jimmy’s video for Beck’s single ‘Wow’, 2016

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up? 
Like most little kids I just wanted to be whatever my Dad was. He was a fireman (and a carpet fitter – most fireman have a second jobs because their pay is so bad!) so that’s what my dream job was. But when I was around 12 or 13 I started to realise that I was the most impractical, clumsy person on the planet, so I would never have made it as a fireman. And I was an absolutely dreadful carpet fitter so my options starting to look pretty limited. Art and English were the only subjects I was half good at at school, so I was guided down that particular pathway. Then I saw Cream’s ‘Disreali Gears’ album cover and my decision was made for me.  

What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career? 
Neither of my parents were particularly artistic but they were really supportive and very open to me pursuing my own path. Also (not to get the old working class violins out) I was the first person in my family to actually go to university so I think they were just happy to get rid of me for three years.

I also had a long string of really shitty jobs around this time: bread factory dough maker, door-to-door salesman. That definitely gave me the necessary kick up the arse to get down to London to try and be an illustrator.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role? 
Very useful. I studied graphic design at both degree and masters levels but I’m pretty lost when it comes to precise typographic grids or kerning fonts. Maybe my illustration work carries more of a graphic edge because I never actually studied illustration as a subject. I guess I’m better at breaking the grid than conforming to it – that’s what I get most enjoyment out of anyway, especially when it comes to moving image.

Jimmy’s collage work (left); a typeface created in collaboration with It’s Nice That and Fontsmith (right)

What were your first jobs? 
My first job in design was as resident illustrator for a magazine called Seven, which was the weekly version of Mixmag

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career? 
I would have to say two people: my old lecturer John Young (who’s sadly since passed away) was an incredible mentor who had a real ‘fuck you’, punk spirit that I’ve tried to embrace. And also my best mate Richard Turley, who basically opened the doors for me by commissioning me to work at Seven magazine when he was art director there. It was both our first proper jobs when we arrived in London. 

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development? 
When I was at Seven I illustrated a column for the writer Tony Marcus called ‘Parallel Universe’. He basically used to do different drugs at crazy locations and then write about those experiences. Sometimes he’d be in a Peruvian mineshaft rave doing mescaline, and the next in some underground sex dungeon in Vauxhall on horse tranquillisers. I had to illustrate what he did , and I was pretty much given free rein to do what I wanted to respond to the articles – so everything from hand collage, painting and typographic experiments. 

Inside Jimmy’s studio

What skills have you learnt along the way? 
Within the collaborative side of things I’ve learned to delegate a lot better. I used to be much more of a control freak with every little aspect of each project but now I’ve learned to let people get on with what they’re good at.

What’s been your biggest challenge? 
I actually did a whole album campaign for The Prodigy which then got killed right at the final hurdle. It was my first big job, and I presented way too many options, which ended up confusing everybody. The whole process went on for a year and a half. It made me want to quit design altogether and do something else entirely. Instead I went back and did an M.A. at St Martins, and then I also got an agent which changed everything. 

Is your job what you thought it would be? 
When I first started I was just happy to be doing editorial illustrations. But the collaborative nature of my job now is so much more fun and inspiring.

“I had a long string of really shitty jobs, which definitely gave me the necessary kick up the arse to get to London and try to be an illustrator.”

Artwork for new Universal Records act Yellowire

Cover artwork for new Universal Records act Yellowire, which was voted Creative Review’s sleeve of the month

Cover artwork for new Universal Records act Yellowire, which was voted Creative Review’s sleeve of the month

Cover artwork for new Universal Records act Yellowire, which was voted Creative Review’s sleeve of the month

Cover artwork for new Universal Records act Yellowire, which was voted Creative Review’s sleeve of the month

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
Just to continue to work on interesting projects to be honest. After Beck, I got offered a lot of projects for big name acts whose music I didn’t really like, so I had to politely turn them down. I’m much happier working with a small label or artist whose music I’m really inspired by. That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to work with a big act who’s music I love – Pharrell I’m talking to you!

Could you do this job forever? 
Definitely – until the day I drop. If it’s something that you love doing I can’t really see the point of retirement. 

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position? 
After collaborating with art directors for years as an illustrator I didn’t quite realise how much I’d actually picked up and learned from them. The chance to direct videos has came as a real blessing, so I definitely want to continue art directing and collaborating on bigger moving image projects.

Jimmy’s video for Beck’s single ‘Dear Life’, 2017

Still from Jimmy’s video for Beck’s single ‘Dear Life’, 2017

Still from Jimmy’s video for Beck’s single ‘Dear Life’, 2017

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work? 
A lot of people’s advice in the design industry would be to become a jack of all trades, but personally I think it’s best to get really good at one thing. Once you’ve really mastered something (whether its with a certain methodology or a practical technique) it opens the doors to other ways of thinking and creating that you might not have initially envisaged.

Posted 31 January 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Music
Mentions: Jimmy Turrell
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