Creative Lives — Artist and illustrator Paul Hallows: “Your work is an extension of you; if people don’t like it you’re going to feel it”
Opting to spend time sketching in cafes rather than in lectures, artist Paul Hallows decided to drop out of a degree in Physics with Space Technology when he was 21. Leaving his job as a NHS laboratory supervisor, Paul recently joined the ranks at Manchester-based collective, The Engine House, where his carefully crafted cardboard builds and technically honed style has led him to work for clients including festival Sounds From The Other City and the Science and Industry Museum. We caught up with Paul as he gets to work on his first solo exhibition about Manchester’s brutalist buildings. He talks to us about his astronaut-illustrator ambitions, on building ideas, cardboard sculptures, his portfolio and reputation.
himHallows (Paul Hallows)
Artist and Illustrator
Science and Industry Museum, University Of Manchester, Video Jam, Man & The Echo, 65daysofstatic, A Place Called Common, Manchester Art Gallery, Sounds From The Other City, Quantum Brewing Co, Soup Kitchen
Lab Supervisor and Technician, NHS Blood and Transplant (2008–2017)
BA Physics with Space Technology University of Salford (2002–2004)
Art Foundation, Manchester Metropolitan University (2010)
Paul working at The Engine House
How would you describe what you do?
I often work for a broad mix of mostly Manchester-based clients who are looking for something more art-driven. Usually it’s about building an idea and image from scratch with some initial thoughts from the client. I like to have good control of a project. If the client wants a more art-driven project and doesn’t like too much input, it can lead to bad, compromised work. But due to having a particular illustration style, I never expect to have to vary my practice wildly between clients.
What does a typical working day look like?
First order of the day is to sit down with coffee and breakfast at my work station. I’ll use that time to check and reply to any emails and catch up on world news. After that I have no real set routine – if there’s a close deadline I tend to focus solely on the task I’m doing from start to finish. Otherwise I’ll divide my time between sketching, putting in work for a 3D build, casting or filming. I have a few things on at the same time and like trying out new ideas and methods, it can lead to an eclectic day’s plan.
I aim to be in the studio five to six days a week, 9am or 10am till 3 or 4pm are my normal working hours Monday to Wednesday (I leave early to go to my evening job) and on Thursday, Friday plus the occasional Saturday, Sunday I can happily be there till 6pm or later.
How does your project-based work usually come about?
I seem to solely operate by word of mouth, usually being recommended by a friend or previous client. It’s not an ideal system as far as getting in tons of work, but it helps in getting the right work. Past clients are usually good at picking up on what a potential one wants. I’m going to start putting my portfolio out a lot more this year, I feel it’s building up enough to get across what I do, and as I get better at managing my workload so does the amount I can take on.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
In my work space at the studio. I have a desk with a light box and bench for any 3D builds. Occasionally I’ll spend the afternoon in a coffee shop with my sketch pad working through ideas. With any computer work, I’ll probably spend a couple of hours on the laptop researching or putting together illustrations, depending on the day’s needs. All of us who have moved in together at Engine House have spent and are spending a lot of time getting it right; it’s a good vibe being there.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A Macbook Pro 13”; Canon 600D camera; Brother MFC Printer for its flatbed scanner; iPhone 5s; Riso RZ 370 EP risograph printer; Adobe Photoshop Premiere Pro; Slack; Palomino Blackwing Pencils; Pilot Drawing Pens for technical inking-in; Pilot V-5 Hi-tecpoint for sketching; A5–A3 sketchpads; Loctite hot glue gun; lightbox (Ikea table, perspex panel, Anglepoise lamp clumsily screwed to the underside) and Montana 94 spray paints.
“The time I spent hanging out with friends and sketching made me realise that physics wasn’t the life for me.”
How collaborative is your work?
Individual illustration work tends not to be that collaborative. Sometimes I’m just doing the illustration for a client who will then decide how it’ll be used later. More and more, however, I’m finding myself doing the illustration work and layout. But I’m not an experienced designer and usually call on the talents of Textbook Studio [also based in The Engine House, co-founded by Vicky Carr] to point out where I’m going wrong. It helps that I’ve collaborated with them on Video Jam works in the past, with me doing the illustrations and Textbook doing the design, and all of us working on the direction of it. The Engine House as a whole is starting to gear towards collaborating and we’ve got plans for upcoming projects that will be pulling in a lot of us, which I think is an exciting route for us to take.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
There are many aspects I enjoy, but I’d say it’s that real spark of “Fuck yes!” at the ideas stage when that ‘lightbulb’ moment happens, or when you’re putting together all the bits of an artwork or build, and you finally see them assembled together. I like to experiment a lot, so when that goes right it can be very rewarding.
The thing I least enjoy has to be the dreaded alterations. My work is all hand drawn so I’m quick to tell clients that no changes can be done once completed, but text layout is something I’ve switched to doing digitally, meaning adjustments can and usually will be made.
“I don’t think there are any essential skills in the art and design world...It’s not like brain surgery where there’s (I hope) no winging it.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Being the art director for Sounds From The Other City 2016. It’s a different artist or collective every year and the festival itself is better than Christmas. I’ve previously attended as a punter and had a wild time, so to get to control the look of the party was a real privilege. I had tons of cardboard builds to do as well as filming trailers and promo stuff and sorting out works for audience interaction. I had a team of volunteers working for me all under the encouragement of festival chief’s Rivca Burns and Mark Carlin.
What skills are essential to your job?
In a broader sense, I don’t think there are any essential skills in the art and design world. The truth is, there’s a lot of art and design out there that makes people a living and isn’t mind blowing; it’s not like brain surgery where there’s (I hope) no winging it.
Would you say your work allows for a good life-work balance?
My work is my life. I feel terrible saying it, but it’s the solid truth! I’ll be sat in the pub with mates, discussing what projects we’re getting excited about doing next. The lines blur, but I know when to talk about things other than work, or when to take my partner out for a meal, or take a trip to see the family. It’s just not set in stone when this starts or ends.
‘Imagineering Doodles’ in collaboration with Ryan Gander
Risograph print, Piccadilly Plaza
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
An astronaut. I even got as far as starting a Physics with Space Technology degree, so that path lasted till I was 21. (It’s still an ambition of mine, I just don’t see many job ads for illustrators aboard the International Space Station).
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
At face value, not at all. But the time I spent in various bars and cafes in Manchester hanging out with friends and sketching and not being on my course at university made me realise that physics wasn’t the life for me.
What were your first jobs?
Freelance-wise, mostly posters for various events around town. It was a good way to build a reputation, hone my craft. I met a lot of people at gigs who were running events or looking for artwork, so it wasn’t too hard to diversify afterwards.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Deciding this is what I wanted to do with my life. After dropping out of university I wound up working as a labourer which made me realise that I didn’t want a conventional job and that I should push on with my artwork. I had a very supportive network of friends and family and I couldn’t be more grateful enough for that.
“Ask whether this is the life for you. Your work is an extension of you; if people don’t like it or think it’s good enough, then you’re going to feel it right in the guts.”
‘Homecoming II’ print
Artwork for Sound from the Other City festival, 2016
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
My first album art commission. I was asked to contribute to the band Amplifier’s Octopus album (I’d been a huge fan for years), it was my first big illustration job and I was tasked with turning their ideas into a series of illustrations. I used to work by photocopying my ink work onto acetate and then hand painting the reverse, and went through a lot of iterations to get everything right. Getting that final, printed album was absolute joy.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I’ve honed my illustration technique and gotten a better idea on how I want to compose images and work. I’ve also learnt to be more proficient with Adobe packages; I’m no whizz on these things but knowing how to build layers for a Risograph print in Photoshop or edit together and green screen a short film is invaluable. I know all these are the basics for a art and design degree but when you come in from outside of that, it can be a challenge getting to grips with it all.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Stepping away from a good laboratory job and learning to budget as a freelance artist. Every artwork can be a challenge and you’ll find new ways of working to do the task at hand, but it’s the making it a living part that’s hard going.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I came into doing what I do now later in life than most; I’ve only been freelance for a couple of years and consider myself still early on in my career. I knew plenty of people who gave me an idea of what the freelancing field is like and the hardships involved, so I came into this with my eyes very much open.
An early example of Paul’s work for local events from 2008
What would you like to do next?
I’m currently working on my first solo exhibition, 0161 Brutal, which will be centred around brutalism in the Greater Manchester area. I want to get that done and squared away so I can focus on stocking up my online print shop and start fleshing out that side of my practice. Further down the line I’d like to do more with prop builds and filming. Doing videos for Sounds from the Other City gave me a taste for it, and seeing the cardboard builds be given life is immense fun.
Could you do this job forever?
In a way, I reckon so. I already have retirement plans to become a photorealist painter but for the foreseeable future I like where illustration and cardboard sculpture is taking me, there’s a lot to explore here and I feel like I’m finally scratching the surface.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
To build a bigger reputation and start attracting commissions from bigger clients and those further afield.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an artist and illustrator?
Work out what your own personal style is, and think about the work you want to produce. Be self critical in delivery but not when sketching. Go out a lot; art shows, exhibitions, bars, wherever interesting things happen. Engage with people and avoid being a dick. Give a shit about what you do and be passionate about subjects you’re interested in. Most importantly, really ask whether this is the life for you. Your work is an extension of you; if people don’t like it or think it’s good enough, then you’re going to feel it right in the guts. There are a lot good, interesting jobs out there that don’t require this level of public inspection. But if you do choose this life, make sure you do work you’re proud of and satisfies you – you’ll love doing it for years to come.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on The Engine House.