Contemporary and nostalgic, the stunning stylized world of this vibrant illustrator and what matters most to him
Award-winning British artist Owen Davey has a distinctive vintage charm that appeals to adults and children alike. His whimsical artworks have been featured in global media, apps such as TwoDots and The Robot Factory, plus several books, which includes Little Gestalten's recently published Wer Bin Ich? (Who Am I?). His elegant design style has forged an almost cult-like mass of 120,000 followers on Instagram. Scroll through his social media and you'll notice his illustrations being applauded by thousands, many even go on to say his art is what keeps them playing.
Based in Worthing, just outside of Brighton in southern England, Owen is a gifted freelance illustrator that has created work for some of the world's most distinguished companies. The juxtaposition between the image texture and the sharp lines is what distinguishes his work, and also why the likes of Google, Airbnb, and National Geographic want to work with him. His expansive use of rich color, packing design style similar to that of the 1950s and 1960s, plus a love of stylized animals has resulted in Owen being compared to the late American Modernist artist Charley Harper.
Since graduating from Falmouth University with an illustration degree, Owen's work has been bestowed for the iPad App of the Year for The Robot Factory, he's a Webby Awards Winner (& People's Voice) for the design of TwoDots, and he also received a Distinguished Merit Award in 3x3 Pro Show Books Category 2018 for Directory of Illustration. His first commission outside of studying was from The Guardian, he's been working on TwoDots for five years, and now is exploring book illustrations. Owen's work is being showcased from June until the end of August as part of Wer Bin Ich? at 'Eröffnungsfeier!,' an event by celebrated children's bookstore Krumulus in Südstern.
Ahead of the event, we talked to Owen about his teenage-self, the powerful medium of illustration, and why animals are his favorite things to draw.
We roll back time to your teenage-self, what were you doing as a teenager and did you have similar interests to today?
I spent a lot of my time drawing when I was a teenager (almost as much as I do now). I always have done. Art and music have always been my prevailing loves in life. As a teenager, if I wasn't drawing, I would have been playing guitar, going to gigs, or at parties, dancing and singing along to the music I loved. I've also always loved computer games, TV, and film. And books. Now that I'm a father of two, I don't get as much time for films and computer games (I haven't played computer games in six months maybe and I can't remember the last film I went to see), but I listen to music every day while I'm working, cooking dinner, or walking somewhere. I also still play guitar as much as I can and play in a band. I'm desperate to go to another music festival but we haven't been able to make it work for the last few years. I have a lot of hobbies, to be honest. Everything from skiing, to playing board games like Mansions of Madness or Blackstone Fortress. And baking sweet treats.
Your style is reminiscent of retro advertising, how did you develop your aesthetic?
I think most creatives are just sponges, where certain things resonate and get soaked up. You end up a collection of things that you've found interesting or appealing. Retro advertising is definitely an inspiration for me. I like simplification, and playing around with the economy of shape and color. I think there's something really beautiful in being able to reduce stuff down to its essence. My favorite example is a picture of a house. You can draw a square with a triangle on top and immediately the vast majority of people will recognize it to be a house, even though most houses look nothing like that. That is fascinating to me. Drawing on the idea of icons and symbolism within my work.
What sparks your creativity? Or where do you get inspiration?
Often nature, because it's endlessly surprising and weird and beautiful all at the same time. If I'm ever stuck for inspiration, animals usually get me out of it. In my work life, the brief is my main source of inspiration, but I try to bend the brief to what interests me. There's nothing more soul destroying than illustrating something you don't believe in, or that just bores you. I usually turn down jobs that don't have something that sparks something in my mind.
In Wer Bin Ich? you illustrate what is needed to become a footballer and archaeologist, but what is really needed to be successful in illustration and make a career out of it?
Hard work is pretty much essential if you want to get good at anything. I believe there are some natural talents, sure, but I think it's mainly about a person's interest in something and their ability to persist with it. I've spent my entire life drawing. And I'm constantly trying to push myself and produce the best work I've ever produced. I also always meet deadlines. Always. And it means Art Directors keep coming back to me because they trust me to get something done and on time. That comes from organizing myself. I am terrible at organizing myself in life, but for some reason with Illustration, I can make it happen. There's a weird mix of other attributes that help me in my career, from self-promotion to discussing money. But the interesting thing I've found with Illustrators is that many of us are totally different and work in totally different ways, each with our own skillsets. I think it's just about maximizing what you're good at and minimizing (or working on) your shortcomings.
How powerful is an illustration as a medium?
For me, there's nothing as powerful. Illustration is freedom! There are no constraints like in the real world. You can create anything you imagine. And there's such a variety of styles and approaches and uses for it. I'm always being blown away by the work illustrators are producing nowadays, or coming across older illustrations and wondering where they'd been all my life. I love it!
What is it about animals that make them your favorite thing to draw?
There are just so many different shapes and colors. And there's a certain freedom in drawing animals compared to humans. Humans are really fun to draw, but because we look at humans all day, we very quickly spot inaccuracies or if something looks a little off about a character you've drawn, even within stylized people. Animals are that little bit more removed from us, so you can usually be a little more liberal with the simplification and get a little more creative with them.
You are a big hit on social media, especially Instagram. What role does it play in your craft and how much thought goes into it?
It's a weird one with Instagram because I was on it for years and nobody really cared, and then suddenly within the space of a year or two, I went from 7,000 followers to over 100,000. And I don't really have any idea why. It's a great medium for sharing my work with a lot of people in a clear and concise way. There's a really nice illustration community too. You still get the occasional internet troll but generally, I think it's a positive thing in my life.
The role of agents aren’t discussed often in your profession, what doors have been opened to you through agents?
My agents, Folio and I have been working together for ten years and they're superb. There are many agents that I'm not sure are worth the commission they take, but Folio has been instrumental in building my career and helping me hone my skills in the world of illustration. The big thing I noticed is that large companies with large-scale jobs seemed to have their minds set at ease working with something more akin to a company than just an individual. And Folio was great at getting the fees up to where they should be, especially when I was new and still undervaluing my work.
Explore our Little Gestalten Wer Bin Ich? book that teaches young readers about the different jobs and leisure activities that adults do, plus the items necessary. Find out more about the event at Krumulus Berlin.