Twitter artist Johanna Basford set for first show

Johanna Basford's exhibition opens at the DCA on Saturday. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Johanna Basford's exhibition opens at the DCA on Saturday. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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JOHANNA Basford is preparing her first gallery exhibition in one of Scotland’s top contemporary art spaces. It’s the latest step for an up-and-coming artist with an instantly recognisable style of drawings.

The main gallery at Dundee Contemporary Arts is in the process of being transformed into a black and white wonderland. In one room, a forest of intricately drawn trees is being erected, some as much as three metres high. In another, there is a sailing boat covered with drawings. In between the two is a corridor filled with the tick-tock of magical hand-drawn cuckoo clocks. And in the midst of it all, Johanna Basford, in – perhaps not surprisingly – a black and white print dress.

One of Basford's 'TwitterPicture' illustrations. Picture: Johanna Basford

One of Basford's 'TwitterPicture' illustrations. Picture: Johanna Basford

“It has become a bit of a uniform for me now,” says Basford, cheerfully. At 30, she has quickly made a name for herself with her instantly recognisable style of detailed black and white drawings. Her work has attracted commissions from the likes of Absolut, DKNY, Tate Modern and Johnson & Johnson, and she designed the iconic programme covers for the Fringe in 2010. She also created a big stir with her popular #TwitterPicture project, where she drew pictures suggested by Twitter users. Now, she is preparing for her first gallery exhibition in one of Scotland’s top contemporary art spaces.

Basford, who studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, was a regular visitor to DCA but never imagined she would have an exhibition here. “When Graham [Domke, the curator of DCA] e-mailed me last August, I had to check to make sure it wasn’t one of my friends doing a wee cheeky wind-up. DCA shows a very high calibre of artists, but they were really happy to embrace the fact that I’m a commercial illustrator, and that we would find a way to apply what I do to a gallery context. It was amazing, they just showed me the big empty space and said: ‘Fill it!’.”

At art school, Basford specialised in Printed Textiles, with a view to working in the fashion industry. “When I graduated I went down to London and did a few internships in fashion studios. I hated it – hated London, hated the textile industry, fashion wasn’t for me!” However, clients were beginning to take an interest in the range of wallpapers she produced as part of her degree show, with designs based on her composite drawings of nature hand-printed on a silkscreen press.

So, just a few months out of art school, Basford launched her own wallpaper business based at her parents’ home in Ellon, north of Aberdeen. With orders coming in from interior designers working on luxury hotels, restaurants and boutique shops, she quickly outgrew her little studio and moved into new premises in an industrial unit in Dundee. She was forging ahead as one of Scotland’s youngest creative entrepreneurs when the credit crunch hit.

“Suddenly, nobody had a budget anymore for luxury wallpaper, the orders dried up and I had to seriously think about what I was going to do. Weirdly, it was the best thing that has ever happened to me. I was happy in what I was doing, but it was a bit repetitive, the process of manufacturing the wallpaper wasn’t really where my passion lies.”

With an empty order book, she wound up the business and switched to illustration, working from a little desk in her living room: “It was the best thing because I love drawing, and it was the creating of the images that I loved.”

She attributes her remarkable success in a highly competitive field to two things: lots of legwork, trawling around design studios with her portfolio, and a highly recognisable style. “Everything is hand-drawn and black and white, that’s my calling card. If a client needs colour, by all means I’ll do it, but I think limiting myself in that way has made me the girl that you phone if you want something intricate and black and white.”

Basford describes herself an “ink evangelist”, “a champion of the (wobbly) hand-drawn line”. The longer you look at one of her drawings, the more you notice. She uses a computer only when the drawing is finished to produce electronic files which printers and designers can use, and “to edit out the tea stains and thumbprints”. “I like that idea of analogue art for a digital age. I think everything is increasingly going to vectors, pixels, mass production, it’s lovely to have work which is crafted by hand. You can see where it’s gone a bit wobbly, and I’ll always know that maybe that bumblebee is there because I dropped a spot of ink. I think it gives it more of a story, more of a soul and a heart.”

One of the small rooms off the DCA exhibition space has been turned into a replica of her studio, to allow people to peek behind the scenes, see how her works begin (as pencil drawings), and some of her extensive pen collection (“Whenever we go to a new city, I track down bizarre pens you can’t get anywhere else!”). There are also books on birds, butterflies, ferns and the flower and plant books she inherited from her grandparents, professional gardeners. “I tend to draw from my imagination but it’s nice to have a starting point”.

She says the animals, birds and plants which populate her work were informed by her childhood in Aberdeenshire, where she still lives. “When I was small, my parents bought a fish farm, so I grew up in the outdoors. They were very anti-TV parents. It was, ‘Go outside and play’, so I spent my childhood building dens and running about.” She also – unsurprisingly – drew a lot: “on everything – the walls, my clothes, my sister!”

Starting out as an illustrator, she invented #TwitterPicture – drawing the suggestions of Twitter users in a 48-hour marathon transmitted live via webcam. “I honestly thought, I’ll get a few dozen tweets. I was on the phone to my mum trying to get her to set up a Twitter account, but it just exploded. I think people loved the idea that they could help create something.”

It turned out to be a great move commercially, too. “Quite often new clients will explain the job and right at the end say, ‘By the way, you drew me a porcupine skateboarding in #TwitterPicture’, it has fed into a lot of things.” It caught the eye of Edinburgh design studio Whitespace, who were tasked with creating the visual imagery for the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe, including the programme covers and ticket wallets. And this, in turn, led to another 24-hour drawing marathon in which Basford drew the responses of Twitter users to the question: What would you like to see at the 2010 Fringe? (Ideas included a tap-dancing Tunnocks teacake and a Highland cow scaling the Scott Monument).

“They liked the idea because the Fringe is a festival where the public dictates what is going on, it’s a very open-source organisation. For the crazy eclectic atmosphere of the Fringe, it just worked perfectly. It was such an honour to do it, to follow an idea I’d come up with previously and develop it. But it was strangely embarrassing being in Edinburgh that summer because the drawings were everywhere. It was strange seeing it tucked under people’s arms.”

Since then, Basford has continued to undertake a wide range of commercial projects, from book covers and illustrations for iPhone apps to drawing Twitter suggestions for the future on a Smart car to publicise the latest model. However, the exhibition at DCA has enabled her to take her work to a new scale. “Most of what I do is the size of something that would fit in your hand. To have a big physical space to play with is very rare. The idea of the show is that you find yourself immersed in this inky wonderland and just experience it for yourself.”

She laughs as she tells me about the cuckoo clocks which will perform a “cuckoo crescendo” ever 15 minutes. “It will probably drive the gallery staff crazy, but it’s the kind of thing that I, when I was a child, would have hung around to listen to. It was really important to me that this show was something that families could go into and not feel put off. I like that idea that it’s charming and inquisitive and gets people talking. And I would love it if people see the studio and the sketches and go home and pick up a pencil themselves. You don’t need a fancy computer, you just need a pencil and a piece of paper.”

• Johanna Basford: Wonderlands, Dundee Contemporary Arts. From Saturday, to July 7;