Will Sweeney on Food and Art

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Will Sweeney creates worlds where crime-fighting sandwiches battle villainous hotdogs–but don’t think they’re simply random. Each whimsical character in Sweeney’s flawlessly executed compositions serves a greater purpose: to create funny social commentary that’s never heavy-handed.

In Sweeney’s 2007 print “Saturday Night,” for example, you may spy a red pepper in glasses and jeans playing an arcade game called High Speed Kumquat; he’s part of a larger tableau where anthropomorphic vegetables hang out and plot wars against junk food.

After graduating from London’s prestigious Royal College of Art in 1998, Sweeney embarked on a prolific illustration career; he’s doodled for the likes of Silas & Maria, Levi’s, and Stüssy, and appeared in the Gas Book series, The Face, and Sleazenation. Musically, he has made his mark as a guitarist for XL Recordings’ Zongamin (the brainchild of frequent design collaborator Susumu Mukai) and by designing album art for Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Beck, and Architecture in Helsinki, whose Places Like These cover he spun into a full art show in Melbourne, Australia. Of course, there’s the aforementioned veggie-filled Tales From Greenfuzz series of comics and its attendant toys, plus his recently launched label, Alakazam, an optical acid bath of dancing pharaohs and voodoo jukeboxes from the future past.

XLR8R: How did you first get into art?

Will Sweeney: I think one of the pivotal inspirations for me was the 2000AD comic. It seemed to have everything for me, visually and narratively. There was a section in one issue that was a step-by-step guide to drawing Judge Dredd, using the same techniques as the comic’s artists. I remember doing this in my school art class when I was about seven. The moment when the ink had dried and I rubbed away the pencil line was kind of a revelation for me, giving me the confidence to think I could pursue this.

How did your father being an art professor affect the way you thought about art growing up?

I think it gave me confidence for quite a while; by the time I was around 15 I kind of took it for granted that I could draw. Then I really had the wind knocked out of my sails when I started art school, which was good as it made me really try harder. I think my dad’s position has made me distrust the fine-art world to some extent. He is also quite cynical about much over-hyped contemporary art, but he is successful in an area that is kind of alien to me. I have carved quite a different path than him in my career, but his work ethic has always inspired and driven me. Our work definitely bears many similarities. We both have a great love of detail and for creating characters. Thematically though, it is different. His work involves themes such as the life of William Blake, cities of holy dreams, and swineherd philosophers.... I tend to make comic strips about a fictional world populated by vegetables.

Are you able to make a decent living from what you do now?

If I didn’t live in the most stupidly overpriced city in the world I would probably consider myself quite well off. Most of the work I really enjoy doesn’t pay too well, but I have a good agent who can negotiate well on my behalf when the occasional soul-destroying advertising job comes my way.

Describe the process of a piece from conception to completion. How much is planned and how much is improvised?

In terms of illustration work, I will sit and look through books and magazines for ages, waiting for inspiration to come before spending a long time drawing in my sketchbook. Then I will refine the sketchbook drawings [or] get client approval. Most of the commercial work I do involves digital coloring, so the process is penciling, inking, rubbing out pencil, then scanning and coloring digitally. So not too much has changed since the early days of copying Judge Dredd, apart from the computer aspect. In terms of personal work, the process is often quite different. I have a lot of images and ideas that I want to explore through drawing and writing comics, and there never seems to be enough time to do this.

What does a day in your life look like?

I often like to work at night when there is no one around. I hate distractions and need to concentrate a lot. I work from home in Hackney, in a small studio on a mezzanine level of my flat. My wife works downstairs. Other than that, I drink Guinness, watch bands, watch Dr. Who DVDs, watch The Mighty Boosh, pursue bizarre trains of thought on the internet, buy obscure German vinyl on eBay, and have gyoza evenings at our place.

How much planning goes into your comic books?

A lot. Everything is storyboarded and planned before artwork begins. Saying that, I always allow for spontaneity and I never know exactly how a spread will look until inked and colored. Otherwise it could get too laborious and predictable.

Why so many food references?

Food is an underrated subject matter. Outside the realm of children’s books, most comics concern rather clichéd subject matter that panders to the inadequacies of the readers: revenge, power, six-packs, urban alienation. Food is familiar, yet I think it’s quite alien. Who knows if aubergines have feelings?

Do you listen to music while you work?

I listen to the radio a lot, but mainly plays, stories, and radio comedy. I like Clive Merrison as Sherlock Holmes on BBC7, and I love “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” on Radio 4. Music-wise, at the moment I’m listening to the new Ween LP, Moebius & Beerbohm’s Strange Music, Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, Guru Guru’s UFO & Kangaru, and Cluster’s Grosses Wasser. Some of my favorites are The Cramps, The Bonzo Dog Band, The Monks, and The Coasters. These have all inspired my work through lyrics, humor, and dress sense (or lack thereof).

What are you sick of, in art or otherwise?

Sometimes I really resent the “fashion” or “cutting-edge” aspects of contemporary illustration–people appropriating a style or palette merely to appear edgy. It’s often just vacuous, hiding the lack of commitment within. I’m also rather cynical about some of the old farts who haven’t had an original idea in 20 years, but still knock out facsimiles of the same thing relentlessly to a blissfully ignorant audience.