The Power of Illustrating Awareness: Interview with Nathaniel J Hall

by Mental Movement Magazine
Nathaniel J Hall

One of the most powerful ways to dispel the stigma surrounding mental ill health is to illustrate it. Like with anything, our tastes and styles are likely to differ, but it’s reassuring to know there is something for everyone when it comes to the illustrations depicting mental ill health that have been surfacing more recently. 

Nathaniel J Hall is one of the illustrators taking it upon himself to open these conversations through his use of ink, print and digital design. As he endeavours to reimagine his surroundings, finding inspiration in experience – he is particularly driven to raising awareness around mental ill health.

A perfect marriage between traditional techniques with digitally distorted edges, Nathaniel’s contemporary illustrative style has all of the right components needed to re-align the way we portray mental ill health through media, film and design.

Eager to learn more about his work and processes’, we caught up with him to discover the importance of illustrating away the negative associations with mental ill health.

MMM: We are in love with your illustration style and particularly love how you utilise traditional printmaking techniques to evoke real quality and depth whilst embracing digital processes. What was the journey to working in this way? 

N.J.H: Good question, the quick answer is, I’m not really sure! My practice is a constant journey of experimenting, a lot of trial and error. Of course, immersing myself in looking at other artists that aren’t necessarily illustrators, but fine artist printmakers, textile designers and so on. Just to see if there is a technique or a new exciting way I can use to draw.

I had some great inspirational tutors during my time at art college, when I started, my knowledge of potential ways I could produce work was limited to a piece of paper and pencil I hadn’t really explored other mediums, I remember my first print workshop with my old tutor Andy, where we tried our hand at collagraph printing and absolutely loved it!  I think that was the source of my interest in really getting my hands dirty and being as hands-on as possible when I create work. You’ll notice on my Instagram I post a few process videos and photos, where I’ve found a random object or material I whack a load of ink and paint on it and draw with it. I love the unpredictable lines and marks drawing like this creates, I like to think or hope at least it makes the image a little more interesting.

MMM: Your work is quite honestly awesome, and we are quite a tough and critical audience too so, huge ratings to you for the work you are producing at the moment. Where do you source your inspiration? What makes you get your drawing stuff out? 

N.J.H: Well at the moment I’m in a kind of transitional period between just graduating and starting my illustration practice for real. I’ve of course had to get a regular part-time job. Because of this any free time I have, I’m drawing, almost out of a mental/physical NEED to, just to keep sane! Bit of a boring answer actually coming to think of it… in fact, a better one would be perhaps after a discussion or debate about a certain topic with some friends always get the creative cogs grinding. Also, theres no better motivator then scrolling through Instagram and seeing the vast talent out there, really makes you want to step up your game!

MMM: Creative blocks always halt me in getting things done. It can be a timely and costly process when I struggle to retain my drive. How do you cope with creative blocks? What do you do if/when this happens?

Nathaniel J Hall N.J.H: Thankfully, touch wood I haven’t had any recently. However, they are inevitable. I think my process of working helps this not to happen so much as a lot of it is playing around chucking paint and ink about with no real plan this naturally has progression and some idea or little nugget of what I can do next eventually comes. Of course just taking a step back and doing something completely different also works, I listen to a lot of podcasts when I draw and a lot of the time some of the things they are talking about spark ideas.

MMM: When do you work best? The day or through the night? How does this affect your overall wellbeing – do you know when to switch off or? 

Nathaniel J Hall

N.J.H: This can vary a lot, I’d say evening though, I find a lot of my ideas come to me as I’m just about to fall asleep…not ideal! This usually means I’m not falling asleep anymore and I may start sketching out some roughs and thumbnails. The nature of a creative mind is you think a lot! Which is good in some ways and I guess not so good in others!

MMM: You’ve been pretty transparent about your own struggles with mental ill health, especially in your most recent animation where you successfully illustrated a journey of depression and enlightenment … could you tell us more about your story? 

N.J.H: Of course, I won’t bore you with details as feel we all have our own bouts of mental ill health to varying degrees. But I think my lowest point was the period between 6th form and university. What to do next? I had pretty much failed all my A-levels due to being in an accident which cut through my tendons in my hand. This meant I couldn’t write for pretty much my entire time at 6th form intern led to me failing everything, had some other family issues as well at the same time, which of course didn’t help.

So much emphasis is put on us in schools is to do “proper” subjects to get a “proper” job. This meant I dropped Art before GCSE level – I still kick myself now in hindsight, silly thing to do! I managed to get a place at uni through clearing to do business studies (the only thing I didn’t quite fail at A-level) It was during this time, I had an epiphany moment almost. I was sat typing up another mundane business essay, every now and again I would have a break sometimes without realising it and just start doodling in the margins of my notebook. Over time I was spending a lot more time and effort on these little doodles then I was in my essays. It kind of made me question am I on the right course? I remember walking past the Art college here in Plymouth every day on my way to the Business course at uni. It got me thinking, long story short I dropped out of that course, kept it a secret for a while to a lot of people, and decided to dedicate all my time quickly scraping some sort of portfolio together. As all I had at this point was a few biro scribbles, nothing that would get you into art school!

So the animation basically tells that story, it was a great way I felt of finishing my time off at the college, it was an incredibly cathartic experience creating it and just felt right after everything that had happened it was a good way of rounding it all off ready to step into the real world as it were.

MMM: Would you say you are motivated to altering perceptions of mental ill health through your creativity? What would be a dream project for you? 

Nathaniel J Hall N.J.H: Most definitely, mental ill health is an ongoing thing. Its fairly recently I’ve used this as a sort of starting point for many of my recent projects. A lot of my recent pics have had some sort of psychedelic nature to them, guess you could say it kind of represent the constant thoughts, someone who struggles with mental ill health, I guess you could say its a kind of a release to get all these thoughts out and onto paper. Dream project hmm that’s a toughy, recently I’ve started a graphic novel VERY early days at the moment, but it’s going to be a cosmic space romp, delving into alternate realities, but to its core a personal journey… at the moment its just a few panels I’ve cobbled together but a rough basis of the story has been lurking in my head for a while! So I guess you could say I’d like to get that finished and of course, published and everyone read it, and then a Netflix series produced out of it etc…. don’t think that’s asking too much?

MMM: Student mental ill health is at an all-time high. It can be especially challenging in high pressured environments such as Art Schools and the famous ‘almost impossible to get into’ creative universities. How did you find the whole ‘art school’ experience? Did you feel that pressure? If so, what helped you cope? 

N.J.H:My experience with art school I guess is bit different to the conventional route, I think starting the course a little older then usual instead of straight from 6th form I started at Plymouth College of Art a little older at 23 rather than 18 I think this helped a lot as I was far more focused to get as much out of the experience as I could. Especially as I only really started drawing properly at 23 of course dropped art before GCSE, I always felt I was playing catch up, so I felt I needed to work that much harder than everyone else, this work ethic I think will always stay with me, I always think if I hadn’t of stopped drawing when I was younger and just carried on, what level would I be at now? Of course, I’d never know, but this motivates me to draw all the time, trying to improve my practice as much as possible.

It also helps that I LOVE doing it, I’m not expecting to make a lot of money, but if I’m honest I don’t mind about that at all, do what makes you happy!

MMM: The world of illustration, design and animation is certainly competitive, it must be really hard to keep churning out work at a rapid rate and get noticed in areas that are overly saturated with other artists vying for the same jobs/projects. What advice do you have for anyone struggling to keep up with that process?

Nathaniel J Hall N.J.H: Gosh, that’s a tough one for me to answer, as I am one of the newbies in the industry hoping to get noticed! I think perhaps though some good advice I got from a visiting illustrator at Uni: Ben Talon is to just keep at it, constantly set yourself self-initiated projects this keeps your work fresh and a constant library of work to add or reorganise your portfolio with.

No one in the industry is going to be impressed by a website that hasn’t been updated in while (this reminds me I’ve got to update my website!) they are far more likely to commission you if they see you’re hands-on and always working, they can see the passion in your work.

A strong social media presence also is important. I myself mainly use Instagram as a means to showcase my work quickly to a lot of people. I like to show works in progress and experiments on it, for example, my most recent piece I’m working on is drawing with everything apart from a pen pencil and brush. Instead, I’m using nails, cut up pieces of mount board, my toothbrush basically anything other than the usual drawing implements. As you say there is so much competition and I’m very aware of that, you just got to let that motivate you and inspire you to push on.

All these little experiments I’m doing is of course just an ongoing process of moving my work forward hoping to find a unique style that isn’t divertive of other artists.

A lot of people say to look for trends and bring that into your work, I’d say AVOID trends, they will come and go but if and when you find your unique way of working that is worth so much more and art directors are far more likely to hire you… at least in my humble opinion.

MMM: That’s great advice! Thanks! What are you listening to at the moment? What gives your studio/workspace the vibe you need to produce your work? 

N.J.H: As I work mainly at night, I like to having something pretty chilled on so anything by Bonobo or London grammar to Chet Faker. Also, I find podcasts really inspiring to listen to. “Arrest all mimics” Hosted by Ben Talon is a fantastic podcast to listen to for illustrators or any creatives, in general, he interviews various artists in depth how about how they work what drives them etc.

MMM: Ah, Bonobo. We are huge fans too – great work vibe music! So, what’s next? What do we have to look forward to from you in 2018 (no pressure but that Netflix series you mentioned)? 

N.J.H: Just going to keep plugging away, exploring some new ways of working. Perhaps may have a 1st draft of this comic I’m doing… I need a cool name for it though I’m open to suggestions something with a psychedelic/cosmic vibe to it??? I’d also like to do some more animations; something a little more sophisticated though this time, we’ll see!

If you love Nathanial’s work as much as we do then you can check out more here

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