Ed Firth’s work hovers between the disciplines of graphic design and draughtsmanship. Bryon Fear talks to him about zines, facial hair, and the joy of connecting directly with people through his work.
Ross / Rubber Legs / Turned Away (Click images to enlarge)
Ed Firth is a rising star of illustrative art. His current work is a series of portraits featuring (predominantly) gay men sporting big beards and elaborate moustaches. As in the photographic work of Blake Little and Jonathan Daniel Pryce, Firth is also preoccupied with documenting this fashion for impressive facial hair. His drawings are perceptive, distinctive and enticing. Using bold yet sparse lines, he not only captures his subject’s likeness, but also nuances of expression that pique an almost voyeuristic curiosity in the viewer for they reveal more than mere exterior, but offer a glimpse of something more personal.
Last month he assembled his first solo show at 31 Fournier Street, an untouched Georgian terrace home-cum-exhibition space that boasts Tracey Emin and Gilbert & George as neighbours. Displayed throughout two rooms – a small drawing room and an anteroom that is home to a remarkable library of books predating the 1970s – the work was perched on bookshelves, mantelpieces, doors, easels and walls embellished with silver-leaf, distressed by age or perhaps artifice. It is remarkable that Firth’s quintessentially modern and largely unframed drawings were able to hold their own in such grandiose surroundings.
Ed preparing his exhibition at 31 Fournier Street
A week (and one acquisition) later I returned to number 31 to interview Ed about his work that has been sought by collectors from all over the world – it has been featured on sites such as AccidentalBear.com and name-checked on the website for the American Mustache Institute. As we escaped the heat at 31 Fournier I recalled something that had stayed with me from our last conversation, when Ed admitted that “everything changed for me a couple of years ago once I realised that art was about connecting with people”. Ed nods and recounts how at school he used to make little storybooks, which were quite short, “and sometimes a little saucy in parts”, and how he would rush home each evening to do the next issue because the next day a queue of people would form waiting to read it, each grabbing the book from its previous reader. “I guess I had forgotten that what I really enjoyed was that connection. I was drawn closer to that group of people and I got a sense of appreciation for the art that an artist creates.”
Our conversation turns to Pound Shop, Ed’s self-published zine, and a wry smile breaks beneath his waxed moustache as he talks about these ‘little’ books connecting him with his current audience – the parallel is not lost on him. “Again, with the zine I have rediscovered that sense of connection, this time with people all over the world who buy it.”
And his audience is worldwide. A buyer in Mexico reached out to him via his Instagram account and news of the exhibition gained interest from buyers in Sweden & Belgium. “It’s really nice when people get in touch out of the blue purely because they’ve seen your work. It happens on Instagram, you put something up there and quite quickly the work can accumulate ‘likes’ and you know that people are looking at it. More than praise, more than the nature of what is said, it’s the fact that you’ve actually established a connection with these people.”
A little like the difference between performing on stage as opposed to film, I suggest: the former connects you immediately with your audience.
Stance / Long Face 3
I also note that portraiture also connects the artist with the subject on an even more personal level. Grinning he laughs, “Yes, there is the satisfaction of people being delighted … or appalled by what you’ve done!”
This is a double-edged statement. In his recent exhibition he admits there are three or four pieces that were done without the subject’s knowledge. Ed works predominantly from photographs sourced from the Internet. I recall once seeing his Facebook status update that declared: im in yr fasebooks, drawin yr linkd frendz! Often, he doesn’t actually know the people he has drawn, but in this instance through word of mouth, the subjects in question heard about, came to, and bought their images at the exhibition, “which was another interesting way of connecting with people … that some people might find a bit stalker-ish,” he notes with a laugh.
And for Ed there is a sense of freedom as an artist in not knowing the subject, “because there is no pressure on you to make it flattering you are free to explore if you find something grotesque that you want to draw – you can follow that whim without fear of censure.”
We speak further about his source material, which is sometimes found on Facebook, “friends of friends, or on Tumblr, sometimes on appreciation of male beauty ‘sites or something a bit saucier. Or perhaps I will see a picture that has something in it that I want to capture; some movement in it that I want to follow, or experience drawing on the page. I’ll see a challenge in an expression – smiling and laughing are much harder than anything else. To try and capture a smile without people analysing it further or finding it creepy. In a picture, if you draw someone laughing you have to get just right, otherwise it just looks sinister.”
Lollipop / Basilio
Ed’s style sits somewhere between the disciplines of graphic design and draughtsmanship, and his work has been likened to cartoons and also caricature. When interpreting his subjects’ features, he explores exaggeration to a certain degree and for this reason caricature as a label can be applied, but it’s a term that through association belittles the skill with which his portraits are executed. Also, unlike most caricature, which is largely irreverent, Ed’s drawings do not deride or mock his subjects; but rather the exaggeration here exemplifies what is attractive and alluring about those he draws. There is something inherently respectful about his approach and when I express this, it strikes a chord with him: “I feel there is something Totemic about them and having a sense of presence, an imposing presence. In the exhibition a lot of them were positioned quite high up and looking down on the viewer.” The stylistic elongation of the faces add to this totemic sense that his images possess.
I wanted to know more about the maturation of his drawing style. “I used to draw with an airbrush, and I would create these long lines, with some detail at either end – connected by a thin line that doesn’t seem strong enough to hold the two areas together. So delicate it’s like a tension wire on a bridge that has to hold all of this weight. Thin lines that are the difference between something and nothing. So, I’m fascinated by lines and draughtsmanship, much more than painting.” I find Ed’s use of line fascinating also. It is deft and precise. These images have a sparse simplicity that conceals the evolution they have undergone, and it is far from a simple process, as Ed explains: “Each line has two sides, not so much in the pencil drawings perhaps, but the finished digital drawings have been meticulously crafted, so that both sides have something to express.” He goes on to explain that each image is drawn, redrawn and redrawn again in a process of refinement; an exploration of the lines and shapes that form a face, and how they can be distilled and translated into something that becomes identifiable as a work of art and one that can be attributed to him. It’s a style that excites him, because he has felt that until now he didn’t have a style that was particularly distinctive or one he could claim ownership of.
Marine / Lawyer Books
In Firth’s earlier works, this approach often affects the whole composition with extraneous background detail discarded in favour economic use of line and colour. The images become dislocated and isolated and this is a conscious decision to avoid artifice or that which isn’t integral. I noted that his more recent work includes a sense of location, bringing something new to his work that wasn’t there before, a sense of narrative. Why is this figure in the sea? What brings this other to a library? Firth’s style alone evokes the tradition of the graphic novel, and these later images could be single panels from a greater story arc. When stood before them, several potential narratives are invoked. I wondered if this was something he was now actively exploring. “I do think these images have more to give. For example in ‘Marine’ there was no boat in the background, there was another guy, but that didn’t fit the composition I wanted. So I added the boat in. Have you seen the film Dead Calm? When I put the boat in, it then seemed to have something of that film about it. The possible danger. And of course the sea is red … This distant white vessel; what does it signify? Saviour or a graveyard? So there is a tension there and as you say more of a narrative.”
With such a strong graphic nature to the images and with the introduction of a stronger sense of narrative, it would seem that the natural progression would be to animate the work. Ed has a background in animation (he was a VJ for seven years) and the characters already have such a sense of life about them that you half expect them to move anyway. In the same way Opie has animated his digital work, would that be the next step I asked. “Next I want to create lenticular prints. It something I’m very excited about doing, you can create them using between 5 and 25 frames, so something quite brief and simple can happen, and that’s more interesting to me, more so than creating traditional animation.”
This doesn’t surprise me. Firth’s work is suggestive and offers a glimpse of narrative rather than delivering the whole story – the viewer is presented with these moments of “enigmatic suggestion” as he calls them, and is left to interpret them as they will – which is of course a more esoteric and satisfying experience.
You can see Ed’s work at his Edinburgh Fringe exhibition Men & Ink at Wallace’s Art House, which runs from August 16-30.
The limited edition zine Pound Shop Issue #2 will be available from August 8, online and from Gay’s the Word, Tate Modern and Foyles.
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