October 9, 2010

Telling Stories and Making Things Up, Too

An Interview with Illustrator Lesley Frances Vamos

Part 1 of 2 (Link to
Part 2)
Click on any picture to embiggerize

In the city of Sydney
A girl was born at five to three (am)

Skin so white she looked quite dead
and hair as black as Elvis's

She grew to live a happy life
with two sisters from different wives

Always older than her age
She had at four her future paved

She'd be an artist and maybe sing
but drawing really was her thing

It changed a little here and there
Illustrator, animator... Olympic figure skater?

And through her life she's come to find
No matter where your passion lies

You must be open,
try everything
and make time for all the little things...

As you might have gathered from the ‘
biographical poem’ above, its not often you meet a 4 year-old with their life planned out and a solid idea of what they want to be when they're older already set in their mind.

Now before you get overly concerned, I am not talking about introducing a new trend of interviewing infants here (though I might be able to better hold my own in these situations ... hm, no, probably not). But this is exactly how this week’s guest,
Lesley Vamos, introduces herself when you visit her web pages. And oh what a clever yet tiring handful she must have been! She goes on to correctly point out that its even rarer for these same toddlers to wind up wanting to do the same thing 20 years later (well, I wanted to be a mad scientist, so I got half of it right). But Lesley insists that she is indeed that kid!

I first came across Lesley’s work via one of her ‘fan art’ pieces: an amazingly accurate and well-thought out illustration she did of the Simpsons, projected if you will into real life (she notes that Homer of all people was the trickiest to get the ‘essence’ out of... go figure). My explorations into her budding work would then take me not only through what is an impressive and grin-inspiring portfolio, even at this relatively early stage in her promising career, as well as some absolutely side-splitting tales of fun that she has put together! Sure, it’s been said (or sung?) that every picture tells a story, but it’s rare to find these two aspects combined in such a way that you find yourself going through the whole ‘which came first, the chicken or egg’ logic of their creation!

I hope therefore you enjoy not only viewing Lesley’s illustrations and our interview together, but also several linked-in collections of whimsy, memories and rhyme!


Welcome to the show Lesley! Tell us a little about yourself please!
Just a little, ok… well, I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia in a place out West called Baukham Hills. I’m short, freckled, have an unusually high voice, and a silent laugh that makes me look like I’m crying.
I am not ticklish on my feet. I love telling stories, making things up and eating eggplant. I don’t really cry but laugh all the time and have been told that I give rather a good shoulder massage.

Now if my geography is any good, you attended High School in New South Wales which is not a million miles from Sydney correct?
NSW is one of our many states (joke… we only have 6 states in Australia … and one shouldn’t even really be included because you’d never find the town that’s in it without detailed directions… which ironically is our capital city). But Sydney is indeed in NSW.

I attended Willoughby Girls High school which is coincidentally located on Willoughby Road in Willoughby. You can see they were incredibly creative when coming up with names.

What is the overall art-slash-design scene like in that area? Were you surrounded by such a focus or even atmosphere from an early age?
I think in order to answer this one you have to have a better general idea about the art scene in Australia itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my country and think we have a lot going for us; but when it comes to the arts, we resemble a high school that only cares about the sports teams while everyone in the creative faculties are ignored. Imagine having a school assembly where you get to watch the sports kids get awards for various accolades on stage. On the other hand, the awards for creative people get passed out unceremoniously in homeroom.

However, I joined the high school after finding out that the year 12 art students were given their own room to work on their major works in what looked like a cool underground hide-away. Well, maybe it wasn’t that cool, but it was at least a space of our own under the school building.

Having said all that though, I do have creative parents who always encouraged me to pursue artistic aspirations – even though they both ended up as lawyers. Plus, after discovering I was easily amused with a pencil and paper, they made sure I was always well supplied. Once I knew I loved drawing – I was about 4 years old – I decided to set my own course and made sure I had things around me to learn from and be inspired by.

In looking at your various on-line offerings, I have found myself trying to peg your influences, which appear to be quite varied. For example, I would venture that you have at least a strong affinity for the ‘Disney / Pixar’ style. Was this one of your strong influences or were there others perhaps even totally unrelated ‘inspirations’ that have driven you in this direction?
Over the years I’ve had countless influences so its hard to peg one style in particular.

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch television, so I started out in ‘illustration’ by looking at children’s books. I would go to the library everyday after school with my friend and we’d slowly devour one illustrated book at a time, taking turns to read each paragraph. My favourites were
Alison Lester, Elizabeth Honey, Craig Smith and a few other Australian authors/illustrators. That’s when I decided I was going to be one myself.

Later, once I was allowed to watch TV on the weekends, I was only aware of Saturday Disney so I started to be influenced by that. It wasn’t long before I wanted to be an animator.

When I got to high school, we started to learn art, you know, ‘classically’. This meant I was shown a lot of various Masters’ works. I fell in love with Da Vinci and would spend hours and hours making my own manuscripts. I would also use the grid method to draw Michelangelo’s frescos.

In addition, I got into architecture and famously decided my first foray into building – using clay – would be to make a re-creation combining the Mosta Dome in Malta and the Notre Dame de Paris, complete with little flying buttresses… Well, by now, you may be thinking I was a strange kid and, well, you’d be right.

Still, looking at influences, once I got to University and discovered the Internet (yes it took me that long), I haven’t looked back. I find about 20 new artists a week that I can learn from and am inspired by. I think my favourites are usually French artists as they have a roundness and an appeal to their designs that I find myself consistently trying to replicate.

With this in mind, what is it do you think that makes your style uniquely YOUR style?
Its really hard to say. In fact, I wasn’t even aware I had my own style until I was told so.

Its funny, because I would ask many of my artist friends and mentors how to develop a style. I was always told that as long as I kept looking at inspiration and drawing everyday, that I would eventually fall into one. This left me extremely sceptical. But I continued to draw what I liked and to copy my idols until – sure enough – I turned around and someone was saying I was doing something unique.

I’m basically a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ of a hundred different artists I admire. Having said all that though, I find that my style is slightly whimsical, a little old-fashioned and favours nice round shapes that I think give it that Disney/Pixar look.

I mean no offence, but looking through your list of accomplishments, training and previous job experiences, I have the feeling your ‘upbringing’ in the industry so far has been very similar to a sushi menu: a lot of delicious projects but served in many small portions. How have you approached finding work and/or getting commissions to date?
No offence taken at all. Finding work has been tricky, I’ve been fortunate enough to be recommended on a couple of projects. The rest has come from me then just hounding studios in the area to take me on for work experience (similar to an intern).

As for freelance projects, they’ve come in the last year and the majority of these were from friends or friendly recommendations. I’m actually doing my first commission at the moment for someone who contacted me on-line, so that’s really exciting! (ZN: for the poem that accompanies this thoughtful piece, please see

You list one of your main experiences as Logo Designer. Are you still pursuing this avenue of graphic design or is it something that just comes as may?
I kind of fell into Logo design. I was lucky to attain a pretty diverse range of skills from my studies at
COFA, logo design being one of them. Still, getting ‘jobs’ such as this usually starts with someone I know that has no idea I design or illustrate telling me they need help... and then me offering my services (usually much to their surprise)!

I still remember the time my MUM was explaining that they needed a designer at her company to help with re-branding. I looked at her, eye’s wide, and said in a voice as calm as I could muster, “Why don’t you ask me?” She looked at me surprised and said, “Oh… do you do that?” “No mum… I only studied design for four years!”

And I simply must comment on one of your main experiences, namely as a ‘Jack (or should that be Jill?) of all trades’ for the so-called
Cartoon Kingdom. I am curious if this was indeed a lot of fun or did it eventually turn into a kind of living hell? Sorry, but with two young monsters (= children) running around the house my opinion may be jaded in terms of working with hundreds of kids (but the massages do sound dreamy)!!
Hm, where do I start with Cartoon Kingdom?

Firstly, it is and was a great opportunity, let me say that. I think I should start from the beginning as it helps you get a better idea of what working for them is like. I saw a flier in my first year at COFA advertising a local cartooning company who needed someone who could draw, had a car and wanted money. Well, thinking I’d never been so suited for a job in all my life, I called them and was scheduled for an interview the next week.

I met with Danny Cohen the boss and without looking at any of my artwork he sent me on my first gig, which wound up consisting of face-painting at a couple of caravan parks in Gosford (a 2 and a half hour road trip from my house). I packed my stuff – I had leftovers from a face-painting business I started when I was 10 – along with my sister, and headed out. I had no clue what to expect and hadn’t received any instructions on what to do when I got there.

The day was interesting to say the least! But when no complaints came in from the park owners, Danny was happy and signed me on full-time. Since then I’ve done everything from caricaturing at fancy parties on boats in Sydney harbour to running and teaching cartooning to over 300 kids in the cartooning camps we run on the holidays. I’ve been all over Australia to some wonderful parts… and also to some not so nice parts. I’ve had some great – and not so great – times. I’ve met some fantastic people and some not so … well, you get the idea.

The jobs usually begin with a call that goes something like this:
Danny: Lesley… do you make balloon animals?
Me: Umm, no… But I can learn!
Danny: Great, you have a gig this weekend, wear something clownish.

All kidding aside, at the end of the day it helps a lot that I love kids. Plus, I love to draw and can usually think on my feet as the situation requires. I’ll never forget the time I showed up to a gig with a broken leg and one small box of Lego, being expected to entertain 40 kids for 2 hours! As you can imagine, the lady running the holiday car was a little sceptical ... a fact she made clear when she came to me after and congratulated me on a job well done!!

Oh, and on a little side note: when it comes to the 300 kids at cartooning camps, believe me: they are NOTHING compared to the parents!

In terms of your educational experience, it appears that a good deal of both your University training as well as other special course-work and of course the software you are skilled at has focused on Digital Media. Why is that, compared to for example focusing on and getting an education in the so-called fine arts?
It was just the nature of my course work, which definitely had some holes in it. However, I came away with a nice broad range of skills they rightly assumed to be dominant in the field at that time.

I did have the option to do a Fine Arts course-work at the same University; but thinking then that animation was my main aspiration, I ended up applying to some courses in Perth (you are only offered one course [degree] per state in Australia). After getting into something similar to what I had tried out for in Sydney, I moved to Perth for a year, a quick decision that greatly surprised my dad – especially since I informed him once I had already left.

Then, after University, I still had animation on my mind and as the course-work in Perth had only offered so much, I sought to fill the gaps in my knowledge with extra workshops and training sessions. Having now decided that illustration is what I would really love to be doing, I do find myself wishing I’d had gone for a more traditional/classic instruction at school. But lucky for me, finding willing teachers outside the school system is actually quite easy and a lot of fun.

To this, I am curious how an artist balances the digital – which can be sleek, fast and very flexible – with hand sketchings and even something as maddening (sorry personal experience creeping in) as watercolours?
First, I have to admit that I’m a complete and utter control freak with a heightened case of perfectionism. So I know exactly what you mean about watercolours, which is probably why I stay well away from them.

Having said that I prefer traditional methods as I feel I have more control over the line, not to mention having a need for the feel of paper under my palm (that sounded less strange in my head). In a perfect world, I would only deal in pencils (both lead and colour) but as I needed to find ways of replicating my work and getting it on-line this vision quickly dissolved. And after much trial and error – with emphasis on LOTS of error – I finally found a nice compromise that works for me.

Continued in
Part 2

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