Looking for visual narrative in illustration – an interview with V&A Illustration Awards winner and judge, James Albon

June 12, 2024

The annual V&A Illustration Awards celebrate the best in British illustration. In this interview, we talk to James Albon, winner of the 2022 award for Best Editorial Illustration for his vibrant and hypnotic image representing the destabilising effects of social media. James’ editorial illustrations have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and Libération, and he has written and illustrated a number of graphic novels including The Delicacy (2021) and A Shining Beacon (2019). This year, we are delighted to welcome James back as a member of our judging panel.

James Albon illustration, ‘TikTok’ for the article by La ZEP in Libération won the V&A Illustration award for Illustrated Journalism in 2022

What inspired you to become an illustrator, and what was your route into the profession?

Ever since childhood, I’ve loved drawing. I went to Edinburgh College of Art after secondary school and was immediately drawn to illustration as my subject of choice. After I graduated, I sought out clients and began to get jobs in editorial and book cover illustration. After a few years of working as a freelancer and living abroad, I moved to London and undertook the postgraduate course at the Royal Drawing School. Although I’d enjoyed reading comics before, it was at the Drawing School, under the tutelage of Emily Haworth-Booth, that I became really interested in making them. My first book, Her Bark & Her Bite, was my final project from the school. All these years later, I still love drawing, and I balance my professional practice between editorial illustration and writing and illustrating comic books.

James Albon, illustration from his graphic novel, The Delicacy, 2021. © James Albon

Can you talk us through your creative process?

When I get a new editorial job in, I immediately set about researching the subject and the visual elements associated with it. Often, the subjects of articles can be quite varied, and as an editorial illustrator, I find myself picking up a really wide range of interesting knowledge. The majority of the time on an editorial project is spent on drawing thumbnails, and then roughs, in order to create a really strong concept. If the concept is weak, no amount of beautiful rendering in the final artwork will save the illustration. I send at least three rough sketches to the client, we discuss their preferences, and then I make the final, which is usually rendered in watercolour and gouache on paper, or sometimes as a linocut print if the subject would suit it. I use a computer very little in my process; if the illustration works on paper, then it is simple to scan it and send it to the client, but if the illustration isn’t working, then one has to add many layers of composition to try to ‘fix’ it in photoshop.

James Albon, illustration for ‘Food for Thought: The Joy of Cooking Shows’ by Constance Costas, Virginia Living, 2023. © James Albon

As well as editorial illustrations, you also produce graphic novels. How different is it creating your own work as opposed to responding to a brief?

I really love having both editorial illustration and graphic novels in my work. The two make a perfect balance as it typically takes me at least two years to write and illustrate a graphic novel, while creating an editorial illustration might only take two days. Jumping between the two fields helps to keep my work feeling fresh and constantly helps me generate new ideas. Conceptually, the contrasts are quite different: in editorial work, we respond to the text of an article, so we have a fixed point around which to attach our ideas and a pre-existing set of concepts which need to be communicated. With a graphic novel, because I both write and illustrate the text, I have a lot more freedom, but that freedom can be quite paralysing. I really try work on my graphic novels in a systematic way, finalising the plot structure, then the script as much as possible, then the rough pages, then the final pages. As with editorial work, it’s really important that the graphic novel works at a rough level before I try to make beautiful final artwork; I draw out the entire book in biro on plain printer paper so that I have a feeling for the pace and structure before I try to make any final pages.

Joanna Cohn, A Storm at The Grange, 2022

You returned as a judge for the V&A Illustration Awards this year – what were you looking for among the entries?

Judging any sort of artistic competition is extremely difficult. As Béla Bartók said, ‘competitions are for horses, not artists’. Anyone who’s ever entered an illustration competition has at some point received a rejection email with a standard line saying, ‘there were so many great entries and the judges had a really hard time,’ but it’s really true. When I began looking through the entries this year, I was really overwhelmed by the number of amazing illustrations: the student category has over a thousand entries alone, and many of them are easily on par with the work submitted in the professional categories. Even just picking my personal top ten was a struggle, and it became even harder when, with the other judges, we chose a shortlist and then decided on an ultimate winner.

Paul Blow, You Will Get it Wrong… But You Can’t Make it Worse by Cariad Lloyd, in The Guardian Magazine, 1 July 2023

What I’m really looking for in an illustration, is visual narrative. The illustration must tell a story in some way: as a classic fiction or non-fiction illustration, we might see characters explore a situation, but in an editorial illustration we must explore and clarify an often abstract concept, in an advertising illustration, we need to be excited by a product, and understand how the product will interact with our lives. The illustration must also be excellently executed. I’m not looking for any preferred style or materials, but I want to see that the illustrator has mastery over the materials and techniques that they choose to use. Furthermore, the form and content of the illustrations must inform one another, the way in which an illustration is rendered must be informed by the subject matter, and the way in which the subject matter is depicted must play to the strengths of the rendering.

Gerard DuBois, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (The Folio Society, 2023)

Can you tell us anything about the latest projects you are working on?

My next graphic novel will be called Love Languages, and it follows two characters, one from the UK and the other from Hong Kong, who meet in Paris and begin a trilingual friendship, learning each other’s languages as they get to know one another, until they end up speaking a patchwork of English, French, and Cantonese. Language learning is a great passion of mine, and I wanted to write a book which explored the ways in which language learning helps us understand not only more of the world around us, but also more about ourselves. It’ll be published around the start of 2025.

Owen Gent, That’s Nice, Love (Book Island, 2022)
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