An Interview with Illustrator Wes Robinson

Wes Robinson is an illustrator and artist from Suffolk, UK. A self-described ‘Pantone enthusiast’, Wes’ vivid use of colour has been compared to David Hockney; his success has lead to client work with GANT; and his work has featured in Proper Magazine and Beware Magazine. Benjie Stimpson sat down with Wes to talk art, music, fashion and colour.

BS: I see a lot of your pieces involving classic preppy kit: boat shoes, rugby shirts, and Polo. How did you come upon that style?

WR: Well I think classic style lends itself to anyone looking to experiment because it’s so clear when you subvert it. It’s also very much championed by people looking to maintain a tradition, and in that you’ve already got quite an exciting contradiction of people who choose to adopt the look. For me, Prep has such a strong approach to colour that it’s difficult to resist, all those house colours, stripes and pattern designs- that’s before you’ve even started on the madras (a type of cotton fabric). When I did an internship at a fabric design company, I studied madras and plaid fabrics under an eye piece for about 6 months. The one thing I took was the interplay of symmetry and asymmetry underpinning the designs. 

Classics work for a reason- so if you work out that reason and take that knowledge forwards then you can create something new but equally informed. Ralph Lauren knew this, he basically collected classic clothes and furniture, and then put it through a seriously gifted team of creatives to reinvent it and make it exciting. You can only really do this if you love and understand the tradition- ironically people who subvert a style often understand it a lot better than those that fight for it to remain static and rooted in the past. The only argument against this is that novelty can often be short-lived, so you’ve got to ride both set of rails if you don’t want to create something people quickly tire of- it’s a balancing act. You’re going in two directions at once, referencing the past and imagining the future. 

Where do you get your inspiration? From any specific people or just a general vibe?

Trends can push and pull you to the point where you lose your voice and your uniqueness, so most of my inspiration comes from the past. You can spend a lifetime trying to understand what made certain artists and musicians great, but at some point you have to step out and define yourself. So when being influenced, I think copying superficially is damaging because you just become a trained parrot reciting something, but assessment of great work, understanding of method and approach can really benefit. Don’t fall into the trap that all artists are born great and never needed to work at their talents. For example, Van Gogh was obsessed with Japanese artwork, and he would scrutinise their approach to colour use. In his sketches he would pencil in what colour would go where in the final painting. I’ve heard people say oh, he was just following his intuition- well yes you need to have intuition as to know when something works but equally you need assimilated knowledge.

Prep has mainly been the garb of a more well off class (Sloane rangers etc.). Yet, brands like Noah and Rowing Blazers are bringing it more into the modern zeitgeist- but these still remain expensive. How can Prep be ‘democratised’ without losing its certain charm? Or, is that a false estimation of the style? Can it be mixed with modern streetwear, for example?

All clothes other than those sold in fast fashion outlets and supermarkets appear expensive to me. As a fan of clothes I can sometimes justify their price by considering the supply chain, but a lot of the time I can’t. That’s where brands operate differently and some can justify themselves, and say things like ‘buy well and buy once’. My point here is that although Prep formally gave an image of social standing, now a pair of Balenciaga trainers may be a better way of communicating your wealth. Prep probably communicates something more about your values than your bank account. Fortunately for me, a designer like Ralph Lauren became so ubiquitous, I can buy and collect the clothes relatively cheaply via Ebay and the like. 

As for mixing it with modern streetwear- well that’s really down to who is doing it. Arguably it already became Streetwear with the Lo-life movement, and that’s probably why it still gets riffed on now. Looking at a brand like Rowing Blazers is about understanding the clothes originally being sportswear, albeit about a century ago, and working it into the sportswear we wear now. I think that’s what I like about that brand- Jack Carlson at Rowing Blazers understands the clothes well enough to reinvent them, it’s not a cynical outsider doing it.

You noted on one of your pieces that you have synaesthesia. What was it like to discover this?

I think people find it interesting and I feel sorry for people that it’s not an experience they get to enjoy- it’s really such a part of my thinking that I can’t detach from it. I think visually all the time so music just fits into that. In my mind’s eye, I can see shapes and colours move in a 3D space. When listening to music, I can also rotate a colour sphere and think about colour combinations like that by plotting coordinates.

Did your ability immediately play into your art and fashion? Have these always interested you?  Or, did music come first? 

Rather strangely, it didn’t at first probably because it was such an early part of my way of understanding the world that it was no different than beginning to learn how to use any other sense. The way it has helped now is by giving me enough confidence to approach colour and music theory as really being the same thing as that’s the way they meet in my mind. Interestingly, what I find makes good colour combinations often makes for difficult sounding music. Bartok, Stravinsky and Coltrane have some seriously good colour combinations going on in their work- it appears we favour colours to oppose each other quite a lot, and diatonic music looks to smooth out a lot of issues when it comes to strong dissonance. It’s when you get into bitonality or altered dominant substitutions that you really start getting incredible colour combinations. The other day, I gave a scale I’d derived from a Post-Impressionist painting to a pianist who began to create something that sounded like a Debussy arabesque. It’s when you get a link like that you know you’re onto something profound. 

When did jazz come on your radar? And what style was/is coming out of your stereo?

I’ve always loved jazz from being into hip-hop as a kid- you naturally seek out the samples you like and next thing you know, you’ve plundered your Dad’s vinyl collection. I’m named after the jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery so it all seems to be quite apt. 

As for what’s on rotation at the moment- 50s West Coast jazz like, Art Pepper, Chico Hamilton and Chet Baker etc. Sun-Ra is never too far away from getting played, especially his early stuff, and finally, I’m always playing Miles, Bill Evans and Coltrane, I love Bill’s approach to harmony and the Lydian Chromatic Concept they all used to create the modal jazz pieces on ‘Kind of Blue’.

When did two and two come together with using the Circle of Fifths as a palate?

The Circle of Fifths approach came about from studying colours of flowers and plants, and noticing by plotting around a colour wheel that the colours would often fit into a relationship of fifths and fourths. By drawing it all out, it became evident as to how nature was aligning itself along a similar practice as to how we conceptualised music. I also liked the idea of playing paintings or drawing music, which I try to do when I’m not working on drawing clothes- although those pieces fall into exactly the same approach when it comes to colours.  

How can those without synaesthesia use this principle in our outfits or artwork?

All you need to know is how to create tension and release with colours, and music teaches that quite well. We as humans, are looking for high drama and deeply relaxing levels of calm. This is really done by setting up oppositions and partnerships. Stravinsky talked about the polarity of music, and it’s very much like that with colour. When you set up a reactionary to a dominant colour you create an argument; when you introduce the fifth, you create a sense of peace and order. In nature you’ll often see this partnership of colours, a tri-tone (complimentary hue in terms of colour theory) and a fifth or fourth. This is probably why the music of these types of composers challenges us but also reflects what we know about nature- that it isn’t orderly or well behaved, but in that there are partnerships. Art should really reflect this philosophy in my opinion, and that’s ultimately what I try to do, you set up the disagreement and then the resolution.

Wes’ fantastic instagram can be followed here.

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