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an interview with illustrator/animator richard mitchelson

richard mitchelson

alberto contador would be good, if i had any real grasp of spanish, and cadel evans might even be a worthy subject, but those are guys enclosed in their own little pro tour bubble, a bubble to which we can but aspire, but unless you're russell downing, simply watch from afar. the real people do real stuff to separate cycling from its own entourage, and present it in ways that worship at the altar of pain and suffering.

ok, so that's melodrama at its very worst; the good guys make pictures and words that add life to cycling, guys like richard mitchelson...

you first came to light, from a cyclist's point of view, with your idiosyncratic illustrations for an issue of rouleur magazine (no.14), a narrative regarding the 1974 giro d'italia. how did this arrive at your drawing board?
The Rouleur work came to me almost by chance, but I'm not keen on that phrase as it makes me sound one of those jammy gits who gets the moon on a stick, and that's never been the case. The start of 2009, like most people in my industry was a bit quiet, and instead of just watching endless re-runs of top gear on Dave I decided to work on a project to teach myself some code for the animation package I use called Adobe Flash. I took inspiration from Eddy Merckx' hour record attempt from 1972. The plan was to create a simple pedaling loop and have him start and stop at the touch of a button and look a bit like an automaton made of wood. Once finished I stuck it on my blog like most things i create and sat back and thought nothing of it. I seemed to have forgotten about the global draw of all things Merckx (and fixie/retro based) and soon had loads of people hitting that piece of work, and putting it on other blogs around the globe. I sent it over to the guys at road.cc to see if they wanted to take a look, and they then blogged about it again. Through a bit of a roundabout turn of internet events it landed on Guy Andrews (Rouleur Editor) screen and he must have liked it as we had a meeting a week later about doing some work for the magazine.

can we expect more in future issues of rouleur?
The plan at the moment is for some more stuff... i don't want to give away any more about it as I think the subject matter is even more exciting than the Giro covered in issue #14. All I can say is to keep your eyes peeled for early 2010, and something special at the end of 2009.
richard mitchelson

tim hilton, author of 'one more kilometre and we're in the showers' mentioned that a rather large proportion of artists and designers are also cycling enthusiasts. is this something you find to be true?
Yes, i think that can be said of me. The visual side of bike racing is fascinating, and the images of riders fighting against the elements and each other in the pursuit of victory is really inspiring for my illustration. As i work from a space at home i can use my down times to scour the net for interesting images or race footage, it's safe to say I am becoming a bit of a geek... I also really love the freedom of getting out on the bike and meeting new people out on the road, the lanes in and around Sussex are a great place to ride. I managed to tag along with a group the other week from Sussex Nomads, and they seemed more than happy to have a someone new along. The friendly nature of cycling means you can strike up a conversation with people really easily and instantly have something to chat about during the cafe stop.

what brought you to cycling?
It's more a question of who? My Dad (Paul Mitchelson) has always ridden road bikes. He is a true weekend warrior, having ridden in his youth for Hull Thursday Road Club, and so when me and my sister were old enough to try and keep up, he was more than happy for us to go on long family bike rides, often with a good pub stop, during the school holidays. We still ride together when i get back up North or if he visits Sussex. I was never pushed towards cycling but the love of the sport grew watching the tour on channel 4 in the late 80s and through the 90s. I then started following other races and now try to catch as much as I can, either online or through magazines. The plan is to head over the channel for Paris-Roubaix one year, it's become my favorite race.

richard mitchelson

have you been a competitive cyclist at any stage, or is it leisure and pleasure only?
The competitive side of me is currently a rower and this takes up a lot of my time. I row for Ardingly RC, I guess in cycling terms I race at a 2nd Cat or above level, I'm not entirely sure. I cycle as and when i can, and often add in long rides to my training week to bump up my all round fitness. If i ever stop rowing I am really keen on the idea of racing my bike in Surrey League, or something similar, as the idea of bunch racing really appeals. But for now the rowing is my main competitive passion and the plan is to race at Henley Royal Regatta next summer in the clubs coxless four.

are you a 'trained' artist, or self taught?
I have always drawn stuff, on scraps of paper, in sketchbooks, straight onto my computer with a graphics tablet, but i went to university to study animation. It was a surprisingly busy three years as we were still drawing each frame on paper, so my final 3rd year project, which was about six minutes long (at 25 individual pictures per second) took some time. But I think I really started to enjoy my illustration once I left education and went into animation studios to work, as I was surrounded by amazing directors who, during many pints, critiqued my drawings and pointed towards new inspirations, whether it was fine artists or animation directors of the past or present. I like to think that the work I do is never really perfect and that I am still learning new techniques or methods to improve, there are always people out there doing things to inspire me.

richard mitchelson

there's nothing truer than the fact that it takes a lot of years to become an overnight success. how long have you been plying your trade as an artist/illustrator/animator?
I have been working at this for about six years. I started in the animation industry as a 'runner' which is the person who delivers packages, gets tea, and generally does the monkey work. I learnt loads and you got to know some amazing people. after that I started working as a Flash animator, working in and around London. From there I had the typical self employed ups and downs which come with doing this sort of work. Moving to Brighton was a real eye opener; it is a hub of creativity sat on the south coast and because it is smaller than London you get to know a really friendly network of really talented people and eventually it seems that everyone knows everyone else, which has its benefits, as you tend to get quite a bit of work through recommendations or word of mouth, which I really like.

it is my experience that finding or happening upon an identifiable artistic style is often a lifelong quest. with the rouleur feature you seem to have defied the odds and arrived at a rather unique approach that undermines this supposition. was this inspiration or hard graft?
My style of working seems to change slightly with every piece I do. As I look back on old work, I find I still like it, but often only certain bits, perhaps the colouring, or the line work. And it is these bits that come with me to the next piece. As my work changes I find i get more confident in my own style. When I met with Rouleur it was a complete blank canvas, Guy said that I had creative freedom but that this was the topic (Giro 1974, and the film 'The Greatest Show on Earth') and i could 'go nuts'. He headed off to follow the tour and so I had three weeks to come up with some solid ideas about style and story. Watching the film was my first point of reference and it was a gold mine of interesting moments and characters, all perfect for what i had in mind, but I had to keep it to 11 pages and eventually settled on key aspects of the film to turn into the comic strip. I worked through the story in my head and on paper as a story board, and from that the whole thing started to come together. The character style became more simplified the more i worked on it, lines got taken out, shading reduced and eventually I was happy that it represented each cyclist in there simplest forms, recognisable but not over the top. This seemed to be the key to the style, and once I had that I moved onto the backgrounds. They had to complement the story and let the reader know where they were in Italy, either on the side of a mountain, or racing to the finish line. I used found photos and started breaking them down like I had the characters, trying to take them back to their simplest parts. Eventually the black and white halftone image worked the best of all of the experiments, but it felt very cold and a bit sterile, so I added some textures of old paper and the illustrations came to life with more depth. I guess in answer to the question, it was a bit of both, 40% inspiration and 60% hard graft.

have you an identifiable strategy for world domination, or does it all arrive and leave in piecemeal fashion?
Until now my exposure levels were what i made them, by working for as many big brands and well known studios as I could. But from a global domination point of view this is pretty limited and one person working from home in Sussex can only do so much. However, with the work in Rouleur my work can reach lots more people and the plan is to try and take it as far as I can with the exposure it brings. Doing things like this (for twmp) are really great as people are likely to find out about me and check out my work, and perhaps another project like the one for Rouleur may come along (anyone out there needing some drawings done... call me... ha ha ha).

richard mitchelson

brighton notwithstanding, could you ply your trade from pretty much anywhere in the uk?
The work i do means that i am normally sat at a computer, or sketch book. These are the only tools i really need and that means that with Skype and other similar things i can work pretty much anywhere in the UK and be in touch with a client instantly. But it is nice to sit and chat face to face with people over a cup of tea as I find it easier to bounce ideas around in the real world.

have you any preference between straightforward illustration or animation?
I don't think I have a preference. Often if i create a character in my sketch book and then work it up to a finished art worked piece of illustration I love to think about how they would move or come to life and so I take it into Flash and animate it. I have always found the two going really well together.

would the idea of a full length animation project hold any interest?
It has always been a dream of mine to work on a large feature film. It would be a real challenge to work on something that huge from concept all the way to it being shown on the big screen. Films like Belleville Rendez-vous for example, brought cycling to a much broader audience in the uk and also managed to capture the passion, determination and suffering that goes into riding a bike round France in July. And if I was able to tell an amazing story and capture something like that film did I would be a happy man.

are you a competent spanner wielder, or are you happier with a following mavic car?

I guess the correct answer would be that I am a mechanical wizard, and know how to completely take my bike apart, remove every piece of cable and ball bearing and then put it all back together wearing a blind fold... However this is not really the case, i know the basic stuff but have a good mate who lives near by who used to work in a bike shop, so it's almost like having a mavic car at my disposal if needs be. It's a case of the more i do, the more i know, and i can spend hours sitting in my garage tweaking bits after i read a new bit of tech info online, as i said earlier I am becoming a bit of a geek.

richard mitchelson

money no object, which bike/frame do you buy?
At the moment, for me, it's all about the frame and if money was no object I would get something hand built and custom made. The guys at Independent Fabrication create some stunning bikes and allow a complete custom paint job. To create something completely unique would be the aim.


have you any cycling heroes, and have you met any of them?
For me Tom Simpson is one of my cycling heroes, and his story is a great one. The tenacity and determination of Graeme Obree is fantastic, I find myself warming to those sorts of characters. In today's peloton people like Jen Voigt, Stuart O'Grady and George Hincapie stand out as riders I love to watch. I guess they are real rouleurs (sorry, that's not a plug) and never give in for their team leaders or sprinters in a lead out during the grand tours, or in Hincapie's case his year after year assault on the pave of Paris-Roubaix. To see him sat on the side of the course in 2006 was a cracking spectacle, gutting for him but one of the moments that make the sport what it is. I haven't had the chance of meeting my heroes yet, but you never know what the future holds.


all illustrations by richard mitchelson and reproduced with permission.
photo of richard by chris constantine

richard mitchelson

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