Tom Hovey studied BA (Hons) Illustration at AUB, graduating in 2006. Since graduating, Tom worked in London for a while, before landing the biggest gig of his life, illustrating one of the UK’s most popular television shows – The Great British Bake Off.
Tom now lives and works in Bristol. We visited his studio to catch up with him and find out just how he shaped his unique career as a food illustrator.
How does it work illustrating the show? Do you know which pieces will be used, or are you commissioned to draw them all?
I receive a pack of photos of the finished bakes from the set after each episode has been filmed that I use for reference. I sketch out all the bakes quickly in pencil to get the details, form and shape I am after. I then work these up hand drawing them all, these ink drawings are scanned and coloured digitally, I then add the titles and ingredient arrows. It’s a fairly well streamlined process now. We illustrate every bake on the show from the signature bakes and the showstoppers.
Have there been any cakes where your heart has dropped, have you thought, how am I going to draw this?
Haha yeah plenty, but I like a challenge. Some of them are more like technical drawings than cakes. There’s one I’m currently working on that has taken me three hours already and it’s just a pencil drawing! After the line drawing the graphics are made up then coloured, I have a couple of Illustrators who help now, and I’m now interviewing for an intern. For the first six years or seven years, I was on my own and it was a lot of work.
It is more than a full-time job, getting others in to help with the process has enabled me to take on other jobs that I was having to say no to before. GBBO is my biggest client, but I am building up a portfolio of work for other clients too, with lots of other food illustration.
Have you always been an Illustrator, Tom? What’s your story since graduating?
I struggled for many years, as most illustrators do. I did okay, but it took time. It was in the days before Twitter and Instagram, so I put my work on Myspace after uni. It was in the days when street art was a big thing, and everyone wanted murals. Even if you couldn’t do graffiti they wanted illustrated murals. So we would go as collectives with illustrators and graffiti artists, putting on lots of shows all round London. I did that for a few years before making the move full time to London.
My best mate worked in television and told me they were looking for some people to help out in the edit of this new cookery show his company were making. So with no real experience I blagged my way in and got the gig. I was in the edit suite with the series director and the editor of what turned out to be the first episodes of the first series of GBBO. In the process of editing the first few episodes they realised there was a visual element missing from the show, that would help explain to people what was going on.
I had already explained that I was an aspiring illustrator and had no designs for a career in edit suites. So they asked me to come up with some ideas! We wanted it to look like the bakers could have sketched it themselves on a kitchen notebook. I’m in my ninth year and we’re at about 2,000 bakes and counting. It’s really interesting to see how the drawings have developed, It’s been a work in progress every year.
You’ve also got a book out at the moment?
Yeah, a colouring book featuring some of the best bits from the show. It was around the time when the adult colouring books were massive, so we decided to jump on the bandwagon. It’s always been a dream to have a book of my drawings published.
What’s your drawing process? I can see you use a drawing tablet.
I stopped drawing analogue around the time of the book. I loved drawing for the book and putting it all together, but it was very detailed. I was using Posca pens, which have a really sharp nib which flicks off tiny little ink splatters. You can’t really see that on the graphics on the TV show, but black on white in print you could see them all. So it took me and an intern three weeks of zooming into the pictures at 400% to delete all the tiny little marks. By the end of all that I lost my mind! I swore I would never draw with pens again (or at least for a little while) and bought myself a drawing tablet.
What was your time like at AUB?
I definitely wasn’t top of my class. There were certainly others that had it together more than me, I was still searching for a style back then. But I was focused, and always knew that I wanted to be an illustrator. I think one of my old lecturers is still there – Joel Lardner. I’d love to come back and see how much it’s changed. Our illustration studios were really nice, lovely long thin buildings, I spent a lot of time there.
What’s your one piece of advice to future creatives?
Focus on what you want to do, but have side projects and self-initiated work, because once the work’s coming in it’s very easy to get lost in that and not necessarily what you want to do. If you can make time, make time to do your own projects. Last year after my daughter was born I had a few months off. I spent some time at the deli across the road from my studio hanging out with the butchers, making lots of sketches, just as a way of producing some new content. From doing projects like that it can lead you on different paths, drawing things in a certain way.From that I ended up making some new prints, I did a run of fruit slices. It keeps the creative juices flowing, it isn’t just for someone else it’s for me.
My story has led my practice. Before I did the TV work I had never drawn food before, that wasn’t my goal. I was always doing different styles of illustration at the same time as drawing cakes. It took a few years then I realised actually I’d created a style that I had been looking for. I’d created
a way of working that I didn’t need to think about anymore, it became a shorthand in my brain. I then decided to make food illustration my main focus and I haven’t been happier since I made that mental shift.
Doing a job that perhaps you didn’t expect to do can lead your career.
When I was starting out, I never tried to get ahead in my day jobs. When I was getting home I’d be drawing, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. I think the important thing is that every creative opportunity that came up I would say yes to, however low paid it was. That opened doors for me, you never know what opportunity might be there.