David Bray: An Obsession with The Pencil and the Artist’s Duty to Play

Timeless themes within traditional methods are often overlooked as insipid and outdated. Though seemingly dignified and delicate in practice, the pencil and ink works of artist David Bray reveal figures and characters of an unyielding depth. In his latest exhibition with StolenSpace Gallery, David deviates upon a Wrong Turn in the ever-present world of fantasy — and in undertaking a new platform on which to illustrate, thus adds a new dynamic to his work.

In our brief but insightful encounter, one of the most admirable traits I must hail David for is his unremitting ability and conviction to deftly improve his craft even despite his extensive client list and commercial success with brands including Harvey Nichols, H&M, Elle, Virgin, Body Shop and Sony.  David reveals the testing and often humorous lengths he goes to in order to improve his work and the importance of an artist to remain faithful in his playfulness.

David, it’s noted that as a child artist you would draw images of space travel — depicting yourself and friends visiting other planets and universes. However many audiences are more familiar with your images of the captivating female figure. Do you recall the turning point for the subject matter of your illustrations?

I couldn’t draw women at all. And it bugged me, it became an obsession I needed to fufill. I just drew and drew until it clicked. I don’t remember exactly when the turning point was, when I was in my early 20’s I guess. I wanted to created a portrait for a girl I was seeing at the time, but it looked like Patrick Swayze. (She didn’t look like Patrick Swayze, she probably wished I did.)

How have your beginnings with themes of fantasy influenced the way you illustrate portraits today?

I don’t like portraits that are faced straight ahead. I try to create a story or a theme – it gives me the reason to create the drawing. I tend to repeat the them until I’ve exhausted it, or until I’m bored and move onto the next….

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The contemporary woman is almost always the protagonist of your work. Do you have a muse?

Not one particular muse, but a group. They are all very supportive.

Do you ever draw or create an art piece with a particular audience in mind?

I tend to draw for myself, which is quite self-indulgent I suppose. It might because I need to pin down an idea, or because I need to test myself to “see if I can actually do this.” I could never draw feet, so I set myself a task of which every figure in the pieces I created would be seen to be wearing only one shoe. It would force me to conquer my lack of skill.

I think if I worried about who the audience was, I would get stifled and I wouldn’t be as free. The main reason I do this is to avoid working, so it is now my duty to play.

Do you recall anyone in particular who played a significant role towards the support and encouragement of your artistic career?

My dad always encouraged me. For a while after art college, I sort of gave up for a little while. And a friend called Jon Peek more or less very bluntly told me I was an idiot if I didn’t pursue something in illustration, he was a little less polite than that. But it worked.


What are the benefits of illustrating on paper over canvas?

It’s cheaper. And paper is always available. Old envelopes, newspaper, paper bags – there is no excuse not to draw. The most important lesson I learnt from art college was too be resourceful. Dont’t sit and say I can’t do it — find a solution and get on with it. Though for this show at StolenSpace, the works are exclusively on wood. I used found boards and used reclaimed timber to frame them – just to change things up and keep it interesting for me as an artists and for the audience too, I hope.

Given the number of available resources online to train oneself as a designer/illustrator, it’s all too easy to coin an individual with a unmerited title, do you feel the craft in your field is often devalued in the current digital age?

I don’t think it is devalued. There is a place for everything, and working digitally I guess, is just another “craft” of sorts. It depends entirely on what you do with your work, and how interesting it is. Personally, I never wanted to be sat at a desk and behind a computer screen so I try and keep everything as physical and hands on as I can.

You have an extensive list of clients. Which of your commissioned projects have given you the most satisfaction, personally and creatively?

I’ve been really lucky in the commissions that have come my way, all have had their own quirks and demands but I’ve never felt like one day is the same as the next or the day prior – they’ve all pushed me creatively. If I ever felt like I was “phoning it in” I would give up. What’s the point of going through the motions?

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What are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?

I’ve been obsessed with naive and prison tattoos lately. The new body of work reflects that – the figures are more naive and graphic. As always, I’m just trying to change it up a little bit.

Do you have any self-imposed rules you live by?

Not that I know of or can think of. I do draw every day, because it’s an obsession, even if it’s an absent-minded doodle. I’ve actually just started painting again. I need to set a rule: to clean my brushes. I’m the worst for ruining paint brushes. STOP KILLING BRUSHES!

David’s new exhibition Wrong Turn is now open at StolenSpace Gallery in the Brick Lane area: 17 Osborn Street E1 6TD.


David Bray was speaking exclusively to Arts Editor Luciana Garbarni