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Features / Illustration

Three Men In A Boat: Nous Vous’ drawing machine explores the collaborative illustration process

“Think of a shoe and try to explain how you would draw it,” is how illustration collective Nous Vous began to explain their absurd residency at House of Illustration. “Okay, so the shoe is side on because of where the person is standing. But does it have laces? Then how many laces? Are we doing double thickness on the laces? Does it have a heal?” Conversations such as this became Jay Cover, Nicolas Burrows and William Luz’ creative language while building and working with their own drawing machine.

As a collective Nous Vous don’t regularly work together as much as people might perceive they do. Each a successful illustrator in their own right, Jay, Nic and Will are often commissioned as a studio, but choose the individual with an apt style to complete the project. “It’s not really productive or useful to have three people making an image together,” explains Will. “It was something we used to do, but as we got a bit older our aesthetic sensibilities became a bit limiting.” A cultural understanding of illustration can be seen across all three of the artists’ portfolios. Will paints or prints vibrant shapes, Nic uses texture and often works with collage, whereas Jay frequently draws in black and white. Describing their work Nic exaggerates his Northern accent and says, “We know what we like don’t we!”

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A six-month residency offered annually by London’s House of Illustration, “to create an ambitious body of work that inspires our visitors and challenges public opinion about what illustration can be,” was the perfect opportunity to explore why Nous Nous collaborated in the first place. “We didn’t really know what to do, but we knew we wanted to look at the collaborative illustrative practice, in juxtaposition to the individualist process of a working illustrator,” explains Will. “The House of Illustration team were really good at not putting pressure on us, they wanted us to be as free as possible. We didn’t have to please them, they wanted us to explore.”

The finished product of their residency, Three Men In A Boat, was “born out of research”. All part-time university tutors, the trio followed a similar process to their students. “You do your primary and secondary research. We treated it like that, it was visual development,” Jay tells It’s Nice That. “One of the initial things we did was go out on a drawing day, playing collaborative word games to make content. Another day was making tools, stupid drawing machines, pin-ball machines… There was something in one thing Jay put together, a self-standing wooden thing that evolved into a working drawing machine.”

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The machine itself is difficult to describe. “It works the way a printer does,” says Nic. “A square canvas with a bar going from left or right, a bit like an Etch A Sketch with three handles.” The drawing implements are each attached to the bar, moved with pieces of string left, right and up or down. A bike lever is then used as a trigger to take the pen off and on the paper. “It’s weird because you’re never doing a drawing motion, you’re pulling at a piece of string. It’s not even like you have three hands on one pencil, you have three hands on an object controlling the pencil.” For the construction to work Will, Jay and Nic would have to direct each other constantly. “It’s like trying to tell somebody exactly what you’re thinking for four hours,” elaborates Nic. “Because there’s three of us, we got better at it, but at the beginning we didn’t talk that much and soon learned you have to talk all the time. If you don’t talk about every little thing, you can forget that someone is going from left to right and you’re not, for instance.”

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Once the collective decided to collaborate in this momentous way, defining the content of the drawings was key for the project to succeed. The experimental process was necessary for the illustrators to get to a certain point, but the open brief they set themselves became more of an obstacle. “Initially I was frustrated, maybe we all were, because we were experimenting but we didn’t have an objective,” says Nic. Thankfully, at this point Jay remembered a novel, Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, to develop the project’s narrative. “I’d picked up the book when we were on a trip together, which I thought was pretty funny anyway…It’s about three people who go on what is supposed to be a restful trip on the Thames but it’s just farcical.” The three fictional men are each based on the writer, Jerome, a parallel portrayal for the illustrators to interpret. “With the way we approached the project there is a nice symbiosis with the book, it felt a bit silly but a bit more allegorical.” Once an objective was identified, Nous Vous’ residency began to take shape by having “a scaffolding around the project, we had more to explore by drawing within a specific framework.”

Looking back on the finished project, the sweet naivety of the completed pieces is an aesthetic the illustrators are pleased to have accomplished. “The last image in the show, which is the last drawing we completed in our studio, felt like the most considered and proficient drawing, but it lacked some of the rawness we had initially,” explains Will. “We wanted to go back and mess it up again. But you have to get good to get bad again don’t ya?”

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Walking around the Three Men In A Boat exhibition, you gain a sense of the immense effort Nous Vous went through to create each work. Editions of Jerome K. Jerome’s novel sit on a shelf at the entrance, repleted with bookmarks that pinpoint certain scenes Nic, Will and Jay chose to interpret. Curated so that you quite literally follow their ups and downs throughout the residency, each drawing created with the machine is illustrated in a wash of colour, with heavily painted lines to carve out characters, areas of inevitable mistakes caused by the machine are collaged over, in an imperfect way that makes flaws look charming. “It felt like the first time we went down a really linear path, and then built up the works with layers, items to engage and unravel within it,” reflects Jay. “I think shows we’ve had in the past have been quite fractured, but this felt like one idea, a drawing machine, practice, conversations, colours, tools and scale. It’s a shame we didn’t get a lot better on the machine, but I actually prefer the ones that are a bit crap.”

Despite the open brief Nous Vous set themselves, Three Men In A Boat, the book, the works created and subsequent exhibition, illustrate collaboration extensively. Jay, Will and Nic speak honestly about how the residency wasn’t an easy ride, much like the journey in Jerome’s novel, but collaborative working in a creative environment is rarely a simple exercise. However, with commitment and conversation, thoughtful work is culminated in a body of work that truly examines the working life of an illustrator.

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