Considering the delicate nature of Rob Ryan’s illustrations and
art, you’d imagine him to be suitably slight and wispy-looking, with an introverted manner and a hesitant voice to match. Well, if ever there were a dissonance between the man and the mastery, Mister Rob, as he also styles himself, is it. Big and ebullient, he is the sort of person who stands out in a crowd. A fact further enhanced by his strong Brummie accent, and penchant for letting his words topple out on top of each other in his enthusiasm to get his point across.
You don’t have to go very far these days to see
Ryan’s work, as it adorns everything from book jackets and greetings cards to cushion covers and egg cups. Yet
despite them being so ubiquitous, it’s impossible to tire
of his designs – what they lack in perspective and tone,
they more than compensate for in intricacy, nuance and artistry. In The Gift Ryan has found the perfect showcase for his work.
This beautiful book, written by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, tells the story of a girl’s life, and the passions that shape it. Written in a sparse but highly evocative style, with a resonance that lingers long after reading, the book’s sombre but life-enhancing mood is perfectly captured by Ryan’s illustrations. "It was a pleasure to work on,” says Ryan. "It’s a brilliant story, and so different from anything I’ve ever read. It deals with such difficult, universal truths, in a simple but non-patronising way. I cried when I first read it."
The first whole book that Ryan has illustrated (he is adverse to calling it a children’s book, as he believes its appeal is ageless), it was a nerve-wracking process. "I dealt with the text and the publisher, and we went backwards and forwards for six months. It was a real collaboration," he says. "I kept thinking ‘What if the author hates it?’" Thankfully, she didn’t.
The self-doubt is typical of Ryan’s self-deprecating nature. Even now, after nearly a decade of considerable success, he says he is "shocked and stunned" when he unexpectedly comes across his work in public. "You don’t ever get over that sense of being a struggling artist, and to now be a commercial success is amazing. Recently,
I did a job for Liberty, and I was going up the escalator
at Oxford Street Tube station when I realised that every single poster was my work. That was so cool. It was the best thing ever."
Despite his West Midlands inflection, Ryan was actually born in Cyprus in 1962, the youngest of three sons of an RAF mess-hall officer. After stints at airbases around the world, the family settled in Birmingham.
"I wanted to grow up and be someone who drew pictures, although I didn’t actually know what an artist was back then," says Ryan.
Art college set him straight, however, and after a Masters Degree in Printmaking from the Royal College of Art, he set himself up as a printmaker. It wasn’t until some years later, when he came across the ancient art of paper-cutting, that he finally found his true métier. "It really cemented my style," he says. "Like sculpture, with paper cuts it’s what you take away that makes what there is. You start with
a piece of paper and you can either cut it away until
there is nothing left or stop." Thankfully for his many admirers, Ryan always knows when to stop.
The Gift by Carol Ann Duffy and Rob Ryan (Barefoot Books, £10.99).