Dan Hillier: Artist Interview

We are thrilled to have the work of Dan Hillier with us at artrepublic. Dan's unique artistic practice sees him engaging with the craft of the past by bringing Victorian imagery into the 21st century.

He was thrust into the general public's attention last year when his stunning image Pachamama was used by local Brighton band Royal Blood on the cover of their chart topping debut album. We caught up with Dan in his Stoke Newington studio to discuss his creative process, the Peruvian psychedelic drink ayahuasca and the influence of Bjork amongst other things, in our latest artist interview.

Can you describe for us at artrepublic your style of art?

A hotchpotch. They're collages made from bits and pieces of old Victorian prints, which I source from 1800s woodcuts, engravings, anatomical drawings and various illustrations. I scan them into Photoshop and then play around layering them up to make new images. What I do has been called Surrealism and Neo-Victoriana in the past. Steampunk is another title that gets put on it but I’m not really keen on that. People like it because the work looks quite modern whilst also being of Victorian times. It looks like it comes from a while back in time but has that modern flavour, I think that largely comes about because there is a lot of white space rather than having an overcrowded background. What I’ve realised over the years is what I’m seeking to make is my own kind of iconographical work, much like the church icons you get of the mother and child or Buddhist and Hindu cosmological deities. It’s something along those lines, and generally what happens is as I try to make those, something else will come through.

So you don’t rigidly plan what the images will look like? 

With the main way I work, I will start with one element or an idea of what I want to move towards making. I’ll often start with a face, animal or bit of scenery, then go through and seek out what I think will work well with that and let the picture build itself. I did a talk recently where I was comparing the creative process with the shamanic process. Both of those things, as far as I’m concerned, involve getting yourself out of the way and letting the creative through fare build the picture. Both of them are bringing the formless into form and are about channelling something, without being too grand about it. When I work it it’s very much about letting the pictures put themselves together and just being around the edges tapping them into place.

There’s also that interesting thing that the people you use had their own separate life before entering your world… 

With the elements I’m using they were real people who existed and their likeness is being used for something that had probably nothing to do with their worldview. My pictures are quite psychedelic and unusual; some have very clear faces that have been used for the masks or central elements in pictures.

So we must touch upon the album artwork you created for Royal Blood, how did that project come about?

The band got in touch and commissioned me to make a new picture for them, which I did. Then Mike (lead singer) saw Pachamama and decided he wanted that because he was looking for something really feminine. I had to have a think about it because she’s quite precious to me, I really love that picture. I’m very glad they did use it as it’s great to get it out there. It works as a good counterpoint to the music, which is very masculine. It’s not this perfect match of art and music but it’s good to have that contrast there. I met up with the guys, we talked and got on well and they just asked for a picture without any sort of guidance, which really suits me. People are more aware of my work now and when I’m showing at fairs they will stop and recognise the image. It’s definitely brought more interest my way and I’ve had a really good reaction to the album. A lot of people have got in touch to say they’ve got into my work through the band and said how much they’ve enjoyed seeing something that’s had a lot of thought and time and love go into it.

In your personal life you’ve mentioned how taking the psychedelic medicinal drink ayahuasca has had a profound impact on you. Have these spiritual experiences manifested in your art?

I’m making more work now and about to release the first work I’ve made since I’ve been drinking it. I came back from my first trip to Peru and thought my work is really aligned with what happens in ayahuasca ceremonies and that mythical, visionary state of mind that one can get into. I’ve been meeting a lot of people in ayahuasca circles who have quite a unanimous reaction in that they recognise their experiences with the medicine in my work. I don’t know how much it’s going to change the style or how it looks, but it’s definitely knocked my focus into line in terms of what I’m doing with my work and simplified it. I used to struggle when people asked me what my work is about and it wasn’t something I thought about in huge amounts. The thing with ayahuasca is that it’s just opened my mind and heart further to mystery, wonder and amazement. That’s essentially what I’m trying to put out in my work.

What artists do you look to for inspiration?

Max Ernst is probably the first influence I’ve got to mention. He did a book called ‘A Week of Kindness’ which I first saw when I was 19. It’s a book of collages he made back in the 1930s where he spliced together images using bits and pieces of illustrations from encyclopaedias and novels. It’s a really interesting and dark romp through the days of the week. Each day has a theme, its quite a methodically thought out thing but it’s so open to interpretation. A lot of Freudian analysis has been done on the pictures. He’s definitely a big influence in what I do. When I started making these pictures in 2004, I remembered this stuff by Ernst I had seen and went back to it.

Where and what did you study? 

I did Graphic Arts and Illustration at what is now called Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. I just basically partied and mucked about for the first year and got more serious in the second and third years. In the final year I got into collage and worked a lot with a photocopier. I didn’t use computers in college but there were a couple of people beginning to use Photoshop for their graphic design. After that I spent a few years doing henna tattoos, painting murals and travelling. In 2006 I started making this stuff.

You began by selling your work at a market…

It was at the Sunday Up Market in Brick Lane, held inside the old Truman Brewery. I still sell work there now but have a mate of mine run the stall. It’s really good to be able to go down there, chat to people and have that face to face interaction going on. I sold the work myself down there for years and really enjoyed forming some good friendships with people. I also do the Other Art Fair twice a year, again with a couple of people helping sell my work.

What would you say is the biggest threat to art today?

Probably commercialisation and the commercial market forces, in lots of different ways. We’re so bombarded with imagery and advertising. There is so much to look at; we’ve reached a point of information overload. People don’t necessarily spend time looking at art or engaging with it in the way I think is really beneficial. That speed and overload that we get is one part of that commercialisation but I also think appropriation by market forces is one of the biggest threats to art. I’m not sure where my line is on it all.  As soon as someone does something interesting, whether it’s music or art, the advertisers move in and use that artistic output to flog things we don’t need with huge sums of money involved. I really respect The Beastie Boys for their standpoint on their music being used for commercial gains and chasing people down who tried to exploit their intention.

When would you say you are happiest and most content regarding your art?

I think throughout really. The beginning of making a picture is really exciting, when I’m getting the ideas together. There’s a point during the process where it can often get a bit difficult or it just goes through straight away and that’s wonderful. There’s a point where a picture clicks into place, I realise what it is and then it’s just a case of finessing it. The pictures are never really complete or finished, I just have to stop at some point and send it to the printer. I like putting lots of detail in my work to be found by people who look at it for a long time.

You’ve gained a lot of attention for the Royal Blood album cover, do you listen to music while you work? 

I do, pretty much all the time. It’s been a lot of Bjork recently. She’s amazing and a huge inspiration for me. Just the freedom of her creativity is astonishing. I’ve seen her live 3 times and always come away charged up. She is constantly moving on and changing what she’s doing, I love her. There’s also another guy called Loscil who does really nice minimal electronica. He makes deep and hypnotic ambient stuff; he’s a big favourite. A guy called Krishna Das who makes call and response Kirtan music. Always Phillip Glass. I listen to some noisy music occasionally as well, like Slayer but not so much while I’m working.

How long does a piece take you to complete?

The ones I’m doing now have been on the boil for about a year but it really depends. Sometimes I can go and make a picture in a few days but other times it can be a year, with them fizzing around until the right time to put them out. Some of the very early stuff I made in a matter of hours but they were a lot simpler back then. I take my time with it more now.

Finally describe for us an average day in the life of Dan Hillier…

There isn’t an average one, but on a good day probably getting up at about 6, meditating for 45 minutes, going to yoga, having some breakfast, starting work by 9, working for a few hours then having lunch, and after that just keep on going until about 5 or 6. But really I don’t have an average day, it just changes all the time. What I’m trying to do now is set the scene so I can have those perfect working days where I get up early, do my morning stuff then spend the entire day working with music on, getting stuck into it with out all the other distractions.

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image credits: nme, www.danhillier.com

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