Rob Ryan on working with paper, screwing up and learning the hard way

Cyprus-born artist Rob Ryan is a true master of his trade. His papercut and screen-printed works are a wonderful amalgamation of illustration and text that convey poignant messages in an engaging, honest and aesthetically arresting way.

While studying at the Royal College of Art in London, Rob specialised in Printmaking. Although he views himself first and always as a fine artist, his intricate papercut work adapts itself readily to many other mediums including ceramics, textiles, homewares and even jewellery.

Since graduating, Rob has collaborated with the likes of Paul Smith, Liberty of London, Tatty Devine and Vogue – to name but a few. In addition, he has also exhibited on an international basis, and has written and illustrated several books, ‘This Is For You’, ‘A Sky Full Of Kindness’ and most recently a trilogy, ‘The Invisible Kingdom’, ‘The Kingdom Revealed’ and ‘The Invincible Kingdom’.

With such a successful and varied career, including an eight-year stint running a boutique shop, Ryantown, which existed on East London’s Columbia Road from 2008 until 2016, we were keen to interview Ryan on his creative process, unique style and upcoming projects.

Was there a defining moment in which you realised you wanted to be an artist?

Not really. I did have an art teacher at school that when I was 12 or 13 told me that I was better than I thought I was. Until that my friends had told me I was good at drawing, but I suppose that it was a boost having an endorsement from a grown up. I think that as soon as I learnt there was a place called ‘art college’ I decided that was where I wanted to go!

How did you get noticed in the early days? Did you have a ‘big break’ that launched your career?

For years after leaving the RCA, I just wanted to be able to DO my work regardless of success, just carrying on making it for years and years was an achievement in itself. I joined an agency called ‘This is Real Art’ that introduced me to working in more commercial environments. I did Liberty’s Christmas windows and a Paul Smith collection, which got some attention, but really when I started working in papercutting in the early 2000s it was quite a novelty then, and I got a lot of attention because I suppose it was a different way of working.

Can you describe your creative journey to predominantly working with paper?

Well, I was always a printmaker working mainly in screenprinting – so all of my work was on paper. I used to cut lots of paper stencils, and I think that in an attempt to simplify my work I experimented with just working with cutting paper and it kind of developed from there.

Your work conjures many emotions – some pieces are laugh-out-loud funny, whilst others are tearjerkers. Where does your inspiration come from?

I’m a fucking weird mess of a person, I’m outspoken yet shy, I’m angry yet terrified, I think about stuff but then I mouth off without thinking. All of my work is about trying to find some kind of balance, some kind of happiness within all of this mixed up personality that I can feel comfortable with.

Inspiration comes from everywhere, it’s how you process it that's important.

Can you briefly explain your design process?

It’s too much to explain! Ok, I go to the studio Monday to Friday and draw and paint and cut paper all day. I work on my own projects, then sometimes on more design-based projects. I do small drawings, blow them up, redraw them – then maybe make them prints or perhaps a papercut. There’s always work to do but you know the old saying: ‘Good work is never wasted’.

What is your studio like?

I have a big desk, about 8ft by 6ft that I work at. It has windows on both sides – so it’s very light. I have a lightbox built into my desk I use for tracing. There's a music system plus record players and shit. I have hundreds of pens, paint and paper so I always have something to work with. I have a screenprinting studio in the room beneath my studio and a kiln in there too. I’ve got it all set up to do what I gotta!

Have you ever been given a key piece of advice that’s really stuck with you?

I’m desperately trying to think of something but nothing's coming up. I’m not that good at taking advice anyway, I’d rather fuck up and learn the hard way.

I had an embroidered patch when I was a kid that said ‘Don’t eat yellow snow’. It was funny but I took it seriously in the way that I think that people say ‘You are what you eat’. Well, I’m not interested in the literal sense of that, but I’m quite serious about consuming quality art and literature.

I try to look at things from a broad spectrum of creativity because I think that helps, to intellectually consume the good stuff, and I don’t mean ‘high brow’ intellectual concepts, I mean always try and find some meaning or value in everything.

What’s been the most enjoyable project you’ve ever worked on?

My books, the thing I like about them is they are all so flawed but every time I start a new one I learn more and more about how to make them better.

Do you ever suffer from creative block? And if so, what do you do to overcome this?

No, I continually make notes in sketchbooks all day long. There is always material in there to develop and work with.

Between 2008 and 2016 you had a shop in London’s Columbia Road (a lovely place to visit!) Would you ever consider opening another retail store?

I was thinking about that today funnily enough. It’s a lot of work for one person to do if you want the standard to be high, I think I’d prefer to concentrate on creating an incredible pop-up shop for a few months. So I suppose, yes.

You’ve worked with a roster of clients including Paul Smith, Stylist magazine and Liberty to name a very small few. Are there any brands that you haven’t worked with and would love to?

I guess there are brands that I’ve always loved like Motown Records, McVities Biscuits, Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles... the list is endless, but then again they do say you should never meet your heroes!

On that note, do you have any art heroes?

Raphael, Titian, Bruegel, Caspar David Friedrich, Stanley Spencer, Dufy, Hockney, A. Menzel, Franz Kline, to name a few.

What’s next?

My book with Rizzoli comes out in April "I thought about it in my head and I felt it in my heart but I made it with my hands’’. It’s a monograph of my work. I’m also making a short film for Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and I’m working on some new stories which hopefully will be collected into another new book.


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