06 December 2018 · Dennis Schmidt

How to Develop a Distinct Style: A Chat with Chris Rathbone

If you follow either Formula 1 or the FIA Formula E on social media, chances are you've come across Chris Rathbone's work. We've had a chat with the Hampshire-based illustrator about evolving as a designer and eventually making his living from the thing he's most passionate about.

Chris' desire to work in the creative industry goes back to his childhood. Fairly early, He knew he wanted to be a designer and thus took his AVCE in Art and Design at the Epping Forest College. During that phase, he gained a lot of experience in diverse creative fields such as fashion, photography, fine arts and of course graphic design and illustration.

This was in 2002. Fast forward 16 years and Chris is one of the most popular designers in the field of motorsports. His portfolio includes commissions from Formula 1, Formula E, Sky Sports, NBC Sports, the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the Adelaide Motorsport Festival, and many more. Most notably, he's been booked by a large publishing house to work on a book about legendary Ferrari cars past and present. “Speed Read Ferrari” is the follow-up of another F1 book in which Chris was also involved. Combined, he's created a stunning 130 bespoke illustrations for the two books. As of now, Chris is working on a third book revolving around the Tour de France.

One of Chris Rathbone's illustrations in the book “Speed Read Ferrari”.

Now a recognised name in the industry and with the trust of his clients, he's noticed that the briefs he gets have become more and more open – giving Chris the freedom to come up with a style of his own. “I tend to put a couple of quick [digital] sketches together to check the client likes the layout and composition, then I share the line work to get final sign off before I start to colour and shade the work.”

An early sketch of Chris' poster for the 2018 Adelaide Motorsport Festival

He's also a fan of NFL and NBA, for which he's worked on some illustrations in his free-time. “It's nice to draw people as you have more scope to exaggerate them to give a greater sense of motion and energy which you can't always do with a car.” However, his main passion is illustrating race cars.

I love capturing speed, movement and energy in my work. This obviously lends itself very well to motorsport, and being a huge motor racing fan it's something I enjoy.

Chris made his first steps in motorsport design roughly five years ago when he started creating cartoons for a Formula 1 blog. His work received plenty of recognition and he was soon able to sell some merchandise, making a bit of money alongisde his 9-to-5 job. The organisational and logistical part of it took up too much time, though, to enjoy it thoroughly. So Chris took a step back. “I decided to stop the cartoons and take some time to think about what I wanted from my illustration work, and so I started creating illustrations that were just things that I wanted to draw.” Again, his work had a very positive reception. So positive in fact that Chris decided to step down from the role as Creative Director at his regular company and instead become a full-time freelancer.

Chris worked with the FIA Formula E on this illustration of Daniel Abt for his home win in Berlin 2018.

Chris' recipe for success is the distinct illustration style he's developed over time. It's heavily marked by perspective, clear contours and ‘speed lines’. In his work he tries to completely remove any fades, gradients or tints. Further, he tends to stick to a limited colour palette, sometimes as little as four or five different colours per artwork.

Developing that style took plenty of effort and patience. Initially, Chris started out by copying some of his favourite comic book artists styles. Over time, he found out which styles worked for him and more importantly which didn't. “My style now is so unrecognisable to the artists I was inspired by as I have found my own way with things that I like, but it's a great way to start as it can feel so daunting when you first start drawing!” Looking back, Chris would tell his younger self to not put too much pressure on himself and just enjoy working on your pieces. “Over time you will build a portfolio of work that best represents you, your style and your interests.”

On every piece I do, I try to experiment with something new – even if it's as small as using a different brush stroke. I guess it's natural that when you look back your style has naturally evolved and improved.

If you like Chris' work, make sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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About the author

Dennis Schmidt is a graphic and UI/UX designer as well as motor racing enthusiast from Hamburg, Germany.