Putting the Nation on Stage

Behind the Scenes : Aidan Roberts / Grounded and Girl in the Machine

January 29, 2019

We spoke with Aidan Roberts, illustrator for two of our upcoming productions Grounded and Girl in the Machine about his work and inspiration.

Hi Aidan- what is your background as an illustrator? How long have you been drawing for?

I’ve been drawing since I was a boy, and have always been really into concept art and design, particularly for film. I used to try and draw my own versions of my favourite movie characters and creatures when I was very young. Although I studied art throughout high school, I’ve never done any formal training. Most of my life has been dedicated to my music, actually. It’s only been in the last 8 years or so that I’ve really “discovered” my illustration; I started doing travel sketches while on tour in my 30’s, and got really into graphic novels and world-building. Since then I’ve been drawing pretty much non-stop, alongside making records or performing.

How would you describe your style and How did your style of work develop?

Primarily I am a sketch artist; and although I work in many different media (pencil, pen & ink, watercolour, digital) my “style” as such is very gestural and atmosphere-driven. I am always dreaming of ways to illustrate some of the musical projects in my mind, and to achieve the images in my mind I have to do a lot of self-teaching, trial and error and practice. I’m always trying to improve my technical skills. I practice things on a daily basis – perspective, likeness, light and shade, anatomy, architecture etc. I’m constantly trying to get better at conveying what I’m dreaming up; to develop my craft to a point where it’s useful to me –  and now to others, which is great. In a sense, my music and my art have always gone hand-in-hand – I think visually when I’m composing, and I try to echo musical ideas in my art.

What was your process in illustrating for Grounded  and Girl in the Machine? Where did you get inspiration from?

When I was approached to come up with a poster illustration for these two plays, first thing I did was read the scripts and chat about the general vibe that the production team had in mind. Then, as I do with all projects, I asked a few questions which when answered would provide me with enough triggers to just experiment and come up with some elements to include. For both plays, the central experience is a change within our protagonists (both women) which has been in some way spurred on by technology which is out of their control.

So for Grounded, I came up with the idea that The Pilot who has been “demoted” by technology – forced to fly drones – is now living inside her mind, flying herself metaphorically through the machines…. What I did was do a bunch of pencil sketches – a portrait of her (vaguely based on Emily Havea, who I knew was slated to play the part), a depiction of her drone, and various made-up aviation graphs and indicators to overlay. It’s as though her mind is controlling the drone. I scanned and assembled all of the separate drawings in photoshop, and then separately painted various watercolour textures to use as the colour scheme and background. Drawing all the separate elements and assembling them in Photoshop is crucial for this kind of illustration – because things invariably need to move around a bit until the team is happy with the final composition. The inspiration behind the composition was the opening title sequence of Netflix’ Star Trek: Discovery series. I think that’s the most beautiful title sequence I’d ever seen, and I wanted to try to create something with that same detached, dreamlike quality, with natural and technological elements all sort of intertwining. I love fantastic warm colours, and I thought that was right for the desert setting of the drone’s journey.

With Girl in the Machine, I was told it wasn’t important to have a likeness of the main character, who was yet to be cast. What the team wanted was something which depicted the euphoria of this machine which makes you feel amazing, and consequently becomes an addiction for our main character. Like Grounded, I did a number of drawings – a girl floating in nothingness, lots of “machine” parts, even a hand reaching up (in an effort to depict her husband trying to pull her out of the addiction of the euphoria machine). I tried assembling these in many different configurations, but it always seemed too busy and “too sci-fi”, as was part of the feedback from the team. So in the end we settled on a very simple composition, just the girl floating in her dream-like state, opening her arms as if to give in to the addiction. And the idea behind the stripe-lighting in the background was to try to depict from my mind’s eye what it’s like coming out of an anaesthesia, like when you get your wisdom teeth out at the dentist.

What research did you undergo to get a feel for both productions?

As always, I had to practice a bit to get the human sketches right – the portrait for Grounded was especially tricky, but I think it turned out really well. I leafed through a lot of my favourite graphic novels and comics to get a feel for how much colour and texture to use. I also chatted with Joanne Kee from NTofP  after reading the scripts, to get her impressions of what the plays were really about. I made notes of all this. And of course, I looked at a lot of theatre posters, specifically to get ideas for what NOT to do with this one – as I’d been approached for my own unique art style, which is a huge compliment. So I wanted to make sure I was creating something that struck the balance between effectively advertising the show, and being an interesting piece of artwork on its own. This is a difficult challenge!

After reading both scripts what do you think audiences get from both productions? 

Reading both plays was a curiously intimate experience, particularly Grounded, with which I identified very much. I think they are very different plays – Grounded seems to work on the premise of overcoming obstacles to one’s calling, or dealing with trauma, really. And Girl in the Machine feels more of a paranoid study, almost like a Philip K. Dick story.  I think audiences are going to feel very much for the characters in both plays, as they’re going through very familiar and modern adversities. In both cases, I think Grounded and Girl in the Machine ask the audience  – how do you overcome your demons? Do you want to?

What tools and materials do you use for your work?

I use graphite pencils – HB, 2B, 4B, 6B. For inking I use black India ink and dip-pens, and felt tip liners. I also love watercolour, particularly for creating backgrounds. Sometimes I’ll complete an illustration completely on paper (and hope I don’t mess it up), and sometimes I’ll assemble it all and adjust things in Photoshop. If I’m drawing digitally, I use Procreate on the iPad, and Photoshop on the Mac, with a Wacom tablet.

What artists / illustrators influence you?

I’m heavily influenced by modern illustrators, particularly in the graphic novel and film worlds. My favourite modern illustrators include the late Italian illustrator Sergio Toppi, the master of colour and light, Eyvind Earle, and the heavenly movie poster and sketch work of Drew Struzan. I also look to the masters of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque for inspiration (I recently absorbed lots of this in Florence – Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Artemesia Gentillesci, Botticelli…). From the younger generation, I’m inspired by comic artists Fiona Staples, Karl Kerschl & Msassyk, Nicola Scott, Garry Brown, and many others. The landscape work of Australian concept artist Wayne Haag is also a huge inspiration.

What do you do when you are not illustrating?

As music is my primary discipline, I still do a lot of writing and recording music both for myself and for other people’s projects. I’m just finishing my 4th album (The Maple Trail, my solo project). I also have a good day job at the University of Sydney.

What are you working on next?

I have a long-standing project called The Dead City Lullabies, which is now over ten years in development. I first wrote it as a series of 9 short stories and poems about the twilight days of several imaginary civilisations, and my vision for it is shifting and changing all the time. Ultimately, it will encompass various media including an art folio, book, music score, and maybe some sort of interactive element.

Thanks for your time Aidan! 

Grounded opens at NTofP in March.

Girl in the Machine opens at NTofP in June.