FAQs and info for students

The FAQs and info for students on this page covers some questions asked to Alex Russell. Most of these have come from art students, hence the title. However, they should be of interest to anyone who wants to find out a bit more about what Alex does.

If you’ve got shop-related question, try here. If the answer isn’t there, get in touch. For more info about Alex, head over to the About or CV pages.

How do you develop your ideas for projects?

I used to do loads of drawings and make notes in sketchbooks. The plan would be to dip into them whenever I needed ideas for a new project.
However, I found three things were happening. Firstly, that I tended to focus on the most recent ideas. Secondly, it could take too long for find something pertinent. Finally, that it was very easy to go off on a tangent. Generally, this happened with ideas that I thought were good, but not necessarily appropriate for the context I was working with.

Now, whenever I get an idea, I do a little drawing or write a few words on a sticky note or bit of paper. Every week, I sort all the ideas out into some kind of order. I’ve got a system of (physical) files and folders that I put them in.
Occasionally, there is the odd one that I don’t know what to do with. I’ll either put these back in the “to sort” pile, or put them up on the pinboard in front of me.

When I start to really get stuck into a project, I’ll grab the file or folder that’s got the ideas I’ve had for it. I clear some pin-up space, then fill it with images, ideas, notes are anything else the ideas I’ve stockpiled suggest. I’m quite methodical about plans, so in the main, I’ll then work out a task list of stuff I need to do. My working hours tend to be quite fragmented. This system has evolved over time so I can make the best use of my time. In particular, I can pick things up quickly when I come back to them.

Planning and sticky notes for the development of ApeiroPattern from the FAQs and info for students page
ApeiroPattern project development, organising sticky notes

How do you collect and use inspiration?

A small selection of Art and Design books from Alex Russell's library from the FAQs and info for students page
Books and magazines are a major inspiration source

In general, I’ve got five ways of gathering research and inspiration.
Firstly, drawing (see the next question).
The second is photos, normally taken with my phone. I’m pretty organised about getting these off the phone and into a system of folders on a hard drive. In general, I print the really useful ones and pin them up.
Thirdly, I have a big library of books and magazine I can dip into. I love books. There’s something about print and paper, about turning pages and physically holding something that is innately inspiring.
In the fourth place are visits to galleries, museums or any other place where there’s interesting stuff to look at. Thinking about it, this category would probably be better classed as the whole world.
Lastly, there’s the internet and social media. I tend to use these more for technical, text-based or contextual research, but I do search for images as well. Specifically, I search for inspiring work by other creative people.

As the project progresses, I sketch out ideas in a notebook and pin up a range of the best images. Having stuff up in front of me is really helpful. It’s amazing how often I find that images I think I’ve not really looked at have a subconscious effect just from being on the wall in front of me.

If the project is large and complex, I tend to plan it out in Word. For simpler projects, I’ll just stick with the notebook. The plan then develops into a cross between a diary and a technical notebook, documenting the journey through the project. I use systems extensively in my work and the journey documentation feeds iteratively back into them.

What is role does drawing have in your practice?

Drawing is absolutely central to what I do. Although I’d really struggle to sustain my practice if you took digital technology away, I’d find it harder if you took pencil and paper away. It’s a bit hard to explain, but I can’t think properly without a pencil in my hand.
I like the double meaning of drawing. On one hand, you’re physically drawing something, making marks on paper or whatever. On the other hand, you’re drawing ideas out of something, pulling stuff out of your head or the thing you’re looking at.

All five-year-olds think they can draw, but by the time they get to ten most kids think they can’t. Anyone can draw. To be sure, some people have an affinity for it, but you don’t need that. You just need to spend time doing it. Also, and this is the key, don’t worry about whether it’s any good or not.
No-one stops writing a shopping list because they think it’s not as good as “King Lear”, yet people generally feel their drawings should be gauged against to Michelangelo. Having good handwriting doesn’t make you a good writer. You have to have something to say. Stop worrying about making a good drawing and use the process to explore something or find something out. At the very least, you’ll get something worthwhile to show for your efforts.

When I was at college, one of my tutors said something along the lines of “drawing should be a way of asking visual questions, a process of finding out about what’s in front of you”. I think that sums a lot of it up. I try never to assume anything about what’s I’m drawing; I attempt to forget what it is and make some sense of what my eyes find when they really look. I try to draw a bit every day – I think that this is probably the most important thing, along with drawing stuff you’re interested in.

Original drawing of a flower for "After Zahn" by Alex Russell from the FAQs and info for students page
A drawing in pencil for the “After Zahn” project

How do you code?

A couple of examples of Alex Russell's code notebooks, showing his sticky notes writing system from the FAQs and info for students page
Examples of sticky notes with psuedo-code, used to create actual code

The short answer is slowly. I’m getting better at coding more quickly, but it is a process that I sometimes find difficult and frustrating. However, I find it massively rewarding, so it’s worth all the effort. Etched into the run-out groove of the B-side of the compilation LP ‘Fast Product – The First Year Plan’ (Various, 1979) is the message “difficult fun”. This is exactly how I feel about coding.

In practical terms, I start with notes and sketches, just jotting down ideas on a notebook. Next, I’ll use sticky notes to develop pseudo-code or algorithms for what I want the code to do. There’s a really helpful article about doing this here. I like being able to move the notes about; I’ll use a big bit of paper to order and play with them. Over time, I’ve found that the more effort I put in at this stage, the less time I spend ironing out bugs.

Once I’ve got the sticky notes into some kind of order, I’ll work through them one by one, converting them into code. (It’s not until this point that I actually start using a computer.) Over the years I’ve learnt to test everything as often as possible.

The thing that probably had the most impact on my ability to code is the library of functions or other blocks of code I’ve built up. The best bit of advice I ever had about coding was “make it modular”, and I find I can increasingly recycle or adapt blocks of existing code, rather than having to start everything from scratch.

I use books a lot. For example, either David Flanagan’s “Javascript” guide or Casey Reas and Ben Fry’s “Processing” handbook. In addition, I’ll have a couple of tabs in my browser set up for searches as well. I find the Stack Overflow, Processing or PS-Scripts forums particularly helpful.

What languages do you use for coding and why?

I work a lot with ExtendScript, which is an extension for JavaScript from Adobe. With it, you can code within Photoshop or other Creative Cloud applications. I started automating tasks in Photoshop using Actions in the early 2000s. I was using them with something of a coding mindset. Digging around for methods of taking Actions further, I found out about ExtendScript. I’ve spent so much time using Photoshop; ExtendScript lets you write code with all its functionality.

I also use Processing a lot. It’s intended for creative use, is free/open source and has a big and very helpful community of users. If you’d like to try creative coding, I’d recommend it. When I was a lecturer, it was the coding environment I used to teach with. Processing uses the Java language.

In the future, I’m hoping to experiment with p5.js, a JavaScript version of Processing. The first coding I ever did was in BASIC. I’ve tinkered with PHP and (very briefly) with Pascal and C++. In a non-generative way, I’ve also worked with HTML and CSS.
The only formal training in code I’ve had was an evening class in the 1990s on building websites. It included HTML and touched on JavaScript.

David Flanagan’s “Javascript” guide and Casey Reas and Ben Fry’s “Processing” handbook from the FAQs and info for students page
David Flanagan’s “Javascript” guide and Casey Reas and Ben Fry’s “Processing” handbook

You work in a few different styles. Why is this?

"Skyscrapers" collage/painting, a precursor to A Scheme Not Of This World by Alex Russell from the FAQs and info for students page
“Skyscrapers” collage/painting, a precursor to A Scheme Not Of This World

I’ve always enjoyed working in a wide range of media. I don’t consciously force a style on a project, unless a design brief requires it. Typically, any style that emerges is due to two things. Firstly, the concepts and visual ideas I have for the project. Secondly, the possibilities and restraints of the media or processes I’m working with.

When I was a student, one of my peers said they never knew how any project I did would turn out. It’s one of the nicest things anyone has said about my work.
While I was working purely as a freelance surface pattern and printed textile designer (in the 2000s), clients liked the fact that I could produce work in pretty much any style.
In time, about four or five of these styles have become particularly prevalent.

How did you get into your chosen profession?

Firstly, parents who encouraged me to draw when they saw I liked doing it. They used to give me big rolls of lining paper and leave me to it. I don’t think I’ve ever been naturally talented. I just really like it and do it a lot.
Secondly, an ace art teacher at high school who taught us a whole load of mono-printing and screen-printing techniques. A few of us loved this so much (or were very swotty, depending on how you look at it) that he blagged a load of photo silkscreen materials and showed us even more. One of the first things I did was a repeat print bedspread of Siouxsie Sioux in a style that owed everything to Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe”.

A year or two later, I started fiddling with computers, writing very simple generative art programmes. I liked everything about computers, so decided go to university to do electronic engineering. After two terms, I realised I loved art and design more. My timing could be seen as woeful; I got out about the time history says that getting into computing was a really good idea…
Anyway, I left to go to art school, where my love of printing got me into textiles. (Towards the end of college, I started combining design with computers.) When I graduated, I was lucky to quite quickly get lecturing and freelance work. I’ve moved between the two ever since.

Pattern and print design NegativePhotoFloral by Alex Russell from the FAQs and info for students page
NegativePhotoFloral design

What advice would you give to people getting started freelance?

Pattern and print design CartoonFloral by Alex Russell from the FAQs and info for students page
CartoonFloral design created for a freelance collection

To a large degree, it’s not what you know but who you know. This is a cliché, but is very true. Your contact list/address book should be one of you most prized possessions and you should always be adding to it.

Don’t wait for people to come to you. It’s vital you get your work seen. Get it out there, knock on doors. Art and design is a worldwide business – don’t be afraid of trying to make contacts anywhere.

Don’t be scared. The worst that can happen is that someone can say no. If they do, be polite and ask them if there’s anyone else they know you might be interested in what you do.

Be patient. It can take months or even years for a client to get back to you.

Be prepared to work very hard.

Never, ever be tempted to mess with copyright laws. It’s a surprisingly small world and if you rip some people off, others won’t touch you with a bargepole.

Be flexible, but not stupidly so. You should try and say “yes, I can do that for you” to as many clients as possible (especially when you first set up), but you need to be realistic about what is physically possible for one person to do in the allotted time.

Keep on top of your books (accounts). If you don’t think you can do this, or if you’re just starting out, get some software or a good accountant.

Self-motivation is vital; you also need to be able to enjoy working under pressure and to have good time management skills.

Finally, if you enjoy doing the designs, it will show. Don’t forget to have fun.

Oh, and maybe buy this book

From time to time, Alex will add to the FAQs and info for students. Further info about his practice is on the About page. You might also be interested in his CV.
If you would like to ask Alex a question, the best way is via email. Please give him a bit of time to answer.

Apologies, but Alex is not in a position to be able to offer any sort of work-experience opportunities to students at the moment.