Designer Mark Ward talks us through the process of turning a germ of an idea into an eye-catching PlayStation theme.
Mark Ward carries an old notebook with him wherever he goes. Not a sketch pad, as you might expect of an in-demand artist, but something to scribble snatched thoughts in. The designer has just completed his first theme, Partytime, for The Studio on PlayStation Store, and as he explains to eu.playstation.com, writing things down is the only way to get any kind of grip on the ideas that clatter around his head.
"People often ask me where I get my surreal concepts from, and to be honest I struggle to come up with visual ideas," Mark says, although it's hard to take him at his word. His work ranged from eye-popping ads for Atlantic Records to densely detailed posters for the charity Shelter before joining up with The Studio. "The technical stuff, drawing, I can do. When I went to art college I suddenly realised that the easy thing would have been trying to be individual by doing graffiti, but I knew that was a dead-end route."
Advertising, with its mix of snappy slogans and arresting imagery, appealed instead. "I thought it wasn't right for me at first because you'd come in to college each day with 30 ideas you'd be really proud of, but our tutors would bin 29 of them. They'd give the last one back and go, 'It needs work.'"
It helped Mark refine the way he thinks about things. Hence the notebook. "I write things down, whether they're interesting phrases or just thoughts of my own, then turn those ideas into the sort of thing you see on The Studio."
Download Mark's Partytime theme to your PlayStation 3 or PSP from PlayStation Store and you'll discover a slightly warped imagination at work beneath a playful exterior of floating balloons, which draws upon his time in advertising as well as his fascination with all things American – or to be exact, Americana.
"I guess that's kind of a backlash," Mark explains. "A lot of my friends were really into hip hop, so I decided to look elsewhere for my inspiration. I sometimes get called a graffiti artist but there's none of that in my work at all. I draw the stuff I like myself before I get involved with spray cans and paint drips."
Bright, flashy commercials and cartoons made their mark on the artist growing up. "I wanted to be an animator. Disney movies, Looney Tunes, all those kids' cartoons had a big impact. It was all American, and to a little kid it seemed amazing. It built America into this amazing place full of the stuff I was into. That myth was created. And then when you finally get to go there, you find it's not a million miles away from the UK. It rains and everything."
You can see pipe dream meeting damp reality in much of Mark's work, including his Partytime theme. His inflatable light bulbs, pineapples and skulls drift up the screen to their doom, bursting in a cloud of colour. It's the latest pothole in a long and bumpy road of realisation.
"I went to New York while I was at college and stayed in a ten-dollar-a-night hostel," he remembers. "That was grim, and the cracks in this dreamworld started to appear. So I decided to delve into all that culture and try to recreate a bit of the hope and glamour I felt as a kid. I try to take those pop icons of America – doughnuts and hot dogs and whatnot – and ground them in my south London roots."
Painting freehand, Mark uses a number of techniques to give his work a distinct flavour. As well as drawing and redrawing elements 20 times or more to ensure the balance between reality and cartoon is just right, he also has a number of other stylistic tricks up his sleeve.
"I found that perforated paper let me do halftone fades really quickly, with a nice aesthetic. If you were to use this technique with a computer, the dots would reduce in size to give a sense of shading. I found that with a paper template, the dots actually got fainter, not smaller. This gives it the same visual effect, but a grainier, dirtier look which fits in nicely with that notion of faded Americana. It gives it a comic book feel."
For his PlayStation theme, Mark decided to dip into animation. "It's what bit me as a kid so I've been really enjoying doing this. I had the idea of a bunch of depressed balloons because my work is going down the distorted circus route at the moment, a bit like the famously dilapidated fairground at Coney Island in New York.
"When you think of carnival balloons you think of really bright colours. So I muted my usual tones to find something a little more British and suburban, in my eyes. More grey. So they float up the screen, these monochrome balloons, and then burst with a flourish, like fireworks.
"What I try to do with my work is celebrate that Americana world, and add my sense of humour to it."
After all this talk of ideas, here's another one for you. Head over to The Studio on PlayStation Store and download Mark's theme, Partytime. While you're there, check out the latest digital art from other talented designers too. For more work by Mark, look up markwardstudio.com and explore his brand of twisted nostalgia.