Enter the fantastical worlds that Ricky Butcher creates and you’ll find yourself lost within a landscape of beauty and infinite detail. The Leeds Arts University graduate uses digital techniques and his limitless imagination to create immersive worlds that you never want to leave.
Ricky speaks to Meg Firth about the escapism of art, his creative methods and the future of augmented reality within illustration.
Ricky Butcher is a “massive lover of all things fantasy and science fiction based”. The magnificent worlds that he creates pay homage to the beauty and mystery that ordinary life offers. Finding inspiration by “travelling, seeing new sites, learning about the history of places and meeting new people”, Butcher’s imagination is always racing: “Ideas can come to me at any point but usually when I least expect it. I could be buying some milk, in the shower or, a lot of the time, I’ll be about to go to sleep and my brain starts thinking about a million things at once and I’ll have to get up”.
With a strong sense of escapism, Butcher’s work is a visualisation of the fantastical, carefree landscapes that we wish to escape to. Butcher himself is “somebody who lives very much in imaginary worlds”, and uses his artistic finesse to “create ways to share worlds with everyone else”.
His Fantastical World series does just that. This collection of stunning realms exhibit Butcher’s eccentric imagination and thoughtful attention to detail. These worlds present fictional kingdoms that offer sanctuary for those who want to escape the mundanities of everyday life. As Butcher explains: “The series focuses on mental health, using the escape from reality with fantastical worlds as a means to deal with that. I feel that as a society hidden behind phones screens we tend to let things build up; it has become almost taboo for us to talk about what’s going on inside our heads. I wanted to highlight that it’s okay to feel a bit crazy sometimes and it’s definitely something you can express, be it with words, music or, in my case, some pretty pictures.
“I think the great thing about fantasy illustration is that you can make your own story from it”.
This element of escaping to a better world is personified in Butcher’s work with the recurring motif of a boy in a parka [he’s even on the back cover of this Issue!]. Butcher’s intention behind this curly-haired boy was to “contrast these crazy fantasy worlds with your normal everyday guy hiding in them”.
The level of detail in Butcher’s work is astounding. You notice another bizarre yet beautiful element of his work every time you look back at a piece. From the emotive expression of a hidden character to exceptionally executed textures, Butcher’s art truly holds an entire world within its digital dimensions. Butcher muses on how incorporating this level of detail is an immersive experience in itself: It’s mad how much time can pass while I’m working on a piece with lots of detail. It’s so easy to get lost in these worlds that I find myself looking at them too much for too long. If I give it a day or two before revisiting the work it’s always good to have fresh eyes in case there’s something I missed.
Currently, Butcher is designing the cover art for the American singer-songwriter, Matt Shill. Although it’s under wraps, Butcher says that is similar to work in his Miniature World series. In this series, Butcher creates care-free sanctuaries within everyday objects; in ‘Nature’s Brew’, a man reclines on a towel within the base of a coffee cup. Butcher expresses why he’s proud of this series in particular: “At first glance, it’s just a coffee cup covered in moss, but when you look closer there are all these tiny details, like a Where’s Wally piece. It’s fantasy but hanging on by its fingertips to reality. There’s a story there, but that’s down to the observer to write”.
Although Butcher’s worlds are created digitally, he always starts with a hand-drawn sketch until he gets an idea for composition and a vision for the piece. He reflects: “[Pen and paper] has taught me to allow lots of time for preparation when starting a new drawing even if its just one for fun. Then I move into the digital world with my Cintiq and get lost in a mountain of custom brushes and Photoshop layers.”
With an ever-expanding mind, Butcher embraces technological developments to further enhance his art and storytelling. He has harnessed the power of augmented reality to further inject a sense of reality into his fantastical worlds. Augmented reality is the process of adding movement to an otherwise static illustration through an app. As Butcher expresses: “Augmented Reality is really exciting and I love the potential it has for extending a visual narrative. I wouldn’t call it the future of illustration as much as it’s definitely becoming another path for illustrators to take”. Butcher has augmented his dragon illustration on this Issue’s cover, and it’s a very exciting spectacle.
The old and the new don’t always agree, but in the case of art, they can be embraced to create something beautiful. As Butcher observes, augmented reality and technological developments present a wealth of opportunity for creatives and future artists. I ask him what advice he would give to who wants to get into digital illustration but feels overwhelmed by the technicalities of it: “The best advice I could give someone is to just give it a go. There is so much software available to work with these days - such as Photoshop, or [the free software] Gimp. If you’re less of a desk jockey and would want to draw on the go, you should check out getting an Ipad with Apple Pencil and drawing on Procreate.
“But no matter what, don’t get to hung up on the names and tools, just find whatever suits you best and try it out. I would also say to make sure you have your fundamentals of drawing down first if you want to take it seriously. I was a bit rubbish at drawing when I first got a Wacom and somebody kindly gave me the advice to maybe pick up a pencil first and boy am I glad they did.”
Originally from Peterborough, Butcher moved to Leeds “for the awesome art student university life” and the “diverse creative culture Leeds has to offer”. From East Street Arts to Girl Gang to Gross Studio, Leeds is certainly a melting pot of all sorts of creatives with lots going on to support artists.
Coming from a place where “there’s little to no creative scene”, Butcher describes Leeds as a “hub of art, music, performance, parades and pop up markets full of nice people”. He notes how this community spirit is invaluable for an artist: “If you’re not careful, illustrating can get lonely being sat at a desk getting lost in. To have an amazing creative community on the doorstep makes you feel part of something big and exciting, and not alone. On the other hand, if you need a break there are the dales a bus journey away. Nature is such a prominent theme in my work, and that hybrid of beautiful rolling hills and the busy city is something I love exploring”.
So, next time you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, find refuge in one of Ricky Butcher’s immersive worlds. Or, just distract yourself by watching the dragon on this front cover move (through the Artivive app). It won’t be time wasted.
Words by Meg Firth