Different Is Good

By Scott Kirkwood

Combine the peculiar sensibilities of cartoonist Gary Larson and the wry humor of comedian Demetri Martin, and you’ve got something approaching Dale Crosby-Close, a resident of Sheffield, England, who describes himself as an “illustrator and general human being.”

Illustrator and general human being Dale Crosby-Close.

Crosby-Close’s offbeat work is populated by endearing blobs—sort of the opposites of stick figures—with teeny-tiny heads and ecompletely inscrutable expressions. Even so, something about these shapes is very appealing—like a litter of awkward puppies running cutely and comically into one other.

As it turns out, those blobs weren’t particularly planned.

“I think they came out of my final project at Kingston School of Art, when I was beginning work on my book Hey,” says Crosby-Close. “One of the pages had a full spread full of people, and it was simply the muscle memory and the repetitive nature of drawing a crowd of hundreds of people that eventually made it my go-to.”  

Looking through Crosby-Close’s blog—a Tumblr site dating back to 2010—is like poring over an art student’s sketchbook so bizarre that you can’t stop turning the pages. It’s a window into a decade-long evolution of his style, ranging from quirky line drawings of celebrities, monsters, and unlikely superheroes to puns like Harry Potter and the Half-Tone Prints, and the mildly disturbing yet oddly brilliant My Sister Alice as a Hat.

Close hesitates to identify any single influences that have shaped his work, but when pressed, he names Matt Groening’s The Simpsons and Futurama, and Salad Fingers, an unsettling animation series from fellow Brit David Firth.

“When I finished university, my work was definitely a bit weirder,” Crosby-Close says. “I’ve started to realize there’s a fine line between quirky and un-hirable, and I was treading dangerously close to un-hirable. But I still enjoy doing quirkier stuff for personal projects where I have a bit more room to breathe. And I like to look back at my previous work and see how that can feed into what I’ve learned in the last year or two—to see if there’s anything I’ve lost that I could benefit from revisiting, and to keep things fresh.”

Repetitive elements and rounded human figures frequently appear in Crosby-Close’s illustrations, as in this illustration of an Australian suburb, for Culture Trip. 

Crosby-Close quickly recognized he wasn’t cut out for a design firm or an advertising studio, so he pursued freelance work right out of school. And although his portfolio includes a few well-known clients, he certainly doesn’t consider himself an overnight success.

“I naively thought that once I finished university, everything would sort of slot into place, but that wasn’t the case,” he says. “So eventually, I spent an entire month sending out something like 3,500 emails.”

An illustration from a series called The Most Gorgeous Fruit Around, the Banana. 

One of those emails landed in the in-box of an art director at the Boston Globe. That AD didn’t reply, but six months later, the email made its way to another Globe staffer, who asked Crosby-Close to illustrate an op-ed about the sex lives of septuagenarians. He had 48 hours; of course he said yes.

“It was a quite daunting experience because I’d never done any commercial work beyond a local flyer, and here I was thrown into the deep end, illustrating a piece for the top of the ‘Opinions’ page,” he says. “Looking back on it, I’d do everything differently, but it was a great first experience.”

Crosby-Close’s first widely published commerical illustration was for an article in the Boston Globe. 

Like most editorial illustrators, Crosby-Close begins each project by reviewing instructions from an art director, searching for visual references or potential metaphors in an early draft, and submitting a few pencil sketches as quickly as possible; his primary tools are his iPad, Procreate, and Adobe Photoshop. As more art directors request animation for digital outlets, Crosby-Close has taught himself how to use software such as After Effects, which he employed when CNN Travel commissioned an illustration focused on the future of air travel.

Although many of his illustrations are set on football fields, basketball courts, and baseball diamonds, Crosby-Close says he’s not a huge sports fan—which can cause the occasional problem.

Crosby-Close created this animated loop for an article that appeared on CNN Travel. 

“Sports-related illustrations may seem simple, but even if I’m just drawing six or seven players on a field, the figures have to be detailed enough that they’re recognizable, which can mean a lot of research for just a few tiny blob people.” Since Crosby-Close is generally unfamiliar with most of the athletes, he’s often left to guess at their height, their hair, their jersey numbers, and even where they might be positioned on the pitch. But clearly, his art directors value his talents enough to correct his mistakes.

Crosby-Close says his biggest career challenges are less about the day-to-day demands of clients and creativity, and more about the unique nature of working from home, alone, and the accompanying lack of structure that faces every freelancer.

“Working from home rather than in a studio makes for a lack of human contact and that often means work and life all merge into one,” he says, “so I’ll try to change my environment by just going to a different room, working in bed with a laptop, or finding a nearby coffee shop if there’s an empty chair to be had.”

Crosby-Close makes his illustrations available on Adobe Stock, as a premium contributor. 

Lately, he’s been focused on completing a series of illustrated stories called Worlds, which details the adventures of a human named Boseley, a half-bird/half-spaceship named Aquarium Fenchurch, a plant named Plantly, and their friend Spidery Lanister, a spider. He’s also produced a few simple in-browser video games. So it’s probably fair to say that Crosby-Close has slipped beyond the bounds of quirkiness yet again. But as he’s already proven, sometimes the unlikely characters that you create for yourself are the ones that end up in the pages of the New York Times.  

March 11, 2019