Art director Alice Ray reveals five key influences behind her concept-driven images
The Tank Magazine contributor on mistakes, climate change, and the tyranny of minimalism.
“Occasionally when I have enough time I like to just get on a bus and get off at a random stop to find different parts of London I didn’t know were there,” says art director Alice Ray when asked about her daily routine. “It’s strange that we spend most of our lives thinking, I have to be here at this time, and here at that time, and then come home by this time and before we know it we’re dead.”
It’s this type of irreverent humor that the 30-year-old Londoner channels into the editorial spreads she directs. For the cover art of Tank magazine’s summer issue, for instance, Ray used the tagline—too hot to handle—as the inspiration for an image that depicted the Tank logo sunburnt onto a woman’s chest like a name necklace. In this character’s hand, an ice cream drips pathetically, no match for the bright glare of the midday sun.
While subtle, the cover design references our rapidly warming planet as well as iconic photographs of British tourists by Martin Parr. “I think when an image draws you in it’s usually because something’s being communicated to you, even if you don’t immediately know what it is,” Ray explains, adding that she’s drawn to covers “when there’s really a story there, instead of just decoration.”
Accordingly, Ray says her process starts with “a lot of information, questions, feelings, imagery, observation” that she starts to filter and edit as if through a “subconscious sieve” in her mind. Organization is key. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without having some sort of filing system,” she says. “I use Pinterest boards as my sketchbooks and I’m constantly adding to different projects on there, as well as a more general board, which is a jumbled up mess of photos I take, pieces of text, a load of found imagery, and sketches.”
“For years I thought I should be like other people because they impressed me a lot more than I impressed myself.”
Like many British millennials, the first magazine she bought as a child was Smash Hits, a music publication geared towards teenagers. Later, she graduated to alternative rock magazine Kerrang “because you got free CDs, and I played the tracks with the most amount of screaming at top volume to annoy my parents.” Surprisingly, one thing she was never really into was fashion magazines. “Honestly, the first one that was not completely underground that interested me was Tank—but then I would say that.”
After studying illustration at Camberwell University of the Arts, Ray began her career in display and visual merchandising and then brand consultation before moving into art direction. “For the first time in my life I feel like I can use my voice and express myself in a way I haven’t let myself before,” she says of her career transition. “I think for years I thought I should be like other people because they impressed me a lot more than I impressed myself. I’ve been through a lot of phases, and I’ve tried out different things, but they all made me feel like I had to change in some way to be able to do it.”
Now, though, Ray is free to make the kind of images she felt were missing in the world. “It’s interesting,” she says, “because the journey to what I’m doing now has been this messy, long fractured road towards something that feels a lot clearer.”
Five topics and visual influences behind Alice Ray’s work
“My first thought [when planning this cover] was about what’s going on environmentally because I couldn’t get it out of my head. And I thought of the tagline ‘Too hot to read’—so it started with that.
I thought of how Martin Parr photographs British holidayers with unvarnished surveillance, and I wanted the image and character to have that feeling. But also to add this layer of a not so far away moment in an extreme climate that we can no longer ignore, one that’s ruining our ice creams and our tans. People really start to care about issues when they see how it could affect their comforts. But I think I was just processing this on a subconscious level, I wasn’t trying to force the subject at all. And the image also has a light side; there’s something funny about this moment because people’s ice creams melt all the time, and especially in Britain, people are always getting burnt as soon as the sun comes out.”
Alice Ray is a freelance art director based in London.
This interview was produced as part of our series In a Nutshell. Head over to read more articles where creatives around the world talk us through references that inspire their work.
Text: Chloe Stead