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A Q&A with illustrator Tess Smith-Roberts

by Tess Smith-Roberts, Illustrator

We speak to Tess Smith-Roberts the writer and illustrator of Disaster Dates & Lucky Escapes, a graphic novel following Olive, a girl trying to find love in a world of online dating. We find out how how this book started, why Tess likes to illustrate while on planes and why she loves drawing bananas.

A person in a colourful studio space leaning on a desk looking ahead smiling. There are artworks stuck on the wall.

What made you start illustrating dating stories?

In summer 2020, I was kind of lonely after the first lockdown so naturally, I went on a dating spree. I managed to meet lots of eccentric individuals somehow, which was good material to tell funny stories to my friends, but eventually it got a little sad (haha!).

I think one of my mates then suggested I turn my dating stories into a book! So I started by asking my Instagram followers for their stories too, and got such great responses. So many funny ones! After collecting those stories, I then turned them into comics for Instagram… and my bad dates series started!

Then you went on to make those comics into a book, how many of the Instagram comics made it into the book?

Yes quite a few did actually! My favourite one, the story of a guy obsessed with oranges & orange juice, who only drinks orange juice, is in there. So is the story of the date shouting I love you to the clown. The date where they leave them to go wait tables as they’re actually on a shift in the restaurant… haha and more! Plenty of them made it in!

Disaster Dates and Lucky Escapes follows the love life of serial dater Olive. What was the inspiration behind this charming character?

Olive is everyone who has ever been on a bad date! I guess she is, in some ways, a portrayal of myself as a lot of the experiences are based on my own. And the whole thing came from myself going on bad dates. But she isn’t just me! She’s also inspired by my friends, my sister, anyone who’s been on bad dates and told me about it!

What drew you to comics in the first place?

I’ve always loved reading comics and I think that they’re a fantastic format to tell a story. And as an illustrator, it just felt natural to tell the stories of all these bad dates in that way. It’s so great to be able to draw all the mishaps people go through: the dates, the date locations, the food on the date … everything! Also, the facial expressions! It’s so fun to draw deadpan faces in a comic format too. Especially when you have something bad happen and it then zooms into their annoyed looking face…

How did you create the illustrations for the book?

Actually I was on a 6-month travelling trip when I had to draw most of the book so it was definitely different to how I would normally do things. I found out that I’m best at working on a plane as there are pretty much no distractions (basically no internet!). I did the sketches for the whole book before I went away, like a mock-up of the whole thing. Then when I was away, I got some feedback and edited them. Then more feedback! Then it was done in sections, maybe 10 pages at a time or something. I would send them, get approval or edits, then move onto the next batch.

When did you know you wanted to be an illustrator?

I just knew I liked to draw and didn’t like doing fine art (also I couldn’t draw like fine artists), so I found out what illustration was and thought ‘ah that’s the thing for me!’ I think as soon as I knew what illustration was I wanted to pursue it as a career, I was around 17 or 18. I took it more seriously at uni when I decided I wanted to try and freelance as I studied. And luckily in my third year I got some jobs.

A person in a colourful studio space leaning on a desk looking ahead smiling. There are artworks stuck on the wall.

How did you find your distinctive illustrative style?

I’ve always been drawn to using bright colours, but I’d say it was during my year abroad at uni that I really started to get into the style I use now. I just had so much free time so I would draw and draw and draw all the time!

I’d do a lot of location drawing to practise my people, and I was also interning at a magazine/print studio where they gave me tasks to do illustrations for their Instagram. It was here that I really began to refine how I draw characters. I just kept trying things until something I liked stuck.

You often use recurring objects in your work, like lemons and bananas, why is that?

I like the bright colours of fruit and how easy they are to draw!

Can you tell us about your exhibition at The Bee's Knees Gallery in Tokyo?

The exhibition is split into 3 sections - dogs, fruit and food. Basically my three favourite things to draw! We have lots of prints, all in red frames. Wooden sculptures, plates, and other handmade things like these giant food, fruit and dog cutouts I made.

How did Olive spend Valentine’s Day this year?

Good question! I think she was alone probably watching a rubbish noughties chick flick with a takeaway. Maybe a burger? She would have been happy to be alone though.

Published by Octopus Books, Disaster Dates & Lucky Escapes is out now and was selected as one of Waterstones Best Humour Books of 2023.

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Images: © Tess Smith-Roberts