London-based illustrator Marc Aspinall is known for works that are totally modern yet inspired by a mid-20th-century aesthetic. For the cover of our June issue, Aspinall created an image of a father working on his car—which he based on a 1966 Shelby GT350—while his son plays just a few feet away. “It might not be exact, but I wanted something that was classic,” Aspinall explains. “A nod to the era of the nuclear family and a vehicle that conveyed masculinity.”
Aspinall calls his style “a digital interpretation of the golden-age illustrators.” His initial sketches are thrown onto paper, then refined on the computer. “After that I go through my usual process of making line art in Clip Studio,” he says. “Then final color painting in Photoshop, employing various paint textures I have amassed to give it that gouache painting feel. The technique involves a lot of vertical chisel brush, washes, streaky washes, and then some tight detail to bring it all together. I try to tread the line of textural and detailed, bordering on fussy!”
Below, Aspinall, whose work has appeared on the pages of the New Yorker, Wired, and the Telegraph, tells us a little more about the thinking behind his illustration for Topic.
What sort of different ideas and conceits first came to mind for the cover of the issue?
I had a few ideas, largely positive in their outlook: either framing the father-son relationship as a like-father-like-son [scenario], or a celebration of how we differ from our fathers, maybe in self-expression or looks—this would have manifested in a riff on the family photo showing pairs of fathers and sons, some alike, some different. Another idea looked at how there can be conflict and rebellion yet still a loving relationship—depicted by having a tattered pair of sneakers facing a pair of shiny, patent shoes. Both [are] at odds with each other, yet both stood on a floor mat with “HOME” clearly printed on it. Another cue was to draw influence from the Pinocchio story, which in some sense is a classic tale of a father and son who don’t necessarily meet eye-to-eye, despite the dad doing his very best. I tried to channel this with dad dressing his son in exactly the same outfit, like he was building him to his own specifications in his workshop, and also [by] referencing an old etching from the story.
What were you interested in exploring between a father and son in this illustration?
With this illustration, I was keen to show a quintessential Sunday-with-dad-type scenario: fixing up the car, learning mechanics in jeans and a white vest. I have the father and son in the same clothes, so it’s clear there’s an element of imitation happening. Yet to Dad’s surprise, the boy has strayed from getting greasy, opting to have a dainty tea party with his toys instead. My message is: despite sharing the same genes, we aren’t always wired the same and won’t necessarily take on the persona you wish upon us.
What toys is the boy playing with?
There’s a progression with the toys: we move from the toolbox to an action man, a Pinocchio plush and then a classic toddler doll. We’re moving away from the macho and toward a realm of fantasy, against gender type. Also, the Pinocchio plush is a nod to a story where the son strays.
Is the illustration set in the past? The present? The future?
This is up for debate. I’d say the Pinocchio and action-man toys set it closer to today, but the general setting might suggest otherwise. It’s more about blurring the line and hinting at that tired narrative of the nuclear family and the like-father-like-son mentality, which I’m sure was an important part of growing up in the midcentury.
What are your thoughts about how fatherhood is depicted in popular and high culture?
My instant reaction is to say there’s an idealized view of fatherhood in popular culture. But then if I consider it beyond my gut reaction, which amounts to scenes where Dad and Son are playing catch in the backyard, fixing up the car, or going fishing—what could be considered as a twee and fantastical vision of the father-son relationship—in reality dads are often the comic relief, the hopeless dad failing to meet expectations at home with their wives and their children. They are neither role models to their kids nor good characters generally: not very well-rounded, or varied. A fun poke at dads and their roles in the household is Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom; it really lays bare the general perception of dads in pop culture—the suit that brings home the money, and usually plays away at the weekend. The film juggles gender roles and even gender fluidity later on in the film, as Michael’s character finds his rhythm in what is commonly perceived as a mother’s role. It’s both funny and sad; there’s such a clear distinction between who does what at home.
“I have the father and son in the same clothes ... yet to Dad’s surprise, the boy has opted to have a dainty tea party with his toys instead.”
In what ways do you believe the concept and practice of fatherhood influence our ideas about contemporary masculinity?
It’s an idea that’s passed on: each generation potentially changes and becomes something new, or maybe a crystallization of what has gone before. But hopefully a new understanding of what it means to be masculine can be imbued. That’s the potential, but how long will this take? Is it possibly for an entirely new, less-toxic idea of masculinity to permeate and eclipse what was before? Would be nice.