Artists We Love: Mpumelelo Bhengu

INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr IMAGES courtesy of Mpumelelo Bhengu

Mpumelelo Bhengu‘s urban and bold art references pop culture with his own South African twist. We chat with him about his influences and process, from drawing on walls to working with clients.

How did you get into your line of art?

I’ve been fascinated with drawing for a very long time. It started at a very young age, glued to the TV screen watching cartoons. We spent most of the days as kids watching cartoons, which think was when the the seed was planted in my head in regards to a career where you get to draw all the time. Days were spent tracing comic books and drawing on walls (which got me into too much trouble). I was fascinated by who gets to draw these animated shows on TV.

I think a more definitive moment of what exactly it was that wanted to do was when I went to college. I got exposed to what creatives, in other countries, were doing and this is where I also realised that you can become an illustrator, which here in South Africa, was quite rare. There wasn’t a stable platform for it here at the time. The more I got exposed to illustrators the clearer it became as to what I wanted from a creative career, and what I could specialise in. 

In South Africa back then, most institutions, when it came to visual arts, focused mostly on Graphic Design and fine arts. You kinda had to create your path/narrative back then, if you wanted to be an Illustrator because the Industry was still small.

After a few years/stints in advertising, as a Graphic Designer/Art director, I decided to take the leap and pursue illustration full-time. It wasn’t easy but I am glad and grateful that I made the change and pursued it.

Mpumelelo Bhengu

Describe your work in 3 words.

Urban, fun, bold

Commission or your own work?

My own work all the way. When I had just started, as a freelancer, I was trying to do as many commissioned jobs as possible. This most of the time tended to end up doing trend-based work which is normally referenced by a client. I was more so adapting to international visual trends, rather than being hired for my uniqueness or the value I bring to the table as a creative.

I prefer working on self Initiated briefs. This is very important to my growth process and it helps me put out work that I would like to do. These projects very much lead to the type of client work that I would like to do.

When starting out, clients used to reference other illustrators’ work as a visual guideline and now it’s really amazing when a client gives you free rein to create in your style. Most clients I have nowadays, often reference my work that they’ve either seen on Instagram or Behance.

Personal projects allow you to craft, explore and experiment in different ways. There’s amazing sincerity with personal work. Proactive work is YOU.

What mediums do you use?

My process is very much digital. I use my iPad most of the time cause of mobility and I can go sit somewhere outside and sketch ideas, using a program called Procreate. I use Adobe Illustrator a lot and that’s because most of the illustrations end up being scaled up and Adobe Illustrator can maintain crisp and clean line work.

With all that being said, I still believe the foundation and traditional process shouldn’t be neglected, pencil and paper. There’s something organic and personal when you are sketching ideas on paper and I think it keeps you grounded, especially in this age of technology. Software is one of many tools that help streamline the process, but nothing beats a blank piece of paper and a pencil.

I also buy art books which help from a fundamentals refresher post of view. I also carry field notes with me most of the time.

What’s your superhero alter ego?

I would say Spiderman/Peter Parker. I dig his optimistic nature and doesn’t take himself seriously. He’s also not afraid to try, make mistakes and try again. There’s a relatable human element within him. Spider is just a dude trying to figure out life while he saves people.

Typical Day?

I maintain a 9-5 type routine even though I work from my spot most of the time. This creates structure.

My day is broken down into 3 sections. I wake up around 6 or 7 am. Sleep has become such a priority for me because of how refreshed you feel after you’ve had a good night’s sleep…also I’m at the age where my day gets cloudy if I haven’t had a good night’s sleep.

Once I’m done eating breakfast, I then look at my “TO DO” list for the day. I prefer doing any admin in the mornings, which consists of emails, social media, Invoicing and quotes. This is also when I do my reach-out/lead engagement. This I call the “business development” time.

Around 11 am I start waking on client work, pending on what’s on my plate at the moment. It can be anything from sketching ideas from a client, prepping work and maybe upkeep on existing work. 

If there isn’t much client work, I continue with my proactive briefs. Overall this Time is primarily allocated to client work.

I knock off around 5 or 6 latest then go for a run or a walk. This lets me reflect on the day and to distress.

Evenings are mostly spent chilling and I try and keep my iPad close by should get a light bulb moment and need to sketch something quickly. I’m an avid gamer so I try and allocate some time for this as it also plays an important part in my creative process. I also try and spend an hour or so learning something new, be it a new program or a podcast. I’m currently experimenting with 3d software. Not sure where it is going but I’m having so much fun. Investing in yourself is important

I also make time to catch up with people and reply to messages on social media. I plan as much of the following day as possible before I sleep.

I also have random off days where you just need to get out of the house and do something fun.

Also, you never know where inspiration might come from. GET OUT and GET SOME FRESH AIR.

Plans for the rest of the year?

I’ve been working on a few amazing briefs lately and I’m grateful. 

I’m working on a few self-funded projects/briefs which are pushing me out of my comfort zone a bit. The main goal is to keep being consonant and grow even further.

Follow Mpumelelo on Instagram, here.

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