Paul Bush: T-shirt to wall, no job too big or too small

Your name on your T-shirt? Been there, done that and… er… got the T-shirt. But your name on a streetwear capsule collection from Malaysian clothing company Pestle & Mortar? That surely is something else, and Gibraltarian illustrator Paul Bush got it – straight out of uni.

“Arthur Loh, one of the company’s founders, was a friend of mine back in university. After I graduated, he checked in to see how I was doing, and I suggested for us to work together on a future project. He took a look at my illustrations, and the rest of his team liked my work and they proposed me to design their next collection,” Paul explains.

“I am not a fashion designer,” he points out, “because I didn’t design or cut the garments, but I just developed the prints for them. My work is about a sense of mood and atmosphere, and it aims to express a storyline within the imagery.”

He narrates the multicultural vibrant life of Malay capital Kuala Lumpur in a series of elegant, contemporary, poster-like pictures printed on the front and back of T-shirts, hoodies and bowling shirts. They depict the hustle and bustle of a finger-lickin’ street-food market in warm tones, the poolside relaxation of a modern resort in cool aqua and pastel hues, the run-down chic of an old trendy Chinese eatery with an explosion of colour in the dynamic buzz of patrons and detailed architecture, the bright bliss of music-blasting ear buds infusing in solar yellow, and the smiling soul outstanding amidst busy passers-by stressed blue by their business cell phones.

Paul’s research was based on a sense of place within the essence of Malaysian culture, a blend of traditional and contemporary, Malay, Chinese, Indian and other ethnicities, and crossroads of religions, and it was carried out online, as he read travel blogs and searched for gems that strayed from the touristy route. Of course he couldn’t leave out the national animal, the tiger, which strides nobly all across the back of his shirts. A medley of flora and fauna features in the Hawaiian-style print of the teal collared shirt too, riding the wave of tropical trend which seems to be popular at the Tropics as much as it is at temperate latitudes.

Newly graduated from Kingston, Paul flew to Kuala Lumpur for his collection’s launch, with his name printed in block letters on the garments, which felt ‘quite surreal’. He took the opportunity to exhibit his collection of artistic prints in an art gallery as well. He likes to hand-print the traditional way, because it is inevitable to make small mistakes which make every print unique and a true work of art. However, he doesn’t describe himself as an artist in full, because as an illustrator he is commissioned to create imagery from a given theme, and sometimes he may be restricted by the client’s requirements or the shape and texture he’s designing for.

Paul’s work is developed digitally, but he always starts from scratch with a handmade sketch, perhaps textured, and later scanned and digitally manipulated. There is no tonal work but he exploits gradience and shading to the best of his ability according to contemporary graphic trends, without foraying into caricature.

“I started painting realistically, but nowadays my work comes across as kind of ‘dreamy’,” he says, guessing that this trait dates back to the days of his childhood when he drew maps to imaginary countries. “An artist needn’t be realistic to put their message through. An illustrator must be a good communicator, simple but expressive,” he says. And impressive, as his sold-out collection has proven. “I would like to show not the objective reality, but what cannot be seen, or better still, I would like to see through imagination’s eyes.”

He works with music too: “When I hear music, I see colours and shapes in my mind, in an organic process that I try to transpose in visual images. My biggest project in university was a graphic novel with no words, without the traditional constrictions of comic-strip frames, to be viewed while listening to instrumental music composed by my friend Emeka Njoku. I also designed a series of alternative vinyl covers for David Bowie’s albums last year, through a process of transforming the impression of sound into a series of visual landscapes.”

Paul is now based in Gibraltar, where he works remotely from home. Recently, the Ministry for Culture selected his proposal for a mural to decorate the tunnels leading to the Alameda Gardens. “I grew up in Trafalgar House and the Alameda Gardens were my playground, so I wanted my mural to be a tribute to what that passageway meant to me as a kid, highlighting the anticipation for the gardens’ features and hopefully capturing their essence. The concept is based on a young explorer discovering the beauty of nature, and how valuable it is for young people to explore their surroundings and learn from them. The murals follow a narrative, and visitors are invited to cross the tunnel leisurely in order to read the story.”

It is Paul’s first go at a mural, and large-scale work and he admits it posed some challenges, including the tiled support on which to paint, originally rectangular, but later adapted to a tapered shape: “The tiles provide the grid for me to enlarge my sketch, and their texture adds character. After all, it is my work but it is displayed in a public space so it belongs to everyone: indeed I am attached to it, but I cannot afford to be overly possessive about it, nor worry about deterioration, which is a natural part of its growth and lifespan.”

To see more of Paul’s work, visit paul-bush.com.