“I have been told by my dad that I was drawing on the walls when I was three, so I have been doing this for as long as I can remember.”
Art has been part of Stephen Gulbis’s life since early childhood, and his love of football was sparked a few years later, in 1969, when he attended his first match.
“It was at Middlesbrough’s old ground Ayresome Park,” he recalls. “My dad took me, and I was about nine years old at the time. Middlesbrough were playing Cardiff, who won 3-2.”
Gulbis has subsequently managed to combine his twin passions in a successful career spanning nearly 40 years. Better known as ‘The Football Artist’, his clients include Premier League clubs including Manchester United and Liverpool, the FA, EFL and the USA Soccer Federation.
He attended Bath Academy of Art between 1978 and 1981, and his first paid-for piece of work was published while he was still studying.
“That was during my final year as a student, and I have been working as a freelance illustrator ever since,” says the 61-year-old.
His distinctive style has several influences. “There are so many pieces and people that have inspired what I do. I like the artwork in the Asterix and Tintin books, while graphic novel artists Sean Philips and Darwyn Cooke have done some good work.
“I also love the artwork in the Thunderbirds comic strips, so magazine illustrator Frank Bellamy would have to be up there with the work of Gerry Anderson creator of the Supermarionation TV shows, as well as Paul Trevillion [of ‘You Are The Ref’ fame] and legendary film poster artist Robert Peak.
“Of course, my work has gone through a variety of stylistic changes down the years. I have done realistic artwork, cartoons and stylised pieces, and my career also taken in the transition from handmade to digital pieces.
“These days, I hand draw the linework on paper with a mixture of brushes and ink and then once they have dried I add colour digitally to add a nice finish.”
Although you can’t rush art, as the saying goes, being an illustrator in a commercial setting often involves Gulbis working to tight deadlines.
“What you have to consider when you are doing pieces is how detailed and complicated the work is to create. When I do personal projects, I do take my time. Commercial jobs tend to have a faster turn around, usually a couple of days or up to a week.
“I usually don’t like to do one piece at a time, I like having two or three on the go as it helps keep each piece fresher. Since starting, I have done hundreds of pieces that are all unique in their own way. At the moment, I am working on a couple of different prints, some on Portsmouth and others on Celtic.”
Somerset-born Gulbis says research plays a vital part in his production process.
“For me, it’s what makes a piece that extra bit special,” he explains. “To do this job, I watch a lot of football, and what I really research is facial expressions and how sportsmen and women move in order to make the likeness of the action portrayed more accurate.
“To achieve this, I look at photos and video clips, but I always want my work to look illustrative rather than photographic. The thing about my pieces is all my prints are based on famous goals, games and legends, with an emphasis on storytelling, so this part of the work is crucial.”
Having produced hundreds of pieces across the decades, it is hard for Gulbis to pick out particular favourites, but in terms of his recent work, three spring to mind for the positive response they received.
“I did a piece when Liverpool won the Champions League, which had Jurgen Klopp celebrating, and that turned out really well. I also did one of Kieran Tripper scoring that free-kick for England against Croatia in their World Cup semi-final (main image). That was special because of what it represented at the time.
“Another recent piece I did that I liked was a poster for the NFL when it came to Wembley. This was good because it was very different.”
The client-artist relationship is a big part of any illustrator’s life, and ‘The Football Artist’ is no different. Two really stick in his mind.
“I would have to say that both Stan McDonald who was the art director at Shoot! and Soccerstars magazines in the 80s and 90s, and Garry Hayes, the creative director at ProgrammeMaster, were my favourite people to do work for because they trusted me to do my job and gave me a lot of creative freedom.
“I also had a piece commissioned by Universal back in 2017 which would be used to help promote their Arsenal 89 movie. The piece itself was in a comic strip style and I spoke a lot to Arsenal legend Lee Dixon about the story. He loved the artwork, so I presented him with a print at the film’s premiere in London.”
When he is not working on projects for clients, Gulbis and his wife of 28 years, Judith, put out new fine art prints via his online shop.
Despite taking a liking to Middlesbrough at that game in 1969, he claims not to support one team in particular, preferring to keep an open mind and watch as many games as he gets the chance to – although he will admit to having a soft spot for Boro and likes to see them do well.
If he could choose, though, to create a piece to illustrate one dream scenario in football, what would his be?
“I would say Marcus Rashford scoring the winning goal for England in a World Cup Final – and before you say anything, you did say it had to be a dream!” he says.
Finally, what advice would Gulbis give as an experienced artist to anyone wishing to follow in his footsteps?
“Because artistic opinions are so subjective, there will always be people who don’t appreciate your work, no matter how good it is. So, trust your own instincts, and don’t necessarily believe everything you are told.”