It is widely understood that not everything turns out as you would expect. Few know this perhaps better than the contestants on the hugely popular competition show The Great British Bake Off, known in the US as The Great British Baking Show. Each week they take a dramatic, sugar-filled journey through the uncertain and sometimes tumultuous space between what they planned to bake and how it turned out.
Cake sink. The buttercream frosting is splitting. The isomalt is broken. Sometimes someone forgets to turn on the oven, wasting valuable time. But even if the sponge is “touchy” or “unavailable” (or god forbid, ends up on the floor before it reaches the judge’s plate), there’s always a perfectly executed version of the creation that viewers at home can ooh and aah over. ah anyway.
This is thanks to Tom Hovey, whose mouth-watering illustrations have become a hallmark of the show over the years. They are presented on screen in a digital notebook on a desktop mock-up, as if the bakers had sketched them themselves.
“It shows why the illustrations are sometimes, a lot of times, better than what ends up in the tent, because that’s what they intended to create, not what they actually created,” Howie said via Zoom from his studio in Newport, South Wales. GBBO season 13 is halfway through on Netflix. Structurally dubious masks made of cookies are now visible; black pudding on pizza; and a coconut sponge that tastes “a bit like tanning lotion.”
Howie, 39, has been illustrating for the popular reality show since its inception in 2010. Black ink outlines the colorful swirls of meringue, crust crumbs and fruity layers of filling that emerge from bake to bake. He shows how frosting can artfully drip down the side of a two-tiered cake decorated with foxes and mushrooms, or how whiskers of rosemary protrude from the snout of a lion-shaped loaf of bread. In Howie’s illustrated universe, nothing was ever undercooked.
When he moved to London with his girlfriend that year, a friend who worked at a TV production company told him about a baking show he was preparing. Howie essentially became a runner, sitting in a room with the series director and editor and helping them out. Although he enjoyed the gig, he was also an artist, working on murals, live drawing shows and even political cartoons – street art was having a moment in London.
“I confessed that I had no ambition to work in television and that I was actually an aspiring illustrator,” Howie said of the conversation he had with his bosses. Instead of admonishing him, they went out to lunch one day with the show’s other producers and came back offering him the chance to help create a visual element they felt the show was missing.
In the evenings and on weekends, Howie began working on sketches of the usual cakes, cookies and pastries. Quickly, the powers are signed. And his time in the street art world informed the style of GBBO’s illustrations, especially the use of a lot of black ink a la Posca pens. The look worked well for graphics that needed to look attractive but not overly polished or stylized.
And in that, they’ve reinforced one of the show’s main appeals: the cozy vibes; the joy of hobby bakers making delicious looking baked goods for the glory of an engraved trophy on the cake stand and helping each other along the way with words of encouragement and a cheery thumbs up. In a world that is often hectic and harsh, GBBO is a fluffy blanket and a warm cup of tea at the end of a long day.
To create the illustrations, Howie gets photos of pastries sent to him by the tent and goes back and forth with the production team. He said some of the funnest illustrations can be for bakers who have dedicated themselves to the aesthetic, like the 2019 season’s Helena Garcia, who went all-in on ghost-themed baked goods like Wicked Witch Apple Illusion Cakes. Or Kim-Joy Hewlett in 2018, whose creations like orange cat madeleines were simply cute, in a word.
As the seasons progressed, Howie also changed the way he approached the illustrations. In 2016, it went completely digital. He had started doing the line with black Posca pens and scanning them into Photoshop to add color and text. But after a series of projects including Great British Bake Off coloring bookit was obvious digital could make life a little easier.
“[It was] a good few months of doing black line drawings and then zooming in and me and an intern wiping really small splatters of paint off the tips of the pens,” said Howie. Now he uses a Wacom Cintiq tablet and created a digital brush that mimics the Posca pens.
Another big change is that he has a team of three illustrators, which is fitting since he does illustrations for not only the flagship show, but others including the American spinoff and Junior Bake Off. He estimates that his team has created more than 3,000 illustrations for all the series so far.
He visited the tent several times over the seasons. Although there is a family day for the crew, he usually stays away because his daughter has an egg allergy.
And no, he doesn’t really like baking and he doesn’t like cakes.
“Maybe I’m just a greedy person, but I like to make things that I want to eat, and if I don’t want to eat cake, then I won’t.”
Howie has worked for Mastercard and Bloomberg Businessweek, but right now he’s completely focused on illustrating food.
It has a series of fruit slices rich in color and detail — you can see every seed in the dragon fruit and every twist and turn in the fleshy part of the fig. A poster for a band called Idles features a huge ice cream cone on a pink background, covered in chocolate and strawberry syrup, sprinkled with sprinkles and raspberries, two perfect cherries and whipped cream. At the bottom it says “joy as an act of resistance” and it is.
“I never intended to be a food illustrator, let alone a cake illustrator,” he said. But because the tent has learned so much, sometimes things turn out a little different than expected.