In the midst of The Great British Baking Show’s controversial migration between British networks two years ago — a creative decision that lost 75 percent of the show’s personalities — tabloid speculation ran wild at the time about what this new Baking Show iteration would entail, given that the only person following the dough was Paul Hollywood and his piercing blue eyes. The only person on camera, that is. Because also choosing to stay in the show’s family was Tom Hovey, arguably the fifth puzzle piece in its sugary, buttery DNA. You don’t know his face, but you definitely know his work — and that’s because he’s responsible for creating every illustration in Baking Show history, from day one and beyond.
“It’s a real case of being at the right place at the time right time,” Hovey told Vulture about landing the gig. “My best mate worked in television and suggested that I apply for a job in ‘the edit’ at this new cookery show. With no TV experience or idea about how edits worked, I blagged my way in and started two days later.” Soon after beginning this editing job, though, Hovey admitted to the directors and editors that his passion was actually illustration, which spurred the higher-ups to spontaneously incorporate something artistic into the show. “It led to the director coming to me in the second week saying that he felt there was a visual element missing and maybe I could come up with some ideas,” Hovey recalled. “I sketched a few examples, we decided on a style that fit the bill and I got the gig.”
Hovey’s interest in culinary illustration didn’t stem from any childhood passion. He cited satirists like Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe as his primary influences, as he dabbled in the London street-art scene after graduating college, preferring “montorous characters” and “obscene” sketches to evoke reactions from viewers. It was only after working on The Great British Baking Show for a few seasons that he realized his creative fulfillment was being met, and yes, he was also turning into a massive foodie, too. “I was always looking for a style, always looking for inspiration,” he said. “It took me awhile, but I finally realized that the style had found me. I realized I could and should make food illustration my main focus.”
When it comes to actually sitting down and churning out all those illustrations — Hovey estimates he’s created around 3,000 (!) for the show at this point — he’s sent photos of the finished bakes from various angles so he can capture their essence, even if the bakers experienced difficulties. “My job is to illustrate what the bakers planned to create, not what they actually baked in the tent,” he said. “Sometimes if the bakes don’t go as planned, I have to work out with the producers and the bakers how to fix the issues. Add missing elements, extra layers, that sort of thing. Just make the bakes look the best they can, that’s the key.”
While he used to sketch every illustration in pencil and meticulously trace it in, Hovey now works exclusively on a Wacom Cintiq tablet with a stylus, which affords him more concise line work and coloring. “I then add the color digitally in Photoshop,” he explained. “If you can’t see the contents from the outside, we add an internal slice and some ingredient arrows to follow the voice-over.”
But Hovey doesn’t dedicate the same amount of time to each illustration, owing to the various complexities of challenges in any given episode. (A “Parisian pâtisserie window” needs more time than a shortbread biscuit. That’s just gastronomy, people.) “It’s really enjoyable getting lost in the details of the bakes … I get joy from being able to show off the big, bright, and bold bakes,” he said. “But usually it takes two or three weeks to illustrate and deliver an episode.”
The creative style of Hovey’s illustrations also hasn’t changed much throughout the nine seasons, owing to the show’s longing for a consistent “homey and nostalgic” aesthetic. “The concept was to create drawings based on what the bakers may have sketched out when deciding what to bake in the show in their own recipe sketchbook,” he said. “The style has grown with the show and I think as the contestants’ skills have improved year on year, so have mine, and in turn my ability to display their creations in the best light.” And in a very tasty light, if we say so ourselves.