It’s a widely understood fact of life that not everything turns out the way you’d expect. No one knows this better, perhaps, than contestants on the popular competition show The Great British Bake Off, known in the US as The Great British Baking Show. Every week, they take a dramatic, sugar-filled journey across the uncertain and sometimes tumultuous expanse between what they planned to bake and how it turned out.
Cakes sink. Buttercream icing splits. Isomalt shatters. Occasionally, someone forgets to turn on the oven, losing valuable time. But even if the sponge is “claggy” or “stodgy” (or god forbid, ends up on the floor before it makes it to a judge’s plate), there’s a perfectly executed version of the creation that viewers at home can ooh and aah at anyway.
That’s thanks to Tom Hovey, whose appetite-triggering illustrations have become a signature element of the show over the years. They’re presented on screen in a digital notebook on a mock worktop, as if the bakers had sketched them themselves.
“That points to why the illustrations are sometimes, a lot of the times, better than what it turns out in the tent, because it’s what they intended to create, not what they actually created,” Hovey said via Zoom from his studio in Newport, South Wales. GBBO’s 13th season is halfway through on Netflix. It’s already seen structurally questionable masks made of cookies; black pudding on pizza; and a coconut sponge that tasted “a bit like tanning lotion.”
Hovey, 39, has been making illustrations for the popular reality show since its beginning in 2010. Black ink delineates the colorful swirls of meringue, crumbles of crust and fruity layers of filling that show up from bake to bake. He shows how icing might drip artfully down the side of a two-tiered cake decorated with foxes and mushrooms, or how rosemary whiskers jut out of the snout of lion-shaped bread. In Hovey’s illustrated universe, nothing has ever been underbaked.
On moving to London with his girlfriend that same year, a friend who worked at a TV production company told him about a baking show in the works. Hovey essentially became a runner, sitting in a room with the series director and an editor and assisting them. While he liked the gig, he was also an artist, having worked on murals, live drawing shows and even political cartoons — street art was having a moment in London.
“I kind of professed my lack of ambition for TV work and that I was actually a budding illustrator,” Hovey said about an exchange he had with his bosses. Instead of admonishing him, they went out for 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 lacking.
Hovey started working on sketches of the usual cakes, cookies and pastries, in addition to his job as runner — in the evenings and on weekends. Quickly the powers-that-be signed off. And the time he’d spent in the street-art world informed the style of the GBBO illustrations, particularly the use of lots of black ink a la Posca paint pens. The look worked well for graphics that were supposed to look attractive but not overly polished or stylized.
And in that, they’ve bolstered one of the show’s main appeals: the cozy vibes; the joy of amateur bakers making delicious-looking baked goods for the glory of an engraved cake stand trophy, and helping each other along the way with encouraging words and a cheerful thumbs-up. In a world that’s often fast-paced and harsh, GBBO is a fuzzy blanket and a warm cup of tea at the end of a long day.
To create the illustrations, Hovey gets photos of the bakes sent to him from the tent and goes back and forth with the production team. He said some of the most fun illustrations can be for bakers who’ve committed to an aesthetic, like Helena Garcia from the 2019 season, who went all in on spooky-themed bakes like wicked witch apple illusion cakes. Or Kim-Joy Hewlett in 2018, whose creations like orange cat madeleines were just cute, in a word.
As the seasons have gone on, Hovey has also changed the way he’s approached the illustrations. In 2016, he went fully digital. He’d started out doing the line work with the black Posca pens and scanning them into Photoshop to add color and text. But after a string of projects, including the Great British Bake Off Colouring Book, it was apparent digital might 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 deleting really little paint splatters from the nibs of the pens,” Hovey said. Now he uses a Wacom Cintiq tablet, and he created a digital brush that mimics the Posca pens.
Another big change is that he’s got a team of three illustrators, which is fitting since he handles illustrations not just for the flagship show, but for others including the American spinoff and Junior Bake Off. He estimates his team has produced more than 3,000 illustrations for all the series so far.
Through the seasons, he’s visited the tent a few times. Though there’s a family day for the crew, he generally steers clear since his daughter has an egg allergy.
And no, he doesn’t much like to bake, and he doesn’t like cake.
“Maybe it’s just being 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’m not going to make it.”
Hovey has done work for Mastercard and Bloomberg Businessweek, but at this point he’s fully focused on food illustration.
He’s got 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 flesh of the fig. A poster for a band called Idles features an enormous ice cream sundae against a pink background, covered in chocolate and strawberry syrups, topped with sprinkles and raspberries, two perfect cherries and whipped cream. The bottom 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 as the tent has taught so many, sometimes things turn out a little different than expected.