Interview: Nina Cosford

Splitting her time between Hastings and London, Nina Cosford creates elegant yet quirky illustrations which ooze personality both in print and on screen.

Whether it is working along side modern-day feminist Lena Dunham for her Girls illustrated blog – an illustrated response to Lena Dunham’s Hit US TV show Girls – or retelling the life stories of influential women in art and literature in her Life Portraits book series – feminism is a strong theme within Nina’s work.

Over the last twelve months, Nina has illustrated the first two Life Portraits, produces a plethora artworks for her Girls Illustrated series, illustrated Read Me Bottom Up and produced a handful of editorial illustrations. Needless to say, it has been a very busy and exciting time in her career.

Luckily for us, Nina was kind enough to take time out of her hectic schedule to answer a few questions about what she has been up to recently and the influences behind her work.

How did you get involved with the Life Portraits books project?

I first met Zena after she showed an interest in my Girls Illustrated project. We discussed the idea of female role models and how important they are in the modern day for women and people everywhere. After a visit to Charleston Farmhouse, I became intrigued by the idea of visually exploring the world of Virginia Woolf and the nebulous Bloomsbury group. Zena happened to have extensive knowledge on this subject and specified that we should focus a book purely on Virginia Woolf, as a universal, female icon. This then lead to the idea of a whole series commissioned by Frances Lincoln publishers, covering the lives of various influential women in art and literature.

How closely did you work with Zena on the project?

We’ve worked very closely on the books from the word go really. It’s been a huge amount of work on both parts but ultimately I think it’s been beneficial having such a small team behind the series, as it keeps it close to how we both envisioned it. We are both pretty passionate about the subject matter and are nearly always on the same page (awful pun, sorry!) with the direction we want to be going in.

Before the project, how familiar were you with the lives and works of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf?

I’ve read every Jane Austen novel and none of Virginia Woolf’s. Although oddly, I get a sense of Virginia’s world and personality far more vividly than Jane’s, whose work I am very familiar with. I think it’s because Virginia left so much personal documentation behind in the form of letters and diaries, whereas not as much personal information is evident from Jane – she seemed to be more guarded a person.

I quite enjoy entering some projects without too much knowledge or preconception beforehand, so as to keep the idea of discovery fresh and inspired. In the same way, I don’t like to carry out too much research and hype before travelling somewhere new. I like discovering things along the way too.

Did the task of illustrating two books seem daunting at any point? How long did it take to complete overall?

Yes. Daunting but at the same time really exciting. Each book is 128 pages long and every page is illustrated! I had under four months to do the first two books in order to make the Spring 2015 publishing date. It can feel a little pressured at times to represent these women in the right way and to do them justice. Upon completing each book though, I do feel we have achieved that and I feel honoured to be playing a part in highlighting the humanity and relevance of each women; not just by touching upon their work and their legacy, but upon their spirit and their daily lives as real people.

How did it feel when you finally got your hands on copies of the printed books?

It was odd! I’m pleased with how each book has come out, and being able to hold the physical thing in my hands makes it all seem more real and like a thing that is out their in the world! As with any project though, it’s hard to step back from the work and see it objectively, or through fresh eyes. The best I can do is enjoy the work whilst making it and have confidence in the idea of other people enjoying it too.

How would you describe your working process? What materials do you enjoy working with most?

It totally depends on what project I’m working on and where I am working. Typically I work (fairly) upright at my desk in my studio. I like watercolour painting (how I make the Life Portraits books) because it forces me to slow down and get into another world, quite detached from other things. It’s quite different to my other methods of illustrating, which are either part-digitally on a graphics tablet, or on a train or street with a sprawling selection of pencils and markers spilling out of my hands whilst I hurry to record something.

What role do sketchbooks play in your process and how important are they to you as a creative?

I’ve always always used sketchbooks as a way of documenting everything from ideas to buildings to faces to wish lists. It helps to keep my illustration fun and immediate and not too self-conscious. I think my style would be very different if it wasn’t for maintaining my manic habit of scribbling things down. My sketchbooks also help me to translate things I come across and explore my own angle on things. I like blurring the boundaries of preparatory / explorative work with finished pieces as much as I can because the pressure of separating the two has always been something I have struggled with.

What is your go-to snack of choice to fuel your creativity and productivity ahead of a big deadline?

I have a mild obsession with Monster Munch and am often getting told off for the amount of crisps and salty goods I buy. I wish I could have answered this question with kale and quinoa.

I think my style would be very different if it wasn’t for maintaining my manic habit of scribbling things down. My sketchbooks also help me to translate things I come across and explore my own angle on things.

Another recent project of yours which we think looks particularly exciting and innovative is Read Bottom Up. Can you tell us more about this book and your involvement?

This book is a very fun and amusing look at the world of modern dating and communication. It’s a story about falling in “like” in this day and age, and the entire book is told through emails between the various characters; the lovers and their best friends, who – for better or worse – offer their own interpretation of what is going on in the relationship through deciphering the messages that are being sent. I think the Girls Illustrated project highlighted a certain modern demographic that my work could appeal to, and the writers saw a potential in this tone of humour and quirk as being complimentary to the story they were telling.

Tell us about the last documentary that you watched – is there a subject matter interests you most?

I’ve recently been watching the documentary series How To Be Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell, which I’ve found both fascinating and hilarious. I love watching historical documentaries and imagining how people would have lived on a normal day; what they would have laughed at, worn, what soap they would have used (if any), what they would have danced to etc. I’m also fascinated by the term ‘bohemian’ and how its definition is constantly changing over time. As a creative, it’s always interesting to see what perspectives and preconceptions there are on what it means to be an “artist”. It isn’t a term I would use to describe myself as it’s too vague and romantic for me. I draw and usually create work to a fairly strict brief or set of rules which I guess isn’t very bohemian!

Who inspires you? And what do you like most about their work?

That’s a really tricky question to answer as there are tons of creatives and non- creatives who inspire me every day! Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Lena Dunham’s work and have been very fortunate to work alongside her and HBO over the past couple of years. I’m also really excited about what future work she and other modern feminists, creatives and thinkers are going to inspire and am really chuffed to be a part of this stream of people, responding in my own way.

Finally, what is next for Nina Cosford?

I’ve just opened up my online shop for the first time! It’s something I have been wanting to do for ages and I now feel at a good point in my career to spend some time on this and invest in myself a bit more. I’m working on the 4th book in the Life Portraits series this summer which is all about Frida Kahlo. I’ve just got back from travelling across Mexico so have gathered lots of reference and inspiration which I’m looking forward to putting to use. | @ninacosford


Posted on Jul 5th, 15 by

Greg McIndoe - also known as Headless Greg - is an illustrator and design writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. He regularly writes for design magazines and online platforms, interviewing fellow illustrators and leading creatives.

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