[OFFSET Sheffield] Interview with Laura Carlin
London based freelance illustrator Laura Carlin has built a wonderful career over the last 12 years, illustrating for a growing list of highly esteemed publishing and editorial clients.
As part of our ongoing series of interviews with this years speakers we talk to Laura about her illustrious career, speaking at OFFSET and undoing bad habits.
Describe your background and journey into illustration – where did you study, and did you go into the profession immediately on graduating?
I fell into studying illustration after learning on my Foundation Course that it would allow me to tell stories with pictures. I have my BA (at Buckinghamshire University) to thank for challenging me. I had a great group of tutors who managed to tear me away from just making pretty pictures.
My MA (at the Royal College Of Art) was a wonderful bubble – in which I was fortunate enough to be around more experienced artists. Most of them had been in the ‘real world,’ whereas I had come straight from my BA. Their enthusiasm and knowledge rubbed off on me and I feel really lucky to have had so much great work circulating around me. Overall, art education protected me for 6 years and I met lots of other people who couldn’t spell.
My first commission after graduating from my MA was terrifying. I had no idea about providing an image, or how to respond to an editorial piece. Like so many others I learnt on the job. I am thankful for the fact that I relied on a full-time job as a waitress to pay my rent – it meant I could slowly find my way in illustration.
Your work has been described as ‘combining childlike naivety with a sentimental awareness’ (It’s Nice That) – can you tell us about how your style has evolved?
Like so many illustration students, I felt pressured/obsessed by the need to find my own ‘style.’ It took me a while to realise that it’s not about a style, but working out what and how you want to communicate through your images.
By not thinking too much about a style! Like so many illustration students, I felt pressured/obsessed by the need to find my own ‘style.’ It took me a while to realise that it’s not about a style, but working out what and how you want to communicate through your images. It took me a long time. Mainly getting rid of years of thinking that a good drawing was one which looked like a photograph. My way of working developed from looking at a scene and slowly omitting what wasn’t important. It’s hardly rocket science, but I really loved learning to edit my own images to put in the least amount of information. What was left was what was important to me.
I have always been interested in people’s body language. The way that someone’s way of standing can tell you how they’re feeling. The interaction between two people, the way someone chooses something from a menu. My work is nostalgic because I was surrounded by nostalgic imagery, as well as stories of the past when I was younger. This has then gone on to inform themes that I revisit, together with icons or a bias in my work. Of course this can communicate to a viewer if they recognize something of this in your work, but I think it comes down to something far more fundamental – if you make work about subjects that have meaning and significance to you, then it should communicate integrity. I think people respond to that foremost.
As an illustrator, you have an enormous power – like a writer, filmmaker, designer, to show your audience what you think is funny, enlightening or important.
You’re lined up to speak at the upcoming OFFSET Sheffield in October – can you share a couple of lines about what conference goers can expect from your talk?
I hope an honest and open talk about working as an illustrator, predominantly in books. I will talk about projects – both good and bad – as well as how working in ceramics and other mediums keeps my practice alive. It won’t just be a list of jobs and it will be enthusiastic (with a cynical undertone.)
Can you tell us about your professional work – what kind of clients typically commission you?
I rarely get happy-themed commissions, for a long time I was receiving only editorial pieces on the darkest of subjects. I think this comes back to my interest in drawing peoples’ body language. I could suggest a mood without explicitly showing something terrible. When I first graduated, I enjoyed luxurious commissions from the Guardian and New York Times that aren’t possible anymore (they don’t have the budgets.)
I was very, very lucky to be called into Walker Books by Liz Wood. No one else from Children’s publishing would touch me with a barge pole. I love the huge challenge that conjuring up and capturing the imagination of (the most testing audience of all) presents. For this reason I hope to continue illustrating books for children.
What have been your most rewarding project in recent years and why?
A World Of Your Own – a book written and illustrated by myself. It’s not a best seller, but it stems from a very important idea. The conversation with Phaidon started with the idea of producing a book teaching children to draw. This didn’t sit well with me because there are already several books that do a great job of this and – perhaps more importantly – children are far better at drawing than adults!
During my early art education I was often told that a drawing I’d made was either good or bad. If I drew something photo realistically I was given a good mark, if I went a bit too abstract I seemed to get a bad one. I was too scared to ask what this was about and it was a habit that took me years to undo.
Of course children become insecure and want their artwork to look ‘right’ but within the book I wanted to push the idea that you don’t see things in the same way as everyone else – just as your ideal house, pet and flag are different, so are the ways in which you make them. I also tried to help encourage this by starting with the Real World – getting the reader to look around them and let that spark off ideas and projects.
If I was to try and encourage children to make and draw in ways that suited them, then I needed to show a few of those ways. My hope is that while one child is encouraged to paint, another wishes to make a person from an egg and one might turn a chair leg into a tower.
Illustrators often have a collection of materials that they use time and time again – what’s in your creative toolkit?
I use a mixture of watercolour, acrylic and coloured pencil. For some of my work I use cardboard cutouts and small 3D models. If this is the case I’ll be collaborating with a photographer too.
I use the computer minimally in my illustration work, partly because I show a real unwillingness to learn new things on it (I don’t have an urge to, as opposed to objecting to it.) But mainly because I still create imagery in one go and in its entirety on paper.
Do you ever have periods of creative block and if so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, all the time. At first I procrastinate – do some gardening, look at blogs, my own naval… I think getting out of the studio/flat is so important – to kick the brain into looking again.
Sometimes in the right mood, I might instinctively take something on and produce an artwork to be proud of. This tends to not be the norm! My general rule is putting together a sense of the image in my head first. Writing notes is also really important. Thumbnails too. Especially with a book, you have to live and breathe the place, people and time that you have to visualise. As writers often say, any characters aren’t characters – they have to be thought of as real people.
I like to collect imagery, writing, look at films – often to build the confidence that I am both inspired and can develop my own visual world.
Alongside your illustration work you also produce ceramics – this a bit of a growing trend for visual artists nowadays, can you reflect on why you wanted to explore this medium and what you’ve learned by doing so? Is it a very personal thing for you?
I am part of a trend whether I like it or not. The trend being that illustration is everywhere at the moment. As well as this, I’m making ceramics in a period when craft is becoming increasingly fashionable! However, if I was to try and gain from this by becoming fashionable in the content of my work, I’m sure I’d fail. I react and love many artists work. It’s not so much an affinity as just a respect and enjoyment from those that surprise and don’t patronise their audience. Or those that make beautiful work from such seemingly simple and everyday things.
Whilst we don’t want to be a jack of all trades (and master at none!) it’s good to see all the different potential ways of solving a brief, to then feel inspired to try these things ourselves.
When I first started making ceramics about 10 years ago, I allowed everything to be seen. I put pressure on myself to show, via social media, everything I was making and at a pace (I looked around me and thought that was what I should do.) I was also trying to make an income out of it. I’m much more selective now with what’s shown. I was so impressed that I’d made anything at the beginning; now it has to do more than just exist! Via social media, a recession, a fashion for craft, illustration is allowed to be more than filling a box between some words. I think it’s always gone on – people creatively answering briefs in a variety of mediums – but the lines have blurred of which title things belong beneath now. This is a good thing.
Can you tell us what projects you’re currently working on?
I’m working on an exhibition for the House Of Illustration (Kings Cross, London) – about storytelling through ceramics. It opens in October.
We often ask our interviewees if they have some advice to pass on to young creatives out there – can you share something you have learned?
My favourite writers and artists plant the seed of an idea or create enough of a scene to then inspire and allow the viewer, whether 3 or 103 years old, to take it away and grow it in their own imagination. I don’t wish to be told everything; I want to be inspired to continue the story myself.