April 28, 2023: Interview with illustrator Kirsty Greenwood
Kirsty Greenwood is a hyperfantasic illustrator who is motivated by ephemeral visual misunderstanding, ocular strangeness, nightmares, dreams and fleeting glimpses of unreality. She works in traditional mediums such as pencil and ink, on homemade marbled papers to create art and designs with intricate detail and narrative.
'Metamorphosis', the fabric she designed for and in collaboration with The Monkey Puzzle Tree- fabrics and wallcoverings, was a winner of 'Best in British Product Design' at the Hotel Designs Brit List Awards 2021.
Tell us a bit about yourself...
I am from Yorkshire in the UK. Born in Leeds, I grew up with my two siblings on top of a very windy hill in a farmhouse my parents renovated from dilapidation. I now live in Ripon with my boyfriend and our three cats. Having always been interested in art, I wanted it to be what I ‘did’ for work even as a kid (briefly wanting to roadie for Guns ‘n Roses also). My earliest memory of creating art is of my dad, who is an amazing artist, teaching me how to draw a horse. I definitely got my passion for art from my dad- I remember showing him every picture I drew and beaming at his praise!
What themes or ideas are you exploring in your art practice? Are your works purely visual or do they also have a symbolic meaning?
I explore the theme of metamorphosis in much of my work. It’s something that has developed naturally from my interest in folklore and other stories of transformation. The manner I approach my art practice is to use the serendipitous opportunities that marbling, mark making and such like create in order to make illustrations that feel surreal and otherworldly. I would say the more I progress my work the more I see symbols repeating- for instance, nazar (the eye-shaped amulet to protect against the evil eye), faces, tendril lines and abstracted natural shapes feature often and I do feel there is a symbolic meaning in those things for me- protection, observance, family and an affinity with nature.
How did you become an illustrator? What has drawn you to it?
After four years at college studying art, I was making work (paintings, wooden sculptures, clothing, crafts and anything else I could turn my hand to) with the aim of exhibiting and selling. Gradually I started to be inspired by the literature and cover art of the books I was reading- it was a natural progression to combine my love of reading with my need to create, it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision. I then started researching print presses and the process of getting my work seen by editors and art directors in order to gain commissions for art work and illustrations used for all kinds of things such as beer clips, speculative story publishers, literary magazines and books in print, and more increasingly, online.
You say “I am intrigued by the phenomenon that is pareidolia.” Can you expand a bit on this?
Pareidolia is the phenomenon of seeing faces, animals and objects in random marks or things such as clouds, burnt toast, bubbles, stains on fabric, patterns, shadows, woodgrain, fur, water and many many more. I’ve always been interested in it as a phenomenon- most people can relate to pareidolia and I find that fascinating. I create possibilities for pareidolia in my marbled papers, which I turn into illustrations with its aid.
What does a day in the studio look like? Can you tell us about your process?
I start my work day by checking emails. I spend a few hours collecting artwork submission information from publishing houses, messaging any that are suitable with regards to my art style and replying to contacts from previous messaging. This can be from a few handfuls to hundreds in a month, all of which I save onto a spreadsheet- it’s a huge part of my work life- you have to put your work on the metaphorical desks of the people you want to work for! While waiting for replies I will be exploring any subject matter relating to commissions I have at the time- I relish this part, it’s so varied and interesting (recently I made an illustration for a story about exowombs, the research was very enlightening!) Many times I am given the full story to read that my work is to accompany- which is always a privilege and I love having a sneak preview of authors’ works. After the read-and-research phase, to create my work, I start with choosing marbled papers that I have already created or making new ones- depending on the commission’s colour palette or design needs, and whether I can ‘see’ anything in the marbling to use in the design. I lay tracing paper over the marbling with its many cells and marks then draw the initial design elements onto this so that I can rework and change it without having to disturb the delicate marbled paper beneath. When I’m happy with the arrangement on the tracing paper, I transpose it to the marbled paper with pen, ink and paintwashes and coloured pencils. I pick out details as I go and let my imagination see hidden things that
often become part of the finished illustration. When the artwork is finished I take it to be scanned or scan at home depending on the size of the paper I’ve used. I then prepare the digital file’s size, mode, etc and send it on to the client.
Do you actively search for inspiration or wait for inspiration to find you?
I’m never short of inspiration and it seems to find me easily- the trouble I have is finding time to follow up! I’m mostly inspired by weirdness, I think by that I mean unusualness or visual misunderstandings of things I’ve seen (hello pareidolia) or read- which is why my work is mostly based around folktales, legends and transformation stories. I particularly love the story of Sedna- her hands, chopped off by her father, turn into the seals and whales of the ocean in the Arctic folklore tale of their creation. If it’s creepy and a bit gross, my mind pays attention.
What artist(s) do you admire?
I admire my parents’ creativity- my dad’s art is incredible, he can paint anything with absolute precision like an old master. His work is dedicated to representing the subject with exactitude. My work is very different in my more surreal approach. My mum taught me and my sister to sew and make our own clothes, a skill we’re so proud of. Mum has an innate talent for colour and style in everything she does. Both my parents are very self-reliant and skilled in so many aspects of both creativity and the practical application of things like sewing, building, repairing, cooking, decorating, making and mending- that myself, my brother and sister have learned so much from them, that we’re also skilled in many aspects of our lives- it’s something we don’t take for granted and we’re very grateful for.
Other artists’ work I admire and never get bored of looking at or finding out about are Leonora Carrington (surrealist), Quentin Blake, William Blake (it’s believed he had hyperphantasia- an extremely vivid imagination!) Victoria Brookland -an artist working in the Romantic and Gothic tradition, Ralph Steadman, Aubrey Beadsley and so many more. A recent discovery of mine is the American tonal impressionist artist Jan Schmuckal, whose work puts me back on and around the windy hill I grew up on.
How do you relax and recharge?
Looking at art- I love exploring other artists’ work, usually a documentary or a wander around a gallery. Reading is my number one beloved activity for all occasions- it’s not a complete day if I haven’t read at least a few chapters. I’m currently going through an F. Scott Fitzgerald phase- I’m seeing everything through a 1920s lens at the moment- it’s quite surreal.
Gardening is recharging to me, a more physical way to be creative- we have an allotment- it’s magical to be able to help nature make more tomatoes.
Tell us about the future: plans, dreams, anything you’d like to share with the world.
Recently ‘Metamorphosis’, a fabric I designed for and in collaboration with The Monkey Puzzle Tree- fabrics and wallcoverings, was the winner of 'Best in British Product Design' at the Hotel Designs Brit List Awards 2021. That was a massive boost to my confidence and I’d love to produce more work of that calibre.
I plan to carry on gaining illustration commissions with more and more prestigious publishing houses- a dream commission would be to illustrate Don Quixote for the Folio Society. I aim to get back to living on the windy hill I grew up on and get on with drawing Don Quixote regardless.