a conversation with Cathie Felstead

Award-winning illustrator and creator of book covers for novels by William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Isabel Allende and Alice Walker, Cathie Felstead has illustrated numerous childrens’ books and worked for big-name clients like British Airways, Channel 4, Ballet Rambert and Oxfam.  An RCA graduate, she also teaches final year Illustration at University of Hertfordshire.  She talks here about inspiration, deadlines, Angela Carter, Industrial design, Cheryl Cole and Arsenal Football Club…

Do you think you have a particular approach to illustration? There is a difference between the work I do for clients and my own work.  My approach to work for clients is quite businesslike: I get a script, look through it and see if there is something interesting about it… (a good fee can make the dullest script more interesting!).  The starting point of an advertising job can be less engaging, and more of a challenge.  Books and editorial work are generally more inspirational and better suited to my approach…

Are you quite analytical? I think so.  If the commission is a book cover, I’ll read the book once and get an overall feel for it, then go back over it and start picking out the essential ingredients of the book.  I will then go to the publisher and discuss the main ideas in the book, maybe with some quick sketches.  Sometimes they say ‘never mind about that, we just need the central character on the front’ – other times they will consider a different approach…  So there’s a negotiation there? There is negotiation yes, and sometimes the author is in on that discussion.  So often I’ll do rough sketches and we’ll talk about what works as a cover.  A rough will then be chosen by the Art Editor and that may go to the author for approval – if it’s a ‘big’ author, their influence can be quite considerable.  When everything is agreed I will proceed to artwork.  What sort of time frame do you get for that? It varies so, so much: between 24 hours for a whole jacket  [!!] where I had no opportunity to read the entire book, only one chapter and a synopsis.  That process was incredibly condensed.  At other times, you can have two or three weeks, which is fine.

What inspires you? That’s a huge question…  for commissioned work I am often inspired by what I am illustrating, so a good book would be a great starting point.  My own work is inspired by ideas, the world around me, and other artists.  Paul Klee, August Macke, Franz Marc – all great heroes, and I guess I am inspired by some of the same things they were: nature, light and shape and so on.  I had not looked at Paul Klee for a while and returned to him recently.  I think his pictures are incredible.

An inspiration: A Book of Toys, written and illustrated by Gwen White, published 1946

Do you turn work down if you can’t get to grips with it? A long time ago now I turned down Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.  She invited me round for breakfast to talk about the book and how I was going to illustrate it, and after a conversation with her I realised that I wasn’t the right illustrator.  Did she have her own vision for it? She had a very strong vision, and naturally I respected her opinion, it was her book!  Did that damage your relationship with the publisher? Not at all – in fact, I was able to suggest another illustrator who I thought would illustrate it really well, she did, and everyone was happy.  So you came out of it with more integrity through rejecting work, but for good reasons… I hope so.  I wasn’t being a prima donna about it, I just knew that there were illustrators out there who would handle that subject matter better than me.  I really love Angela Carter’s books and I didn’t want to make a hash of it.  I didn’t want her to think ‘God what is that on the cover of my precious book!’  So you have your own vision, your publisher may have another, and then there’s a third party – the author and their vision.  It sounds like you need to be a UN diplomat to sort all that out… I think you do.  A good Art Director will take it in hand, but sometimes it can be a bit of a minefield.

How do working method, materials and environment affect your work? Like all artists I have to feel relaxed in my environment – the studio has to feel a safe, comfortable – messy – place, filled with bits of paper, paint…  Some illustrators I know have a messy part of the studio for their handmade images, and a clean digital area.  I am not a digital artist so I just work… in a mess!  You don’t use digital media? I have done lately –  that’s something that has changed in the last two or three years.  Sometimes I scan and draw into my images.  Does that now seem natural? I’m getting used to it – although I still don’t like sitting behind a computer, it feels slightly alien – but it’s a means to an end and if I can achieve the results I want, so be it…  Do you need a lot of space? A view out of the window? Are you fussy about furniture? Just a set of tables, a plans chest, and the hundreds of books that I refer to all the time.  I have a great view – a graveyard and 13th century church – which is good and bad – I often find myself gazing out of the window…

Can you describe your working method – what kind of materials or techniques do you use? Subject matter is my starting point, so I try to choose a medium that suits the job.  That has made me a bit of a chameleon, probably a jack of all trades and master of none, truth be known.  If a certain subject matter demands a particular quality I will try to use an appropriate medium.  So it may be a bit of print, wax resist, line drawing, whatever works. So there is almost no technique you wouldn’t use? That’s true.  I use everything/anything to create the right mood, which may now include some digital techniques

Some of your work has tactile bits and pieces – do you get to check the scans? With the best clients, yes.  Very often not.  Sometimes the artworks go through a photographic process and you get quite a distinct shadow underneath some of the work and that can improve it or not.  It is part of the creative process, sometimes a part that you have no control over – It’s a worry.  I have submitted artwork to clients and looked at the final printed piece and realised something has dropped off, fortunately never a vital bit.  I’ve had things printed upside down, but if the Art Director doesn’t know the difference, chances are no-one else will…

As you get more expert does the business of illustrating become easier, or is it always a challenge? For a while now I have been thinking about how I would like to develop my work.  I want to be more experimental.  I think I was on automatic pilot for a while and not hard enough on myself.  Sometimes clients require more of the same, and you have to make a conscious decision to change.  As a teacher you are encouraging students to push their work further and not settle for low standards.  I felt it was time to listen to my own advice!  Do you think there should be some pain in good work? Yes I suppose so.  Does it have to have pain in it? That’s hard, and depends on your motivation.  Perhaps you ought to ask Cheryl Cole that question… I think she would say ‘no’ don’t you?

Should all artists pause, look at their work afresh and ‘start again’ once in a while? I can’t speak for other artists, people have different reasons for doing things.  I simply tried to identify when and why I was doing my best work.  It’s a very long time ago now, but at the Royal College of Art I made lots of mistakes, but also produced my most interesting and experimental work.  My work would be different now, but I would like to regain that attitude.

Has the business of illustration changed a lot? Is there a general trend? Ever since people started commissioning imagery, there have been peaks and troughs.  I think now is a good time… some great imagery about, but on a practical point, anybody can make imagery that can be easily applied to a number of formats.  Some software can make images for you, and if you are not too discerning, you could be satisfied with the results.  The software won’t tell you if your work is any good. Exactly. Are you saying that there is a lot of shit around? I am saying there is a lot of shit around!

Have you done work for purely a web context? Not specifically.  I have done work that has been used on the web for display purposes.  As a promotional medium I think it’s absolutely fantastic, but actually seeing my images in that format doesn’t thrill me.  It’s as if I were wrapping my work in plastic before hanging it on the wall, it creates a barrier between the viewer and the work.  Until we get HD web, the 72dpi standard (as opposed to 300dpi in print) discourages subtlety… It does depend in the type of work you do – some imagery works brilliantly in that context.

Do you get typecast? Yes I have done, but I can’t complain, as it has served me well in the past…  Every illustrator gets that? Yes of course they do… Typecasting is a natural thing.  I was going to say that it’s laziness on the part of Art Directors, but actually they are often very busy people under pressure and simply don’t have the time to… explore some brave new direction, which may or may not work out? Exactly.  That’s not realistic.

Do you initiate projects? I initiate projects, but not necessarily to get them published.  At least it doesn’t start off that way.   It is quite exciting when you are in complete control of a project.  It provides the opportunity to try things out.  If nothing else you are furthering your relationship with a publisher? Yes, it shows them what else you can do.

How do you manage your time? Oh dear… I’m not very organised.  Strangely enough though, I do manage to get things done…somehow.  Have you ever missed a deadline? I don’t think I have ever missed a deadline, amazingly.  You don’t use formal time management? There must be a subconscious timetable in my head: rough by Tuesday; artwork by Friday; rubbish out on Monday; Champion’s League match on Wednesday night; parent teacher evening on Thursday…  it’s all in there somewhere!  There is no negotiating on timing with the publisher? It depends on the complexity of the job.  With longer projects there is usually some leeway.  Some might assume illustrators get authors’ latitude (the late Douglas Adams said he loved deadlines: “… the lovely whooshing sound they make as they go by…”) but when publishers get their author ‘content’ they want it out there? They do, so there is often a tight schedule.  That’s not to say that I haven’t reached a deadline and thought my contribution was pretty grim, but I suppose it’s for the client to decide if it’s good enough.  They have never said: “That’s shocking, do you need more time?’ …though they probably thought it!

What is important in illustration right now? As ever, illustration should capture the spirit of the subject it’s representing, and successfully communicate an idea or mood.  An illustrator has a responsibility to an author or client, and it is their job to represent them in a way that enhances the product, story or whatever it might be.  I think basically that’s what it’s always been about.

What artform do you absolutely not relate to? Is there anything that you just don’t ‘get’? I don’t understand Automotive Design.  Some of it seems a little bit macho for my taste.  I remember looking around a Royal College Show and thinking ‘are these shiny phallic things all made by men?’.  Perhaps more women should design cars?

There must be times when you want to put work behind you – how do you escape from work? I go and watch Arsenal Football Club as I’ve always done since I was four years old.  I can shout my head off, swear and behave really badly, go for a curry afterwards and discuss the match in boring detail with mates.  I also relax by dancing inappropriately to The Cure… but maybe that’s something that shouldn’t be widely known!

Commissioning enquiries for Cathie Felstead are welcome via Images of Delight

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply