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Interview with Dawn Tan, illustrator and teacher

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by Jenni Mazaraki

One of the greatest gifts that illustrator, teacher, and soapmaker Dawn Tan gives her students is the permission to make mistakes. Having taught art since she was seventeen, as well as working as an illustrator, Dawn embraces the art process as changeable. “If you make a mistake, just go for it,” she said. “Change it up a bit. See how you can do something new out of that mistake that you’ve made.”

Dawn’s “Making Space”
Dawn welcomes me into her Yarraville home in Melbourne’s inner west. We can feel it is going to be a warm day, but for the moment we are both thankful for the coolness of her kitchen and dining room.

Dawn’s studio space has a gentle filtered light. The Victorian terrace she shares with her husband, Darren, is filled with art by friends and by artists she admires—such as good friend Madeline Stamer—as well as objects collected on the couple’s travels. A recent trip to the U.S. and India has prompted new designs featuring images and patterns inspired by the American desert and India’s magical colours and spices.

The long wooden table in her dining room is where Dawn creates her illustrations. On the day I visit, the table is neatly arranged with resources for a work in progress. The watercolour painting she shows me is of her client’s grandparent’s home, which Dawn carefully paints with fine detail as a precious memory for her client.

HousePortrait

One of Dawn’s detailed custom house portraits

A Creative Life
Along with working as a freelance illustrator and having her work published by such clients as Frankie and Hooray magazines, Dawn teaches workshops for adults in her home, and for children as a school art teacher.

In the last six months, Dawn has also discovered a love of making handmade soaps—enticing in both looks and aroma. The packaging for her soaps bears Dawn’s signature watercolour drawings, and the scents include apple cider, Joshua tree cactus, and chai milk tea. “I started making soaps not only because I wanted soap for myself, but because I was going through quite a rough patch when I was teaching and working in my previous school,” she explained. “I found that I needed a way to relax and not think about anything else, to do something different for a change.”

In high school, Dawn had great support from teachers who recognised her natural artistic ability and encouraged her to pursue an artistic career. Her friends and family have also encouraged her to keep going with her art, in part by ordering prints and custom house portraits, buying soaps, and sharing her posts on social media. “A lot of my colleagues were amazing, super troopers, cheering me on,” said Dawn.

DawnTaninLivingRoom

Dawn in her living room

The Little Art Yurt
In June 2017, Dawn will fulfill her dream of opening her very own art school: The Little Art Yurt. “I’ve always known that I wanted to teach,” she said.

As Dawn awaits delivery of a large round tent, which will fill the entire outdoor space in her courtyard, she prepares for the school—planning, designing brochures, and adding students’ names to the ever-growing waitlist. She already has the most elegantly made aprons ready and waiting for the first class, hung on a plywood rack made by her father-in-law. The Hedley & Bennett aprons are examples of Dawn’s attention to detail: she is sensitive not only to the ways children engage with art, but also to how they feel physically while creating art. The aprons let children move freely without being hampered by stiff, bulky art smocks.

Dawn possesses a true joy of teaching, describing it as something that feeds her creativity. “I find that, especially working with children, they have this sort of crazy, fun energy about them. It makes you learn how to let go and just relax,” she said. “I see it as an exchange of knowledge. I see kids as teachers as well.”

Dawn comes from a family of teachers. “Being able to share what I love—which is art—helps me be inspired. I enjoy having conversations with people, sharing experiences, food, laughs. All these things help me create better as a maker.”

Being an Artist
At the end of each day, Dawn makes a deliberate effort to pack all of her work away onto her shelves, a method she has recently adopted. “I used to leave everything out lying on the table,” she said. “I used to have a separate table in a little corner, but then we bought this bigger table and I realised that having this big kitchen table forces me to put everything away. It actually helps me think better and work better because every day is a new fresh start.”

Dawn’s watercolour illustrations are distinctive, with their use of fineliner and watercolour. Layers of watercolour in elegant tones capture doughnuts, cakes, food, plants, houses, and packaged goods. Dawn decided a while ago that drawing people was not for her, preferring to draw inanimate objects. Her style brings the subjects she paints to life, as if we are experiencing them through her eyes. “One word that’s kept coming up over the years is ‘raw’: how my work is so raw, almost like reading through someone’s journal. I like that,” she said.

Dawn is open and honest in the way she shares her life and work online. “When you have a very personal voice—when you’re just you and when you don’t hide, when you don’t make it all look nice and fancy—I find that people actually appreciate it more,” she said. “I always wanted to be the sort of artist where there’s no hiding, so, yeah, I think I’ve achieved that.”

HeartQuote

A favourite quote

Dawn’s Tip
Dawn encourages women who want to start their own creative business, or who struggle to juggle their business with other demands, to believe in themselves. “Don’t doubt yourself,” she said. “I’ve learned over the years that if you’re going to sit there and hesitate and doubt yourself and think, ‘What if? What if?’ then it’s never going to happen. Just do it. If you fail, you fail. Dream big; go do it. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.”

To find out more about Dawn and her work, visit her website or follow her on Instagram (@handmadelove).

Photos and podcast audio production by Jenni Mazaraki

Jenni Mazaraki is an artist, designer, writer, and podcaster who helps women tell their stories. She is particularly interested in the ways women make time and space for creativity. You can see more of Jenni’s work at localstoryspace.com, on Instagram (@localstoryspace), or on Facebook.

Studio visit: Anna Walker, picture book author and illustrator

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by Jo Watson

Anna Walker is one of Australia’s most established and beloved picture book creators. She has published twenty-five books in a career spanning twenty years. Her newest book, Florette, has just landed in bookstores and is a beautiful meditation on how to become comfortable with change.

Florettecover

The cover of Florette, published by Penguin Random House

I met Anna in her studio, a converted shirt factory she shares with a printmaker, an interior designer, a tea importer, and a book designer. You know you’re talking to a visual thinker when she says, “I wish I could respond to your questions with a painting instead of with words.” But as you read on, I think you’ll agree that Anna’s words more than suffice!

Starting out
Anna had the good fortune of knowing what she wanted, right from the get go. “I remember looking at the illustrations in a book of fairy tales and thinking, ‘Those are so beautiful; that’s what I want to do when I grow up,’” she said. How did she turn that early inclination into a rewarding career? It was hard, she explains, and there were obstacles, but she would “try to find ways of overcoming them.” Anna is petite but possesses a stubborn determination, to which she largely credits her success.

After studying graphic design at Swinburne University (where “there were no illustration courses,” she said), Anna set up shop straight out of school. Her parents ran their own business, so working for herself felt more like a natural step than a leap of faith. Besides, she says, “I had nothing to lose.” At first, it was all design work. Whenever there wasn’t enough work, she would invent briefs for herself and treat them as real commissions. After a few years, all of her work was illustration-based. Gradually, picture-book illustration became the foundation of her business.

The importance of presentation
For illustrators still building their businesses, Anna stresses the importance of presentation and attention to detail. Small details—like a visual link between your website and your business card—matter. She also suggests finding ways to put your work in front of potential clients, both online and in hard copy. This might mean incorporating an illustrated element into your email signature, or sending out postcards, bespoke holiday cards, or, occasionally, original artworks. “People don’t get that kind of thing very often,” she said, “and they appreciate it.”

Studio Lounge

The studio lounge area

Giving work space and time
Anna and her character Mae in Florette have something in common. They like to be immersed in an environment that is beautiful and familiar. While Anna’s studio retains the exposed brick and pipework of its industrial heritage, she has transformed it into a bright, welcoming space. It feels like a loft, though it is actually a basement.

Anna at her desk

Anna at her desk

Her desk looks out through an arched window at street level. She enjoys watching the passing foot traffic, including a Greek neighbor who always bends down to wave hello and children who look through her window.

“I’ve always shared a studio,” she said. “I go a bit crazy working by myself at home.” Having others around provides moral support and an exchange of ideas, both vital to a happy work life. And from a business perspective, having to meet an overhead (rent) pushes you to find work.

Just as important as environment is time. Anna devotes a year to each book, a pace that allows her to let the work develop fully, take on select commissions to subsidize her picture-book work, and be present for her three teenage children.

Personal style
Anna uses a variety of techniques in her work, including collage, woodblock printing, etching, watercolour, and ink. She’ll sometimes redo an illustration twelve times before she feels it’s right. Regardless of the method, her illustrations always seem to strike the perfect harmony between detail and simplicity.

Anna suggests not worrying too much about developing a personal style.  “It was years before people started saying, ‘I recognize your work,’” she said. “You can’t have a style until you’ve got a volume of work behind you. Just do the work.”

The power of knitting
Like many creatives, Anna references self-doubt as one of her biggest challenges. She tempers those unhelpful thoughts by running three times a week, sharing a studio, keeping in touch with other illustrators, and…knitting. Anna knows she’s bringing too much work anxiety home when her husband says, “Now, where’s your knitting?”

Visual Diary

Anna collects her ideas in a (tiny) visual diary.

I asked Anna what she does with her ideas-in-waiting: ideas she’s had but hasn’t had the chance to use. Her response was golden. She thinks of ideas as little scraps of fabric. A book is like a sewing project: you assemble the bits you need, make a start, and keep going until it’s finished. “You don’t need to feel badly [about the ideas that] haven’t been used yet,” she said. “They’re just waiting there, ready to make the next thing.”

Meeting business challenges
For many illustrators, the biggest challenge is making a living. “Getting your folio out there and meeting with publishers is important,” she said. “When things are quiet, you worry about when the next job will come in. But that’s when it comes back to sending out postcards, freshening up your website, reminding people you’re here. If your focus is book illustration, joining the Australian Society of Authors is a must.”

Certain things, like cold calling and quoting, never get easier. Anna doesn’t have to do the former as much these days, but her motto when something’s difficult is: do it anyway. She suggests viewing cold calling, networking, or whatever “thing” you find difficult as just one part of your business.

If you’re not sure how much to charge for a job, Anna suggests talking to other illustrators. Take into consideration how the artwork is going to be used. Is it for one product, or multiple products? Will it be used locally, or globally? Also consider the duration of the usage license. Is it for one month? One year? In perpetuity?  “I don’t part with copyright for anybody,” she said. There’s a way to give the client what they need and protect yourself. As she explains, “An exclusive license has just as much weight as copyright.” Don’t be afraid to request amendments to your contract.

Florette back-drop for book trailer

Cut-paper backdrop to be used an animated book trailer for Florette

What’s next?
“I’m working on a book with Janie [Godwin, a long-time collaborator],” Anna explained, “and I’m also working on my own story about a walrus.” Anna often starts a project by crafting her character in toy form. She showed me a loosely stitched walrus plushy. “So far, that’s what I’ve got,” she laughed. Recently, the final step on her projects has become creating a book trailer using stop-motion animation.

“I’ve always believed in the picture book as an art form,” she said. “It’s important to me that every aspect is crafted to be the best it can be.”

For more about Anna Walker, visit annawalker.com.au.

 Jo Watson is a Melbourne-based screenwriter and artist. Visit her on Instagram (@diaryofapicturebookmaker).

 Photos by Jo Watson

 

Interview: Laura Blythman

By Andrea McArthur

Laura Blythman

This is the story of a creative woman from Melbourne who moved to Geelong and whose design and illustration work has an interesting balance of being commercial and yet quirky and personal all at the same time. One thing is certain though, Laura Blythman’s work will make you smile from ear to ear.

Laura is renowned for her vibrant colour palette and cheeky sentiments. Her design and illustration style is instantly recognisable and increasingly sought after, having designed for some of Australia’s biggest stationery brands. Laura’s designs can be found nationally through her work with A Skulk of Foxes, Typo, Click On Furniture, Lark, Peachy Gift, Mr.Wolf, Cotton On Kids, T2 teas, Zoo York, Kiitos – Living By Design, Swan Emporium, La De Dah Kids and Stuck On You.

Illustration and Design

What led you down your current path?

I pretty much spent my whole childhood cutting and pasting and drawing and I was always in awe of everything creative so when it came time to consider careers I just assumed graphic design would be my gig. Of course, as a teenager, my imagined ‘dream world’ of graphic design narrowly involved designing posters and CD covers for my favourite bands and that’s about all. I spent a few years after high school being ‘floaty’ (and had a short stint as a hairdressing apprentice!) but a friend gently nudged me in the direction of The Australian Academy of Design and three years later I’d scored myself a BA in Graphic Design and a job at Hallmark Cards Australia.

I spent three years at Hallmark designing an unimaginable number of greeting cards as well as gift packaging, stationery and so on. I moved on to designing boutique wedding stationery for Cristina Re and then I teamed up with a friend and we focused on surface and pattern design for papers, stationery and home wares. When an amazing senior design opportunity popped up at the newest stationery brand on the block, I pounced in it! At Typo I got to indulge in everything I love most – range design, illustration and creative direction for a massive scope of stationery and home decor products as well as the design and management of the Cotton On Yardage library, focussing mostly on textile patterns for Cotton On Kids and Body.

During these years I also worked on small, freelance jobs designing branding and collateral for start-up businesses or textile designs and so when I left Typo to have my baby Alexander almost three years ago, I amped up my own brand and I’ve been freelancing ever since, and LOVING it.

You recently said farewell to the Oh! Hello Geelong blog that you developed and wrote with Penny Phipps. The blog was a great success and was featured on The Design Files. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, sadly it was time to bid farewell to our blog this year. I won’t be writing or contributing content any longer but it has been left in very capable and clever hands. I think readers will love the fresh perspective of the new girls Nat and Jen. I’ll miss it a little but it was one of those side projects that grew huge and life got a bit too busy to fit it all in. I’ll still contribute illustrations as needed and possibly even one day create an updated version of the Geelong Map Poster. I’m moving home to Melbourne very soon so maybe a Melbourne map will be next on the cards. I love creating maps and can’t wait to work on the next one.

What future plans do you have for your creative business?

I’ve had some truly amazing opportunities coming my way of late so the plan is to pretty much stick to the path I’m on. I’m absolutely bursting with ideas and wish lists of things to create and share so I’m keen to find some more time to work on my own projects and become a fully-fledged ‘pie hands’. Variety keeps me very happy.
I hope to continue working on more and more collaborative projects, designing and illustrating for fun products and ranges, working with new brands and fab clients and hopefully some high profile clients too! I’d love to work on a new collection of artwork which I will hopefully exhibit somewhere…

Another thing I’m looking forward to once I’m back in Melbourne is making plans to move the ‘studio’ out of my home. I absolutely love working in shared studio spaces as I go a bit crazy on my own sometimes.

Do you have any advice for growing a client base?

I met a lot of great contacts in those first few years of working for other people’s businesses and it has kind of organically grown from there. In many ways your work speaks for itself. If people like what they see the opportunities arise from that. Other than that, be kind but not a pushover and work really, really hard.

Who do you admire in the industry?

Oh, I admire so many clever people, brands and businesses for many different reasons. Internationally I’m loving creatives such as: Ashley Goldberg, Ma + Chr, Jessica Hische, Lab Partners, Dana Tanamachi, Julia Pott, and Lisa Congdon. Locally I’m blown away by the work of so many amazing creatives including: Miranda Skoczek, Bridget Bodenham, Lucas Grogan, Harvest Textiles… Really, there are so many more. Far too many to list.
Illustration Skulk of Foxes

What has been your most favourite project in recent years?

I really loved the opportunity I was given earlier this year to create a new and huge body of work for my solo exhibition (Love, Lyrics, Neon). So many great things, amazing opportunities and collaborations have stemmed from that mammoth effort and collection of work…

Jobs that have elements of both custom illustration and a high level of involvement in creating the brief and setting the style direction for the job are my faves. Illustrating the Geelong Map for The Design Files was a super proud moment. And I loved part one of my collaboration with A Skulk Of Foxes (wooden iPhone covers) so I’m super excited to release some more products with them soon!

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

I only get a few precious full days of work a week so I squeeze as much as possible into these days. The early hours are consumed with trying to convince my 2-year-old that’s it’s a good idea to get dressed, eat something (that isn’t dessert) and hop into the car for a fun day at childcare. Neither of us are morning people at all. After I drop him off I grab a drive-thru coffee on the way back to my studio where I park my butt and pretty much don’t move for the rest of day. I begin with consulting the list of ‘to do’s’ (which I generally create the night before) then I cram in an insane amount of emailing, client correspondence, more list making, drawing, planning, scanning, designing, invoice making and estimate creating as well as a bit of making, packing and posting orders from my online shop.

Every day is different and I tend to share the love between a few clients throughout the day. The day always goes waaaay too fast and I find myself also working into the night once my little boy is asleep. The night sessions are mostly saved for my own projects, drawing, packing orders, making custom orders or just catching up on emails… I love the days when I have to travel for meetings or pop out on client or retail visits as I get a bit of change of scenery.
Swan Emporium Branding

5 Questions in 5 minutes

Getting Personal:

Studio Sounds, what’s playing?

At the moment I’m playing a big mix of inc. Theophilus London, Arcade Fire, Chet Faker, Haim, Alpine, Bat For Lashes, The Smiths, Chvches, Yo La Tengo… I can’t work without music.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just started to read my late Great Aunty Marion’s ‘memoirs’ for the second time. It’s not a published book – it’s just a massive wad of photocopied typed pages in an big black plastic binder – included are some cheeky ‘note’ pages inserted here and there, written by my Pa, Frank. He doesn’t agree with everything Marion recalls and wrote. It’s such a nice insight into the lives of my grandparents and great grandparents.

What are you looking forward to?

  • The release of some fun client and collaborative projects I’ve been working on and also starting work on some new exciting projects, collabs and big fun things. Can’t wait to share.
  • Fieldtrip’ Jacky Winters creative conference in Sydney! It will be a nice and mini creative break.
  •  I’m also starting to plan for my first proper holiday in years – hopefully Bali this time next year with my little guy.

Can you share your go to resource for motivation?

Typography Mother's Day

What is your local area’s best kept secret?

Hmmm… I’m not sure it’s really a secret anymore, but my favourite place in Geelong for a delicious feed, yum drinks, good music and a nice crowd is ‘There There’ – Bar + Restaurant. Love it. I also love heading down the highway to Melbourne for my city culture fix. I can’t wait to move home (Melbourne) in January and discover some cool new places. It feels like I have been away for a very long time.

To see more of Laura’s work or make contact with her please visit:
website www.laurablythman.com.au
webshop www.laurablythman.bigcartel.com
email laura@laurablythman.com.au
instagram @laurablythman
twitter @hellolaurahere
facebook www.facebook.com/LauraBlythmanishere

 Andrea McArthur has a passion for all things visual. Type is her true love and goes weak at the knees over beautiful design. Andrea works as a freelance graphic designer in Brisbane by day and lectures in graphic design by night. You will find her sharing design related goodness via @andyjane_mc

Tools of the Trade: Fiona McDonald of Ichimu

By Brianna Read

The subject of this month’s Tools of the Trade brought up a rather interesting idea in the discussion of creative practice – rules. With every trade comes a history of how the practice has grown and moved with time, there are always long lists of the recognised methods of practice and an equally long list of things which ought not be done. This particular idea was touched upon in an earlier Tools instalment and I was glad for the opportunity to get a little further into the topic – you see I am an advocate of bending and breaking rules… I am making my subject sound rather rebellious which is actually not the case at all.

Fiona McDonald makes objects of porcelain – under the label Ichimu (translated roughly from Japanese meaning a dream, or a fleeting thing).  Everything about Fiona’s creative practices are as gentle and light of hand as the name implies. The rule breaking I referred to was from an almost off-hand remark Fiona made about why her ceramic practice brings so much pleasure: ‘Maybe it is because I don’t really know the rules about clay and porcelain that I love it so much.’

Porcelain by Ichimu

I adore these types of honest insights as they reveal so much about why we create. During the interview Fiona made mention of her love of children’s illustrations (those done by children rather than for them) and her appreciation of the honesty they hold. Her remark about not knowing the rules of porcelain and the link this may have to her enjoyment of the process revealed that she found for herself in ceramics what she appreciated in the unfettered and unpretentious expressions of children’s creativity.

Vessels and Spoons

Take a look at her work in Ichimu and it is not difficult to see the pleasure taken in creating it. When I asked Fiona to interview for this column I presumed that the effortless beauty in her ceramics had been from years of labored study and crafting with the medium of porcelain. I had no idea Fiona’s background was in fact in graphic design and pattern design for textiles. Indeed, Fiona was introduced to the art of ceramics by a friend relatively recently.

Bisque fired porcelain

I think it is precisely because of her recent introduction to the medium and an absence of formal training that Fiona’s work stands out. I love that the hand and marks of the tool can be seen in the work – these pieces have a physicality which speaks of their production. Of course, her knowledge of and practice in the visual arts can be seen in her ceramic work. Each piece is hand built using a variety of tools and found objects and the surface treatment and colour sensibility of each collection of pieces clearly displays her talent for design.

Illustrated Vessels

While I wholeheartedly appreciate mastery in any medium and understand that rules are made often for very sound reasons; whenever I encounter an artisan who blazes their own trail through a quagmire of dos and don’ts I am reminded of the very reason why creativity exists: because it brings pleasure to those who create and those who behold the results.

Yet another invaluable tool for the kit of any creative: the ability to shirk the rules when they are hampering the enjoyment of the creative process.

More of Fiona’s porcelain work at Ichimu can be seen here and here. Her textile and graphic works have online homes here, here and here.

Brianna Read is a designer/maker based in Melbourne. Her knitwear label Jack of Diamonds  employs traditional hand-made techniques in combination with machine knit technologies. Brianna’s multi-faceted creative practice encompasses design, production, works for exhibition and machine knitting workshops