Interview with Artist Laura Barrett

CM: What is your background/education in art?

LB: I’ve drawn and painted since I was little- mostly inspired by my Grandad who used to paint beautiful watercolours. I followed the traditional route (at least here in the UK) of a foundation course in art and design, before studying for a degree in Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Art, which is part of the University of the Arts London. I graduated back in 2007 and have been freelancing ever since.

CM: What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned in art school?

LB: That mistakes aren’t necessarily a bad thing! At the end of my degree I was working on a fairytale story book that I wrote, and planned to create illustrations that would be laser cut into layers of wood. I spent a fair amount of time and money on the laser cutting, only to realise afterwards, that the black and white designs that I created to be cut were far more striking that the final wooden pieces. So the style I now work in was a rather happy accident!

A4 Sleeping BeautyCM: How does storytelling play into your art?

LB: I think storytelling and silhouettes have always gone hand in hand, showing a layer of detail but leaving so much more to the viewer’s imagination to make up for themselves.

One of my favourite things is hiding small details and objects- a key, for instance, within my illustrations which hopefully adds to the storytelling element.

CM: What drew you to fairytales?

LB: I’ve researched quite a lot of narrative theory- Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Vladimir Propp’s formula for fairytales, etc., and I think it’s the timeless, simplicity of the tales combined with their history and universality that interests me the most, and the fact that they seem to be part of our collective unconscious.

It fascinates me that these interconnected stories have survived through time and from before the written word- they can be seen in so many different, and unrelated cultures. For instance with Cinderella- there are Chinese and Italian versions, even examples within Greek and Roman mythology.

Plus of course, there’s so much rich, visual language to play with that I think, for me, they’ll always be a joy to illustrate.

CM: What are some of your favorite fairytales and why?

LB: I love the Tale of the Juniper Tree for it’s imagery- a story that starts off similarly to Snow White, with a kindly woman, wishing for a child- she has a son as red as blood and as white as snow but is so overcome with joy that she dies, and the husband remarries. A while later the evil stepmother tricks the son into reaching down into a chest before shutting the lid, decapitating him. The stepdaughter buries his bones under the Juniper tree and the tale ends with a beautiful bird who brings gifts to the father and daughter and revenge for the stepmother by dropping a millstone on her. Pretty dark really! I also love Sleeping Beauty, The Snow Queen, and the humorous twist of The Food of Paradise.

I love reading new takes on old tales, so books like Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, based on Snow White, Rose Red and Bitter Greens, by Kate Forsyth, loosely based on Rapunzel.

LBarrett GuardianFairyJuniperBBCM: How did you get into silhouette art?

LB: I’d never actively thought about using silhouettes, but looking back at the development of my work I could see plenty of examples of them- I’d used this medium almost subconsciously, from ink drawings to papercuttings.

Working in silhouette has it’s limitations and means that you have to really think about what information you want to convey in an illustration, otherwise everything ends up blending into one unreadable shadow. I find this enforced limit and simplicity, opens up more possibilities.

CM: What has been one of your favorite projects to do?

LB: One of my favourite but most challenging projects was working on illustrations for Taschen’s two books, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen. I created around 50 illustrations for each book, to quite a tight deadline, which really made me step up my game. Collaborating with Taschen’s art director, Noel Daniel was a very enjoyable experience.

I also recently created about a dozen illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to mark the 150th anniversary. It was a personal project so being able to experiment with new techniques and create a handmade, limited edition book was wonderfully satisfying.

CM: What are some of your favorite things to draw/paint/paper cut besides fairytales?

LB: Definitely buildings and architecture- I’m obsessed with the idea of cities and their place within nature. Castles are always on my list of things to draw.

aLBarrettSilentPool1fullCM: How did you get into the publishing/packaging/design industry?

LB: One project followed another, starting with a fairytale commission for The Guardian newspaper, and leading to several book projects. I also got my first packaging commission from Anatomy Wines, a Colorado based winery, creating a gothic wine label and have since worked on packaging for gin, perfume, biscuits and more!

CM: How do you balance your personal artwork and your professional projects?

LB: The balance is always tipped one way or other, and it always seems that I’m most inspired and itching to work on my own ideas when I’m swamped by client work. The trick is to write these ideas down in lists and pick up where I left off in quieter times.

Tales Foodof ParadiseCM: What do you get when you get art block?

LB: Hitting a creative stumbling block is incredibly frustrating. Here is my advice, which I really need to learn to take myself! Move away from where you usually work, give yourself some time and breathing space, go and see lots of different things- art, music, books, films, etc- things you wouldn’t normally do just to give yourself some new perspective. And try not to give yourself a hard time. Creativity seems to work in peaks and troughs, for me, at least.

I recently read Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, which was very useful, and teaches you to create your own ritual and habit around your working practices, and provides you with tips for when you’re in a bit of a rut.

CM: Who are some artists you have learned from?

LB: I think I’m most inspired by Victorian artists and classic book illustrators. The attention to detail from artists such as Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley and Kay Nielsen all make me aspire to be a better illustrator.

CM: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

LB: After leaving art school I really wished we’d been taught a lot more about the business side of illustration and freelancing, so find out as much as you can about life outside of art school and the realities of the art world, negotiating, contracts, etc.

Laura Barrett is an illustrator from South East London, who creates intricate and decorative silhouette illustrations and monochrome patterns from her home studio. With an emphasis on storytelling and an attention to detail, her illustrations are inspired by the darker side of folk and fairy tales, as well as traditional Scherenschnitte (paper cutting). She likes to explore these themes using silhouettes, created by drawing with a graphics tablet straight in to Adobe Illustrator and loves to work in striking black and white. Since graduating from University of the Arts London in 2007 she has been working with a variety of international clients, including Ted Baker, Taschen, Toni & Guy, Hachette and The Guardian.
Twitter: @laurabarrettuk

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