Sarah Beetson’s resume is as full, colourful, and diverse as her illustrations. The Manchester, UK-born illustrator has a style of her own that has attracted many clients, from magazines, newspapers, and personal clients, to Trader Joe’s in the US. She graduated from Falmouth College of Arts in Cornwall in 2002 with 1st class honours, and spent the next four years living and working in London as an illustrator and graphic designer. There, Beetson worked in styling, and created fabric prints for Stella McCartney, who then commissioned her to decorate the walls of the shoe room in her Burton St. shop. Since then, Beetson has curated an extensive list of clients like The Telegraph and the Times (UK), The Globe and Mail here in Toronto, The Wall St. Journal, Diesel, La Perla, Reader’s Digest, Scholastic Books, The British Fashion Council, IKEA, and Continental Airlines among many, many more. She relocated from the UK to Australia in 2006 where she created works for numerous exhibitions.
When did you realize that you wanted to be an illustrator?
When I was 8 I had three ambitions: to be a professional tennis player and win Wimbledon (until I realized I wasn’t too good at tennis), to be a rockstar (I even made my first failed attempt at learning guitar), or to illustrate children's books like Quentin Blake. I got close to the third one.
Why fashion illustration?
Fashion has always provided a huge inspiration to me, particularly in my youth as I was beginning to find my own personal style. I wondered why people in the street did not dress as the models did in fashion shoots; often bizarrely themed with many layers of clothing, eccentric styling and heaps of colour, so I started to do that myself. People often tell me I look like my work, as it became a natural progression that I would draw the things I loved to wear myself.
Were you ever interested in moving into the fine art world of oils and canvas?
In recent years, as a diversion from commissioned illustration, I have widely exhibited my personal work via galleries, showing in solo and group exhibitions in London, Paris, New York, Portland, Ottawa, Melbourne and The Gold Coast, Australia. I was never tempted by oils, though I often work on raw canvas or linen. Almost all of the materials I use are water-based, with the exception of spray-paint, and my favourite painting medium is Acryl-Gouache.
Your work contains lots of diverse subjects; where do you tend to get your inspiration from?
I find much inspiration from my travels; I live between Australia and the UK, spending 3-4 months a year in London and often stopping off in between. I love typography and collect photographs of examples I love the world over. I particularly like decaying signage on shop fronts, amusement parks and neon signs. I read widely into the subjects that interest me and will conduct much research when working on personal projects or without tight deadlines. Apart from the fashion industry, I’d say my greatest source of inspiration comes from film. I watch at least 1-2 movies per day from all kinds of genres/time periods, and when I am in the city I’ll often take an inspiration day, hoping between cinemas, and taking in 5 movies.
Your work is full of balance between line weight, texture, and punches of colour, but how did you refine this signature style?
Whilst I was at art school in Falmouth, UK, I was initially using a number of techniques to create work, none of which I was really in love with. During life drawing classes, we were taught the blind contour drawing technique, in which you place your pen/pencil on the paper and look at the subject, drawing ‘blindly’ without taking your eyes from the subject. This technique can be totally haphazard with moments of clarity; a mess of abstract lines with a perfect hand or eye within it. I decided to combine this technique with the bunch of other materials / styles I liked to work with, and hence my style was born.
How would you describe your work?
A very well planned, carefully executed accumulation of chaotic colourful madness?!
How has living in London influenced your work?
In so many ways, from the people I lived and worked with and the city itself, to the general poverty I lived in when I first moved there. I do think the London streets have the most daring fashion statements of any city in the world. When I first arrived I was forever accosting brilliantly dressed people into letting me draw them. I have lived in other cities (Melbourne in Australia possibly being my favourite, it has an alternative arty feeling very like Portland in the US), but I think what sets London apart, and keeps me returning, is the self deprecating character of The British. We can look at things like art and fashion with irony and humour and not take ourselves too seriously.
How did it feel to get your first big client?
I was ecstatic when I was commissioned by Tank Magazine whilst I was still finishing my Illustration Degree. They asked me to produce 12 illustrations centred around food for the OXO book. A couple of those pieces are still in my portfolio today. My next big job was a teen fashion editorial for Fashion 18 Magazine in Toronto. It was a graffiti inspired piece about the Barbie girl in school who the girls dislike and the boys want to get with.
Looking back at your clients, how does it feel to see so many esteemed names/brands?
I have been really lucky to work with some fantastic people, and even luckier that some of those clients believed in me when I was 21 and straight out of art school, and really provided me with that step up onto the illustration ladder. Getting representation with 2 agencies in my graduate year played a huge part in this, and I count Shelley Brown of i2iArt, Toronto, and Harry Lyon Smith of Illustration Ltd, London, as the key players in shaping my career.
What got you interested in exploring so many different mediums in your work?
As I mentioned previously, the combining of all the existing materials in my work with the blind contour drawing technique was the catalyst for developing my style. And as I began to travel around, I started to collect more and more materials that I could use to paint, draw, collage, create backgrounds with, etc. I really began working on tissue paper pasted on wood or paper, but over the years I have experimented with working on canvas, photographs, and fabric. When I first moved to London, I spent one year interning in the fashion industry, and to make rent as well as working in bars and nightclubs, I started experimenting on fabric and creating t-shirts and sneakers to sell on my stall in Camden market. That has evolved to digitally printed capsule collections today. I still create every element with my work by hand, but over the last 5 years or so, I have developed techniques of creating different elements within each piece separately, and scanning them individually in order to be able to create layered files in Photoshop, and accommodate changes for clients on their every whim. This has enabled my work to be animated, and I was hired for a campaign to prevent drink driving during Perth Fashion Week, Australia.
If you could move to any city in the world to work, where would it be and why?
I think New York would be my ultimate, having visited it so often, but never stayed long enough to feel like a New Yorker. But for now, I am quite content floating between Australia and the UK, and all the travels that happen in between!
What do you feel has been your biggest achievement so far?
Among these have been working with Stella McCartney in the early days of her label, working with Mary Portas at Yellowdoor, illustrating for major newspapers including The Globe and Mail (Toronto), The Times and The Telgraph (UK) and The Miami Herald, winning the Creative Review (UK) Best in Book prize for illustration in 2011, being shortlisted for the 2012 Metro Award (a $50,000 Australian Art Gallery Prize), exhibiting at Somerset House, London, as part of Pick Me Up 2012, and being invited to exhibit “Rainbowspective” in Paris earlier this year, showing the best of the last 5 years of my work.
Do you have a favourite artist (illustrator or otherwise)?
There are so many I don’t know if I could pick one favourite, but here are some: Keith Haring, Antonio Gaudi, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Julie Verhoeven, Cary Kwok, Henry Darger, Grayson Perry, Yoshitomo Nara, Aubrey Beardsley, Robert Crumb, Alan Moore, Antonio Lopez, Vaughan Bode…. and many more.
Is there someone you dream of working with or for?
I would love to create a fashion illustration spread working with John Galliano.
What is it that you like most about working in your industry?
I do love working from home in my own studio on the farm where I live in Queensland, Australia. It is a huge space which enables me to create large scale paintings, and unlike in a shared office, my pet chickens get to come in and hang out. I also love the excitement that comes with the anticipation of an enquiry or the arrival of a brief; a few days prior to Christmas, 2012, I was poised to potentially fly to New York for an illustration project during fashion week which didn’t come off, as projects often don’t, but that kind of spontaneity is something I really love about being an illustrator. When an enquiry comes into one of my agents, the terms, deadline and brief are discussed, then we go ahead and I begin researching, gathering references, making sketches, and working with the client to create the realized illustration; all of this is rather exciting, challenging and fun!
Do you have a favourite piece amongst your work?
I think often my favourite piece is the one I have just finished creating. But I would say that the piece I always think is one I created back in 2002, which is the profile image on my Facebook Fan Page, and is called “Miss Sherbet Dip”. It was from a drag queen; inspired photo shoot from the Falmouth days, and features my first muse and good friend, Knud Kleppe in full drag. Knud is now a successful animator working for a major Oslo TV network, and is also in the rockerbilly band “The Lucky Bullets” who were finalists to represent Norway at Eurovision 2011!
Many have said that illustration is a dying art form; what is your view on the subject?
I would strongly argue quite the opposite. I think for almost ten years now, illustration has been having a major resurgence, and is currently in its heyday this century. I am a talent scout for my UK rep, Illustration Ltd, and I think there are more fantastic artists out there right now than there have been for a long time. Illustration is widely used across advertising, publishing, TV, web and digital media, employing a very diverse range of styles and artists. When I first left art school 10 years ago, there was nowhere near as much illustration usage clearly visible at all levels of media as there is today. I feel like in some part the financial crisis helped illustrators, as clients potentially had to cut their photography budgets back, but saved on using illustration in its place. Photographers need to hire models, locations, etc, whereas illustrators require a small setup and are often far more cost-effective to commission.
Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?
Get your work out there, approach clients and agents, and expect knockbacks. Keep contacting the right folk, and keep developing your style and portfolio. Even if you aren’t getting work, you need to keep creating and moving forward, don’t stagnate. Aim to create a style and voice of your own; innovate, don’t imitate. Seek advice from the industry and respond to it when you receive it. It can take years to build a career and gain industry recognition. Make sure you have a great website with a simple, user friendly design that lets the work speak clearly. Tumblr, Blogspot and Wordpress can be great vehicles; you don’t need to spend lots of money on flashy web development. Utilize social media. Enter competitions. Email the clients you want to work for and send them your samples. Don’t give up!
Do you have a favourite motto?
I like: “Do or do not, there is no try” (Yoda)
And: “There’s no fate but what we make” (Sarah Connor, Terminator 2)
What are your goals for the next five years?
In February 2014, I’ll be taking part in Supergraph Melbourne, a graphic Arts Fair in which I will exhibit prints and originals, and sell printed clothing, cushions and my illustrated naughty playing cards, as well as creating Live Portraits of visitors. Later in the year, I plan to take a summer sabbatical and spend three months in the place that has inspired me most over the years: Coney Island in New York. I will take my travel easel, A3 moleskine and art materials, and just thoroughly immerse myself in the place, sketching all that I see. Upon my return to Australia, I’ll be developing this body of work and will also focus on similar themes in my hometown of The Gold Coast, also a classic seaside resort with many amusements and signage to inspire. Over the next five years I plan to return to Japan, which has been the source of many ideas since my last trip, and I’m hoping to get to South America with my boyfriend and taking in the culture and colours. All the while I’ll continue to develop my illustration portfolio, and I look forward to discovering the jobs and commissions which may come my way.