From growing up in Colombia, to studying in Mexico City before making her home here in the quiet streets of Suffolk, illustrator and artist Catalina Carvajal explores her south american roots through her atmospheric and intricate work. We are so pleased to be stocking a collection of these magical illustrations and art prints at our Summer pop up shop. In our conversation we get to know about Catalina's background, her artistic training and creative process.
Catalina in her studio and work in progress
You grew up in Colombia and have trained in both Fine Art and Illustration. Tell us a little bit more about your creative journey. I was lucky. My parents encouraged me to join activities related to the arts from a very early age. I had a happy childhood. We were not rich. I certainly never had fancy toys or fancy clothes and we very rarely went on holidays but I had something much more interesting: encyclopaedias, picture books and music. As a teenager I had already decided that I wanted to study Fine Arts. I got obsessed with surreal art, experimental films and rock. I wasn’t great at drawing but I’m sure that all that informal preparation helped me to get into the university I wanted. I was trained in a traditional way but there was an alternative option related to digital media. That led me to work briefly for the University TV channel as a video production assistant. After graduating, I had to take two jobs to be able to sustain myself. I joined an advertisement company as a webmaster and an animation studio as art director assistant. The latter was the most fun. There I found that through illustration I could mix many of my interests. I was also looking for a new adventure so I found a great illustration course in Mexico City. The illustration course took one year but I stayed for 10 years in Mexico as I started to get illustration commissions and I finally became a full time freelance illustrator. I really loved my life there. Mexico is one of the most wonderful places in the world.
Illustration from 'Dwellers' a silent short story
When did you decide to move to the UK, how are you finding living and working in Suffolk? I moved to the UK three years ago because I married an Englishman! Our love for literature and a band called Josef K got us together. The cultural differences, the weather and the general nuances of trying to integrate into a completely different universe have definitely proven more difficult than anticipated but I think I’m finally getting some stability. I never tried to sell my artwork in fairs, markets and local shops before. I find it a lovely way of meeting people and getting some extra income. It also gave me the space to create more personal artwork to add to my portfolio. In the meantime, I’ve been moving my career forward as an illustrator over here. Things are finally settling down and I’m getting decent illustration commissions which has been a huge relief. It was a real shock to arrive in Ipswich after living in two massive and beautifully chaotic cities (Bogota and Mexico City). It’s great to know that London is relatively close but I don’t rely on it anymore to get the best experiences of Britain. I’ve learnt to love the quality of the air around here, the gentle beauty of the Suffolk countryside and the wonderful architecture. I’ve felt lost many times since I arrived here. It’s difficult to stay true to oneself while trying to immerse in a new culture. I still feel like an alien but that’s given me a great sense of identity and pride to be Colombian, despite the prejudices that come from lack of information. People in Suffolk have gentle souls and I feel that they’re genuinely good people.When things get really difficult due to the cultural shock I have to force my heart and mind to open a bit more. I go out and try to find a smiley face on the streets. People are always willing to say ‘hi’ back confidently, even when you’re a stranger.
What inspires you? A good chat with my husband, my friends or people I work with. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by lovely creative and active people. Reading the work of writers who make me think and feel deeply about the world. Even those who describe terrible things in the most beautiful way like Sebald or Beckett. Looking at the work of painters from different eras. Films, photography and music. Wildlife documentaries and some TV series. I like everything that’s weird but I also like gentleness, gardens and nature. Reading the news. I couldn’t spend one day without knowing what’s going on out there. I’ve been enjoying the TV shows of Anthony Bourdain (RIP). I admire his adventurous, almost impartial, open minded spirit. It’s revelatory to see how people live and interact in different parts of the world. You find out what they eat, how they live and he always gives insights into local social issues. All of that might not inspire specific subjects to work on but motivates me to keep creative and active!
What mediums do you use to create your illustration and what do you enjoy most about the creative process? It depends on the project. Timing, budgets and briefs are as diverse as the universe. For illustration commissions I usually work digitally on Photoshop or Illustrator. There have been a couple of times when I’ve been able to use printmaking techniques to make picture books. I love painting with acrylics and using printmaking techniques for my personal projects. What I love the most when I’m working on something new is the research. Then there’s the very disturbing bit in which I feel I don't know whether what I'm doing is “right”, those moments in which one feels a bit lost and has to leave everything for a while and go for a walk or have a fix of a TV series. And then comes my other favourite part, when I’ve “solved the main problem” and it’s all about getting my hands on it, whether it’s a new lino print or a thirty six page picture book made on Photoshop.
As an illustrator you are used to working to briefs, how does this process differ from creating more personal works? I love working on specific briefs as well as creating personal work. Working with a specific brief one has to research a lot, understand the project and the needs of a client as much as possible. I really enjoy the research part of the project. One learns a lot about different fascinating things. I love working with diverse clients, trying to find solutions to their needs and to communicate through images. In my personal work I have much more liberty to approach techniques and subjects. Working as an illustrator has been very beneficial for my personal work as working under tight schedules or very specific briefs has forced me to create habits and be disciplined and focused.
Are you currently working on any projects, or have plans for new works? I’m working on a picture book to be launched in December. It’s an exciting project related to migration and diversity but I can’t say much beyond that! It’s not unusual to find that illustrators can’t share much of the projects they’re working on until they’re finished. I’m involved with some community projects to engage the local community through art activities. I’d love people to feel they can approach art in a more relaxed way. Snobbism and elitism around art can put people off it.
What small businesses or brands are you loving at the moment? I really admire the work of Andrea Wright and Ruth from Bluebell Lane Jewellery. Their jewellery work is beautiful. It’s funny because I don’t wear any jewellery at all, apart from my wedding ring, but I admire the nature of their work and how professional yet very approachable they are when managing their brands. I really admire the work you’re doing as well and your attention to detail. You give a cohesive style and a clear statement. That’s admirable. I admire Rockafella Industries in Ipswich, their approach full of colour and objects I’d happily fill my house with.
Studio soundtrack… Phantom Circuit is one of my favourite podcasts. They describe themselves as “a radiophonic programme of strange and wonderful sound waves – featuring music that is alien, electronic, essential.” When I really need to focus Tim Hecker is always there to take me to a high level of concentration. I do enjoy silence and the sound of traffic in the street, it gives me comfort. There will usually be some dream pop, post-rock or krautrock (labels make me feel a bit uncomfortable) in the background while I’m working. But if I’m painting and, depending on the subject or the level of concentration I’d want to reach, I can switch between Cuban Son, Mexican and Colombian traditional music to cheese pop ballads in Spanish. I also love listening to printmakers and other illustrators and artists explaining how to use certain techniques. It’s a bit silly as I really don’t see what they’re doing but they put me in the mood for creating and hopefully I can grab some of what they’re saying.
//Images courtesy of Catalina Carvajal www.catalinacarvajal.co.uk