Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Interview - Elise Hurst

Elise Hurst is a very successful Australian artist and illustrator whose work ranges from picture book illustrations to oil paintings, art prints to book covers. Oh, and she's an author too. Sheesh, is there anything she can't do?

I first came across Elise a few years ago at her regular market stalls where she sells her books, art prints and cards. What's unique about her market set-up is that there is always an easel behind her display table so that she can work on an oil painting as the market buzzes around her. I love an artist who is so accessible, and being able to watch her work is mesmerising.

Elise is not only breathtakingly talented but very approachable and lovely too. And also a mum to twin boys. Wow! Now that's a whole new level of busy. Read on for a fascinating insight into her work.

Elise Hurst

Tell us a bit about yourself, your artwork and achievements.
I've been illustrating officially for about 15 years, but doodling and painting for many more. Over the years I have illustrated greeting cards, educational books, covers, done portrait commissions, landscapes, written and illustrated picture books and last year, had my first solo exhibition. I work from a home studio in North Carlton, Victoria. It's a great spot - I overlook our little garden and have lots of natural light. And there is good coffee down the street. That is very important. These last few years have been very exciting for me. I am working with publishers that I have always admired, I have developed a detailed pen style that I absolutely love and a series of oil paintings that are immensely fun to do. I have also been running a business selling my books, paintings, art prints and cards which is doing well and finding a lovely community of like-minded people. Last year one of my books, The Night Garden, was also animated and performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre. That was a buzz! [Check out this YouTube preview. The Night Garden is the second one - Jodi]. I've always been a bit of a workaholic, overloading and overcommitting (which is part of the territory for many of us in this business to make it financially viable) until almost exactly one year ago when I had twins. Things have, well, slowed down a bit after that.

When did you know you wanted to work creatively (from a young age or did you come to it later?) and what steps did you take to make it happen?
My mum says I was always drawing, but I don't know if that marks me out as any different from any other child. What was different was the environment - my mum, my aunt and uncle and their parents all painted so the smell of turps, the problems of composition and having to not accidentally damage drying paintings was a part of my life from a very young age. I remember my grandfather painting on the beach at Rosebud while the rest of us played and read and drew in the shade. He was a natural showman and almost always managed to sell what he was doing to some passer-by who then had to take a wet oil painting back to a small caravan on the foreshore. We used to laugh about it, but I have come to realise that a little showmanship goes a very long way! I drew and painted, did pastel landscapes and life drawing as I grew up. I didn't find art at school nearly as helpful as watching my family paint and problem-solving with them. My first foray into illustration (aside from drawing the program to a school production of The Hobbit in Year 6) was when someone watched me drawing in a history class at Uni and pointed me in the direction of someone who needed an illustrator. By the time I finished Uni I had illustrated two books. After that I put together a folio, practised lots of different styles and began the slow hard slog of trying to meet publishers and get any sort of work at all. Things were quite lean at the beginning, but I worked hard, got better at it and gradually the number of books grew and grew.

Do you have any routines or rituals you perform before starting a day's work or a new project? How do you motivate yourself?
I really like working but a huge amount to time seems to be lost on emails and doing the business side of being an artist. And working from home is always a problem. Before I had kids I could do a few house jobs in the day but still have a lot of time for work, especially as I would happily continue into the evening. Now I find it harder to fit everything into the short periods of time available. So unless I am in the thick of a book and can really immerse myself in it at the desk, I often leave the house to work. I find the environment of a cafe to be fantastic for drawing, planning and experimenting with ideas. The constant supply of new faces, kids and dogs walking past, and the shapes and patterns of the world before me are a massive source of inspiration. And the coffee wakes me up.

Friend of the Bear by Elise Hurst

Has becomming a mother changed your approach to work? How do you manage your time?
I used to find pockets of time everywhere. If I was out and had a few moments to myself, the sketchbook would emerge and I'd be drawing. At home, I'd have all day to work, uninterrupted. Now I have odd hours and not much head-space for idle drawing. I was working on a book before the twins came along which I didn't quite manage to finish by the end of the pregnancy because of a rather severe case of carpal tunnel. It went away when the babies were born, but the work that would have previously taken three weeks to complete, took the next nine months. The lack of consecutive hours to work meant that my hand had to relearn the style I was using every time I sat down to work. Drawings progressed by inches each week. It was hopeless and hugely frustrating! This year will be better as I have a couple of days of childcare lined up and a lot less exhaustion to contend with.

Another enormous change that has happened is the type of work I am taking on. Or not taking on, more to the point. It has always been hard to turn down work because of the memory of the early days when work was scarce and money was a big problem. Having the kids has made me assess my time for books and stopped me taking on any time-filling jobs. The only work I am lining up is stuff that is really important to me. It is a strange thought that having children might be really good for my career - I expected the opposite. At the moment the kids are still really small and taking care of them is full-on so that when ideas occur to me there is no time to sketch them down or, sadly, even to draw the babies. They don't keep still either. As they grow, I'm looking forward to writing books for them, rather than just for my inner child.

Sea Roads by Elise Hurst

How do you go about developing new ideas for an exhibition, new work or a commission?
I like to keep a range of sketch books on the go at all times. I use Moleskines a lot as a place to sketch in partial ideas, characters lacking stories, or odd scenery. When I know what comes next in a picture, I draw it. When I don't know, I leave it for another day, month or year. It has allowed my subconscious to have more of a hand in the creative process and has given me huge joy as well as lots of new ideas. Some of these drawings become paintings, some mutate into stories - three of them are giving rise to books in the next couple of years. I also collect reference material - photos of animals, period images from the 1920s-50s of people and machinery and architecture. Every time I trawl through the collection I find something that sets my imagination buzzing.

Elise Hurst's commission for Koko Black. Watch the painting develop via time-lapse here.

What do you do when you have a creative block and need to 'refill the well'?
Out come the Moleskines, usually. But I also love to put films on in the background while I'm in my studio. Anything that is visually stunning gets my imagination going again - Wes Anderson's films, Amelie, Lost in Translation, old Film Noir, Miyazaki's animations, the Lord of the Rings trilogy - especially the extra features where we see the illustrators designing the world of Middle Earth.

What are your favourite tools/materials for creating?
A propelling pencil and a Unipin fineliner. I have started buying these by the box-full because I go through so many. I also love a dip pen with a metal nib but I find these hard to work with on books - the nib being a little temperamental and prone to splats and grabs. Sometimes that isn't a problem, but at others when a precise line is needed - it can be a bit of a disaster. Something I have always liked about illustrators is that they will break all of the rules to get the job done. So although a picture may look like it is done in pen - for some tiny fine lines I may use black watercolour and two hairs of a brush. Likewise I change media all of the time - oils, watercolour, pencil… whatever is needed for the right effect. It is very freeing when you realise that it doesn't matter how you achieve the picture, so long as it looks right at the end.

Please be sure to have a look at Elise's work in more detail at these places:
Elise's website is here.
Have a browse around her shop.
Check out Elise's lovely blog.

Thank you so much, Elise, for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to share these fascinating answers with us. What an honour to feature you today!