Birds, Patterns and Macaroons: Discover The Work of Illustrator Nicola Hanrahan

by Cass Art

A hint of summer is still in the air this August, so we're still enjoying looking back over some of the entries to our  Make A Splash Watercolour Challenge.

Yorkshire-based Illustrator Nicola Hanrahan took part and submitted watercolours depicting every day objects, including scissors, buttons and chocolates. (Yum!) We were quite taken with them and wanted to find out more about them.

In case you hadn't heard, Rosie Vohra was the overall winner of the competition, but we had many talented artists who entered to Make A Splash! Read on for our interview with Nicola, an artist inspired by beloved children's illustrators like Beatrix Potter, which explains all the cake, bunting and birds in her wonderfully stylistic work.

Scissors by Nicola Hanrahan

Hi Nicola! So, what made you take up the watercolour challenge, and did you enjoy it?

When I saw Cass Art tweet about the challenge it immediately appealed to me as the work I had been doing recently didn’t involve much painting, and I’d really missed it! I thought it would be a good idea to paint items from around my home to practise painting from life (it is a really helpful exercise to learn about lighting), so I came up with the theme of painting objects that have meaning to me and tell a story. Sadly due to other work commitments I was unable to paint all 50, partly because I spent so long on the ones I did finish!

Also, because of my love of pattern design I couldn’t resist turning two of the paintings into patterns! I loved having a personal project to work on for a change, and to paint purely for the love of it. I managed to experiment with my style a little and tried out watercolour tubes for the first time. I definitely want to continue with the project whenever I can, it was nice looking at everyday objects differently and turn them into art!

Nicola Hanrahan Watercolour Challenge 

What is it you love about the medium of watercolour? And do you have a favourite kind?

My latest projects have involved using graphite pencil and pens which I do love and feel very comfortable with. So when I’m using watercolours I always feel like I’m progressing and trying out new things! I enjoy the freedom you have with the quality of colour, be it pale washes to vivid colours - especially when combined with inks and gouache (which I have recently been experimenting with). The colours can be beautifully naturalistic, yet still stylised which is important to me.

My first set of watercolours were only cheap with limited colours, but as soon as I bought a Winsor & Newton Half Pan set I was hooked! The quality and range of colours was excellent. Recently I’ve started using the Winsor & Newton Cotman tubes, and they suit me even more - mixing colours is far easier, and again, the range of colours is fabulous.

Bird Pattern by Nicola Hanrahan 

Did you study art or illustration? If so, where, and how did your practice develop during this time?

I actually studied Printed Textiles & Surface Pattern Design at Leeds College of Art. I have always loved drawing, and so this course was recommended to me as it taught me how to take my drawings and turn them into complex patterns that could be applied to many types of surface design. I absolutely adore pattern (most things I own are covered in pattern!) so it was a perfect way for me to combine my love of illustration with patterns.

Painting with watercolours was only something I started to do at the end of my course, and because it is a medium I have never been taught to use I feel like I am always developing and improving my style. I create the majority of my work by hand, but turn them into patterns digitally. Using watercolours keeps a hand rendered feel to my digital patterns which is very important to me.

Illustrations by Nicola Hanrahan 

There are a lot of beautiful patterns, birds and macaroons in your artwork! But what is it that really inspires your work?

It is probably having grown up with lots of wildlife around me! My Mum’s and Granny’s gardens were packed with stunning flowers, and always had animals and garden birds visiting them. We would often go on walks and see so many lovely plants, and it would always be exciting to come across animals such as deer, foxes and badgers. All of this, combined with my enchanting children’s books by Beatrix Potter and Molly Brett, have definitely instilled a passion for nature and wildlife in me. I think the inclusion of sweet treats in my work happened because so many walks will end up at delightful Yorkshire tea rooms (sometimes Betty’s for a treat!), and the gorgeous cakesand pretty patterned tea sets are just heaven for me!

Macaroon illustration 

A lot of illustrators we interview are based in London, Bristol and other major cities - what’s it like working as an illustrator in Yorkshire?

It’s amazing to be so close to the Yorkshire Dales and so many other beautiful places that are so inspiring to me. I’m lucky that I don’t live too far from Leeds because I feel like the creative community there is just getting better and better! Independent businesses and artists are becoming a prominent part of the Leeds scene and it’s such an exciting thing to be a part of. Having been born and bred in Yorkshire, London seems vast and exciting (and sometimes overwhelming!) and I do wish I had the opportunity to visit more often - especially to sell at the art and craft fairs, and visit galleries and exhibitions. I see so many amazing London craft fairs advertised and feel so sad to be missing out! It’s something I’ll try and be a part of more in the future.

 Nicola Hanrahan Daim Bar

Finally what advice do you have for any budding illustrators who want to start freelancing?

Believe in yourself and your work! It sounds cheesy, but you really do have to have faith in yourself and develop a thick enough skin not to fall to pieces when things aren’t going to plan. Try not to get too comfortable in your style - having a style is brilliant, but it is alway good to push yourself. I often get requests from friends (some, pretty weird!) which certainly stretch me, but that’s when I create some of my best work.

While you’re starting out, a “day job” is a good thing to have. Something that will bring in some money but hopefully still allow you the time to work on what you love outside of it. For years I had another job after finishing university so that I could afford the equipment I needed, and so I could get my pattern designs printed onto fabric. I have only just left that job to try and design full time, and it is pretty scary and tough. Drawing and painting are my passions though and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I work as hard as I can - it’s certainly not a 9-5 job for me. I can never just leave a painting if I’m loving working on it, and will often work late into the night. I wouldn’t have it any other way though; I feel that whatever you do in life it should be something you adore and couldn’t live without - for me that is my drawing and painting.
Nicola Hanrahan Button Patterns

Feeling inspired?

You can see more of Nicola Hanrahan's illustrations on her website.

You can shop for your own Winsor & Newton watercolour sets here.

Check out the work of our other Make A Splash entrants on our blog, including the bright watercolours of Fay Summers and winner Rosie Vohra.

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