April 29th, 2013

Illustrators at work – interview with Natalie Smith

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with illustrators, today I’m pleased to welcome Natalie Smith on my blog. Natalie’s portfolio is a charming collection with particular emphasis on delightfully quirky character illustration. She also designs T-shirts, and selected illustrations are available for sale over at Society6. Natalie’s Dribbble page, DeviantART gallery and Tumblr stream are full of sketches and work-in-progress snippets that provide a fascinating glimpse into her creative flow.


Kirill: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in the field.

Natalie: I am a self-taught, freelance illustrator born and based in Yorkshire, England. Although I’ve always enjoyed drawing, I kind of fell into illustration a few years ago after winning a couple of t-shirt design competitions and through people taking notice of my personal work on Web sites such as DeviantART and Dribbble.

Kirill: Is it important to evolve your stylistic choices? Is there ever a thought of exploring radically different directions? Is there a concern of falling into a certain rigidity of style?

Natalie: I’m not sure if it’s about evolving my stylistic choices per se, but I do think it’s important to experiment and try out new ways of approaching an illustration in order to progress. In fact, it’s more a case of “what can I do to make my work better”? For me it doesn’t even have to be anything too drastic either; it could be something as simple as using a different brush in Photoshop, for example.

As for style, I think it’s ultimately just an amalgamation of what interests you at a given time. As you go through life these interests naturally change and evolve and with it so does your style.

Kirill: From pencil sketches, to the initial transfer to the digital mode, to circling on finer details – what’s your favorite phase?

Natalie: It really depends on the project but generally speaking sketching is my favourite, as that’s the most creative phase of the process and the part where you still have the freedom to do anything. Then it would probably be adding the finer details.

The most tedious part of my process, due to how I work and produce my illustrations, would be laying out the paths and the base colours for my piece.

Kirill: When you transfer your pencil sketches to the digital world, do you try to preserve some amount of hand-drawn imperfection? Is this important to you?

Natalie: I actually do a lot of sketching straight in to Photoshop these days, but when I do use my sketchbook it’s nearly always to put down and explore ideas, crank out thumbnails and try out different compositions and layouts. So my pencil sketches are really just a foundation to build upon rather than a piece of the finished illustration. Sometimes I will do individual bits of the illustration and then piece them together once I’m on my computer.

That being said, I have been trying to incorporate more of a “roughness” to my work, which I think adds a little more character. For this reason I also tend to create a lot of textures, which I use in my work, from traditional sources such as different types of paper and scanning in brush marks.

Above all though, it really depends on what is needed and what will best help communicate the message of the illustration.

Kirill: What do you like about character design and why?

Natalie: I’m not sure exactly what it is, but the first thing I really remember properly sitting down and drawing lots of were the characters from The Simpsons – so I think it’s just something I’ve always been interested in.

Kirill: What’s different about designing t-shirts? Which parts translate well to the wearable medium, and which do not?

Natalie: The biggest thing you have to remember is that a design someone may hang on their wall isn’t necessarily what they would want to wear! But the way I approach designing a t-shirt is largely similar to how I would tackle other illustrative work; composition, colour etc are just as important.

However, there are certain things I do take into consideration when specifically creating a design for t-shirts. For example, where the design is placed on the t-shirt is important – either to give the design more impact or to avoid it from being unflattering. From my own experience, I also tend to find that simpler designs tend to do better (though this may not be the case for others).

Kirill: Do you think that advances in software tools and global connectivity are making it simpler to start in your field, and at the same time creating more competition and diversity for the clients to choose from? Does it make harder to stand out?

Natalie: Not so much advances in software, as I believe it will only take you so far, but definitely having access to sites like Dribbble, which broadcast your work on a global scale, has made it easier for me to get started in the field. At the same time I do think it creates more competition, but I believe that if you have the passion to progress and the talent then you will always, in the end, stand out.

As a side note on this subject, because I’m self-taught the ease at which you can now have access to other artist’s work and be able to communicate with them and learn from them has been a huge boon for me.

Kirill: How valuable is self-initiated work for you?

Natalie: Extremely! First of all, it’s a time when you can really play around and experiment with your illustrations. It also creates a consistent output and allows you to refine your process and become more efficient at what you do.

Kirill: What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?

Natalie: The variety of the work and having a great excuse to watch cartoons (it’s for research purposes, obviously).


And here I’d like to thank Natalie Smith for answering a few questions I had about her art and craft. You can find Natalie online at her portfolio and buy selected prints in her shop. She can also be found at Dribbble, DeviantART, Tumblr and Twitter.