This month, we’ve teamed up with Creative Translation to put work by 20 visual communications students and graduates on JC Decaux billboards across the UK. One of those graduates is Ailsa Johnson, whose portfolio includes some charming food based prints and children’s picture books…
Johnson studied illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, and caught our eye with her colourful sausage screenprint, Charcuteria (below). She has also created a series of picture books, and was highly commended in the 2014 and 2015 Macmillan Prize for illustration.
Charcuteria, a sausage screenprint for an exhibition titled Salad Days.
When did you first interested in becoming an illustrator?
It wasn’t exactly something I planned to do. In my final year at school I applied to art college, and I applied to universities to study Spanish at the same time. I got into Leeds College of Art, and deferred a place at uni just in case I decided it wasn’t for me. Thankfully I was guided into illustration! It can be daunting making the plunge into creative education. I certainly didn’t let my guard down until I ended up deciding illustration was what I really wanted to study.
Cover and spreads from The Rougarou, written and illustrated by Johnson
How would you describe your work, and where you do find inspiration?
I would describe my work as somewhere between hand made and digital, and I want to make something other people can resonate with. Things that evoke memories or moments.
I read as much as I can, and I’ve always got books out from the library for bits and pieces. Sometimes I feel like I look at too much stuff. All that surface skimming means a lot of information going in but it’s not always meaningful or even leading anywhere, it just looks nice.
I think I’m influenced by the people around me, and also people like Tove Jansson, Tatsuro Kiuchi and Anton van Hertbruggen. I could list so many others!
You’ve worked on a few picture books (Rain, The Rougarou and One Summer’s Day). What inspired these, and is this something you’d like to continue working on?
My picture books have a lot of personal meaning to them, especially One Summer’s Day, which involved a lot of research into my childhood and going and visiting my granny in the middle of nowhere. I get so involved personally with the stories that it can be difficult not to get bogged down in them, but I hope it shows in both the words and the illustration.
I think what I love most about making picture books is crafting the word and image together. The books have been a real joy to make; but for the time being I want to try looking in other areas and make fresh approaches.
How do you create most of your work – it often has quite a painterly, hand made feel?
I make a lot of custom brushes in Photoshop. Hand made scribbles and marks get scanned in and reused as textures and lines. I’m not totally comfortable working entirely in either form. It’s always a challenge to find where the balance lies – I’m not sure I’ve nailed it yet.
One Summer’s Day, written and illustrated by Johnson
What are you working on at the moment?
I have more calendar pages to create! I’ve also been lucky enough to visit Paris and Rome in the past few months, so it would be a shame not to make something about my time there.
And what are your plans for the future?
I’m actually diving back in and taking a Masters! I’m planning on using the facilities and time to really explore and experiment. There’s this mad pressure at the end of a degree to make something that culminates and condenses 3 years of work. I don’t feel the same about the coming year, rightly or wrongly – I feel a lot more free.
Ideally I would also love to be working on a commission. There’s only so much personal work you can do before it feels like you ought to be doing it for someone else.
Rain, written and illustrated by Johnson; a submission to Amelia’s magazine, based around the theme of ‘that which we do not know’ (inspired by the fact that we know more about space than the ocean floor); a food-themed calendar
Ailsa Johnson is featured in CR’s Talent Spotting project, in association with Creative Translation, which sees work by 20 graduates displayed on over 1,000 JCDecaux digital screens across the UK this month. For details, see creativereview.co.uk/talent-spotting
You can see more of Ailsa’s work here