Harriet Noble illustration

Harriet Noble tackles health and human nature in her sunny illustrations

Working with a range of physical, 2D and 3D methods, the illustrator is able to address serious subjects with an uplifting tone

Harriet Noble’s illustration practice is rooted, like most creatives, in those formative childhood years. Her use of paper in particular stems from her days creating shoebox buildings and furniture out of paper and card, which have translated into her leggy characters and layered scenes that are often constructed from paper today.

Noble came from a fine art background but found herself drawn to experimenting with illustration in the midst of lockdown. “The news and media were so bleak, and I couldn’t go out and draw in the same way that I used to,” she tells CR. “I found myself wanting to create work that was more joyful and playful, perhaps as a sort of escapism that I thought I could provide to myself and others. My work started to take on a bouncier, almost humorous form, even if I was illustrating for briefs that had a more serious subject matter.”

Those more serious themes have included health, psychology and biology, she explains, with a raft of commissions to her name for New Scientist, The Observer Magazine and Positive News, among others for brands like Cadbury and HP. “I think if I didn’t go down the creative path I would have definitely ended up doing something science-y. I’m definitely really keen on women’s health, sexual health and relationships at the moment,” she says, with a commission for a sexual health foundation set to launch next month.

Harriet Noble illustration
Top: commission for Cadbury; above: illustration for The Observer Magazine cover story on the digestive system
Harriet Noble illustration

Her process involves a mix of physical and digital techniques, which vary depending on the project requirements and timeframes. If she’s working with paper, her workflow begins with some rough sketches and riffling through her stash of paper to find complementary combinations (“it’s just not as easy as plugging in a hex value,” she points out).

The sketches are then refined in Illustrator, at which point she’ll carefully consider how the shapes should be separated in order to sit on the page in the right way. These are then cut out precisely using machine cutting software. “This is still a pretty lengthy process as I need to cut out every single layer and arrange it, and keep track of all the pieces before I stick everything down,” she says. The final arrangement is then shot using her small photography set up at home.

Yet the most finicky part of the job is caused by the company she keeps while she’s working: “The hardest part of this stage is actually meticulously plucking as many cat hairs as possible off the illustration, as I have a very clingy long-haired cat, who’s by my side throughout this process. And when it comes to editing, inevitably there’s a few cat hairs hiding that I’ll need to edit out too.”

Harriet Noble illustration
The Observer Magazine

It can be a painstaking, lengthy process to create that texture and depth, but “there’s a certain charming handmade quality that you get from it that you can sometimes miss out in with digital artwork. I think it injects a real organic human touch, some soul into my work that [might] otherwise look sometimes a bit too clean and digital,” she says.

Noble has also been experimenting with the same exaggerated proportions in 3D models, which she creates digitally, though they have the squidgy appearance of clay or plasticine figures. “Lots of people do think that my work is [always] real paper and real clay, and I like to keep people guessing, transitioning between real paper and digital illustrations and most of the time people are none the wiser.”

This new direction appealed to her for the same reason that paper did – for its “childlike innocent quality” – but also working with 3D modelling has opened her up to the exciting potential of animation. She believes it similarly has “the ability to tackle quite heavy subjects in almost a naïve manner, but hopefully still creating a bit of an insightful commentary in a clever snappy way”.

Harriet Noble 3D modelling
Harriet Noble 3D modelling

Her dream commission would involve her doing just that. While her ambitions are always changing, one idea she always comes back to is creating something around breast cancer awareness, having lost people close to her to disease. Although the subject is personally significant, she would hope to tackle it in her signature uplifting visual language with “something light-hearted and not too weighty”.

“I like that normal bodily functions are being talked about in a more open and positive way, and we’re being encouraged to check ourselves and talk about things that worry and scare us, but I know we’ve still got some way to go. It definitely fullfills me to be able to contribute some positivity to these conversations.”

Harriet Noble illustration
New Scientist