Natalie Foss on her mystical, 70s-inspired illustrations

Illustrator Natalie Foss blends mystical emblems and patterns in her work, earning commissions with indie mags and leading publications alike. CR talks to her about freelancing and pushing herself beyond her comfort zone

With little more than some pencils and paper, Natalie Foss produces vibrant portraits conveying surprising levels of emotion. Her intimate, borderline mystical portrayals of women – both fictional and famous, including Lorde and Kiernan Shipka – have graced book covers, magazine issues and exhibition walls, and it’s not hard to see why.

Currently based in Oslo, Foss graduated from Kingston University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in illustration, but it wasn’t until she had finished the course that her colourful, patterned aesthetic began to take shape. “Much of the development definitely came in a real-world setting,” she tells CR. “I did a lot of experimenting before I found my thing! But the course was certainly an important part of it, and led me to where I am now. It opened up my eyes for what illustration really is, how diverse it is, and how colours can be used. I got some great advice from the tutors along the road. If I hadn’t left my home country to study in London, I know my brain would have worked completely different now.”

While many burgeoning artists will reel off a who’s who list of idols, Foss only pulls up a few names that she feels left a determinable impact on her style. “I really liked Frida Kahlo’s art when I was younger, as well as Alfons Mucha, and they probably inspired me in some way. And Hope Gangloff definitely inspired me to go away from the black lines,” she explains. However, she says she’s never had a “big one” that she’s consistently looked up to. Instead, her work draws upon small elements from a far broader pool of artists, as well as things she spots in the everyday.

Since finishing her course, Foss has been learning not just to hone her artistic style but her working practice, too. “I wish I could sit down at any point and illustrate, but I’m very easily distracted and can’t have too much going on around me while drawing. I like to sit at a desk and draw in my ‘own world’ with music or a podcast on (or even in pure silence), or in a shared space with other creatives working on their own things. It creates a good vibe,” she explains. “I’m trying to get better at sitting down anywhere and draw, though. I think it’s a good thing to be able to do. I always challenge myself to get better at the things I’m not great at, and I’m planning to go on a lot of ‘out of my comfort zone’ drawing trips in London this summer and fall.”

Navigating the freelance world isn’t easy, namely due to the difficulty of striking an equilibrium between necessary work and passion projects. “This is a real challenge, and I still haven’t found a good balance on those two. But it’s getting there, I think,” she says.

“I’ve had to prioritise the commercial work, because rents and food [have] to be paid,” she continues. “I mostly work on my personal projects when I don’t have any commissions going on, or in my spare time or evenings and weekends. I’ve had to sacrifice a big chunk of my social life in order to get work done, and to keep the wheel going. It can be a bit lonely! I’ve also had a part time job on the side up until now, and it has been very hard to balance it all without getting a proper burnout.”

She’s also grappling with the raft of practical tasks that burden all freelancers. “I think the most difficult part of what I do is the accounting, organising and pricing,” she says. “It’s a lot to keep track of, and I didn’t learn much about those things at the course. A very common problem, I think! There’s a lot you need to teach yourself, and suddenly you have ten jobs in one.”

Despite the tenuous balancing act, it’s proving effective. Among her already growing list of commissions, Foss has recently completed a book cover project for PYRG/Penguin Random House US that comes out next year, which she pins as her favourite project to have worked on in her career so far. “I had to do many revisions on the way, but it was still a very positive experience,” she says. “I think I enjoyed it because I could use my own imagination and create a fictional portrait (from the character description in the book), and the people I collaborated with were super friendly. There were clear guidelines, plenty of time, and positive vibes all the way! It just made me very happy.”

There’s a clear pattern in her commissions so far that indicates a possible future trajectory. “I’m dreaming about doing more book cover illustrations and book illustrations, to delve more into stories and fairytales,” she explains. “I’m a big fan of Penguin Random House, and would love to do more work for them. I would also like to do illustrations for clothing and different types of packaging or merchandise. Advertising, collaborations with bigger fashion brands, and murals are high up on my list too. There’s so much you can do with illustration, and to be honest, I’d like to try it all.”