Profile: Laura Carlin

The irony of the situation won’t be lost on Laura Carlin when she gives a talk about her career in illustration at the Apple Store on London’s Regent Street on 24 May.

Surrounded by all of Apple’s lovely hardware, she’ll be talking about her own approach. It’s one that embraces traditional media without a trace of digital doctoring.

’I wouldn’t say I’m a technophobe because I enjoy limitations. I enjoy the more technical side of printing, for example, but it’s definitely traditionalist. It’s paint. At the moment it’s going into ceramics, but it’s mainly paint – watercolour and acrylic,’ she says.

Carlin is talking at the behest of the Art Directors Club, which named her among its Young Guns late last year. It’s another well-deserved accolade for an illustrator who began winning awards long before she received her MA from the Royal College of Art in 2004, and has built up an enviable client list including The New York Times, The Guardian, American Express and British Airways.

Some of her newest work is also her most prestigious. The Folio Society recently released a collection of 60 short stories by Anton Chekhov, to which she added 36 illustrations. Purchasers of the society’s titles are passionate collectors who truly appreciate beautiful books. However, it was the words she illustrated that daunted Carlin more than the intended audience. ’I’m very aware that you could take what’s a wonderful, really visual piece of writing, and just repeat it in an image,’ she says. ’What is the point of an illustration, when the writing is so rich? So that was probably my main concern, trying to get a feel of a piece or an atmosphere, as opposed to just repeating one sentence.’

Moment and mood are what Carlin revels in. Usually it’s the sombre or awkward themes that attract her. One of the Chekhov stories that stood out to her was My Wife, about a man going through the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go angst of leaving his partner. In a dreary grey palette she exaggerated his drawn-out inner conflict, showing him waiting for the train out of there.

In another text, Chekhov describes some soldiers journeying back from a distant battlefield. They’re in a ship, dying of various wounds and diseases, and for this piece Carlin zeroed in on a body sliding from a board into the sea. ’If I’m honest, it’s really exciting to do ones like that where the story ends with a really slow description of the body moving slowly through water and the shark expressing some interest in it, and maybe it’s my sick humour, but it’s so much more exciting than illustrating a man and a woman passing on the street.’

Carlin is a self-confessed cynic and her tendency towards the tragic is picked up on by the art editors who commission her. She recalls a period when she was illustrating for The Guardian’s G2 section. She received briefs on domestic abuse, racism, rape and child abuse – great opportunities to do big images across double-page spreads, but all the toughest subjects.

So it’s surprising to discover that her latest project is a children’s book. Working with Walker Books and Faber and Faber, she’s currently finishing new imagery to accompany a special edition of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man. Whereas with Chekhov the challenge was to augment and add something new to the story, in children’s books she feels there needs to be absolute parity between the words and pictures.

It’s within children’s illustration that Carlin finds her biggest influence – Bruno Munari, the creator of Animals for Sale and Three Birds. ’For me they combine everything – slightly sick humour, using paper cut-outs very cleverly within a book. Not too cleverly, not too knowing, just very, very simple mechanisms. It’s a wonderful, simple narrative. I just love it. I wish more kids’ books were like that,’ she says.

Released on 4 October, The Iron Man promises more of Carlin’s simple-yet-atmospheric artwork, all beautifully rendered in traditional paints.

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