If animals could talk


19th August 2017
Helen Nicholson

I’ve been drawing all my life. It has always been there in the background – although I think I’ve always been interested in it as a means of telling stories, rather than anything else. It came to the foreground about 2 years ago, when I fell ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. Illustration gave me something to focus on that didn’t completely exhaust me. So finally, I was able to give it proper attention. 

These particular illustrations are taken from various different periods of time. The alligator and the bison are a year and a half old, now, whereas ‘In Therapy’ was done just a couple of months ago for a publication called ‘Whip’ (a feminist magazine, drawn and curated solely by women). I drew the bunny cartoon last Easter – I wanted an Easter card that would make people laugh and grimace and think. Easter has got a bit soppy and commercialized in my opinion.

I’m really interested in detail. I love looking up close at the fur on the back of a dog, or the feathers on a bird, or at the delicate colours and shapes that make up a hedgerow. The landscape I create is based very loosely on the landscape I grew up in – that of North Dorset with its downs and little fields and woodlands, and that of south Dorset with its lush, ragged, cliffy coastline.

Artists, illustrators, writers and the theatre also provide huge inspiration. In particular, I’m always returning to the works of Edward Gorey and Tove Jansson – as much for the ways in which they look at the world as for their illustrative styles.

I use a mixture of very fine black pen, inks and collage. I’d been working in black pen for years – my mother was a pen and ink artist, and it was easy for me to express myself in that medium. But last year I started an MA at Camberwell College of Arts – and as a result, I started thinking pretty hard about colour. My colour palette has always been strange – I love things that are really bright, and really patterned. I like putting purple and pink and orange and red all together. It’s a bit mad. I did a collage workshop and felt like a happy child again. I feel so at home making my own patterns and chopping up paper – it injects freedom and chaos into my work. Since then, I’ve been gradually attempting to combine my love of controlled pen drawing with joyous brightly-coloured collage. I’m having lots of fun!

I do have a very strong political compass. I think that humour is one of the most effective ways to get through to people. To preach at someone achieves nothing. But to make them laugh, and then to make them wonder why they’re laughing – well that gets them thinking. I don’t think it trivializes the matter at hand. To touch someone’s sense of humour is to break down their initial skepticism. And once that’s done you can achieve anything. I don’t think it’s just humour though. I think people like to be told stories – and that this allows them to imagine things for themselves. And imagination is a force for change.

Environmentalism is a subject very close to my heart. I grew up in rural Dorset.  Living there gave me a deep respect and love for the landscape, and for the creatures and plants that we exist beside.  But it also meant that issues such as fox hunting, badger culling and farming practices were very close at hand– and I saw the consequences of them all close up. Animal rights and environmentalism is a huge battle that still desperately needs fighting, on both a small scale and a large scale, from global warming to the use of pesticides. The life of a spider – in my view – is equally important as the life of a human being, and I find it really hard to understand why other people can’t see that. 

In June, my friend and fellow illustrator Ella Bucknall curated the first edition of an online and printed magazine called ‘Whip’. It was specifically designed as a platform for women political cartoonists and writers. Politics (despite our female PM!) is still a very male-centric world. And the world of cartoons that satirize those politics – that’s also dominated by men. ‘Whip’ gives women a chance to express their ideas. Long may it continue!

Ah, I have a number of projects in the mix – but I’m not going to let the cat out of the bag and tell you about them all! This next year is the final year of my MA, so I’ll be working on a pretty substantial project for that. My particular interests are currently book design and children’s illustrated fiction. Ideally, I’d love to work as a children’s picture book author and illustrator – at least that’s the dream!

Please check out more of Helen's wonderful work: www.helennicholson.co.uk/