Zara Picken

is one of our very favorite doodlers. She lives in the North East of England, specializes in mid-century design and was kind enough to share her thoughts on everything from her work as an editorial illustrator to hovering cats.

Howdy, Zara! You’ve become quite well known for your distinct design style. What do you like about mid-century imagery and when did you first discover that this era speaks to you?

I think there’s a timeless, classic quality inherent in work produced during that era. The values of clear communication align with my own, using simple and eye-catching aesthetics to the maximum effect – to convey an idea effectively without taking the personality out of the image.

I’ve been collecting useless bits of paper (tickets, stamps etc.) for a few years now, especially ephemera from the 1950s and 1960s. I think I first established my hoard when I started university and got slightly carried away on eBay. I am attracted to the colour, graphic simplicity, pattern and tactile nature of old printed paper, which is probably reflected in my work.

How do you describe your style when you can’t just show your portfolio to folks?

I would describe my style as being quite graphic. I think there is a strong element of design in my images. I use texture, blocks of colours and the right amount of detail for what is required - often “less is more” but sometimes more is more, depending on the project.

I hope to create a tactile quality in my work, despite my illustrations being digital. I also aim to evoke a sense of warmth and optimism. I enjoy being able to start with a strong idea and see where the concept takes the visual.

As busy as you are professionally, you seem to tackle a lot of personal work. What percentage of your stuff is self-initiated and why do you like doing it?

Whenever I’m not working on commissions I tend to focus on self-initiated projects. I try to do as much of that work as I can, so I probably end up doing almost as much personal work as commissioned. I believe it’s important to draw the sort of images you enjoy and tackle subject matters you want to explore. I can’t imagine not creating personal work - it’s something that helps me to retain my own voice, not to mention my sanity.

Working on self-initiated projects enables me to try out different techniques, themes, colours, textures and compositional elements that might even inform future commissions. Clients will often cite self-initiated pieces for the direction of a job, so in many ways my personal work feeds into my commissioned work.

There is also a lot of literary, educational and charity publication work in your portfolio. Apart from being too busy, is there ever work you’ve said no to?

If I turn down work it is usually due to being too busy. However, I always turn down speculative (“spec”) work, whereby an artist or designer is expected to create work with no guarantee of payment at the end. It is not only rather insulting but also damaging to the industry as a whole.

You’ve created some really lovely book cover illustrations. If you could re-design the cover of a favorite novel, which would it be ?

I’m particularly keen on surreal, mysterious books – my favourite book is probably The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. I tried re-designing the cover for it a while back as a self-initiated project. Of course, I’d happily create a new one if a publisher happened to be looking to commission it for publication!

Other than that, I am currently reading a lot of Haruki Murakami novels so I would certainly enjoy the opportunity to create illustrations based around his books. As well as contemporary literature, I’ve also been reading classic books a lot more recently, so would enjoy the challenge of interpreting something older.

How does it feel when you open The Guardian or pop into a Waitrose shop and see your work on display?

It’s always great to see my work in context. I find it exciting but also slightly bizarre as I’m more used to seeing it on a computer monitor. I once saw one of my illustrations on a bag that someone was carrying down the street – I just stopped and pointed at it!

I’m never able to separate the final artwork from the process, so seeing a finished product always brings back memories of working on the illustration.

Is there a dream illustration gig out there that you’d still love to land?

I try not to have anything too specific in mind - I enjoy not knowing what will come next. A big advertising or publishing commission would be wonderful, as would a challenging editorial job or something packaging or branding-related.

Having said that, I’ve always thought it would be fantastic to see my work on something like a stamp or a wine label - something small and everyday, that when designed well can stop you in your tracks. I’ve also always thought my work would lend itself well to being animated, so I would like to look more into this area in future.

Showing off your work is vital to landing new opportunities. You’ve being using Carbonmade for about 2 years now. How did you originally find out about us?

I was looking to set up a page on a portfolio site, in order for my work to reach a wider audience. However, my requirements were very specific – the site had to look professional and clean, as well as being straightforward to maintain.

I came across Carbonmade on my search, so I browsed through the example pages and found myself signing up rather quickly, following the instructions of the octopus on the homepage (there aren’t a lot of websites you can say that about.)

Are there other Carbonmade artists you admire that readers should check out?

There are so many great artists, it’s difficult to choose. Corinne Reid’s illustrations are particularly stunning. I’m also enjoying Dave Murray’s work, particularly his Beer series.

Before we go, you have a great inspiration blog called Hovering Cat. If said cat appeared in front of you right now, where would you hop on and go?

Probably wherever it wants to go – I can’t see a flying cat taking orders from me! If it can hover then who knows what else it’s capable of? I don’t want to mess with that cat.

If I was somehow able to reason with the cat and it would be willing to take me where I wanted to go, then I reckon space is probably an interesting place to explore. Failing that, I wouldn’t mind popping to Japan, Canada or New Zealand – I’ve wanted to visit those places for a while.

Of course, this is never going to happen. Cats only hover when nobody’s looking. It’s how they move around so quietly.