On a frosty Sunday morning, we met with Bristol-based illustrator Freya Hartas at her studio space at the vibrant Hamilton House, where she loves drawing strange monsters, dragons and fantasy worlds, and had a chat about her journey into illustration and the perks of coming from an artistic family.
We continued our conversation about naughty kids and giant mushrooms at Freya’s home, followed by an autumnal walk around Leigh Woods, where she shared with us her secret wish to write and illustrate a horribly dark fairy tale of her own making.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I think some of my most vivid memories were those spent in my mums’ allotment in Brighton. When we were really little we would run around with mud war paint on our faces, building dens and hunting for slow worms. When I was a bit older me and my friend would buy a crunchy bar and a Rio and climb through a secret hole in the fence where we would gossip about the kids at school. So strangely, the smell of old cabbages and bonfires brings back fond memories for me.
We learned that both your grandfather and father are illustrators, too. How has this legacy influenced your style and life choices?
The eccentric creative gene runs pretty strong in my family, not only are there three illustrators but also a sculptor, a painter and a bunch of musicians and art teachers in the mix. I sometimes wonder if I made the ‘life choice’ to become an illustrator or if it was just inevitable growing up in such a creative cocoon. Me, my dad and my Grandpa each have a built-in itch to draw and probably wouldn’t be happy if we were doing anything else.
Style wise I definitely possess a slight obsession with detail like my grandpa and love drawing strange monsters, dragons and fantasy worlds like my dad.
We often chat about the industry and how each of us has experienced a different part of its timeline, it’s interesting to learn how it has evolved and changed. My grandpa’s first commissions out of university were adverts for household products like pots and pans and interior design illustration, which now have almost completely been taken over by photography. The rise of technology has moved the industry into new and unexpected realms and the ever growing number of students graduating with an illustration degree has made the industry more competitive.
Tell us about your major sources of inspiration. Is there an artist or writer that influenced you the most?
There isn’t one artist in particular but the artists who have influenced me the most are Tove Jansson the creator of the whimsical Moomins stories, Ronald Searle and the mischievous St. Trinians girls, Studio Ghibli and recently the beautifully dark world of Kerascoët.
You are passionate about children’s illustrations and storytelling. Why is that?
I love storytelling, there’s something incredible about being able to create a world of characters and places that didn’t exist before. I am especially drawn to the whimsical and humorous subject matters for a young audience. It’s easy to forget about the audience when you’re all wrapped up in the brief and deadlines, so when I receive the odd tweet or review from a kid who’s enjoyed the book it’s a happy reminder of why I make the books in the first place.
Tell us a bit about your clay puppets. When and how did you start making them and what do you find fascinating about creating these strange-looking 3D creatures?
I find working in 3D very therapeutic and like to busy myself on building some kind of creature while I’m watching TV in the evenings. There’s something really satisfying about having a real object you can hold in your hands, though they do take up more space than 2d work on paper, one day there will be a whole army of them on my shelves.
You wrote and illustrated a book called Little Kong. What inspired you to start working on it? What was the most exciting step in this project?
Little Kong was my final third year project at University, it had never crossed my mind that it would one day be published. I can’t really remember what the initial inspiration was, I’ve always been a big fan of Where the Wild Things Are and the idea of naughty kids and animals.
The first exciting step in the project was when Lemniscaat contacted me saying they wanted to publish it and the second most exciting step was holding the finished book in my hands. The middle ‘making of’ the book felt like quite a learning curve because it was my first glimpse into the picture book world, so there were a lot of mistakes and re-draws, hopefully giving me a little more know-how for my next picture book venture.
Is there any resemblance between Freya the child and Esmeralda from Little Kong?
Haha yes! I was really, really naughty when I was little, far naughtier than Esmeralda even. I apparently got all my grumpy teenage years out the way when I was 5 or 6. My mum once wanted me to wear a dress for a wedding (I hated dresses at the time) and I cut it off myself with a pair of scissors! Hopefully I’ve mellowed out a bit in my old age…
Do you ever feel the pressure of having to adjust your style in order to make it more marketable?
Sometimes, I think in the children’s book world, especially in the UK there’s a ‘cuter the better’ attitude towards characters and a ‘safe’ attitude towards storytelling. Sometimes I’ll have to ‘cute-up’ the odd character, though I would always draw the line before anything becomes too sickly sweet.
Photo sharing platforms like Instagram document trends and styles that emerge and fade before your very eyes, last week it was flamingos, this week it’s pot plants, sometimes it’s difficult to know where your own work fits in and if you’re drawing the right ‘stuff’. The real answer is of course not to worry about all that and just carry on as you are, though I do sometimes worry that my work isn’t ‘cool’ enough.
You moved from Falmouth to Bristol a few years ago. What made you choose this city to be your home and what do you love about living here?
It seems to be that Bristol is the natural way to go after Falmouth, I moved into my studio in Hamilton House and found that half the room was made up of Falmouth graduates. I think it weirdly has a similar vibe to Falmouth, though on a much bigger scale of course.
What are some of your favourite places in Bristol?
I love different parts of Bristol for different reasons. I love the grottiness of Stokes Croft, it feels like living in a festival all of the time with the ever changing street art and music blaring from The Full Moon on a Saturday night, it's kind of trashy, but in a nice way. I love the crumbling, deserted buildings that loom over the street, almost pieces of art in themselves. If I'm feeling fancy I can pop over to Clifton and it's almost like you're in an entirely different city, with the tall regal houses, quaint cafes and of course the famous suspension bridge, which if you squint your eyes really hard when looking at it you can imagine you're in France, hehe.
Are there any particular projects that you dream to be part of?
I've always had a secret wish to write and illustrate a horribly dark fairytale of my own making. You know, with gnarly old witches who eat children and giant monsters who live at the bottom of bogs, feeding on the souls of lost travellers, that kind of thing. UK children's book publishers probably won't latch onto this idea, but I have a folder on my computer that I add creepy ideas to just in case.
What were some of your favourite childhood cartoons?
I still love cartoons as an adult, me and my partner Sam watch them religiously and have actually missed out on grown up programmes like Game of Thrones because we’ve been watching things on Cartoon Network instead, I strongly recommend watching Over the Garden Wall, it is magical!
When I was little I had an old video with things like The Clangers and Bagpuss (Sam always pokes fun at me because they were way before my time). I was so enamoured by the strange and gentle worlds the characters inhabited, I wanted to curl up in a clangers cosy moon cave.
How would you look like and what would you be doing right now in one of your illustrated worlds?
I would definitely be very tiny and riding on some kind of hideous insect.
Theodore Key, a fellow illustrator, left a lovely comment on my Instagram that I thought described my ‘illustrated world’ very nicely:
“Every drawing you make feels like it is part of a fleshed out universe you have created and lived in and one can effortlessly imagine that world continuing outside the bounds of the drawn frame, your drawn world even has invisible built in sounds.”
Where is one most likely to find you when you are not working?
We’ve recently moved into a new flat that has big, beautiful Victorian windows in the living room. I like to sit there amongst my mugs of mouldy tea, drawing or sewing and spying on the local cats and people, for some reason I think they can’t see me sitting there… but they probably can.
What is the best thing about your new place and what will you be missing from the old one?
The best thing about the new place is that we now have real cupboards! So all the bric-a-brac we’ve accumulated over the years can be nicely hidden away and forgotten about and I can pretend that I’m not a hoarder at all. I don’t really miss anything about the last flat, it was very small and didn’t have a garden – another big perk about the new place, although we hadn’t had much of a chance to hang out in it because it's rained non-stop since we moved in, should be nice for the summer months though.
If you could live and work anywhere is the world, where would that be and why?
In a rickety old tree house on an island somewhere, maybe the same Island where Esmeralda is marooned.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m illustrating a series of historical fiction adventure stories for Bloomsbury. The stories are set in Ancient Greece and I get to learn so much about it, it’s great! I’m also at the very early stages of a new picture book of which the details have to be kept under wraps for now, but keep your eyes peeled for its publication next year!
A year ago, your goal was to have a little studio space in Bristol and to work on children's books. Now that this has been accomplished, what’s next? What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
I’m quite pleased that I reached the goal I set myself last year (that’s pretty rare for me). Sadly the future of my studio in Hamilton House is on pretty shaky grounds at the moment, with plans to develop the building into flats. I would really love to prolong the goal of staying put in this studio because I feel so integrated into the artistic community here and have met so many inspirational fellow illustrators and friends.
Project aspirations wise I’ve always wanted to have a go at writing a story in comic book form.
Can you recommend us:
A song: Mary, by Big Thief.
A book: Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner.
A film: Inherent Vice, by Paul Thomas Anderson.