We returned to the vibrant city of Bristol to meet with Nicola Colton, the illustrator behind People of Bristol project, at her Hamilton House studio space. Fascinated with fairytale creatures and visual storytelling from an early age, Nicola creates well-thought out and impressively executed visuals that celebrate the beauty of the everyday whilst conveying a warm sense of community and belonging.
Nicola offered us a peek into her past projects and current ventures, and took us along to Cafe Kino, one of her favourite spots in the city where she spends her time capturing the colourful people of Bristol. Our conversation moved into her lovely home where, amongst vinyl records and homemade macaroons, she told us about her trips to East Asia and the upcoming wedding day.
For people who don’t know you – who is Nicola Colton?
I'm an Irish illustrator living in Bristol; a city I find continually inspiring and full of creativity. I mostly work in children's illustration and publishing but I also do some commercial work. I've been getting back into writing over the past year and I'm hoping to have my own children's fiction and picture books published. I love getting lost in a good book and often listen to audio books while I'm working. I try to make time for yoga and meditation a few times a week, it's important for me to make space to relax and it definitely helps my creativity. I would love to have a cat and/or a scruffy dog with a beard. In the meantime I covet other people's pets when I'm out for walks with my partner Gavin and talk to my house plants. They all have names of course.
Tell us about your life before moving to Bristol.
I always loved drawing and remember scribbling away with my box of crayons for hours on the floor when I was 4 or 5. From ages 7 to 9 I drew nothing but dinosaurs as I was obsessed with them and loved learning about them. I also loved to write and to conjure up characters and stories to get lost in. As a teenager I did lots of painting, mostly abstract but I also went through phases of drawing things I was fascinated by at the time such as dragons and buddhas. I went on to study graphic design. I knew I wanted to work at something creative and Graphic Design seemed like a good fit. There were no illustration courses in Ireland at the time and I had no idea it could be a possible career path.
Graphic design was great for teaching the fundamentals of composition, using type and digital media but it never felt quite right for me. I really missed drawing but it simply wasn’t part of the course and I found myself falling out of practice. I worked as designer for a while but it never quite fit; it felt like dressing in someone else's clothes and it just wasn’t me. I’m not very good at sticking to jobs I don’t enjoy, my heart really needs to be in it. But getting back into drawing was scary for me. I had a huge block around it and I had become very critical. If a drawing didn’t look right straight away, I would give up in frustration and it could be weeks before I would try again. Then I did a couple of private illustration courses taught by some wonderful illustrators and they really helped me rediscover the joy of drawing again. I learned that it’s a process, if you don’t like a drawing, just turn the page and keep going. I’ve been working as an illustrator for the past six years and feel very lucky and happy to be doing a job that I love. I was a bit lost for a few years in my 20s but things have come full circle and I’m back to doing what I have loved since I was child.
What is the most vivid memory from your Irish childhood?
There are a few. I remember watching my granny bake Irish brown bread, kneading and working the dough and the heavenly smell when it was ready to come out of the oven. I loved being at her house, it felt like a safe and warm cocoon. She always had the fire lit, even on a hot Summer’s day and I liked sitting beside it with her and telling what I did at school. I also vividly remember being 3 or 4 and sitting on the back of my mum’s bicycle in a child seat, my legs dangling and the breeze blowing in my hair as she cycled to the nearby village to pick up groceries or ‘messages’ as she likes to call them. On Fridays when I was small, my dad would bring my brother and I on an adventure to ‘The Sweet Tree’. We would go on these long walks through the field next to our house until we reached a tree with sweets hanging from it. They only grew there on Fridays of course. It led to a few weeks of planting sweets in the hopes of growing a tree of my own.
What or who inspired you to pursue illustration? Are there any artists in your family?
My dad is a natural storyteller and loves to make people laugh. My mum likes to crochet and make things. I recently found out that my Grandfather made and designed clocks which I find really interesting and my grandmother who I mentioned earlier worked as a caterer. There are definitely creative people in my family, storytellers, makers, singers, writers and poets. My uncle is very interested in art and likes to create abstract paintings in his free time. He was a big influence on me early in my childhood. When he visited he would bring big coffee table books on the impressionists and surrealists. I loved poring over the pages, soaking up the colours and imagining being part of the Parisian art scene, sipping coffee with Monet and Cezanne, as you do!
Your “People of Bristol” series made us think of the word “sonder” from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. What sparked your interest in capturing the reality of the Other?
I hadn’t come across The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows website before but Sonder is a wonderful word. “The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own...” The first passerby I drew was a man dressed in brilliant turquoise and carrying peacock feathers. It was such a beautiful thing to see, he was so colourful and bright it made my day. I wanted to know more and why he was carrying the feathers. Everyone has a story and this project is about capturing a glimpse at what it might be. I had the idea for the series when first I moved to Bristol two years ago. But the project only really got going once I started working in a studio in Hamilton House. I kept seeing interesting people on my way to the studio. I felt compelled and inspired to draw them. One thing that has really struck me is that Bristolians have a really strong individual and unique sense of style. I think it's very representative of the creative spirit of the city and it's diverse cultural influences. People seem to wear what they feel like and express their personality through their clothes. Working on this project has helped me feel more connected to this wonderful city and the people who make it special.
How do you choose who to draw?
It can be any number of things that catch my eye. Someone could be wearing something colourful or an interesting pattern or carrying something interesting. It could be the way they are walking or an interesting interaction they are having with someone else. I go with whatever peaks my interest on the day.
Do you think people recognise themselves in your drawings? Did any of them get in touch with you?
Yes. One person found themselves on my Instagram page, which was really nice. Her name is Victoria and she was wearing a bright yellow jumper with the words 'Peanut Butter' stitched in bold letters and her striking blonde hair was in a side plait. Interestingly, she runs a fashion and lifestyle blog with her friend Jo called SheandHem. She wrote a blog post about finding herself on my 'People of Bristol' page which was a nice surprise. I'm really happy she likes the illustration and glad she got in touch. I hope more people recognise themselves, it's part of the fun of the project and makes it more interactive.
You wrote and illustrated a book called A Dublin Fairytale published by The O'Brien Press in 2015. What inspired you to start working on it? What was the most exciting step in this project?
I lived in Dublin for 11 years, so it’s a place very close to my heart. The idea for the book came about one day when I was daydreaming on the bus and started to imagine what it would be like if fairytale creatures inhabited the city. The book is essentially a walk through Dublin and it's my love letter to a place that was a huge part of my life. The most exciting step was holding the book in my hands for the first time. It’s magic seeing an idea manifest into something tangible.
How did you find your current studio at Hamilton House and what do you like about this creative space?
Being an illustrator is often quite a solitary job so having a space where I can work alongside other illustrators and creative professionals is truly wonderful. I'm so inspired by the wealth of creativity in one space and it's so interesting seeing all the different processes and approaches to the work. There's a lovely sense of community and belonging. I heard about the studio through a friend and was delighted when a space became available.
You have recently delivered a character design workshop during The National Children's Literary Festival at Listowel Writers’ Week. Can you tell us more about this experience? How did the children engage with the idea of storytelling through illustration? And how important is art for them?
I love working with children and always feel really inspired after doing a workshop. Children don't have the inhibitions that adults sometimes develop around creativity and are full of ideas. It helps you to remember that you don't have to overthink things and be so critical, that you can throw yourself into drawing and have fun. Art is hugely important for children as a mode of expressing themselves and learning through experimentation and play. Picture books are wonderful as children can follow the story visually even if they can't read yet and they are a great way of stimulating their imagination.
What are your favourite materials to work with when illustrating?
At the moment I love using soft B pencils and charcoal as they allow for a nice organic and scribbly line. I mostly colour digitally but I like to use acrylic paint for certain textures.
When it comes to commissioned work, how do you draw the line between your own aesthetic taste and the expectations of a client?
Luckily most clients that contact me already like my illustration style so this generally isn't an issue. With advertising clients it can be a bit trickier as they may want to use certain brand colours and have a set way of visually presenting a product/service that may be different to my usual style/process. As long as there's a good open line of communication and the client is specific about what they want, it's not a problem to match expectations.
A couple of years ago you moved from Ireland to Bristol. What made you choose Bristol? What do you love about living here?
I really didn't know a lot about Bristol before I moved to be honest, I just had a really good feeling about it and I knew it had a vibrant illustration scene. I tend to follow my instincts on most things and myself and my partner had itchy feet in Dublin. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and try somewhere new. I really love Bristol, there's a great community of creatives here and it's a very friendly city with plenty to see and do.It's full of green spaces, there are lots of nature reserves and parks to retreat to. I really like that there's an emphasis on supporting independent shops/businesses with initiatives like Bristol Pound. There are also lots of vegetarian restaurants and cafes which is great for me.
What would we find in your wardrobe? How would you describe your personal style?
I mostly wear dresses these days, partly because I like them and partly because I don't need to worry about matching tops and skirts/trousers! You can throw a dress on and be ready to go. I love the style from the 50's and 60's in particular, shirt dresses in bright colours are my favourite. Film has definitely influenced my taste in clothes; Amélie Poulain from Amélie and Margot Tenenbaum from The Royal Tenenbaums are my ultimate style icons.
What would you be doing if you weren't making art?
I have no idea. I tried working in different fields and I've learned that I'm miserable when I don't have a creative outlet. Illustration and writing are all I want to do.
Are there any global or local issues you are currently interested in?
I really care about animal welfare and I was a vegetarian for 11 years. I had to adjust my diet due to health reasons but I only buy organic, high welfare poultry and sustainably sourced fish. I also avoid any products tested on animals. I try to do my bit for the environment as well but I could definitely improve on this. I'd really like to reduce the amount of plastic I use. It's horrifying to see the amounts that are ending up in the ocean.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
I've been doing a lot of writing this past year and I would love to write and illustrate a children's fiction series for slightly older readers. I have lots of ideas for picture books and would like to do more in the future.
Can you recommend us:
A film: The Royal Tenenbaums, by Wes Anderson.
A song: “Pink Moon”, by Nick Drake.
A book: The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall.