In a digital age when photography is more accessible than ever, people seem to have a better appreciation for a unique artistic vision and skill. It is true that photography as an art form has not vanished, but it is also true that cheap snapshots are ubiquitous. Which is why I find illustration extremely valuable today. Cecilia Carlstedt makes one of the most beautiful cases for illustration and for the sustainability and timelessness of a piece of art. Seamlessly combining the traditional pencil and ink with more contemporary mediums, Cecilia’s works are charged with singular beauty, energy and newness. And because much of her work is inherently connected with fashion, I must say that in a time when I think that everything in the industry is just too much, too overexposed or too overrated, illustration has the ability to make fashion relevant again, providing a narrative and a different point of view about clothes…more efficiently than words and photography can. The Swedish illustrator’s collaborations include such big names like Elle, Vogue, The New York Times and W magazine, as well as Paul Smith, La Perla, Victoria Secret, H&M and Swarosvski. It is a great pleasure to have Cecilia as my guest today.
Why illustration? How did you start?
Illustration has always been my means of expression from an early age and what I always been wanting to do, but how I came to specifically enjoy drawing fashion I think is because I like the theatrical side of the industry and with fashion illustration you really are allowed to exaggerate, push and experiment without boundaries.
I received my first commission 1998 when I had just started to study Art History at the Stockholm University. I went to a meeting with Swedish Elle and showed my portfolio (all with original drawings in it!) and this visit subsequently gave me my first commission illustrating the upcoming fashion trends.
What is your earliest drawing memory?
I can remember drawing this round-as-a-ball lady with big ear rings when I was around six and being praised for it by my mom. It was a good and encouraging feeling.
How would you describe your illustrative style?
Changeable, intuitive, eclectic in the use of mediums with love for the female form and essentially linked to the world of fashion.
Is there a specific medium you prefer? Why?
It varies, but for a while now it has been painting with ink. I love how the medium can be used either making bold, energy filled brush strokes or transformed into soft organic washes. It is a medium that you can’t fully control, that is very changeable depending on how and on what paper you use. This experimental aspect makes it always exciting to paint and keeps you focused.
How big a part does hand- and digital-drawing, respectively, play in your work? Would you ever consider traditional drawing exclusively?
I used to do more digital drawing in programs like Illustrator and Photoshop, but these days I do all the work by hand first and strive not to digitally alter it as much as possible. It brings me most satisfaction, when I ‘nail it’ with the original drawing. However, it’s hard to imagine not being able to alter, adding and composing the work digitally. The computer is such a helpful and necessary tool when working commercially. When you are working for a client, you have to consider their view and wants along the way and often having to make revisions or amendments. It would be a very time consuming and a difficult process not being able to re-work and revise it digitally.
Could you tell me a little about your creative process?
It depends a little on the assignment, but I usually start with an idea, or an image that triggers me to create. This could be a pose, a silhouette, or something relevant to the task. I get inspired from looking at other images, mainly photography, and can see quite quickly if it is something I can dive into, twist and turn, and interpret my way. Then I make the painting or drawing in the appropriate medium. This process can happen quickly or I need to make multiple sketches before reaching the required result. If it’s a personal work I leave the work at this stage keeping it as an ‘original piece’ without bringing it into the computer. But if the end result isn’t supposed to be an original, I will scan the hand-drawn work, which could consist of many different techniques and elements, and then put it all together in Photoshop. It is however important for me that the work feels like it hasn’t been manipulated in the computer too much but has kept it’s traditional hand-crafty quality.
Who and what has influenced and inspired your work?
There are for sure many things and people that have influenced me without me even noticing or remembering.. But I could make a very long list of people and things I admire and love… to name a few that pops to my mind right now would be .. Artists such as Marlene Dumas, Elisabeth Peyton, Gerhard Richer. Photographers such as Vivianne Sassen, Paolo Roversi, Illustators such as Mats Gustafson, Julie Verhoven, David Downton, Francois Berthoud. Magazines: Encens Magazine, Acne Paper, Muse Magazine.
What has your career highlight been so far?
I think it was being able to buy the contract of the studio I am now working in. It is such a luxury have your own studio to go to everyday!
How challenging is for an artist to do commissioned work? How does it relate to your personal, freelance work?
I feel at this point I am mostly very comfortable doing commissioned work. In some way it’s easier than creating personal work. A lot of commissioned work is also very open creatively and I feel my personal work develops as much from my commissioned work as the other way around.
Do you have a specific working atmosphere you like to surround yourself with when creating?
Yes, always music, radio or pod casts. It’s rarely quite… unfortunately also too messy and many cups of half empty coffee cups lying around.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I used to, a long time ago when I didn’t have a studio and sat in various cafes, book shops and libraries. Then I carried one around doodled and put down ideas. These days, having small kids, I find that my work flow is more concentrated and focused as I have less time for the thinking and sketching process. These days it seems platforms like instagram serves like the old traditional sketchbook in a way… I have recently started an Instagram account and I guess it is my modern type of a sketchbook.
What qualities separate illustration from photography? I am asking you this because today everybody thinks they can take a photo with their iPhone.
Yes, I think precisely this – the overflow of filtered iphone photography is a big factor why illustration seems to be seeing a revival in the more traditional sense. Hand-made = personal.
There used to be more hand-craft involved in photography when you used film and developed in dark rooms. It was a different mindset, not as accessible, instant and easy to alternate. I believe because of the way technology has changed the concept of photography, the craving of the unique has grown stronger. And possiblly illustration with its imperfection or perfection by skill shows the viewer something more personal and ambiguous rather than the constant feed of photography surrounding in all media and social platforms.
How big a part does fashion play in your work?
It naturally plays a big part. But I find inspiration in fashion in another way rather then being interested in what the latest trend, model or designer might be…
Fashion illustration has known a revival of interest lately. What does an illustrator bring new to fashion? What is the biggest challenge?
What I talked about earlier – the illustrator is bringing forward a personal view and interpretation and is easier being able to focus and draw attention to what their own personal interest might be. The challenge is still however to take more space within the industry and not just act as a compliment to photography.
Any favourite fashion designers?
..it varies, but from a drawing point of view I often return to the heavy weights: Celine, Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Maison Margiela… To wear, I like designers like Rodebjer, Au Jour Le Jour, Rachel Comey, Isabel Marant…to name a few!
Which is the best piece of advice you’ve been given, career-wise?
Let an agent deal with all the parts of the job you are not good at.
Tell me about your personal style. How would you describe it? What does style mean to you?
I like it to be a mix of comfort, playful and personal. I am not a fashionista, but love beautiful clothes and things. Style, I think, is an individual take on what’s surrounding you.
One thing you can’t start your day without:
And what is your one favourite thing to do in Stockholm and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world?
Take a long walk through town via skeppsbron, past the castle out to Djurgården via Rosendahl’s gardens to Prins Eugens Waldermarsudde art museum. Amazing setting and artist’s home at the beginning of the 1900.
I would give all the major shopping malls a miss.
Where would we find you when not working?
With friends – hopefully at an inspiring art opening somewhere.
With family – at the country house.
photos: courtesy of Cecilia Carlstedt