Interview with Illustrator Eliza Southwood

L’Eroica | Eliza Southwood

 
First, I came across a notebook. It was not just another notebook. It was an illustrated road bike journal. I just kept leafing through it, enthusing over each new illustration… The iconic Col du Galibier, the mythical Alpe d’Huez, the Tuscan white gravel roads of L’Eroica, the unforgiving Mont Ventoux, or Lagos de Covadonga, the stage queen of Vuelta de España, and other demanding or fun challenges. Why is there no tennis illustrated notebook?, was my next thought. But cycling is a sport I also admire. And I can never resist a beautiful notebook. So I bought two, one for myself, and one to keep just because I am sure that it will make a great gift to someone else at some point, maybe my father, a sports enthusiast. Then I immersed myself into the work of the artist who had captured on paper the spirit and art of cycling with such ease and elegance and fell in love with her entire portfolio.

Eliza Southwood was trained and had been practicing as an architect for ten years when, in 2010, decided to change gears and take up a career as an artist and full-time illustrator, although she has consistently drawn and painted throughout her life. Her London Is the Place for Me illustration has recently won London’s Transport Museum’s annual prize for illustration. Cycling however remains one of Eliza’s favourite themes, and I have to admit that it was the retro, classic bike ride feel her illustrations evoke (hinting at a time when the sport was somehow more stylish, more fascinating, and, well, yes, “cleaner”) that simply rekindled my interest in this beautiful sport, not just in the actual riding the bike, but also in the history of cycling. I ended up buying the book Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal, by Daniel Friebe, on the spot when I saw it in a bookshop a few days later, without even reading what was written on its back jacket, added a few other books of reference about cycling to my list, and I have started reminiscing with my brother about years old Tours de France.

I had to reach out to Eliza herself to go more in depth about her inspiring work. In our interview, we have talked about her earliest drawing memory, about the craft of illustration and Miguel Indurain, about biking in London, the Tweed Run and style.
 
 

”Observation is really important.
Sometimes I pretend in my head that I’m drawing something
just so I can look at it properly. So much of what we see on a
daily basis is scanned over without properly stopping to see.”

 
 

Amstel Gold silk screen print | Eliza Southwood

 

What is your earliest drawing memory?
Painting butterflies on a kids’ easel when I was 4. It went ”wrong” and in a rage I covered the whole thing with black paint.

Were you allowed the freedom to draw whatever you liked in your childhood?
Of course – my parents were hippies who were quite happy for me to draw whatever I liked.

What inspired you to become an illustrator?
Apart from a natural predilection for drawing, seeing the work of artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, Miró, Picasso and Degas, who I loved as a child, and Spanish 30s propaganda posters, which I saw in an exhibition as a teenager. I realised that illustration is an art form in its own right. But it took me a while to get there.

You practiced as an architect for ten years before taking up a career as an artist and illustrator. What made you make the change?
I got quite burnt out and I wasn’t happy with the direction my career was taking. On paper, it looked really good – I was becoming senior in the company I worked for. But I was working on a project in Saudi Arabia – a Sports City designed almost entirely for men – which riled me. I didn’t agree at all with the ethos of it. A lot of the sustainable engineering elements were costed out of the project, which riled me as well. I was struggling to be part of my family at home and at the same time be required to travel abroad at the drop of a hat, or stay late working to deadlines. I was asked to write a design guide to swimming pools and all I could think about was what illustrations I would do a) for the front cover and b) inside, to make it look more interesting. At that point, I wondered whether I should be in a different career.
 

Eddie Merckx | Painting by Eliza Southwood

 

Your cycling illustrations are a distinctive feature in your work. Where does this passion for the art of cycling originate, what is it about cycling that inspires you so much?
Bikes are basically efficient, beautiful machines that have changed very little in 100 years. Also, I like drawing humans and the human form generally. I think it’s a combination of the colours you see in professional cycling, the elegance of the bikes and the variety in cycling tactics itself – the peloton, the echelon, the sole breakaway – that have so much richness. And the landscapes that cyclists travel through are great to illustrate.

Do you have an all-time favourite cyclist?
I like Eddy Merckx – I have one of his vintage road bikes. Also Miguel Indurain – I met him a couple of years ago and he is charming.

Are you riding your bike in London?
Yes – I commute to the studio – but, since I have two dogs, I tend to do more walking than cycling nowadays.

Are you interested in illustrating other sports, too? Tennis, for example? (I am a big tennis fan).
Yes – I have designed and made rowing, swimming and running prints. I should do tennis actually. I’d like to do football one day as well.
 

Col du Galibier | Eliza Southwood

 
You mention the landscapes the cyclists travel through as one of the elements great to illustrate in cycling. How important is actual observation for your work and how much do you rely on imagination?
Observation is really important. Sometimes I pretend in my head that I’m drawing something just so I can look at it properly. So much of what we see on a daily basis is scanned over without properly stopping to see. I find life drawing really useful for familiarising myself with the human body. However, I rely on my imagination for ideas. I have no shortage of ideas and I quite often just make something up out of nothing.

Who and what inspires you daily?
Just walking around looking at architecture and people inspires me – and thinking about stuff, wondering what I’m going to do next. I spend a lot of time thinking. I always get inspired by going to see art shows in London too.

You have recently won the London Transport Museum’s annual Poster Prize for Illustration with your “London is the Place for Me”. What made you choose the Empire Windrush theme? Because I have the feeling it speaks on different levels and it is very poignant in today’s context.
I chose the Windrush theme because I was outraged by the Windrush scandal. I wanted to celebrate this part of history too by honouring the people that came over on the boat. I’m white, so I was aware of the cultural sensitivities involved in portraying a part of black history, but I felt strongly that it should be the subject of my illustration, especially considering that last year was the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush.
 

London Is the Place for Me, winner of the London Transport Museum’s 2019 prize for illustration | Eliza Southwood

 

How big a part does hand- and digital-drawing, respectively, play in your work? Would you ever consider traditional drawing exclusively?
Yes, I would quite happily boot the computer away, but in illustration it is so much easier and quicker to colour something in digitally. All my work starts with a hand drawing anyway. Also you can correct mistakes very easily. Basically, the computer is just another tool.

You grew up in Spain and have lived and studied in Italy, Scotland and England. How has this multicultural background informed you creatively?
I think diversity is really important and being open to other cultures and ideas. I speak three other languages in addition to English and I get commissions regularly from Europe. It means a lot to me to be able to email my clients in their own language. I love being a citizen of Europe. Needless to say I am very upset about Brexit. I suppose being exposed to different urban environments and different rural environments has been inspiring because it makes your work more diverse. I really enjoy travelling generally – as a result I love drawing the arid landscapes of Spain as much as a cityscape in London. If you’ve never been somewhere else it’s not as easy to conjure up an image.

What qualities separate illustration from photography? I am asking you this because today everybody thinks they can take a photo with their iPhone and I believe that illustration has a different mindset, not as accessible, instant and easy to alternate.
I think illustration can convey more meaning and more visual possibilities than a phone pic. You can invent stuff, you can add things in the background, and you can incorporate texture and invented worlds and creatures – you can do anything in illustration. You can combine colours to grab people’s attention, or simply create something beautiful that people just want to keep looking at. I don’t really understand the comparison because they are worlds apart.

Yes, photography and illustration are worlds apart, but I was asking this because in the last years the overflow of filtered iphone photography seems to be a big factor why illustration seems to be seeing a revival in the more traditional sense (maybe that’s just my opinion). I was thinking more of the craftsmanship involved in illustration and also that once there was more craft involved in photography, too, when they used film and developed it in dark rooms.
I was one of those people who developed their film old style! I used to use sepia film to take good pictures of concrete buildings when I was at architecture college. Lots of more traditional craft techniques are having a revival now – like knitting, hand drawing, making stuff by hand. I do agree that it is a reaction to the proliferation and ease of digital production.
 

Dragon Ride | Eliza Southwood

 
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes I do – it’s rubbish. Full of to-do lists and doodles. My work in progress sketches are all scribbly. My sketch book is not a thing of beauty to show people. But it’s very practical.

Do you have a specific working atmosphere you like to surround yourself with when creating?
I like working in my studio, listening to music.

I also love the posters you did for The Tweed Run. I’ve always loved the idea of The Tweed Run, a bike ride in your well-pressed best, and your illustration beautifully captured that spirit. What does style mean to you?
It depends what you mean by style. The Tweed Run is a fun poster to do – I’ve done it for quite a few years running now – because I get to use all these tweedy textures. I love collaging textures into my work. I’m not particularly stylish myself – in fact I’m quite scruffy because I don’t have to work in an office any more.

I am referring to style in a bigger sense. As a way of dressing, yes, but not necessarily from the point of view of fashion, but rather as an individual take on what’s surrounding you.
Yes, of course style interests me. I follow some really good accounts on Twitter like @presentcorrect and @BrutalHouse which I find constantly inspiring. There are some good print-making publications too, such as Pressing Matters… I love books, design, architecture and vintage photos of cycling races. Anything really!
 

Mont Ventoux | Eliza Southwood

 
Words you live by:
I hesitate to say Carpe Diem as it sounds a bit naff these days, but I really do take each day as it comes and feel lucky to be alive.

Your favourite thing to do in London and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world:
Dinner at the Ethiopian restaurant round the corner from my house, followed by a late show at the RA followed by cocktails in the RA bar.

One thing you can not start the day without:
A cup of tea (not a coffee person).

In this day and age, what do you wish people appreciated more?
Good grammar, kindness and the NHS.

What makes you happy at the end of the day?
Happy clients, happy family and happy dogs. In no particular order.
 

Miguel Indurain, illustrated by Eliza Southwood

 
 

Website and online shop: elizasouthwood.com
Instagram: @elizasouthwood | Twitter: @ElizaSouthwood

 

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