Illustration with Zoë Barker
Hey Zoe! You’re an illustrator based in Norwich. Your work has a very traditional feel, with lots of redbrick buildings and old-world shop fronts. What is it you enjoy so much about drawing these buildings? Is there any reason you don’t work with more modern subject matter?
Hi there, Alex. Well, I only moved to Norwich about a year and a half ago, from London. I’d been there for 15 years, so it was quite a big move. I grew up in a very small town in Suffolk, so I felt like I was returning to a more familiar place, very close to the sea and the countryside.
I think I enjoy this subject matter so much because it’s so familiar. My Dad is a clockmaker and my Grandad was a watchmaker, and up until I left for Art School, my Dad still ran the family clock shop. So in this way, these drawings are precious memories of my childhood. The British high street will always interest me because it has had such an impact on my family—most of our family friends were shopkeepers too. Growing up in a place where everyone knew you and your family, I found London at first a breath of fresh air, but later, hard to feel ‘known’. My sketchbooks looked very different when I lived in London! In contrast these drawings literally feel like coming home.
I do draw modern scenes and pretty much all of the shopfronts and matter that I draw are from present day, but I’m definitely drawn to people and places that have a foot in the past, or ideas and crafts that have been developed and honed over time. I also find these subjects quite tactile—I’d much rather draw a crusty old building with lots of character than a sleek, glossy one. That goes for my materials too. I love using colouring pencils and watercolour because it’s an experience; the smell of the crayons, the sound they make against the paper.
From the buildings in your work, to the clothing the people are wearing, and the still lives you draw, your artwork feels very English. Do you think your surroundings informed your style, or is it a conscious choice to draw these kinds of things? Do you find English imagery and architecture more inspiring than that of other countries?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but I guess my work is often an extension of myself (that sounds so lame, sorry)—and me processing what’s around me. I love the history we have in England, the landscape, the folk music, all the old stuff! I feel like lots of these things are fragile and won’t last forever, so I’m kind of trying to explore them and capture them while I can. I also love architecture from other countries, but I have less of an association with it—I don’t want to draw things for myself that I have no connection to. For example, I drew the Monmouth Coffee illustration because I worked there when I finished art school. My good friends (and my dog) can also be seen drawn into the illustration. They’re little documents of my life.
I’ve interviewed a fair few illustrators on WFTP, and its almost universal that they have gradually developed their style since childhood. Is that the case for you? What do you think your 10 year old self would think of the work you make today?
Ha, I’d love to chat to my 10 year old self! I was a bit of a loner at school—when I was ten I would often stay in at lunchtime and draw. Mainly dogs. Lots of dogs. I still often try to get a little character walking my dog in my illustrations. I think my 10 year old self would be delighted that I was still drawing. I never knew any artists when I was a kid, and I’d certainly never appreciated the concept of becoming an illustrator, so I think this would blow my little mind.
My style has definitely developed over time—I used to be really caught up about what my style even was, trying to define it. But I kind of just arrived at the way I work now after drawing and drawing and drawing. You definitely can’t rush this process—it takes so much practice and exploration, finding your way, otherwise you just feel really restricted. I can’t wait to see what my drawings look like in another 20 years.
What would you like to offer up as your WFTP hidden gem?
I’d like to offer up illustration legend, ‘David Gentleman’—he’s one of my all time favourites. He is 90 years old! He too draws his environment, often with a nod to rural and quintessentially British scenes. He has a book called ‘London, You’re Beautiful’ which is basically a sketchbook of London throughout the seasons. On the days that I felt like I’d fallen out of love with London, I would flick through this and always feel so inspired. I love to imagine what I’ll be drawing when I’m 90!
Thank you Zoë, it’s been great to learn about your artwork. Please give us your links and social media channels so we can keep up to date with what you do!
Thanks so much for having me. You can find my work on Instagram at @zoebarkerdraws among photos of my Irish Terrier and studio pal, Aida.
Interview by Alex Wilson