Lorna Wheele – Illustrator Interview 

Lorna Wheele is an illustrator from a small village just outside of Brighton. Since graduating from university, she has incorporated her love for what she does into every aspect of her life, including her previous supermarket job and has become known for her location drawings and pet portraits. She was nominated for Landscape Artist Of The Year by Sky Arts last year, and has continued to excel ever since. I speak to Lorna about her journey into illustration, delving into some of the aspects of her career thus far.

What sparked your love for illustration, and how old were you?

I have always loved picture books growing up – we had so many beautifully illustrated ones everywhere, because my mum was and still is an illustrator too. But, I didn’t really know what illustration was until my last year in sixth form, so I was around 17/18 years old. I really enjoyed art at school and excelled in it, but it was always just painting, then abstraction, and then more painting, which was never really my thing. I found it quite frustrating. One day I started drawing what was going on in our art room during a lesson, and my teacher said, “you’re an illustrator.” After that, I was able to channel my love of drawing literally, rather than conceptually, into something that I could really engage with and made sense to me.

Tell me about your journey from when you started, until where you are now.

After sixth form I went to Brighton City College to take an art foundation year. Bizarrely, I tried to get away from anything illustrative or design based at first, which I think was just because I suddenly had so many new and exciting resources and avenues to explore, compared to being at school. Part of this rebellion was also probably because I wanted to try desperately not to do what my parents do for a living, and find something different and unique to me. As mentioned, my mum is an illustrator and my dad’s a graphic designer. Within two weeks at Brighton trying to find ‘something different,’ it became apparent this wasn’t going to happen. Everything I enjoyed – drawing, designing, observing, telling stories – led to illustration. Once I’d accepted this, it took me to Kingston School of Art, where I got a First Class Honours in Illustration Animation. Chuffed! This course was perfect and I loved every minute. It allowed me to develop and evolve my own style, and work out where I fit in in the illustration industry. This is where I am now, still trying to work that out.

What were the hardships you faced during your journey in illustration, and how did you overcome them?

Most of the hardships I’ve faced are the ones I’m currently facing. Though we had a few lectures at uni about how to be a freelancer; how to find work, how to invoice and so forth, it wasn’t really enough. I’ve spent that last two years understanding that I can’t just be an illustrator, I have to be a businesswoman too. There are more overarching, ongoing hardships that I think most artists face, which I’ve also spent time working to accept or move past.

I’ve always been very happy with my style and I’m content that it doesn’t conform to any trends or look too similar to anyone else. I don’t have to worry about comparing myself to others in this respect. My issue comes from comparing myself to other peoples ‘successes,’ which I mostly have Instagram to thank for. This is usually comparisons of my own journey after uni with people who I went to uni with. It’s very hard to not be bitter sometimes, when there are people getting deals with huge publishers, and I’m here drawing my neighbours dog for £20. I have to remind myself that people take different times to get to where they want to be, and everyone’s destination is different. Instagram is just an edited view of anyones life. I could ramble about it for ages.

How do you find inspiration?

I work best when I go out drawing on location. I’ll go and physically sit in a place that I want to document and make drawings while I’m there. I usually get inspired to develop ideas during my time at these locations, making notes and taking pictures, and if I’m not feeling it, I’ll move on somewhere else. I’ve always wanted to take this way of working and go travelling with it to document where I go and what I encounter on the way, and to maybe make it all into a book when I get home.

Why do you draw the things you do?

I enjoy drawing as a way to capture where I go, who I’m with, what I see. With the pet portraits – I really enjoy drawing animals. I had a brief idea to set up a dog walking business when I moved home after uni, and I believe I was just drawing some dogs for a logo design, and someone sent me a message on Instagram asking for one of their pet. It snowballed from there, and now I’m getting a decent amount of orders, which is exciting. It’s quite a nice balance actually, between my personal work being so loose and spontaneous, and the pet portraits being more focussed and studio based.

Very recently you left your job at Waitrose, and during that time you managed to incorporate illustration into your boring day job which strongly indicates the passion for what you do. How did you get into this?

There was a competition to make the dining room at work a more enjoyable place to spend your break time, and I think I mentioned in passing to one of the managers that I would like to do a mural on one of the walls in the room. It was kind of said as a joke, as I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it, but it turned out they really liked the idea. I started designing, organising and executing a mural of Brighton seafront in the dining room. Apart from a mural for my final project at uni, I didn’t have any experience in painting murals and it was such an amazing opportunity to learn and develop a new skill, while also directing the whole task. What I loved most about the whole thing was that people really engaged with it. Partners came up to me while I was painting, asking about my artistic practise and discussing their opinions about art with me. It was designed to encourage a communal space at this branch and I think it really achieved that.

You were nominated for Landscape Artist Of The Year last year by Sky Arts. How was that experience?

It was a really surreal experience, and I still can’t believe I did it. I was chosen to compete against 40 other artists out of about 1500 applicants, so for me being a year out of uni, it was a real confidence boost. Nothing really came from it in terms of work or jobs, but I just had the best day filming in Broadstairs with the other contestants and judges, and I can say I’ve been on TV to showcase my illustration, which is mad, albeit a little cringe for me, watching myself back.

What would you say to people who want to go into illustration, who may be struggling to find the momentum?

Focus on letting go of a ‘good’ drawing or a ‘good’ piece of art. Throw all of your rubbers away, or only work in a permanent media for a while. Enjoy the process of drawing as a way to just make marks on a page while really looking at your subject. Keep producing loads of rubbishy drawings to get to the ones you enjoy. Also, go to a book shop and look at the kids section, you can find some beautiful illustrations there. Go to galleries and workshops and just keep making work.

Where do you hope to see yourself in a few years? Do you have any big goals for the future?

I’m currently working as a teaching assistant and art technician at a school, so I’m planning to use my school holidays to do little bits of travelling to keep my portfolio full of fresh work, and to keep developing my style. I’m hoping to try and give freelancing another go after a couple of years at this job.

Pick a couple of paintings you’ve done, and tell us the stories behind them.

‘Diwali – London is Open’

I made this drawing during a residency at Topolski Studio in London in 2017. I’ve chosen to include it, because I think it sums up how I work. I sat with a friend in Trafalgar Square for 8 hours and drew the Diwali festival taking place around us. There are bits of overheard conversation and observations jotted down in and around the drawing, which all come together to really capture the day we experienced.

‘Budapest Baths, Hungary’

This was one of the first location drawings I did that made me realise this is how I like working. I made it while Interrailling in 2016, during a visit to Budapest.

Final artwork made during ‘Landscape Artist of the Year 2018’

I’m so proud of the work I produced during my time on this show, mainly because I didn’t change how I worked or my process. I was completely true to myself and I think that comes through in the artwork I made.

Words By Venita Cutler – 10/09/19

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