Michelle Collier is an illustrator, printmaker and paper cutter inspired by folk art, stories and traditional tattooing. Her work ranges from vivid, bold prints to delicately intricate hand-cut paper art. She juggles her creative work with working part-time, honing her skills and developing her business. This week I asked her how she balances her day job and her art, how she maintains passion for her work, and what advice she would give to aspiring artists.
Tell us a little about what you do?
I’m an illustrator, printmaker and paper-cutter – basically I love working with my hands! Everything I make starts life as an illustration that I tweak and redraw until I’m happy. Sometimes that’s as far as they go and I get those illustrations riso printed, sometimes I want to keep going and turn the drawings into handcut paper pieces, which I absolutely love doing. More recently I’ve been trying to expand my printmaking to be more hands on, so I’ve been experimenting with lino cut illustration and screen-printing.
How did you discover your craft?
It’s an old cliché, but I’ve been drawing and making for as long as I can remember. My dad draws wacky cartoons on his lunch breaks, so I think he instilled a love of drawing in me from a very young age. My current practice is ever refining. I discovered my love of working with paper a few years ago when I was in hospital. My partner brought me an origami set one day to keep me occupied, and I’ve been working with paper ever since. I left the origami behind when I realised how much I enjoyed creating my illustrations with a scalpel. In terms of printing, I really wanted to find a way that I could bring printmaking into my own process, rather than sending designs off to other people to print. Working with lino lets me expand my cutting and carving skills, and feels like a good fit for my stye, it’s all about the bold line work for me.
What are your tools of the trade?
I like to keep it simple. Good quality, lightweight paper and a small swivel scalpel is all I need to get papercutting. For lino printing, I’ve decided I like to cheat and use soft carve lino. I’m still getting to grips with my printing tools but would really like to invest in some Pfeil cutters. Other than that, just give me some cartridge paper and a Uni Pin fineliner and I’m good to go.
How do you like to stay creative?
Luckily for me my partner is a very talented designer and illustrator, so one of us is usually working on something. Chatting about work and exchanging ideas is often all the kick up the bum I need to stay creative. I’m also quite guilty of agreeing to more creative projects than I have time to do, so that keeps me on my toes. Other than that, I find a great short story, inspiring exhibition or Sunday matinee at HOME (Manchester) is enough to get my brain whirring.
Do you ever lose passion for you work? How do you find it again?
I don’t think I ever lose the passion, but sometimes I can feel stuck in a rut or the dreaded imposter syndrome creeps in. The self-doubt can be crippling, and I have to go off and do something else. Usually it’s because I’m tired and haven’t had a day off for a while; it’s easy to forget we all need to recharge our batteries sometimes. I’m a writer as well as a maker, so it can be quite useful to change things up a bit. If I’m not feeling in the right frame of mind for drawing, it can be nice to let my mind explore stories and fragments instead. Whatever emerges from the brain fog usually tells me whether it wants to be written or drawn, and I go from there.
What is your work set-up like? How do you keep your creative space alive?
I work from home and tend to move around between our home office, kitchen and coffee table. I’m all about comfort, so I’ll work wherever there is tea/ cake/ warmth/ cats (in no particular order). As long as I have a tabletop I’m fine. If I need to make a mess (and I often do!) then I’ll tend to work in the kitchen within easy reach of the sink. We’re moving house soon, so I’m hoping to have a better-defined workspace with all the tea, cake and cats I need.
You work part-time and also run your creative business – what are the challenges and how do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge for me is when I have to stop my own work and go off to the day job when I feel like I’ve really hit my stride on a project. It’s frustrating to disrupt the creative flow. If that happens, I try to make a note of where I’m up to and jot down any thoughts I have during the day. That way nothing is forgotten and I can reflect on those thoughts later. It can also be tricky if I hit a busy period, as much of what I do is made to order. To tackle this I set comfortable lead times in my online store, so as to manage customer expectations. I’m not very good at doing nothing, so I usually work days, evenings and weekends. The challenge is sometimes in remembering to take a break.
And what are the best bits of starting a business and making a living from your creative work?
Working part time and getting to spend the rest of my week on the projects I love is a real joy. Hopefully one day I can make enough money to really go for it and turn this into a full time job. I can’t express how much I love making things and having something tangible to show for my time. The connection of head, heart and hands is priceless to me. When I’m making stuff I’m in my happy place. I also get a kick out of other people enjoying my work. It can be scary sending something off in the post and hoping that someone likes it, but the fact they chose my work for their home is really special.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Have patience and believe in yourself. It has taken me time to refine my creative practice, and I certainly don’t feel like I’m ‘there’ yet (are we ever?). I want to keep evolving and learning and building my style. I’ve worked in the creative industries for a long time, but in terms of my own artwork I too feel like I’m just starting out, so I know how hard it can be. There is a lot of great advice out there (whether it’s about SEO, product photos, getting an exhibition) from more learned folk than I. Listen to what they have to say; their advice is invaluable.
What are you currently working on?
I’m spinning a few plates at the moment, one of which is for my friend’s wedding. I’ve known her since I was 11 years old, and I’m also a bridesmaid. It’s a real honour to make these things for her, but also quite scary and very different to anything I’ve made before! I’m also looking at redesigning my branding, working on some new screenprints, and putting some large-scale papercut ideas together.
And what’s next?
I’m really hoping to do an exhibition. I haven’t done one before, so the idea makes me quite nervous but it’s something I’d really love to do. I’d also like to explore finding stockists for my work, which might lead into creating some design products (e.g. pin badges, notebooks, cards etc.) based on my illustrations. Watch this space!
All images copyright of Michelle Collier.