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Inside the creative Auckland home of illustrator Nellie Ryan

Flitting from magazine and book illustration to textile and fashion design keeps Nellie Ryan busy in her colourful home studio in Auckland


Inside the creative Auckland home of illustrator Nellie Ryan

Auckland illustrator and designer Nellie Ryan has a career that would be the envy of many creative types. Her client list is peppered with famous names including designers Jasper Conran and Kate Sylvester and The Guardian newspaper, she won the 2016 Bolt of Cloth Textile Design award, and has just completed the illustrations for a British children’s book.

When not working in her home studio in Point Chevalier, she juggles family life with partner Eban Ardley and their two-year-old son, Lucien. Here we chat with her about some of her favourite jobs and the importance of a good studio space to hone creativity.


Do you refer to yourself as a designer or illustrator or both?
I see myself as a textile designer and illustrator. But I try not to be too rigid about it as occasionally other interesting opportunities come along, like designing fashion or creating branding, which I love to work on, too. Right now I’m drawing lots of flora and fauna and trying to loosen up my style with quick, gestural works. I also love playing with colour and finding new ways to interpret pattern.


Tell us about your home studio and what it means to you.
In the studio I can spread out and get messy if I need to, without having to pack up at the end of the day. It also means I can keep all my resources in the same place: reference books, paints, paper, pens and computer. There are lots of ideas floating around on moodboards, pages torn from magazines and other weird and wonderful things tacked to the walls. But having my own studio still feels like a luxury because when I started out in London I was working from my bedroom and lounge.


I like a bit of background noise, such as music or a good podcast. Sometimes I’ll spread out into the dining room, which has amazing light due to the big windows and looks out over the trees in the park next door. This provides a change of scene and is a delightful environment for painting or drawing.

What are the key elements of a good studio space?
Good light and wall space where you can stick up images or ideas. Proper storage is also important; I have a vintage shoe rack which is my ‘go-to’ for storing everything. It holds my vintage books on fabric or textile design, inks and papers – it’s so handy. Having an orderly space clears the mind. I’ll often organise my space once I’ve finished a deadline.


What do you do when you’re stuck for inspiration?
I visit the library, art galleries or bookshops and look through magazines and books. I love reading about other creative people; it makes me refocus. Favourites include After the Jump (a Brooklyn-based podcast featuring interviews with creative people) and the Australian design blog The Design Files. I’m also a fan of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour – listening to inspiring women always interests me. But sometimes I just have to be disciplined, sit down and make it happen! Generally ideas start warming up once I put pen to paper.


You’ve been working in this field for 17 years. How did it all start?
Creating and drawing have always been something I’ve been passionate about since I was a child. As I got older I developed a real love for textures and vintage fabrics and fashion, which led me towards textile design.

What do you love about the work?
I love the variety of work. No two projects are the same and I get to work with really interesting people. Also, I enjoy the collaborative process and being able to come up with new concepts and take them to completion. It can be quite stressful but also very satisfying. It’s always a thrill to see my work out there in the world, whether it’s someone wearing something I designed, or spotting a book I illustrated on sale.


What training did you do?
I completed a degree in Visual Communication, where I learned a variety of disciplines from printmaking and photography to illustration and design. After that, I moved to London and did work experience for UK designer Jasper Conran, which turned into a eight-year job and set me on the path to fashion and textile design. When I started at Jasper Conran it was quite a small studio, so I was able to be involved in a variety of aspects of the business from designing textiles and T-shirt prints through to working directly with Jasper. I drew ballet costumes for productions he was working on and worked behind the scenes at his shows for London Fashion Week.


You’ve worked for some impressive clients over the years. Which ones stand out?
WGSN is a UK-based trend-forecasting agency whom I’ve worked with for more than 15 years. The work I’ve done with them has enabled me to push my style and develop original ideas – quite often the trend forecasting is done two years in advance! One of my most interesting commissions was for a monthly feature for Tatler magazine in which I’d illustrate Nicola Formby (wife of the late critic AA Gill) and all the fabulous items she was discussing. It was fantastic fun and slightly over the top which I liked.


What have been your biggest career achievements?
One of my favourite moments was creating a book for girls called Beautiful Doodles. It sold over a million copies and was translated into several languages. It was the first time I’d ever received fan mail (from girls who loved the book). It was a very proud moment. Probably being able to sustain a creative career in a relatively niche market has been my biggest achievement, and having a career I love.

What advice would you give someone wanting to make a career in illustration or design?
Gaining industry experience before setting up my own business was really valuable for me. On the job I learnt so much from other people: critical thinking, understanding deadlines, learning what works and what doesn’t. Having good computer skills in design software such as Photoshop and Illustrator are very important for all the areas I work in – fashion, textiles and illustration – as well as strong hand-drawing skills.


Once you have those skills, start building up a body of work and create a strong portfolio to show potential clients. You’ll also need to self-promote by using social media to build a profile; I use Instagram to keep people updated on what I’m doing. Also, behance.net is popular for showcasing your work, and the AOI is a great platform for your portfolio. Another useful tactic is to sell your work yourself through local markets or websites such as Etsy.

How many hours a day do you spend drawing?
As I have a very busy two-year-old, I generally work in bursts. Either when he’s at daycare or sleeping. Each week is different depending on what projects I have on, and having a supportive partner helps!

Words by: Catherine Steel. Photography by: Helen Bankers.

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