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Interview with Claire Mackie

Clare Mackie was born and brought up in the Scottish countryside surrounded by the animals and insects which have come to define her watercolour paintings. After five years at art school in Edinburgh she headed to London and carved out a career in illustration, working for clients as varied as Harvey Nichols and the BBC. We ask her how she did it.

Where can we see your work featured?

I illustrate the My Week column every week for Country Life – it’s a job I adore. The Art Group sells my greeting cards, as do another two card companies in the USA. I also do various licensing projects with companies over there (and here too) via my licensing agent (his website for me is www.claremackie.com whereas my own illustration site is www.claremackie.co.uk).

How would you describe your style?

I tend to say I paint detailed, quirky watercolours.

When did you know you wanted to be an illustrator?

At the age of 12 I remember consciously knowing that I wanted a career in art, but it wasn’t till into my second year at art school that it became clearer that illustration would be a good career for me.

What decided you?

It was the day my tutor literally threw a copy of Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense at me when I was, once again, chattering too much. It stopped me in my tracks and I realised how brilliant it would be to illustrate that sort of book, which I then did, and ideas kept coming and coming after that. It was a perfectly chosen object to chuck.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

Edward Lear!

How did you get your first job?

My very first printed commission was, of course, unpaid and involved an enormous amount of work. It was for the Edinburgh University Student Diary. I did the cover and lots of little etchings for the interior.

And your first paid job?

It was the J. D. Salinger biography cover back at art school – I did about eight different jackets for it (too keen) and they chose a really simple, plain one. I was thrilled anyway and my mother would place them on top of the other titles in any bookshop she happened upon.

What one thing did you wish you knew when you were starting out?

How hard I’d have to work to get anywhere.

Did you have to deal with rejection?

YES! It’s sadly par for the course, but I found it helpful to politely ask why. You learn a lot by asking even if you don’t want to hear the answer, and you really do get used to it. But it’s so important to plough on regardless and keep positive and strong.

What did you learn from your mistakes?

If something isn’t working, let it go and move on with grace.

Is it who you know or what you know that matters?

I think it’s ‘who knows you’, really, as they’ll look out for your work and commission you, so it’s best to get out there and get as many editorial and advertising jobs etc as you can, and put your contact details with a few artwork samples online so you’re easily traceable. Being seen is very important when you’re carving out your career.

When did you know it was going to work out for you as an illustrator?

A couple of years into my career. I’d been to so many interviews, and little by little more magazines, newspapers and children’s book commissioned me, and before I knew it I was turning down almost as much work as I was taking on. I worked way too hard at that time as the lean times were so bad (and could never be far enough away) and I made myself ill, which wasn’t so wise. Thankfully, I have struck a healthy balance now.

How did you get an agent to take you on?

When I had my own greeting card company I was at a trade fair in Birmingham’s NEC selling my cards and my now agent happened upon my stand. He seemed to fall for my work, which was lovely, and it’s been a happy collaboration now for nearly four years.

How do you come up with fresh ideas?

Sometimes they plop into my head as if from nowhere, other times they need more time and thought and sketching out. Often it’s something I’ve seen in a nature book that triggers an idea, or preferably being in the country itself – which begs the question, why do I live in central London?

Do you prefer book illustration, magazine work, or other commissions?

I like variety best and my favourite commissions involve painting animals. However, even the most potentially amazing job needs an inspiring art director who’s not going to clip your wings. Variety holds my interest and keeps my mind active and it also stops me stagnating and feeling in a rut.

What work are you most proud of?

It’s probably my work with Country Life and The Folio Society. I am also really proud to have illustrated one of the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue covers and also of all the work I did for Harvey Nichols. However I’m an eternal optimist and hope my best work is yet to come – I do feel I’ve only just scratched the surface.

Is there a famous illustration you wish you had done yourself?

No – if I’d done it myself I wouldn’t appreciate it so much. There’s something magical, almost a relief, about admiring and being inspired by someone else’s work.

Tell us an insider secret

… that would require several glasses of wine!