Helen Musselwhite on working with paper, why it's good to mess up sometimes and avoiding burnout

Helen Musselwhite's incredible paper artworks demonstrate a skill and attention to detail that is second to none. Painstakingly crafting multiple layers and adopting her great eye for colour, her intricate designs have led to projects for the Nokia, Royal Mail and Audi.

She works from home at her studio on the edge of Manchester, close to the countryside, which forms a lot of inspiration for her natural, flora and fauna-based artworks. Her assistant, a dog called Earl, keeps her company, as she embarks on each project, some of which can take months, depending on how complicated they might be. We chatted with Helen about her process, her inspirations and how she finds working for herself.

How did you come to work with paper?

Essentially, paper and I got together because I’ve never learnt to work digitally. Twelve years ago, when I moved to Manchester, I decided to look for a new way to make my own work, I’d dabbled with paper as a medium in the past and liked what I could do with it.

You live in Manchester. What's so special about this city?

I live on the southern edge of Manchester with one foot in suburbia and the other in the Cheshire countryside. I’m an adopted daughter of the city and have lived here for 11 years. I love that I can be in Manchester in less than half an hour (on a good traffic day!) to soak up all it has to offer and if I go in the opposite direction I’m in the countryside or by the sea in the same time. Also, I have to mention how much I enjoy the chattiness of the Mancunians, it's infectious and has definitely rubbed off on me!

Where do you find new work? What has worked well for you in getting your name out there?

New work comes via my website and my agents Handsome Frank. I love them. They help me so much with the trials and tribulations of illustration life and they represent some fantastic illustrators that I’m really proud to be alongside. Social media, specifically Twitter and Instagram have helped to get my work out there. In the early days, it got picked up by some influential bloggers.

How long will a typical project take? Can you describe the process?

It's hard to say. Anything from a couple of days to six weeks. I don’t often get quick turnaround jobs as my process is fairly time-consuming.

My process starts with thumbnail sketches that are enlarged to work out layers or structure. Then I make detailed line drawings, which I often colour with marker pens; sometimes at this stage, I make scale models, usually in neutral papers, and particularly with 3D projects to work out construction and depth.

Then comes the actual construction followed by photography and retouch, mostly done by Manchester-based magician Jonathan Beer.

Any projects you're especially proud of?

I’d have to say working on the 2016 Royal Mail Christmas stamps was a dream job. Another recent favourite was for Chester Zoo. Edit Brand Studio commissioned me to make two pieces of artwork to advertise a festival at the Zoo this summer. They were also made into animations by Manchester-based Mighty Giant for digital advertising and TV commercials.

What itch is currently wanting to be scratched? How are you going to tackle it?

I have an ongoing itch to learn to take better photographs of my more simple work, so I can speed up my process for quick turnaround jobs, specifically editorials. I have some of the gear but not much idea and to be honest with Jonathan Beer taking brilliant photos of my work I have much to learn! I’d also love to do more animation work and make a decent gif on my own.

Is there anything that frustrates you right now? How do you want to see things change?

The state of the nation and the world from a political, human relations and ecological point of view. I listen to the radio a lot whilst I’m working and get daily feelings of doom from the news. As I was writing this, Kate Tempest’s track Tunnel Vision was on 6Music – it pretty sums up all my fears and worries.

I’ve started to listen more to podcasts on subjects that interest me and be a bit more selective. How can things change? Practising compassion, awareness and kindness on a daily basis would surely help.

Since going freelance, what has changed – for better and for worse?

I went freelance first before the Internet so I’d say the second time around, having a presence online has to be the biggest and best change, from an exposure, commissioning and communicating point of view.

Conversely, it's also the thing that stops me being as productive on a daily basis but that’s my problem, I’m talking imposter syndrome here. To combat that, I actively seek out cute dog accounts (don’t look at my likes on social media!) and remote woodland shacks and cottages. Although I would probably be scared to live somewhere like that – unfortunately I’ve seen Dog Soldiers, twice.

Is there anyone who has really influenced you in your career? What did they say or do?

I think my first influencer was a teacher at secondary school. I don’t remember his name but he once wrote in a report "Helen has a tendency to rest on her laurels" and that got to me. It still does 35 years later. I vowed for that never to be the case again.

On a more positive note, someone who really influenced me was a jewellery maker from Oxford called Bridget Wheatley who I met when I was embarking on my first stint of self-employment. She taught me so much – her work ethic and attention to detail were so inspiring. A very strong woman.

What advice would you give to others looking to break into your field?

Have confidence in your work without being cocky. Find your own niche too – it's difficult to achieve but essential. By all means, follow other people doing similar work but do your own stuff.

Look further afield for inspiration out of your social media bubble. There’s always a current look/subject/style – try not to be a slave to it or at least try it from a different angle.

Get things wrong! It doesn’t matter if you mess up and it’s not time wasted; it's experimentation. Do your best, and don’t rest on your laurels! All of these are things you’ve heard before…

Work hard but take time off too, self-care is important. I’m only just realising this and allowing myself to take a break and not feel guilty. Burnout is a real problem. A project I worked on last summer non-stop for a month really took its toll both physically and mentally. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great project and I was really pleased with the work I produced but it was intense and relentless and I worried way too much about it. But guess what! Turns out I didn’t need to… so lastly I’d say be kind to yourself.

What's next for you?

It’s the time of year for Christmas projects and this year is no exception. I’m also working on something that involves giant paper teapots and fruit. Oh and procrastinating about learning how to take better photos.