A mashup of colour, line drawings and mid-century design: The artistic practice of illustrator Gracie Dahl
Describing her style as a "mashup of colours and elements of outline", Gracie Dahl is an illustrator who recently graduated from Camberwell College of Arts and is already enjoying lots of love and attention as a freelancer, creating quirky art for a range of clients while crafting and selling her own ceramic pieces on the side.
Gracie was chosen as one of the Association of Illustrators' Top 10 Graduates in 2021 and since graduating last summer, has been running her own business to focus on editorial illustration, mural design, and most recently, she won the University of the Arts and Tate Christmas card competition with her design sold via the museum's shop. She's even been running workshops at Greater Brighton Metropolitan College introducing A-Level and foundation students to the subject of illustration.
"I'm interested in simplifying images to their basic components, using unusual combinations of colour, informed by my love of mid-century illustration," Gracie tells Creative Boom of her work. "I sometimes care more how something is drawn, sometimes what it's a drawing of. It's always most satisfying when it's both."
Gracie grew up in south London and was "always making things," as she puts it. "I spent my Saturdays at a local pottery studio as a kid, and was a prolific dollhouse-miniatures crafter, but I didn't really think I could make it as an illustrator until my Foundation course when realised I loved it so much I just had to do my best to make a career of it!"
Looking back at her final year project at Camberwell, we can see the influence of her creative childhood emerging in her illustrative style. We especially love the theme surrounding her experience as a tall woman. Titled Illustrated IRL, it was something that came about very organically. "It began when I realised my drawings were looking more and more like myself: too short trousers, long limbs, over-zealous blusher. It then developed into just looking at the way I draw myself, imagining what that illustrated version would be like, how she'd interact with my 'In Real Life' world."
The outcome was 20 wooden laser cut figures which tessellated around Gracie like a puzzle, fitting together once for Camberwell's online degree show, then separating off, being sold as wall art. "They're now in people's homes," she explains. "It was about how much of my work comes from me, even if it goes off to do its own thing, so it all ended up being quite profound. But if you can't be pretentious for your degree show, when can you?" As for whether she's since found trousers that fit? "Honestly, I never have, I just rock the ankle swinger look!"
For all the optimism we see from Gracie about her final year project, it's a pleasant surprise, given it all took place during a global pandemic and subsequent restrictions. But she believes there was a silver lining: "It really was rough," Gracie admits. "Covid-19 affected half of my degree. But not having access to university facilities led to me inventing alternative techniques, like simulating screen-printed misalignments digitally, which was accidentally great preparation for losing access after graduation. It also made us pretty proactive, building our own 'graduation' ceremony with cardboard mortarboards in a park when ours was cancelled."
Looking closely at Gracie's ceramics, it was something that also came out of her time at Camberwell. "I love playing with mixing illustration into the 3D world. I love that there can be a room with normal objects and people in it, and a small figure is frozen in time just sat on a shelf or in a corner, a 3D illustration partaking in the real world," she says.
Of the two practices, Gracie finds it difficult to pick a favourite. "I think of my ceramics as 3D illustrations, rather than something separate. To me, it's just using a different medium, like pencil versus pen; some things I just think would look better in shiny 3D than being drawn on paper. I also love the process of commissioned illustration, since you've got someone else to bounce off and get feedback from."
Gang of Guys is a particular favourite of ours, a ceramic series of 3D male characters in cute outfits and sitting in various poses. "I wanted to make more 3D illustrations that could sit in the real world once purchased," she says. "They're meant to look like they're intent on something invisible whether reading, drawing, scrolling; people caught off guard while they're otherwise occupied, with informal postures. But sat together they look amusingly formal. It's a bit like a family photo or school assembly."
And the Cat Dishes? "These are mainly me trying to branch out more from the world of guinea pigs, which I started selling while still at university. I'm aiming to corner the ceramic pet dish market! The initial guinea pig dish was an experiment to try and create the simplest shape I could transform with coloured glaze, and the cat dishes are a similar thing – topping a solid shape with a few lines to create the impression of a sleepy little cat." Well, we'll take them all – in every colour.
Launching next month is a mural Gracie was commissioned to create for a new restaurant in London. Not much more can be shared at this point but it's something she's excited about. It's just one of many projects the London-based illustrator is enjoying in her first year running a business.
"I think variety keeps things fresh," she adds. "It's been a real learning curve turning freelance after graduating, and I've had to figure many things out on the job. But it's meant I'm quickly improving. And, more importantly, I'm lucky to have so much fun, seeing everything as a satisfying challenge rather than a burden."
You can discover more of Gracie Dahl's work at www.graciedahl.com or follow her on Instagram @graciedahl. For her ceramics, visit her Etsy shop.