'I want my work to feel alive': Imo Crossland on Picasso, being a maximalist and surviving the creative roller coaster

The work of Manchester-based illustrator Imo Crossland is instantly recognisable thanks to its dynamic shapes, textures appearance, and in-your-face colours. Described as a celebration of joy and togetherness, her art is said to be an encapsulation of what it means to be alive.

Bright, confident, and triumphant. These are some of the reactions you can't help but feel when looking at the work of University of Brighton alumni Imo Crossland. Having graduated with a degree in Visual Communications in 2020, Imo's career has hit the ground running as she has already scooped up the John Vernon Lord Sketchbook Prize, been featured on Tate billboards around London, and been selected as one of the winning artists for the TDK awards 2020.

It's something of a surprise then to learn that when she was growing up, Imo never considered drawing as anything other than a hobby. It was thanks to the persuasion of great teachers and friends that she ended up on the illustration course at Brighton, where she initially felt out of her depth.

It was only by her third year that Imo claims to have found her feet, and the feelings of winging it started to subside. Imo's gamble is our gain, though, as her artwork and illustrations are nothing short of a joy to behold. We caught up with her to learn more about what makes her work tick and hear about her life as an artist.

Who are your biggest artistic inspirations?

That's such a big question; hard to know where to even begin. But if I was to boil it down, Picasso and Matisse are big ones for me. The Picasso on Paper exhibition is one of the most memorable exhibitions I've been to and just so inspiring. To be able to see a lifetime of work condensed into one room in such detail. Being able to see the developments and never-ending experimentation and growth. That is so beautiful and so inspiring. To keep evolving and pushing the limits of your art. His work on paper is so multifaceted, so playful and endlessly evolving. I just love that. It inspires me to keep playing, keep trying new things, to just keep making. I think that's the key.

There is just so much to love in the contemporary realm at the minute. I always come back to Kelly Anna because she made me have a sort of penny dropping moment. She came to do a lecture at my university and listened to her talk about her career. It started to dawn on me that you can do some pretty mad things in illustration. Kelly Anna opened my eyes to a world that was far bigger than I had ever anticipated, and for that, I thank her!

Your work is described as an "ode to good times". How and why do you express this?

It all sort of came about through lockdown. I had never had a clear idea of what I wanted my work to be, but during Covid, as a sort of release or temporary solution, I began to make work about joy, and since then, it's kind of stuck. I made work to celebrate the things I love and the things I find beautiful, the things I find solace in. I love friends, being outside, dancing, I love people, just being people. It was cathartic, and it brought me closer to the good times. It grounded me at a time when things were looking pretty wobbly.

There are a lot of times when the world feels pretty dark and hopeless, but I want my work to be a reminder and absolute appreciation of all the colour in the world. Whether this comes across to the audience, I do not know. However, I know that my work is born out of this love for the colourful times life has to offer. The world can be pretty remarkable when it wants to be, and I suppose I am paying homage to that through my work.

Could you talk us through how you make your digital collages?

I try to make my digital collages almost entirely out of handmade materials – paintings, papers, drawings, textiles, scraps, anything really. I may manipulate some of these textures digitally later, but having that analogue feeling is very important to me. I want to create digital work that feels tactile, that is rooted in materials. For a while, I turned my nose up slightly at digital art. I felt like there was more magic to something handmade in a world that gets more digital by the day.

After protesting going digital for so long, my housemate taught me to very simply digitally collage on InDesign as a quick fix to a project that I was completely stumped by at uni. Funnily enough, this project I hated forced me to learn a new skill, dip my toe in the digital pool, and it has shaped my practice ever since.

I now love that my practice bounces between the digital and the analogue. I think alone they both have limitations, but together, they are really exciting. I am trying to take advantage of both aspects of my work. I want to squeeze all that I can out of both sides of my process. I love that the analogue side of my work brings something that feels very human. It brings texture, imperfection, grit, and an element of play that cannot be achieved digitally. But then, I also have the advantage of tying all these things together in a slick and sophisticated manner with amazing tools that technology offers.

What does a normal working day (if there is one!) look like for you?

Every day's different depending on what jobs and projects I have on. But at the moment, it's me in my basement, in a room I've converted into a makeshift studio. There's always a lot of music to keep me company, as at the moment, it's a pretty solitary existence as an illustrator down in the basement. I'm hoping soon I will get a studio space and work alongside other creatives. That is the dream.

What advice would you give someone trying to break into the illustration industry?

Well, I'm a big believer in really soaking in the moments when you believe in your work and yourself. The creative process is so up and down, and I'm trying to get used to the roller coaster. Some days making stuff feels really good, and some days it feels really bad. Cycles of self-doubt seem to be an inevitable part of the process. But I'm learning to not let it get the best of me, not letting it spiral into making me want to sack all this off. I now really take note of when I'm feeling positive about my work, I savour the feeling, and I remind myself of that feeling when the negativity seeps in again.

I'd say allow time to nurture your creativity. No one just picks up a paintbrush and creates a masterpiece. There's so much trial and error. The polished people you're comparing yourself to have spent a lot of time making a lot of rubbish and growing through the process. I really believe in making bad work to make good work. This can't be rushed, as much as we'd like it to be. Don't panic. Just keep making.

What are you working on at the minute, and what would your dream project be?

I've got a few jobs on the go, but my main focus is pushing my practice when I find the time. I feel like I'm entering a new phase with my work. For so long, I think Instagram was telling me I should be a minimalist. I saw a lot of beige on Instagram. It really got in my head a bit. I began to think my work was too much and needed to simplify it. No matter how hard I tried to be slightly more subtle, my work always felt loud. I've now come to terms with the fact that there is nothing quietly charming about my work, I am very much a maximalist, and that is cool too. It turns out I'm just a 'more is more' kind of girl. I am now on a mission to experiment more and use more colour, more texture, more pattern – just more in every sense of the word. I want my work to feel alive.

As for dream projects, I would love to work with Gucci. It's big, but I'm putting it out there. I love the work they have done with illustrators in the past, and I am in awe of Alessandro Michele's creative direction. It feels like Gucci has transformed into this flamboyant, vibrant, eccentric brand, and I am in love.