Illustrator Katie Smith on drawing comforting characters that inspire creativity

The world of Bath-based illustrator Katie Smith is populated with googly-eyed characters that evoke a comforting sense of nostalgia. We caught up with her to learn more about her colourful and retro style.

Katie Smith is an illustrator whose style consists of unique and bold character designs. These fun and cartoon-like drawings allow her to experiment with bright colours, dynamic patterns and random themes. They've also opened the doors to amazing opportunities, such as being exhibited at the Truman Brewery in Shoreditch as part of the UAL awarding body's Origins Creatives 2023 showcase.

When it comes to the creative process, drawing has always been Katie's favourite part. "I find it's the easiest method to communicate my ideas genuinely and effectively," she tells Creative Boom. "Any ideas that come to mind are easier to draw rather than write about."

It's such a tried-and-tested approach for Katie that "just" draw is her advice to any budding creative. "It doesn't have to make sense," she adds. "Make 'mistakes', be messy, that's when your best ideas are born."

Simply getting down to drawing is also another way of tackling one of the biggest and most challenging obstacles facing illustrators: finding a unique style that they find enjoyable. It's an issue that Katie knows all too well. "With so many inspiring artworks being created daily, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and as you will never find your voice."

This didn't stop her from finding her own style, though. And rather than being intimidated by her inspirations, she feeds them into her work. The bright colours and expressive patterns of Steve Harrington stood out to Katie, and this led to her conceptualising a wacky character that wasn't a person, animal or object as they had all been done before.

"Andrew B Myers is another big inspiration for me," she reveals. "I've always been a fan of surrealist art, and his work instantly makes me think of childhood and imagination. His works often give me a primary subject that informs my characters, such as his work for Fujifilm, which inspired me to create a googly-eyed Polaroid character."

Working primarily in Procreate, Katie usually starts with messy sketches, gradually refining them into neater linework. These are then coloured and given a texture and pattern before being imported into Illustrator, where she works with typography.

"It's important for me to regularly switch back to analogue materials like posca markers and fine liners, as these create bold doodles that also influence my work," she explains. "Taking time away from the screen is so needed; it keeps me motivated and excited to create new works."

As for the design and colour choices of her characters, these are informed by anything that is inspiring her in the moment. This could be the time of year, current events, her mood, or even random objects. "As autumn approaches, I am gravitating towards warm colour palettes and fuzzy grain textures as they communicate the warmth and comfort of the season," she says.

"Retro patterns and colours also inspire a lot of my illustrations. There's something about the deep, warm tones and cool colours that work so well together and alongside expressive patterns. Food and drink is also a theme in most of my designs, as food is a comfort and satisfying to draw. I get inspired when eating in cafes or restaurants, whether it's a classic brunch, coffee and cake, or pancakes drenched in syrup."

The big googly eyes that define Katie's characters can trace their roots back to old cartoons that she used to enjoy. "I was interested in becoming a cartoonist when I was younger, and so there's a nostalgic feeling behind my work as I watched TV shows like Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, and basically all the Disney films! This is where my design choices come from."

Creating distinctive characters is no mean feat, but Katie says the secret is to strike a balance of complementary colours, fun patterns and textures, and bright highlights with deep shadows. "Have fun with visual language; the more you worry about the art you're making, the less fun you'll have making it," she adds.

By prioritising playfulness in her art, Katie can stay true to her aims as an illustrator. "When people see my illustrations, I want them to feel the joy and fun communicated through the characters. I also want to boost their mood and inspire them to be curious and go and create something!"

Next up for Katie on her own creative journey is a design course at Falmouth University, which she's starting this month. "I'm really looking forward to continuing my studies, learning more about the design industry, and most importantly, making connections with other creatives," she concludes.

"I enjoy seeing what others are making as it gives me inspiration and a great sense of fulfilment to be around like-minded people passionate about their futures."


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