Tracey English on rediscovering her creativity, making collages, and the benefits of artistic challenges
South West London-based illustrator and surface pattern designer Tracey English rediscovered her creativity with the help of online courses and classes at her local art collage. Now her handcrafted work adorns everything from tea towels to calendars. We caught up with her to learn more.
Tracey's career will seem familiar to anyone who's taken time out to bring up a family. Having studied a two-year art foundation after leaving school before completing a two-year textile design diploma, she had a clear idea of the route she wanted to take. And even after she graduated, she juggled working in a colour forecasting studio with selling items at markets during the weekend.
"I was trying to develop my own work and identity," she tells Creative Boom, and it was a learning curve that would continue when her life changed. "When my family came along, I struggled to keep everything going and took the decision to concentrate on them whilst my sons and stepdaughter grew up."
Her creativity was put on the back burner for quite a few years, but over time she started to gain more time for herself and return to her passions. Since then, Tracey says she has discovered "a new way of working, [one] with a lot of experimenting and mishaps along the way which brings me to the place I am now."
This place is one where Tracey creates sumptuous collages made from beautifully textured papers. Her distinctive creations are inspired by designers who "use colour and pattern to the max", as she is inspired by how the two intertwine to create visually exciting pieces.
"Some of my favourites are Eric Carle for his lifelong work of collage and storytelling and sisters Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell for their joyous pattern making," she adds, and there's a clear line between their work and her own style, which she describes as "fun, vibrant and decorative."
Just like the patterns she creates, Tracey's days have a rhythm and order all of their own. "My day always starts with a cup of tea and a banana," she enthuses, "followed by a walk around the local neighbourhood with our dog. After that, I make a coffee and check my emails and make a plan for the day.
"Sometimes my day is spent just creating in my tiny home studio, and on other occasions, I'm sat at my computer tidying up images. I also run an online Etsy shop, so I tend to pack any orders in the morning so that I can take them to the post office at lunchtime.
"Depending on what I need to get done, I work till late afternoon and then take our dog out for her evening walk before ending my work day."
It sounds like a wonderful setup, but how does Tracey recharge those all-important creative batteries? "If I have time, I love to take part in online challenges," she reveals. "These are a great way to create new work, make new connections and be inspired by others.
"For the past few years, I have participated in a 100-day online project, where I create something every day for 100 days. Not at all easy but, in the long run, very rewarding. This year it was something slightly different, and it took place over the whole year. The project was based around colour and is hosted online by artist Este Macleod. I decided to create a mini canvas each week, prompted by her suggested colours.
"I have now produced over 50 mini canvases, which I hope to develop into some new licensed work, and I plan to sell the originals in the new year once the challenge is over."
By creating collages out of traditional mediums, including her trusty embroidery scissors, a pot of Nori Starch paste glue, acrylic inks and paper, Tracey's work truly stands out in an increasingly digital landscape. However, she isn't averse to polishing them digitally.
"I love the physical aspect of mixing the paints and creating the textures, and from that, being able to produce an image from cut-up pieces of coloured paper," she explains.
"I start all of my work by hand. Sometimes I just create icons and assemble them in Photoshop, and other times I will collage the entire image first in paper and then just clean it up on the computer."
Food and drink are recurring images in Tracey's work, especially fruit and vegetable illustrations, which have ended up on packages and even a designer shirt for Comme Des Garçons. These foodstuffs are of particular interest to her because she loves the colours, shapes and textures that can be created from a single piece of fruit, and it's a similar attention to detail which can be found in her surface patterns.
When it comes to creating these recurring designs, Tracey says: "I think the secret to a good pattern is probably balance. Make sure the design feels visually harmonious, and pay attention to the colour palette so that it works together and is suitable for the intended market. And make sure there are contrasting elements to give the design depth and some focal points. I am always a big fan of the way things interconnect, and I think that's probably why I enjoy pattern making so much."
Just because Tracey leans towards fruit and vegetables doesn't necessarily mean they're her favourite thing to make. "I would be happy to illustrate anything," she reveals. "I find people pretty tough, especially in collage, though, so I definitely wouldn't choose them!
"At the moment, I am creating lots of folk-style animals for my year-long challenge. This includes lots of birds, so maybe I will choose birds as one of my favourites! But thinking about it a bit more, I also like to snip buildings and flowers too!"
Sometimes the challenges of being an artist can be larger than cutting out a subject you find particularly tricky. For Tracey, the struggle to maintain self-confidence is one of the largest to overcome. " Luckily, I have a super inspiring agent called Jehane who supports all of her artists and keeps us busy with projects and challenges and also helps to keep our confidence as upbeat as possible," she explains.
But in terms of practical advice, Tracey recommends illustrators work hard to find their own individual voice. "Put in loads of effort and keep the creative process alive as much as possible, even through the ups and downs," she adds.
"Making lots of connections and finding your tribe on social media really helps too. There is a whole community out there which is willing to share and inspire and help with questions and queries. It's so amazing to be able to connect with people around the world doing creative work."