“Thank you so much for a lovely art session. It was very calming and good for the soul, please hold more events like this.”
Showcase is our brand new feature all about individuals doing inspiring creative work across the country. This week we spoke to Laura Darling, Scottish illustrator whose playful work is grounded in observational
drawing and storytelling.
Laura’s characterful, narrative illustrations feature in projects including fold-out activity trails, a graphic novel, and a series of murals for Glasgow Children’s Hospital. She is in the process of illustrating a children’s picture book, and a banner for the new Perth Museum.
Could you tell me about an experience that really solidified for you that you wanted to become an artist?
I have always wanted to be an artist, specifically an illustrator, and when I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2007, I was ready to embrace instant worldwide success. This did not happen. In fact, I got no commissions at all. Just many polite but vague rejection letters (yes, letters) and emails. It was shit.
I ended up working in retail for six years. I liked the steady money and relative lack of rejection, but I felt like I was constantly pretending to be someone I wasn’t. One day I was hiding in the office planning the rota when I realised that would be the highlight of my day. So I had a stern word with myself. I returned to ECA to do a Masters, made new work, and put the effort in to meet new people. I have been illustrating ever since.
You’re working on a really cool commission with Perth Museum. Could you tell me a bit more about that project?
I’m one of six artists commissioned to produce a banner that tells a little-known story from Perthshire history.
My story is the Burning of Strathearn. In January 1716, the Jacobite army destroyed several towns and villages, ostensibly to stop the government army from marching north from Stirling to Perth, but with the more sinister motive of revenge for a lack of support from the local people.
It’s a huge honour to share this important story and I’m very excited to see what all the other artists do. The banners will be on permanent display in the wonderful new Perth Museum, opening Easter weekend 2024.
For a project like this, that involves a physical space and a lot of history, how do you approach it in the early stages? What’s your research process like?
Firstly, I try to get my head around the story. This involves a lot of reading and re-reading until I can write my own concise version. I return to this throughout the project and keep editing it. I need to be able to explain the story in as few words as possible.
There’s plenty information about the men who led the armies, but not much about the majority of people who were caught up in this horrible episode. To bring the story to life, I ask lots of questions. What did people wear, eat, do for fun? What jobs did they have? How did they travel and where did they go? How did they light their homes? Did they go to school, did they read? I build up characters, making drawings from artefacts – paintings, prints, sculptures, clothing, and clips from relevant films and TV programmes.
I write pages of dialogue for the characters, most of which is eventually edited out, but they start to suggest how they might like to tell their story. It’s a very convoluted process but I like getting to know the characters in this way. Maybe I’m spending too much time on my own!
A lot of your projects have stories at their heart – I’m thinking of the Children’s Hospital project – do you consciously tend to lean towards projects that tell stories?
I do, and looking back at previous work, I realise I did it unconsciously too. In a wordless illustration like the Glasgow Children’s Hospital murals, I love creating lots of little scenarios and allowing the viewer to make up their own stories. When I use text in my work I love the alchemy of balancing words and pictures. My favourite illustrations, films, paintings are those where you notice something different every time you view them.
What advice would you give to readers who want to foster a regular creative practice if they’re new to it?
Start small and keep it simple. If you set yourself huge challenges, you’re likely to freeze and not do anything at all. That’s what I do anyway! If you’re drawing, don’t spend a lot of money on a sketchbook you’re worried about ruining – get a cheap one with paper you like the texture of, not too many pages, so you can fill it quickly and move on. And don’t rub out your ‘mistakes’! Look back at them and learn from them/learn to love them.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever gotten?
Make work you love and find others who love it too.
If you create work you’re truly excited about you’ll develop a unique voice and others will be drawn to that. People are motivated by different things – for me it’s using drawing to tell stories. For others it’s shape, colour, working with certain materials. Identifying what makes you tick can take years of exploration and practice, and I think that’s part of the fun.
Our next interviewee will be someone in the creative industries, they could be an illustrator, performer, sculptor, etc… do you have a question you’d like us to pass on to them?
How do non-artists generally respond when you tell them what you do for a living?