Creative Lives — Focus on personal work and your audience will find you: Bristol illustrator Harriet Lee-Merrion

Posted 24 January 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

Guided by personal interests that range from ancient printmaking techniques to Plato’s philosophies, Harriet Lee-Merrion’s illustration is rich with complex influences. Staying true to what intrigues her has been vital to attracting likeminded clients, upholding her instantly identifiable aesthetic and staying inspired; “If you’re aware of what will make you happy and fulfilled, then you’ll always be working to your full potential,” she shares. Her portfolio, packed with curious scenes in pared-back colour palettes, includes work for clients as diverse as Google and the British Association of Counselling. But she says it’s often her personal work that best stands the test of time. Based in Bristol, Harriet tells us what she loves about her city, why she keeps her tools to a minimum, and the importance of sharing your work online.

Harriet Lee-Merrion

Job Title

Freelance Illustrator

Based

Bristol

Previous Employment

Marketing and Graphic Designer, Coexist (2015)
Coordinator and Marketing Assistant, PAPER Arts CIC Gallery (2014–2015

Education

BA Illustration, Falmouth Arts University, 2010–2013
Erasmus: Intaglio Print Making, Turku University of Applied Sciences, 2012
ABC Foundation Diploma in Art and Design,University College Falmouth, 2009–2010

Clients

Bavarian State Opera House, Bloomsbury, British Association of Counseling and Psychotherapy, CNN, Google, The Guardian,  Marie Claire, The New York Times, TED, Wallpaper*, The Woodland Trust

Website
Social Media

Harriet; photography by Together & Sunspell

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
My work as an illustrator involves creating visual metaphors to convey an idea, concept or narrative; which often gives my work a dream-like and surreal quality.

What does a typical working day look like?
I’m usually in the studio from 10am to 7pm. Depending on the amount of projects I have on the go, my schedule can vary between being busy and quiet fairly quickly. 

“Sharing my work online was definitely a significant step into the commercial world of illustration.”

Harriet’s workspace; photography by Together & Sunspell

How does your freelance work usually come about?
People come across my work either via my agent, Heart, or through social media. When I was just starting out a few years ago, sharing my work online was definitely a significant step into the commercial world of illustration.

On social media my work gathered momentum that led to features in online magazines such as It’s Nice That and Juxtapoz. This publicised my work and eventually led to some of my first commissions.

What tools do you use most for your work?
The beauty of illustration is that you don’t need much equipment. I try to keep my stationary fairly minimal which means I can travel and work at the same time. To create drawings I use a Rotring pen, Archers paper, and Gouache paint. To edit, I use a Macbook Pro, Wacom Cintiq Tablet, and Adobe Photoshop.

‘Garden’, personal work 

‘Hong Kong’, for Therapy Today

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
Something that involved being creative.

What influence has your upbringing had had on your choice of career?
My parents met at art school in the 1980s in Sheffield, and while they didn’t go on pursue careers as artists, their love of the arts definitely followed through into the creative household that I grew up in.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Many of the self-initiated projects I completed while studying illustration at Falmouth were important stepping-stones in my stylistic development, and I still use many of those projects in my portfolio now. 

“Creating a portfolio that reflects your personality and interests is vital if you want to attract likeminded organisations.”

The linear quality of my work developed as an outcome of my interest in intaglio printmaking, which I studied halfway through my second year on an Erasmus placement in Finland. One of my final-year projects was a series of etchings based on The Symposium by Plato, a philosophical text following several Athenian philosophers’ musings on love. It was the material restraint of working with an etching plate that had a direct effect upon my aesthetic and resulted in the use of a minimal line in my drawings now. 

The isometric perspective I use in my work is influenced by Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo-period. I first used this style of perspective after reading After Dark, a novel written by Haruki Murakami. The opening chapter describes the city from up high. ‘Eyes mark the shape of the city. Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from mid-air.’ The pairing of this perspective and the story, given the context of both influences being Japanese, seemed so natural to me. The use of off-coloured paper in my work is an influence of my love of age-stained illuminations, drawings and engravings

Harriet’s workspace; photography by Together & Sunspell

Harriet’s workspace; photography by Together & Sunspell

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Many early projects were an exploration of my interests in literature, history and philosophy, and while they weren’t commercial pieces, it was these self-initiated projects that informed the style and themes that are present in my work now. 

The importance of creating a portfolio that reflects your personality and interests is vital if you want to attract likeminded organisations, to make your work fulfilling and enjoyable as an illustrator.

‘Dystopia’, For the band Low Island, as part of a music event and exhibition 

‘Mimosa’, for Oh Comely

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I think it’s always nice to remember the Bauhaus notion of an artist as a multifaceted designer. As an illustrator you are not necessarily confined to working two-dimensionally. Drawing is a skill that is hugely transferable, and it’s inspiring to imagine the various different contexts that it can be applied to. I’d like to work on a project that incorporated product design, perhaps designing a space or working three dimensionally.

Could you do this job forever?
Definitely!

“It’s important to remember the reason you chose this career path, and keep it close.”

Work for Stanford Business magazine

Personal work for a group show

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become an illustrator?
It’s important to remember the reason you chose this career path, and keep it close. For me I love using illustration as a tool to explore topics I’m interested in. If you explore your interests and be aware of what will make you happy and fulfilled, then you’ll always be working to your full potential. If you can’t find commercial work right now, then focus on the personal projects you enjoy and eventually your audience will find you.

Posted 24 January 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Photography: Together & Sunspell
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Illustration
Mentions: Harriet Lee Merrion
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