Toronto-based illustrator Jen Collins’ work is expressive, narrative-rich and full of childlike charm. In fairytale fashion, Jen’s illustrations have more recently popped out from the flat pages of a sketchbook and into wonderful three-dimensional ceramic characters and objects. All made by hand and glazed using non-toxic materials. We caught up with Jen to talk about children’s books, guilty pleasures and the challenges she faced translating her illustrations into clay.
1. What’s the first piece of art you remember making?
I can’t specifically recall the first piece of art I made, but I do distinctly remember that one of my favourite things about colouring books was the two empty pages found on the inside of the covers – this part was my chance to draw an image to colour in.
2. Describe your working routine – studio, kitchen table, caffeinated beverage of choice, music, silence?
For the first time in 20 years or so, I don’t have my own desk set up at home. Our current apartment is too small for my boyfriend and I to have a desk each. However, since I spend my weekdays at a ceramics studio, it’s nice to come home and not feel the pressure of a workspace calling me over. So for now, my routine is to go to the studio Monday to Friday and work on ceramics – this might be throwing or hand-building my own work, or creating pieces as part of a collaboration with my friend Shayna Stevenson. We work together as Keep Company; Shayna throws all of our pieces on wheel, and I apply all of our designs by hand. Then I work on illustration and freelance work around that – I pull out our little drop-leaf table, play podcasts, drink tea and draw. Once I’m done, I tidy up and relax.
3. Tell us something about yourself that might surprise people
I often feel like I have no idea what I’m doing (but that said, I feel pretty okay about it at the moment).
4. You moved from Scotland to Canada. How is life different now? And how does being an illustrator in Toronto compare to being an illustrator in Scotland?
The biggest difference for me is that since I’ve moved to Toronto, I’ve been an illustrator full-time. I’ve always worked freelance around full-time and part-time jobs, but this is the first time I’ve been freelance only. The other difference is that I’ve always worked solo on illustration and ceramic work – but now I collaborate with Shayna, and it’s been fun to bounce ideas off of someone, and have another person to solve problems and celebrate successes with.
5. What’s the last thing that made you say “wow”?
I’m not sure about the last thing (probably something lame), but I was recently looking at prints of drawings by Justin Brown Durand, and I loved them so much that it’s likely I wow’d out loud, and I bought two right then and there.
6. Which book illustrations have stayed with you from childhood/influenced you?
Quentin Blake’s work is probably one of the first times I clearly recognised an illustrator’s style (as well as realising the illustrator is just as important as the author), since he was always drawing different characters. Books that depict animals in bold simple styles, like The Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, are still favourites.
7. What type of artwork do you have hanging in your home?
Since my stay in Canada is temporary and our apartment is tiny, I’ve tried not to purchase too much artwork for our walls that I’ll then have to pack when we leave, but at the moment we have prints by Nathaniel Russell, Léa Maupetit, Sandi Falconer and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
8. What’s your guilty pleasure?
Staying in bed for way too long in the morning.
9. We love your ceramic illustrations. Without giving away too many secrets, what process do you use to create them?
With my own work, I often end up referring to drawings I’ve done on paper, and recreate them by hand-building objects or drawing the designs on vessels I’ve made. I often just make something without much forward planning and hope that things turn out alright. With the Keep Company work I make with Shayna, there’s a little more consideration and discussion before making things – our newest design, featuring a pair of swans, was Shayna’s suggestion, and I probably wouldn’t have come up with it myself – it’s quite a basic design, but the simple symmetry and stark black and white contrast worked out really well.
10. What challenges (or nice surprises!) did you come across when transferring your illustration style to clay?
One of the reasons I decided to try out ceramics a few years ago was that I felt like my illustration process had become too predictable and rushed – ceramics doesn’t allow for completing anything in less than a week generally, let alone a few hours. So it’s been nice to slow down and have less control over how things are going (sometimes glazes don’t work, sometimes things crack). However, the lack of control is a challenge too – it can be so frustrating when the thing you’ve spent hours working on doesn’t come out right in the end. But then, that in itself presents a good lesson to learn – sometimes things don’t turn out the way you expect them to, and all you can do is accept it and try again.