I became an illustrator by making my own Christmas cards. As a teenager I was obsessed by Celtic art. I would begin in January, and spend the year creating a set of designs.
At first they were closely derived from The Book of Kells and Lindesfarne Gospels, but I became more confident about designing my own layouts and patterns. I loved the philosophy of celtic art as well as the colour and intricacy: that the labour of the intricate work was a kind of prayer, that the geometric shapes, eternal lines and naturalistic designs were imitatitive of God’s own creativity, that small imperfections should always be left to ensure the artist did not become arrogant and put herself on a level with the Creator, the little symbol of three dots to represent the Holy Trinity.
Eventually exams and university caught up with me and by the time I returned to illustration, I had emerged almost literally from the Dark Ages, got a lot more sceptical and a lot less obsessive, and developed a strong interest in environmental issues. My designs still drew on the skills I’d learned copying those celtic knots, but were based on sketches of nature, like this one using my favourite weed, Herb Robert. I continued to draw on my spiritual tradition of the bible too, but instead of the abstract ideas I had entwined geometric knots around, I chose earthier ‘ecological’ passages like this one, Psalm 96.
‘Where is this stupendous stranger?’ is another design from this time, in which I finally untied myself from the knots, and experimented with the delicious possibilities of creating a colourful world out of black ink on white paper, and of earthing mystical words in quirky, modern illustration inspired by artists like Lowry and Escher.
I wanted to do more designs and draw on wider influences, and was also looking at ways to commercialise my work, so I came up with the idea of inviting people to commission a Christmas card design as a way of making these time-consuming designs affordable. The first commissions were mostly from supportive members of my choir and the church congregation, so were dominated by carols, which were my suggested theme.
A few people commission a card from me every year, which allows me to create a series of designs, like this one which I gave the paradoxical name of ‘contemporary mediaeval’. It draws on the knotwork and calligraphy skills I learned in all those hours copying the Book of Kells, but gives it greater freedom, restraint and personality. I’ve got less afraid of blank space.
I continued to design cards for myself as well, to send and to sell, and these represent the work I want to do. My favourite themes in recent years have been nature and literature.
This year I took the literature theme a step further, because I’ve rediscovered something I’d put aside before I even began drawing those Celtic cards as a teenager: story writing. All my cards tell stories, and there with sub-plots hidden in the margins and themes running through the colours and styles. This year for the first time there’s a real story, The Falcon Christmas, based on research I’ve been doing for my history PhD. The illustration on the card illustrates the story, which is hidden in a little ribbon-bound book inside.
This doesn’t represent the complete collection of my Christmas cards. The full collection is in my Etsy shop where all their stories are told. I hope you enjoy them!