Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Remco Merbis
Lara is an illustrator, writer, daydreamer and all round breath of fresh air. She has had her work shortlisted for the Lowry Children’s Book Award and her first picture book, Herberto, has been published in Portugal, Brazil, Slovenia, France and South Korea. Lara’s work is unique and her exquisite detail of style comes from a commitment to not cutting corners and incorporating her own passions in commissions, whether by adding ‘unloved animals’, or hand-painting 100 different fish! Lara talks about the moody forests and fairytales of Slovenia, that, in part, formed the backdrop to her childhood, but also about some of the art-less spaces she grew up in and how boredom can bring inspiration too. Lara, like her work, is sweetly dreamy and full of enough playful humour to brighten up any gloom. Even with the current situation of her studio space in jeopardy (for more details see below), Lara focuses on the positives of being pushed closer together with her community – although she says she does have to be strict about only talking on lunchbreaks!
How do you describe yourself as a maker?
I’m primarily a painter, illustrator and author - but I’m also interested to expand my practice in the future, with a focus on animation or ceramics maybe.
How did you start painting?
I painted a lot with my mum when I was younger. We’d always draw together while we watched TV - it became a habit. I was an only child and I was quite bored a lot of the time so I’d paint and write stories. I think boredom can be very good for creativity. I did art at school in Oxford, then went on to Falmouth Arts School for a foundation course.
Was there ever any doubt that you’d pursue a creative career?
Oh, there was loads of doubt! My parents encouraged me to pursue art, but what your friends do can really influence what you think you should do. I applied for English and Art History degrees, which I’m sure I would have enjoyed, but I’m not at all sure I’d have been any good at. My foundation course solidified for me that it’s alright to do an art degree and that this is what I enjoy. I think I would have been really stressed if I’d done something else… Of course, I still get stressed now! But it’s in a different way.
Can you tell us a little about your process?
I try as much as I can to know how a piece will turn out, but it really depends on how long I’ve got to do it. For my last commission, I had eight days to come up with the idea, do the painting and Photoshop it - which isn’t long for an A2 image, especially given I’d never done a shipwreck before! It was all a bit of a risk, but I did the drawing and scanned it, and then planned the colours in Photoshop, so that when I painted them for real, there was less risk of it going wrong.
I say less risk because every time I’m unsure. I never feel really confident and it’s always a rollercoaster of emotions. But lots of my friends in this studio say they go through the same thing. Sometimes the colours just don’t seem to be working and it could be because it’s the morning and the light has shifted from when you were working under an artificial lamp the night before… Personally, I never really know how I feel about a piece until a week later but I always see it as a learning experience. If I’m not happy with the way something turned out I know that’s something I can work on next time.
About a quarter of my time is spent packaging prints and cards and distributing these. It’s good to not just do one thing all the time and the practical side of packaging can be therapeutic and a good break from painting… before you get bored of that and are ready to get started again.
What’s your ethos?
I have a rule not to cut corners and I’m really careful to never copy anything from another piece of my own work. So if I’m doing 100 fish I make 100 different fish, all hand-painted. That’s not time efficient so could be seen as really stupid and maybe no one else will ever notice, but for me, it’s important to make sure that everything is unique.
I also try to make work that I would like if I saw it in a shop. It sounds simple, but I think it’s really easy when you’re painting to lose sight of your actual taste. I look back at some of my work and I don’t like it at all and I think it comes from when I’ve not been inspired and not stepped back from it enough.
Do you have a making ‘philosophy’?
I try and make things as much in line with my own interests as possible. So if I get a commission that feels far away from what I enjoy, I try to find a way to make it my own, even if that means doing something as simple as adding a rat to the bottom corner (I love unloved animals!) or just adding as much detail as possible. It’s important to do this so that your passion shines through, because if you make work in line with your passion you’ll hopefully get more of it. If you start making work that isn’t in-line with what you’re interested in, you’re going to be uninterested. But on the flipside of all that, it’s also important to be open-minded and try new things. So it’s about getting that balance.
I turn down a lot of free work now as I can’t afford to do that. It’s common for illustrators to get asked to do lots of free pieces, I think the exception would be if it’s for charitable reasons.
Can you tell us a little more about your love of ‘unloved animals’?
My first book, ‘Herberto’, was about a slug who discovers he’s a painter through his slime. Along the way he meets different animals - a spider who is a weaver, ants that are architects and a dung beetle who’s a sculptor - and he gets really jealous because he thinks he’s not very creative, but at the end of his journey Herberto looks back and sees that his slime has made a pattern and realizes he’s a painter!
I’m proud of that story. When I was little I used to play with slugs and snails a lot and I always think it’s weird you don’t see more of them in children’s books. I loved creepy crawlies - I think lots of children do! But because they’re not cute and cuddly they are often overlooked. For me these less-loved creatures are more interesting, less generic and allow more opportunity for humour. These are real creatures in the garden and it’s good for children to feel inspired to go outside and see the animals that live right on their doorsteps.
Why is it important to you to create?
I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t creating and it can be a sort of therapy. I have so many stories I want to tell and the way I express those stories is through painting. Any time I get the seed of an idea I write it down. I have several mind-maps of the beginnings of ideas.
Where does your main inspiration come from?
My main inspiration comes from the picture books I read as a child. I look back at them quite a lot and they always inspire me. My parents were another huge inspiration. They were both very creative and encouraging. My mum would always be painting and my dad would take photographs. Growing up in that environment made me want to pursue a creative life too.
Which places from your past have made you?
I think all the places from my past have made me in some way. I’m from Oxford, U.K., which is known for being a really beautiful city, with lots of inspiring museums and natural areas, but where I actually grew up was in the suburbs, where there are mostly just lots of really big chain stores, like PC World. It was a place devoid of any art and I think that, actually, that can give you more of a drive to find the places that do have art and to make work in a reaction to that… so actually being in a place that isn’t creative can sometimes make you more creative. But I do think you need culture too.
Slovenia has also been another huge influence on my work. My mum is Slovenian and when I’d go to stay with Grandma I’d always read lots of Slovenian stories and picture books. I was attracted to the stories that had lots of woodland creatures and dark forest fairytales. Slovenia is 90 % forest and from then on whenever I was looking out at a mountain view or over a forest, I would think about those stories. They fueled a lot of my inspiration.
Of course, I also have to mention Falmouth. That was a really important place for me as it was such a comforting environment. I think cities can be overwhelming, especially when you’re first living away from home, and even a little threatening. Falmouth was nurturing and the sea was very beautiful.
Equally, however, Bristol has been great to move to as there are lots more cultural things going on. Lots of my old course mates have moved here and there are even a few in Hamilton House, so it sometimes feels like a mini Falmouth in here.
What do you think the place of makers in the modern world is?
The world can be so gloomy and depressing. I think a makers’ role is to make the world as positive as possible and make people feel better, as well as to challenge issues. With picture books, I try to have positive stories and make them funny and the world seems a bit brighter. I aim to make people laugh.
What place would you like to make the world?
Somewhere where people are more concerned about wildlife. I’m doing a book at the moment about plastic, and that’s been interesting to research, but also very scary. Plastic is a big topic at the moment and in my book a fish interacts with a piece of plastic that floats down to his home. It’s hard to get the right tone so that it’s not preachy or negative, but also conveys the seriousness. I have to balance funny and facts and that’s a challenge. I’d like people to care more about what’s important, whilst also remembering to keep making the world brighter for them and others.
Lara’s studio space is in Hamilton House, Bristol, U.K. The building was originally a neglected office block until, in 2008, Coexist took over running it. They created a wonderful space in which the community could grow, share, collaborate, and learn what it is to live in coexistence with each other. Until recently, the space housed over 200 artists, charities and community groups, and also offered a Community Kitchen, Dance Studio and Wellbeing centre. The Canteen and Bristol Bike Project are also located in the building. In 2017, however, the owners asked Coexist to prepare to leave. In response, a vociferous campaign began to try to protect Coexist and its tenants. With one block of studios already cleared, the future for the other inhabitants is uncertain. Whilst Lara stays characteristically optimistic she says that the uncertainty is the hardest part.
Tell us about your studio at Hamilton House?
It’s the only place I work in. At the moment its a busy period so I'm in eight until eight, seven days a week but this varies. I took my desk away at home so I can't work there anymore. I think it’s good to separate work and home if you can. Hamilton House was, and still is, a great place to work. It has really affordable spaces and I don’t think I would have been able to afford a studio elsewhere in Bristol. It’s also a great community building, with loads of community projects and lunches. I’m a lot happier having people to talk to and having that social side, as my work can be really solitary. Lots of people walk past and want to chat all the time, which can be annoying but can also be brilliant. I’d be a lot lonelier without it, but I’ve had to learn to be strict about only talking on my lunch break!
Recently Hamilton House has gone through so many different changes. Last week Block C had to move out. Those who really wanted to stay were relocated into the rest of building. It’s actually been quite a positive experience in some ways, as now only those who really want to be here are. And we’ve had to move things around and make the space work better so, in some ways, we’ve got even more of a sense of community than before.
The owners say they are turning Block C into affordable flats but it’s a bit unknown as to whether that will really happen and a lot of people don’t really believe them. I think the unknown element is what’s most distressing as we don’t know where we’ll be in a few years. Coexist have made this building such a brilliant community space but the owners didn’t want to sell it to them. They’ve been quite cold and haven’t helped with the relocation and that’s upset a lot of people. Personally, I’m hopeful about the future, but we’ll see!
I got bought this tile when I was on holiday in Lisbon with my mum. I love the crazy eyes - they make me laugh! When I was there I was really inspired by all the different tiles on the buildings and this tile, in particular, reminds me of going on holiday with my mum. She’s a writer but she paints in her spare time and her jungle dreamscapes have definitely been a huge inspiration for me.
Mum knitted this hat and put my picture on it. On the label she wrote ‘PARIS MILAN BRISTOL TIMBUKTU’, and made the hats so I could sell them through the shop in the downstairs of Hamilton House (which sells work from lots of artists in the studios). The hats are all animal-themed, so this one is ‘Woof’ and there is ‘Meow’ and ‘Buzz’ – I love them!
This book is in Slovenian, but it’s by a French illustrator from the sixties. I loved it when I was little, there’s something so spooky and funny about it. I look through this book sometimes just for inspiration. I love all the detail and I like trying to think about how I felt looking at illustrations when I was little. It scares me a bit when I forget how I felt as a child, and I love those moments when something makes you remember. I often try to make work I would have enjoyed when I was little, but I do also think it’s important to make work I appreciate as an adult sometimes too.
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.