I’m never happier with my job as an interviewer than on the days when I have an interviewee as fun and open as Lizzie Mary Cullen. A 2008 BA Design graduate, Lizzie is a freelance illustrator and designer with several awards to her name (amongst other things, she won Gold Design Award in 202 from Best of British Illustration); her elaborate artwork opens a window towards a world of fluid geometry, swirls and patterns, familiar landscapes that are nevertheless in a different dimension. I’m not the only one to be charmed by Lizzie’s illustrations: she has worked with MTV, HTC, Zizzi restaurants, Harvey Nichols, The Guardian and many others.
Three tomatoes are walking down the street…
Of course, you may ask, why, if she wanted to become an illustrator, did Lizzie not take the path of an Illustration or Fine Art course instead of Design? Well, it turns out that even though Lizzie did not intend to be an illustrator all along, she did, in fact, try to make it into a Fine art course in the beginning, but the selection interview in Newcastle turned out to be quite a scary experience, as the examiners were not impressed by Lizzie’s portfolio, nor by her quirky sense of humor: “I told them the tomato joke from Pulp Fiction”. It goes like this: three tomatoes are walking down the street- Papa Tomato, Mama Tomato and Baby Tomato. Baby Tomato starts lagging behind, so Papa Tomato gets upset, comes over, squishes him and says: ‘Ketchup!’ Pretty funny, right? Alas, it did nothing to help relax the atmosphere with the Newcastle academics, and Lizzie ended up at Goldsmiths Design instead, a choice she has never regretted to this day. “I always felt I had an edge because I went to Goldsmiths”, says Lizzie. “It restructured my thinking in ways nothing else could have done it”, something that seems more valuable in retrospect than learning how to draw a pretty house. Anyway, she adds, very specialized training is overrated- nowadays, a detailed tutorial for any skill or task is just a click away on Youtube. How did we ever manage to function without Youtube, actually?
Stuff happens and it’s awesome
In her young career Lizzie has already achieved many things most of us would dream of- for instance, while still being a student, she had a job on the set of “Harry Potter”, one of the most beloved and popular movie franchises ever made. You would be forgiven for assuming that such a blockbuster production would have cinema stars hiding in their trailers all day, guarded by 20 bodyguards and avoiding to speak to anybody who is lower on the food chain, but you’d be wrong: “There was a very chilled out vibe”, says Lizzie. Everybody talked to everybody without much affectation, and in fact actors Daniel Radcliffe and Tom Felton became her friends and both attended Lizzie’s first solo show in 2010, a charity exhibition for the benefit of the Big Issue Foundation. Her work on “Harry Potter” was a crossroads in Lizzie’s career: she had already done some work for the Art department of the production (mostly prop design) and she really, really wanted to get a permanent job there…but she didn’t get it. So she decided not to return on set as a runner and walk the road of the graphic designer and freelance illustrator. Infinite parallel universes could stem from every decisive point in our lives; Lizzie doesn’t know where the Art department job on the Harry Potter film would have taken her –probably someplace good- but a different road also took her in a good place. This is why she doesn’t spend her time trying to tick boxes on a list of goals any more, you just never know: “stuff just happens and it’s awesome”. These days Lizzie focuses on continuing to get work and improving her style.
How does Lizzie manage to motivate and organize herself through her freelancing work? Doesn’t she end up spending all day in bed in her pajamas (I admit, that was me projecting my own flaws) or, on the contrary, overworking herself? I struck a nerve, because Lizzie is on a continuous battle with her schedule: “I’m tearing myself apart with worry that I’m not working enough” (at the moment she’s trying to leave the work at her studio and not bring it home anymore). The thing with creative work is, though, that you need many different things to stimulate your brain, so one must learn to accept when a day off to go on a boat trip on the Thames or anything of the kind is needed: this doesn’t mean you’re betraying your work or slacking off, all the contrary- you’re letting your mind breathe.
Nothing like a house cleaning after a 24 hour drawing challenge
Amongst the things that catch your eye in Lizzie’s catalogue of achievements is her 24 hour trip around London, in 2011, in which she managed to draw 50 landmarks suggested by people through twitter. “I wanted to do something really insane to test my drawing skills”, she tells me. Sam Hill (also a Goldsmiths Design alumnus, now at Pan Studio) helped her, TfL provided her with bicycles to get around, Think-Work-Play webzine provided additional motivation, and the challenge was set. While Lizzie successfully completed the task, she admits it was exhausting and said to herself “I’m gonna die” more than just once throughout. A lot of people who heard of this brave endeavor assumed that it was her drawing hand that got the most pain- well those people don’t know what it’s like to sit on the uncomfortable “Boris bikes” for so long. After all this, Lizzie felt incredibly tired, and couldn’t wait to go home and sleep. But as soon as she got there, she immediately cleaned her entire house. With bleach and all. Must be true what they say that sometimes being too tired makes you hyperactive! More recently, she participated in a group exhibition exploring the concept of Lolcats, and Lizzie’s contribution was a picture of Rebekah Brooks, she of tabloid fame, as a cat, devouring secret documents.
Lizzie would like to write picture books for children someday, but for the time being she doesn’t believe she has the necessary skills, or that she has found her voice for that yet- she likes her visual style and she’s proud of it, but turning it into a narrative is something that still needs work. Lizzie says she did put together a children’s book proposal at some point, and even showed it to a publisher, but..”I don’t know if it was good”, she admits with refreshing honesty. “It may have been rubbish”. Creating a beautiful, classic children’s book is not child’s play! Still, someday when she’s older and has a family of her own, Lizzie would like to have the quiet, happy life of a children’s books writer and illustrator.
I thought that being at a table with an illustrator and a notebook on my lap would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t ask her to draw something for me, so I did. And Lizzie drew a picture of me, which I’m going to show to you not because I’m vain, but because it’s a really good drawing that she made in literally five minutes, so you can all have a grasp of how talented she is.
There’s more to know about Lizzie, for example that she has a pet bunny called Maud, but I will let you discover some of that for yourselves and have a look at her work by visiting her website.
Photos courtesy of Lizzie Mary Cullen