Illustrator Gillian Martin’s mid-century designs

Gillian Martin is a UK designer and illustrator living by the sea. For her, the best part about her job is that ‘it doesn’t feel like work, more like fun!’, and it shows in her art. Playful and graphic, her prints represent a lifetime of creative prowess.

’Blue Bowl’, Gillian Martin

Q: Were you always creative? 

A: Growing up in a creative household, as far back as I can remember, I always loved to draw. As a very shy, not-at-all-sporty child, I realised art was my friend, and in the playground it even began to feel like my ‘superpower’, as I would draw requests for my school friends!

My dad was a graphic designer and sign writer, with a passion for photography. My mum was an art teacher who loved crafting and making stuff. There were always projects on the go, and art materials to hand. Not surprisingly, all three of my brothers also work in creative industries.

One is a painter who lives in Brisbane and runs art classes, another designs interactive science concepts and exhibitions for museums worldwide, and my youngest brother is a model-maker working on films such as Star Wars and Harry Potter.

So, when I discovered I could be an illustrator when I grew up, that was me decided! I can’t imagine being anything else, it’s more of an identity than a career choice in a way. If I absolutely had to choose something else to do that was not art, maybe I would be a historian and make documentaries for TV, like Janina Ramirez or Lucy Worsley!

After art school, I moved to London armed with a degree in Illustration and a heavy portfolio. In those early days there was no internet(!)… So it was face-to-face meetings with actual Art Directors and Editors! I did a lot of editorial and publishing work, advertising and even window displays.

I worked part-time at Tate Gallery to supplement my income, which was a great environment for visual inspiration.

Gillian Martin started drawing early on in life.

Q: Tell us about a typical working day.

A: I usually wake around 6am, my cats Albus and Sushi are my alarm clock. After feeding the cats, I have coffee and a scroll through social media, before heading to ’the office’ which happens to be in the basement.

On sunny days, I open the doors onto the garden and the cats enjoy wandering in and out. I usually listen to radio plays or YouTube while working.

Q: Where do you live and work?

A: I live in Scarborough on the Yorkshire Coast. It’s a very beautiful part of the world, with some lovely coastal walks and a picturesque harbour. My husband mostly lives in Toronto (we all lived there for a while) as he works for a Canadian company. My daughter is studying English Literature at university, although both of them are here with me right now, due to the global pandemic.

Q: What materials couldn’t you do without?

I would be lost without my Mac and Wacom tablet! I mostly work in Photoshop and would describe my illustration style as ‘Mid-Century Modern’, stylised and quite bold.

I’m strongly influenced by the art and design from that period, and I like to use a limited colour palette and add ‘offset’ textures to try and achieve that printed look.

I’ve often been asked if my work is screen printed: it isn’t. However, I have just bought some equipment and plan to experiment with actual printing a bit more!

Gillian Martin’s sketchbooks

Q: What are your key influences and inspirations?

A: Visual inspiration is an important part of my creative process. I love nothing more than visiting galleries and museums. 

Instagram is full of inspiration and visual richness. I’m also quite addicted to Pinterest which I find is a very useful tool for gathering references and research.

Q: Which artists do you admire or have influenced your work?

A: The artists, sculptors and designers who have influenced my work the most are Picasso, John Piper, Barbara Hepworth, Lucienne Day, Edward Bawden, Ravilious, John Minton…

There are also SO many contemporary artists and illustrators whose work I absolutely love too, many of whom I follow on Instagram. 

I like to take online courses to challenge myself and to generate new work from prompts I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. It’s also great to have a community to bounce off, as I normally work alone.

Q: Do you have any art on the walls at home?

A: I have all sorts of things hanging on my walls that I have collected over the years. I also like to paint large abstract canvases, which I have in most rooms.

Q: What was the last exhibition you visited?

A: The last exhibition I saw was Picasso and Paper at the RA, just before we all went into lockdown. Loved it! It’s hard to imagine just being able to walk into a gallery and taking it for granted at the moment!

Q: How do you see your work developing in the next few years?

A: I hope to continue getting interesting licensing collaborations with my lovely agent Sue at Yellow House. I plan to develop my brand and perhaps have my own range of ceramics.

It would be nice to have a range of products. One of my favourite recent collaborations was with Elite Tins for some tea caddies. I love to see my work in 3D.

I’d also like to be doing a lot more painting and printmaking with a view to having more exhibitions.  I like seeing it large scale, and a mural that was commissioned a while back for Hull Royal Infirmary’s dementia café wall was exciting to see, as my work is usually relatively small scale.

Q: Any immediate plans for the future?

A: I definitely plan to do some more 'art travel', and look forward to being able to visit art galleries and historical sites I have not been to yet.

Q: Do you feel the Arts should be funded?

A: The Arts should definitely be funded in my opinion. This current lockdown situation has highlighted what is important to people, and that being able to express yourself creatively, or appreciate art, can be so beneficial for health and general well-being. People need more art, it connects us.

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