Interview | 8. Mar, 2018 - 13 min read

Vanessa Gillings

“Sometimes I literally dress my foxes in my own wardrobe”

Vanessa is a great example of what can happen when you take your fear and make it your superpower. Once afraid of drawing animals, she is now known exactly for them. Besides her adorable personified bunnies her most favorite animal is a fox; a well-dressed fox, that is. Since Vanessa enjoys the physical process of creating, she does a lot of things by hand. Apart from painting and drawing, she also makes her own clothes: clothes that later also find their way into cute illustrations. If all goes well, the world will soon get richer for a book written and illustrated by her!

The Tales from Bunny Hill are wonderfully folklore-like illustrations wrapped in the fantasy storytelling. It looks like it is set in another world but so real and close to ours. With lovely bunnies dressed in beautiful clothes adorned with patterns, enticing us to look at what is happening on that day in the embrace of their warm and welcoming village homes, I can’t but think that Lake users and your fans will absolutely love it and create stories of their own. Can you tell the story of this adorable world of your imagination?

What a sweet description of my work — thank you! Truthfully, Bunny Hill came together on its own; I think it’s just everything I love in one package: clothing design, cute animals, warm, everyday tasks, and the architecture where I live. I’m really inspired by connections to the past as well as memories from my childhood, whether that was helping my dad with household chores, or watching my mom quilt, or baking jam tarts in my grandmother’s unheated English kitchen. These kinds of moments meant the most to me as a kid, and still do as an adult. That’s why I make things by hand, whether they’re clothes or meals or paintings, using the same methods and materials (for the most part) as generations before me. I also live in one of the oldest towns on the East Coast of the US that looks just like a storybook; it directly inspired the appearance of Bunny Hill — the tumbledown houses are only slightly more slanted in my illustrations than real life!

Tell us more about your fox and bunny characters that fans love so dearly. How did they come to life?

It’s kind of funny, but I used to be terrified of drawing animals! I thought I had to draw them realistically and that gave me a lot of anxiety until I realized that so long as the animal was recognizable I could stylize it to my heart’s content. That allowed me to loosen up and just draw.

As far as their characters… I think I just grew up with a lot of clothed creatures (Disney, Paddington Bear, Babar, Beatrix Potter), and I really love to draw people, so it felt natural to personify them. I like to tell stories in my illustrations, but I don’t have specific stories behind most of my animal characters — in fact, most of the foxes are actually just me, dressed in clothes I own, because foxes are my favorite! I am brewing up one story about a trouble-making Calico in a calico coat however… but I’ll have to tell you more about it when it’s done!

What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into illustration?

I’ve been drawing and writing for as long as I can remember. I used to make up stories about my toys and was obsessed with doodling (horrible) horses for most of my childhood. My mom is a crafter and quilter so she always encouraged me to draw, but other than a few little programs here and there, I didn’t take a real art class until high school. That was my first experience being asked to draw outside my comfort zone, or to draw based on life, and I liked it enough that I decided to go to art school. I’ve known pretty much since I was 11 that I wanted to write and tell stories, and since high school I knew I wanted to illustrate them, too.

One thing that stood out to me is that you are a DIY maker and among other DIY projects you make your own clothes. That honestly sounds impressive and time-consuming. Can you give us a glimpse into this side of you?

Crafting is something I could talk about for hours — so I’ll try not to bore you! I’ve always loved fashion and clothes; I’m also a total nerd about fibers and textile design. But even though I learned to knit and sew from my mom, originally it was just something I did to relax. It took a lot of lumpy scarves and baggy hats before I was good enough at knitting to make wearable pieces, but once I did it felt like a whole world of possibilities opened up. I don’t make all my clothes because I don’t have the time (and I still have a lot left to learn about sewing before I feel like I can make everything) but I make so many of them because I love the process of crafting, the texture and feel of natural fibers, and coordinating my outfits in a way I couldn’t do with store-bought pieces alone.

“It took a lot of lumpy scarves and baggy hats before I was good enough at knitting to make wearable pieces, but once I did it felt like a whole world of possibilities opened up.”

There’s also just a really lovely connection I feel to the past while crafting. I’m the first woman in my family who wasn’t expected to make her own clothing — all my female ancestors, on both sides of my family, made their own clothes at one point. I like thinking about how the women in my family were probably holed up on snowy days knitting the same as I am; plus there’s just something special about a garment that was made slowly and lovingly by hand.

Food allergy is an issue more and more people have to deal with. Could you shed some light on this issue since you know it well?

Oh yes, me and my food allergies! Thankfully, it turns out that I’m only super lactose intolerant and allergic to shellfish (which is still a pain in the butt), but around 7 years ago I had an allergy pin prick test come back with 40 false positives — 40! (I’m so allergic to dust, which I was also tested for at the time, that I went into anaphylaxis in the doctor’s office, which gave a false reading.) I spent about 3 years avoiding all 40 of those foods though, making all of my meals myself, before I happened to move, go to a new allergist, and slowly re-did the test in batches for a more accurate result.

Those years were definitely a pretty horrendous experience, but they’re also a lot of why I became a full-time illustrator since my previous job of a graphic designer was simply impossible to do when I had to prepare literally everything I ate myself. But weirdly I’m kind of glad it happened (so long as it’s no longer happening) because it taught me to cook naturally, gave me an appreciation for what I eat, and allowed me to enjoy what I’m able to eat now so much more. Even though I can eat many more things these days, I still cook most of my food myself — but now, it’s because I enjoy it. I’ll also never take a good slice of bread for granted ever again.

“Art careers sometimes take a long time to get going (mine did) and sometimes it takes even longer to find your niche.”

What is your approach towards creating a specific character piece from choosing a setting, color palette, fashion direction for clothes to making the final design? What fills your artistic soul more, sketching or the final illustration?

I always start with thumbnailing in my sketchbook, which is not a neat and artistic place, but a cesspool of random scribbles and jotted down notes. I used to doodle a lot, but now I find that I next to never do, which might be weird, but I actually don’t draw that well unless I have a specific idea or thought in mind. I have to really visualize a picture in my head first before I can sketch, and when I sketch, I work super loosely, focusing on gesture and nothing else.

I’m not exactly sure where I get a lot of my inspiration from. It’s not just one place. A lot of it is based on childhood memories, or classic children’s books I read when I was a kid, but it’s also a mishmash of the amazing illustrators I know as well as the world I see around me. I also simply love clothes, and not just their design, but how they’re crafted and made. I dress my characters in slightly exaggerated versions of things I would wear myself, and sometimes I literally dress my foxes in my own wardrobe. The patterns on the clothes I draw are deliberately not referenced, because I don’t want to copy or appropriate, so I just draw what comes to mind, a lot of which tends to be geometric. As far as color palettes, I almost always have a pretty specific color scheme in mind when I start a drawing, but sometimes I surprise myself while color roughing.

After years of tweaking my artistic process, I actually really enjoy the whole thing. I don’t like working digitally, so I spend as much time as I can working traditionally, even if some parts would be faster if I used Photoshop. Like knitting or sewing, I enjoy the physical process of painting. I like how it feels to move paint around on paper, and that delicate dance between trying to achieve perfection while accepting (and working with) mistakes as they happen. Sketching is all about energy and having a thousand ideas and frantically trying to get them all down; painting is slowly nudging one idea towards completion. They’re both equally enjoyable to me.

Your fans call you a modern Beatrix Potter, which must be an amazing compliment. Who is your favorite book illustrator and is there book illustrating/authoring in the future for you? Also, have you already watched the Peter Rabbit movie that came out just recently?

It is an amazing compliment, one I’m constantly astonished to receive! Thank you to everyone who’s ever said it to me! I grew up reading her wonderful work and she’s absolutely one of my favorites. I’m also, like a lot of current illustrators, inspired by Carson Ellis, who gave me the idea to use gouache like watercolor.

I absolutely intend to publish a book someday! I both write and draw, and have a number of stories up my sleeve, mostly for middle schoolers. I’m hoping to finish the first one this year, as well as a picture book, which will probably be a bit reminiscent of these bunnies, but about a cat, instead. I haven’t seen the Peter Rabbit movie yet — it looks a lot different from the books, but who knows, maybe I’ll like it. I do end up liking most kids movies.

“There’s just something special about a garment that was made slowly and lovingly by hand.”

How have Instagram and other social media affected your business?

My career 100% wouldn’t exist without social media. I began working as a comic book artist years ago, and then a graphic designer, but I’m only able to work as an illustrator now because of Tumblr and Instagram. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s found my work and followed me, as well as to the platforms themselves for promoting me. It’s been invaluable not only to have an audience waiting there, encouraging me to make new work, but to see what people like and what they don’t. I’ve also made so many friends on the two sites; I don’t think I could have ever gotten my foot in the door of this industry without them.

We are very happy you became a part of Lake. What made you go with us?

Thank you for wanting me to be a part! I knew and respected a lot of the other artists that were already working with you; after downloading the app and seeing how fun it was, I knew I had to join in, too! Plus, I’m always up for drawing a lot of bunnies in dresses!

Any final thoughts for those who are also starting to make their way as artists?

Persevere! Art careers sometimes take a long time to get going (mine did) and sometimes it takes even longer to find your niche. If you love something enough to work on it when no one’s paying you, eventually you’ll grow enough that someone will. :)

Vanessa’s art pack is now available in Lake.

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