We are all Dickensian characters | Zara Slattery

British artist Zara Slattery, who will be giving a two-day workshop in Malta on September 15 and 16 at St James Cavalier, speaks to us about her prolific career, and the influence of Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz – which will form the basis of the workshop, entitled Images of Valletta.

Zara Slattery updated Charles Dickens’s London to the modern age with her take on the master’s Sketches by Boz – “In many ways this was a city that Dickens would still recognise”.
Zara Slattery updated Charles Dickens’s London to the modern age with her take on the master’s Sketches by Boz – “In many ways this was a city that Dickens would still recognise”.

How would you describe your artistic journey? What first nudged you to start illustrating, and what were some of the highlights of your biography so far?

I've always seen myself as a storyteller, who happens to tell stories through pictures. As a child, reading didn't come easy, so I read pictures instead of words and was captivated by illustrations and their ability to transport you to another place. I can remember being held in a scene or intrigued by what lay over the hill or through the door.

At an early age I realised that I could draw and naturally, the two elements came together. I developed a love of line and was encouraged at college to study Illustration at degree level.

There have been one or two illustration jobs that have been real highlights. One commission was for CBBC, drawing landscapes for a computer game that was part of the re-launch of the BBC's Jackanory programme and another great commission was last year for the British Council in London, when I was asked to draw a modern interpretation of Dickens's Sketches by Boz.

How would you describe your day-to-day life as a full-time illustrator? What are some of the challenges that you - and I imagine your colleagues in the creative field - have to face on a regular basis?

I work from home, in at studio at the bottom of the garden and so once I've dropped my children off at school I head home, make a cup of tea and assess what I did the night before. This is my favourite time of day, when I can put my mind at rest by congratulating myself or by eagerly ripping things up and starting again (if I have time).

Freelance work can be very unpredictable, sometimes work can be thin on the ground or there is too much of it.

When I have a lot of work in or a deadline looming I tend to work long hours, only breaking to collect the children from school and cook. My husband takes over in the evening and I go back to the studio and tend to stay there till 11pm or later.

In terms of challenges, there are the personal, creative ones, trying to capture the essence of the story and convey that within what is usually a tight deadline. And then there are practical ones, deadlines, prioritising jobs and negotiating fees, as well as trying to generate new work in a market place that has lots of illustrators to choose from.

You seem to be drawn towards children's illustrations... or at least illustration that edges towards that particular kind of imagery and mood. What attracts you about this approach?

I started my career as an editorial illustrator with an 'edgy', surreal style that ebbed and flowed with the commissions that came in. Increasingly, work came in from children's publishers and my work developed into something more practical and a little less experimental.

My style is born out of a whole mish-mash of elements, the landscape where I grew up, a passion for the circus and theatre, early political cartoons and 20th century children's illustration.

All these elements were there in my early work, but it took a while to harness them. I guess it's an emotional process, in essence, if it feels right in terms of line, colour, perspective and composition then it's doing its job and I'm happy.

For this particular initiative, how did you find taking on a 'Dickensian' angle to your work? What are the particular pleasures and challenges associated with this, and in particular the depiction of London?

I found taking on a Dickensian theme incredibly exciting. Much of my previous experience with Dickens had been through TV adaptations and film and I thought I knew his work. For the initial British Council commission I read up on Dickens and found him something of a revelation.

His Sketches by Boz captured everyday scenes and people that inspired much of his later work, free from creative interpretations I was able to see his characters anew and realised that in many ways we are all Dickensian characters, just waiting for a silly name. This has influenced my approach to character development in my own projects.

When it came to depicting London at dawn, I knew that whatever I saw would be of interest no matter how small.

The challenges were few, but significant; the cold, not enough light for the camera, ensuring people didn't pose when being photographed or that they didn't move too fast and left you with nothing but a blur, and condensing 400 photographs into a few sequential scenes.

And the pleasures came from simply observing a historic and modern city at work, knowing that in many ways this was a city that Dickens would still recognise.

On a related note, are you looking forward to the workshop in Malta, and how do you think the Dickensian vibe will translate into a Maltese setting?

This is my first trip to Malta, so I'm very excited. I think the Dickensian vibe will translate very well to Malta, I'm looking forward to running the workshop and seeing what great things come from it.

The workshop will take place at St James Cavalier on September 15 from 08:00 to 14:00 and September 16 from 10:00 to 16:00.

The €20 participation fee ncludes lunch on both days and materials for the workshop.

All participants should have a digital camera or a mobile phone with a camera. To register, please send an email to [email protected]

Zara Slattery's visit was made possible thanks to the British Council and the Malta Arts Fund.

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