Ciara Quilty-Harper is an English-Irish artist and illustrator based in Barcelona known for her hazy tones and cloudy colours. She’s worked for a range of clients from The New York Times to Elcaf and has also won an award for her brilliant book Lemon Yellow. We had the opportunity talk to Ciara about her process and inspiration as an illustrator.

Hey Ciara, Could you give us a quick introduction to your work and how you started working in illustration? Have you always been using traditional techniques?

Half my childhood was drawing and sewing and just making things. I studied fashion then surface design at UAL in London. After moving to Barcelona I found a few illustration jobs while teaching english and took some short courses in screen-printing and sewing but wanted to study full-time again not only to force myself to push my work but to make friends in the illustration community, which I’m happy to say happened. Since Escola Massana I’ve been working a lot more. 

Traditional techniques have always been important to me as they don’t really allow for perfection, I like being forced to accept how it comes out. They’re also portable; I like to know I can bring them anywhere. Although I did once carry 5 heavy glass pots of gouache and a tin of paintbrushes on a hike all the way to Vall de Núria and didn’t paint one thing. 

Your work has a dream-like quality, capturing day to day moments in a captivating, hazy way. What are some of the influences behind your way of working? 

Sometimes I don’t realise what has influenced me until later on, which is why I think it’s important if you’re drawn to something for any reason to save it somewhere because it might end up being useful.

I know that films, especially ‘slow’ cinema – by Abbas Kiarostami for example, make me want to draw. The savouring of objects, faces and surroundings makes me feel like I’m there with time to really look around and this is all I really want when I’m drawing. 

My dad and how he works is a big influence. There’s a particular painting of his that I’ve always loved, it’s a big canvas of a low angle view of just the corner of a woven rug and a glimpse of a table leg and chair. It wasn’t until last time I saw it that I realised how I’ve been trying to get my work to feel like that painting lately.

What’s your creative process like? Your work uses a range of techniques, from coloured pencils to gouache. Do you usually start out with techniques, colours or sketches? 

If it’s just for me I don’t do sketches, maybe I’ll do a little thumbnail of colours I’d like to use to see if they work but that’s it. Working like this gives me unexpected results and sparks new processes which is what keeps me interested.

For commissions I tried to work without sketches but it’s too risky! Now I find or take photos and plan out the image so the focus is in the right place, and will do a lot of mini colour plans and practice more difficult details before. 

In both instances I know before I start which technique I feel like using, a colour I want to try or what I feel like drawing; I think it’s important to always find something in the process or details that you can get excited about. It is true though that having limits on technique or colour imposed by someone else can also open new doors.

How do you start an illustration, and when do you know it’s finished?

For personal work I begin by choosing my frame or crop of what I’m looking at and feel like drawing, whether it’s from life or a photo. I like to do just one version and then move on to the next. The acceptance of whatever comes out is what a refreshing challenge that keeps me from being too precious.

I do usually know about a third of the way through if I’m going to be happy with the final or hate it with a passion, it’s can be hard to keep going if it’s the latter. When I fill in the whole frame is when it’s finished! 

I know when I’m really pleased with a finished image when I can’t stop looking at it and later can’t remember how I did it. 

It’s really cool seeing your work pop up in printed forms like your book Lemon Yellow and your recent prints of page masters. What’s one of your favourite works to date and why? 

Thanks! I’m thrilled with how the Pagemasters prints came out, Jordan and Justin did an amazing job. 

I’d like to say my favourite is a personal drawing but I’m actually really proud of the piece I did for the NYT article. Not just because I’m pleased with how it looks or because it was a big deal for me, but because I was so nervous that I’d never be able to make anything I’d be satisfied with that I feel like I overcame a big fear and proved to myself that I could get it done in a way that felt true to my work. 

Is there anything you are excited for in 2022 or any new projects in progress?

I’m hoping to get some funding and a residency to spend some time working on a new book idea I have about childhood. A little exhibition would be great, my collection of drawings is getting bigger and I’d like to see them all in one place. 

I’d love to do some animations and start doing some weaving, silk painting and more quilting. Mostly I’m excited about hopefully being able to plan trips and find new places to draw.