The State of the Arts meets Nicola Hanrahan – Illustrator & Surface Pattern Designer

By May 30, 2014

Fashion. Leeds.

After graduating from Leeds College of Art with a degree in Printed Textiles & Surface Pattern Design, Nicola Hanrahan realised her love of illustration and began applying it to printed textiles. Since then, she has been developing new patterns, making cushions and purses from the printed fabric – all from her small studio in West Yorkshire. You may have seen Nicola’s work in places such as The Bowery and various prestigious craft fairs around Yorkshire including Reetsweet at Leeds’ Corn Exchange.

Just recently Nicola has illustrated a series of paintings based on British garden birds with traditional British biscuits and cakes. Everything she produces is designed and made in the UK, including all printed fabric and woven labels. Striving to create as much of her work by hand as possible, Kate caught up with Nicola to see how she does it…

Hi Nicola! You design and make a variety of beautiful things. Is it important to you to be involved in every step of your artistic process – from design through to sewing?

It is very important to me. It means I have complete control over the quality of everything I sell – I really want everything to be the best it can be. It started as more of a necessity though, as I had designed my fabric but had no way of getting the designs out there for people to see – so I taught myself how to make purses and cushions. It is a lovely feeling to have produced something I have designed and made entirely myself!

It seems that a lot of your work revolves around animals and nature. Are these themes a big inspiration to you?

Definitely! Animals, birds and nature in general have been a big part of my childhood. From walking with my Mum and Dad, to playing in my Granny’s garden, I was always enchanted with nature. A lot of my children’s’ books were by Beatrix Potter and Molly Brett and were based on animals and birds. I always found them magical and particularly loved the illustrations.


'Biscuit Heaven' (left); 'Macaron Mountain' (centre); 'Fondant Finchy' (right)

‘Biscuit Heaven’ (left); ‘Macaron Mountain’ (centre); ‘Fondant Finchy’ (right)


You work with a combination of traditional and digital tools – for some of us who may not be familiar with how pattern design works, what is involved in turning a drawing or design, into a piece of fabric?

My methods tend to vary for each design, but I always start out with some imagery I have drawn and painted by hand. I will often have a few different components that I will scan in to my computer – then I can piece them together in a pattern. This part of the process is really helpful to do on the computer as you have a lot more freedom to move things around, delete things or change colours if necessary. Once I’m happy with the layout, I design a tile that will repeat in a perfect pattern. This is very time consuming and fiddly as it has to repeat exactly. If something is out by even a pixel, it can throw out the entire pattern when it’s put into repeat.  The printing process on such a small scale is very expensive, so isn’t something I do very often! I would love to eventually sell my fabric designs by the metre.


Nicola Hanrahan: Cushions & Bags

Nicola Hanrahan: Cushions, Make-up bags & Purses


Which artists or designers inspire you the most?

From a young age the illustrators of my children’s books – Beatrix Potter, Quentin Blake, Molly Brett and Ernest H. Shepard – have been a huge inspiration to me. They often featured animals and made nature so magical. As much as I love reading, I think I have always responded more to pictures and for me these are what made the stories come alive.

Current illustrators like Sandra Dieckmann, Becca Stadtlander, Teagan White, Kate Wilson and Anna Emilia all have differing styles but create gorgeous work. I love how they all seem to still create a lot of their work by hand without relying completely on digital methods, which is really important to me. I can spend hours looking through blogs, and these ladies’ work will certainly always appear!

You have a beautiful studio at the bottom of your garden – do you get most of your work done here?

As much as I can yes. It can get very cold in there (until the heaters get going at least!) so I will often draw wherever and whenever I can. All my production happens in there – it is set up with my sewing machines, printers, scanner and materials. I also work part-time elsewhere to help fund my design work, which means that I don’t always do my own work at regular times of the day. I feel so lucky to have a completely separate space to work in as it means I can work until the early hours of the morning without disturbing anyone. I’m quite the night owl so the studio is a great hideaway for me!


Nicola's Studio

Nicola’s Studio


We hear you create some unusual commissions for customers if they purchase from your website. What’s the strangest commission you’ve had to date?

This is something I’ve only recently started to do! I have been spending so much of my time sewing and making, I really missed drawing. To get back into practice I’ve started doing commissions for anyone that buys from my etsy shop. It has been great fun and challenging and has really helped me develop my drawing style.

A friend wanted a card for a newly qualified doctor, and wanted a duck dressed as a doctor (a ducktor!). I drew a duck with a stethoscope, and then a line of rubber yellow ducks behind with various ailments! Just recently another friend asked for a velociraptor riding a unicorn with lasers shooting from its eyes! It all started as a joke, knowing it was completely out of my comfort zone. I loved drawing it and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever drawn! It really does help being pushed and encouraged to do something you’re not used to.

When did you realise that you wanted to make a career out of your talent?

Coming to university and meeting successful creatives was a big eye-opener. In my second year, I was a winner of a design competition that secured me a work placement – I loved being surrounded by people who treated being creative as something serious and not just as a hobby. When I sold some of my designs at a trade show that was an amazing feeling. I couldn’t believe someone wanted to spend money on something I so enjoyed designing and making. Surely that is anyone’s dream? To do what you love every day and make enough money to live off, that would be incredible.



Nicola Hanrahan: Card collection

Nicola Hanrahan: Card collection


What would you say is the most challenging aspect of starting a career as an artist?

It is very hard finding suppliers, contacts in the industry (and keeping them!), and coming up with the money to fund your business. Even my degree didn’t really prepare me for starting a business. Most of all though it’s having enough faith in yourself to keep going, even when work may be slow. I’m certainly still learning, and trying to develop a thicker skin, but I’m definitely getting better at keeping going and staying positive!

When you’re not drawing, painting or sewing what do you love to do?

Being creative, even when it’s not my design work, is really important to me. I recently learnt how to crochet and have made a couple of blankets already! I learnt from my friends, and since then I’ve taught quite a few other people. We will often meet for lunch at a local tea room, have a natter and crochet!

I also love going for walks and visiting beautiful places and meeting with friends. Seeing inspiring nature and taking photographs is one of my favourite things to do. I have quite a few different film cameras and have more photographs than I know what to do with!

What advice would you give to those wanting to pursue a career as a creative artist?

Do what you love! If you find something that you have a passion for and it makes you happy, then what could be more wonderful than doing that as your job?! It isn’t easy, any form of art is so subjective so there will always be people who may not like what you create. You can’t allow that to get to you.

Find some creative friends! Good friends will always tell you when your work is great, or if it could do with improvement. It is so nice to be able to bounce ideas off each other and really keeps me going. Having a creative job, especially one where you are self-employed, is pretty hard if you don’t have a steady income. Having friends in the same boat is important as you can advise each other on your various experiences.

Try not to give up, even when things get hard. Something I have found really useful is being creative in some way every day if possible, even if it’s not in the way you normally would be. For me, if I’m not feeling inspired to draw or do my usual work, I will try and crochet. It’s calming and I’m still creating something – it keeps you positive, being able to see something you’ve produced even when you may not be feeling inspired.

What are your hopes for 2014?

I’m hoping to focus on my illustration next year and produce a range of new patterns. As much as I enjoy making my products, it is very time consuming and doesn’t leave much time for my drawing. I would love to try and freelance more and try some different illustration styles. A perfect project for me would be to illustrate a children’s book, so hopefully spending more time drawing will help me reach that dream!

You can view all of Nicola Hanrahan’s work on her website below and buy her cushions, purses, make-up bags and other gifts from her Etsy shop.



Email: [email protected]

Follow Nicola on Twitter @NicolaHanrahan

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