In most senses of the word Katy Smail is an illustrator. It is what she studied at college. It is how she applied herself in those first years after graduation, and it is also the mainstay of her output. Clients include NBC Universal, Macy’s, Converse and Ouch Clothing. But a lot has changed over the years too, and the line between Katy’s illustration and fine art work is not always so obvious. While she was born and raised in Scotland, and worked in London, today she lives in Brooklyn, New York. And while Katy continues to work as an illustrator on a range of projects - including magazine editorial, advertising, publishing and apparel design, as well as bespoke stationery - she is also increasingly dedicating time to her fine art practice. Her works are available via Buy Some Damn Art. You can follow Katy's progress via her blog Thistledown Spirits and on Instagram.

Which five words best describe you? Thoughtful, passionate, sensitive, strong-willed, conscientious.

How did you get your career start and what path have you taken since? I was a creative kid, very into singing, reading and putting on plays. I always drew, but only really fell in love with drawing and painting when I was around 16. It became an all-consuming passion when I realised this was something I could pursue, and I went on to Edinburgh College of Art for my degree. I decided to specialise in illustration because I love books, I love the interplay between words and pictures and I wanted to really learn the skill of visual communication. Whilst I love working in traditional forms of illustration, I was also so excited to play with the possibilities of illustration in new contexts. I liked the idea that illustration work could be a smaller and more accessible version of the fine art I was making. After college I worked really hard on unpaid illustration work, collaborating with lots of different people until I had built up a good network, and a portfolio of published work which helped me to find my agent (I am represented by Kate Ryan Inc. in NY). Signing with Kate Ryan was so validating for me. After years of waitressing and drawing for free, it was so encouraging to feel like they saw something worthwhile in me and my work. It definitely felt like a sign that I was on the right path. Nowadays my time is split pretty equally between illustration jobs and my own fine art practice. My day to day working life varies all the time; my projects meander from collaborating with photographers to pattern design to painting flowers and everything in-between. I love the variety.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learnt along the way? That time away from work is as important as time spent working. My natural inclination is to obsess and over work, and it has taken me a long time to learn that walking away from my studio to re-set the brain is essential to produce good work. My work and inspiration becomes very static if I am not taking the time to see new places, read, go to exhibitions, spend time with friends and family. Self care is important when you work for yourself because no one is going to tell you to take the day off because it is the weekend. 

What’s your proudest career achievement? I am really proud to say that being an artist is my job. I'm proud that I have never given up on my dream, despite the struggles. I am also really excited to be in the new volume of Taschen's Illustration Now!

What’s been your best decision? Going to Edinburgh College of Art instead of university. I did well in academic subjects at school and I came very close to studying English or history at university. I am so happy that I listened to my gut and went down the path that I was passionate about, not the obvious option which was safer. I had such a happy time at art school, made so many beautiful friends and it gave me the confidence to pursue my life in art.

Who inspires you? My amazing family and friends. I feel so fortunate to have such a close family, a mum who is my best friend, and to have so many magical friends all over the world. They give me the strength and love to do what I do, and are always there when I have doubts and fears. 

What are you passionate about? My family, my friends, New York City, my art, summer, travel, wildflowers and living a healthy and organic life.

Which person, living or dead, would you most like to meet? I would like to have one last conversation and a gin and tonic with my grandmother. 

What dream do you still want to fulfil? I would love to travel the world drawing wildflowers, culminating in an exhibition and beautiful book of paintings and drawings.

What are you reading? Far from the madding crowd by Thomas Hardy and Women who run with the wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

images courtesy of katy smail

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