Clare Therese Gray is a surface pattern designer, illustrator and author. Her work is inspired by the natural environment of her rural Hampshire surroundings. After studying a degree in Painting, she went on to the Drawing Year at the Royal Drawing School where she focused on imaginative and observational drawing. She then went on to develop design skills in London pattern design studios before launching a freelance Illustration career.
She creates artworks for textiles, paper craft and fabric collections, packaging and homewares, and has partnered with brands like Windham Fabrics, Craft Consortium, Heathcote & Ivory and many more.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your art practice?
I have always been passionately creative and studied Fine Art Painting at NUA, followed by an incredible year on the postgraduate course at the Royal Drawing School where I focused on observational drawing and printmaking. After studying I found it difficult to support myself and so actively decided to develop my design skills so I could apply for work in creative jobs, practically using my drawing experience. I took on unpaid placements in print design studios for women’s wear textiles to gain experience in the industry, before launching a career as an illustrator and surface pattern designer, building my own clients and commissions. It’s been a roundabout road working out how to combine my love of drawing and design, but I feel very fortunate to be creating in my day job.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist?
I come from an artistic family, my father is a painter, my sister an illustrator and brother a journalist, so I was always supported in my desire to pursue a creative career. As early as school I thought I would like to be some sort of designer, but I wasn’t sure in what field. I was told by various tutors early on that I should consider a career in surface pattern design, but I was dead set on being a painter! My practice started out as large scale gestural narrative painting, but always with a fundamental basis in drawing. There are still plenty of creative avenues I would like to pursue – I’ve signed up for a Ceramics course in the autumn!
How did you start out building your career as an illustrator?
It began with self-initiated practice, setting my own briefs and keeping an eye on trends, painting artworks (learning digital editing skills along the way), creating collections and then getting them out there, sending work to potential clients and building my portfolio. It’s been a case of nurturing relationships and being open to opportunities, as well as the practicalities of working in different media.
Do you remember the first art material you were given or bought for yourself? What was it and do you still use it today?
Presents as a child were always art materials and I loved experimenting with anything I could get my hands on! Some of my earliest memories of art tools were of lino printing ones, so cutters, rollers, ink etc. From a young age we learnt to block lino print for greetings cards, and I still regularly use the wooden bench hook my father made for me.
Why do you choose to reference nature in your work, what do you find so intriguing about the natural world?
I live in a very rural area on a working farm in Hampshire, England so our family is immersed in the natural environment day to day, come rain or shine. This means practically I am outside a lot, and I’m constantly inspired by the landscape and the distinct characteristics of each season. I find my paintings often become cyclical in palettes and subjects depending on the time of year they are made.
Of course, the intriguing variety, complexity and beauty I see informs my work, I see patterns everywhere, particularly in the minutia of leaves, flowers and creatures.
Do you have a favourite colour or palette? If so, what does your palette include and why are these colours important?
Green has always been my favourite colour and naturally I’m drawn to pink and green as a combination.
I tend to get through heaps of Phthalo Blue and Cadmium Yellow as well as earth shades such a Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna and Yellow Ochre. A recent discovery is using more pre-mixed shades such as Olive Green which can give you an array of wonderfully rich leafy shades. For the pink – I just love Opera Pink which is almost fluorescent but gives you the most vibrant colours no matter what you mix it with!
Do you have any go-to tools in your studio that you could not make work without? How do you use them and why?
I’m at heart a bit of a multi-disciplinary artist. To draw I use a mechanical pencil for detailed rendering, or a 3b for plein air sketching, Indian ink and a dip pen at any other opportunity. For now, gouache is my painting medium of choice and I get through a heck of a lot of white as I enjoy mixing opaque pastel shades. Even when working with watercolours I find the white gouache still creeps in. For personal R&R I always have my lino-cutting tools handy and wish I could find the time to create some reduction lino prints.
We have been speaking with artists about their ‘studio hacks’, how they recycle items in the studio as DIY painting tools or storage. Do you have any items you re-purpose to use in the studio?
I like to store my favourite gouache colour palettes to reactivate later, I’m forever running out of things to mix on.
You’ve recently worked on a ‘how to’ book using Gouache, can you tell us a bit about the experience of putting it together?
The book was a labour of love but also a real joy to put together, and something I am very proud of. I started by researching nature as a theme, creating absolutely heaps of drawings to narrow the subjects down. I ended up grouping these to make sense of things for the reader so there are sections for ‘In the garden’, ‘In the countryside’, ‘By the sea’, ‘In the Forest’ and ‘By the River’. Of course, I by no means began to fully cover these subjects so it was bit of a ruthless process whittling down to 25 projects, and lots of designs were culled at the end.
The point of the book was always to teach the medium of Gouache simply and accessibly, so the work was really taking a plethora of techniques and matching them with the subjects in a coherent narrative.
‘Painting Nature with Clare: Create Beautiful Gouache Motifs of the Garden, Countryside, Sea, River and Forest’ is released later in 2021.
How did you enjoy using Winsor & Newton gouache?
Winsor & Newton has long been my gouache brand of choice and it was an interesting process choosing the colours for the book. I decided to limit the palette to 15, so the projects were easy to mix and any painter coming to it fresh would be able to create a vibrant spectrum of colours. I used a tried and tested method of choosing a warm and cool shade of the three primaries, some earth shades, black & white and then a couple of pre-mixed brights; Opera pink and Cobalt Turquoise Light for vibrancy. The pigmentation, opacity and quality of the paints are always excellent and widely accessible, so I am always happy with the palettes I mix.
What was the best piece of advice you were ever given when you started out?
My father was my first teacher and encouraged us to draw as much and as often as possible, and still now I do it almost compulsively. It’s the basis of all my work and I’m happiest when I have a pencil in hand. Like with any subject, the growing and developing is in the repetition of endeavour. My degree and postgrad taught me the importance of discipline in time management, and continuity of practice, and I’d offer that advice to any aspiring artist: make time for your practice every day, even if it’s the smallest of drawings in your sketchbook or iPad.
Do you have one piece of advice to share with an artist looking to begin a career in illustration?
It would probably be to encourage the artist to share their work on social media. It doesn’t have to be public to start with, but it’s a great way to document your personal journey. When you’re ready and you have a feel for the kind of thing you’d like to share it’s important to get your work out there, and to build a community with like-minded practitioners. The feedback, support and not to mention work opportunities that I’ve found on Instagram have fuelled my entire career, and I am so grateful for the other artists whose work has inspired me along the way.
Besides your book, are there any current or upcoming projects that you are working on?
One of my favourite things about my job are the varied clients I am fortunate to work with! My latest fabric line with Windham Fabrics, Farm Meadow, is shipping to stores in August so I can’t wait to see what everyone makes with the fabric. I have some exciting collaborations in the pipeline for the coming months but not too many I’m allowed to share just yet!
All images courtesy of the artist, click here to see more of Clare Therese Gray’s work.