The Creative Parents: Katharine Cooke, illustrator

Katharine Cooke

Where does creativity stem from: school, our parents or are we born with it? In this new series, we ask creative parents about their art practice, upbringing and making a living as an artist. Today, it’s illustrator and mum-of-two Katharine Cooke…

Katharine Cooke lives in Cottingham, a village just outside Hull, with her husband and their two daughters: Eva, eight, and Bea, six. They are about to relocate to Chichester (on the south coast).

Do you remember your first piece of artwork, as a child?
I don’t remember anything specific, but my mum often tells the story of a picture I drew when I was quite little, with the birds in the sky being varying sizes, and how I told her the little ones were further away. I was always drawing, or making magazines, or writing about something.

What inspired creativity in you when you were growing up?
I remember poring over picture books, which there were a lot of in our house, and taking in the intricacy of each illustration; Jill Barklem’s beautiful paintings in the Brambly Hedge books, the line drawings by Joyce Lankester Brisley in the Milly-Molly-Mandy series; I’d imitate them by making little maps of my own village in her style. I also spent a lot of time outside with my three brothers, lost in our imaginations and left to our own devices. I remember taking all my Sylvanian Family animals out into the hedgerows, inspired by those illustrations, and being absorbed in those games for hours.

Were your parents artists?
No, but they met studying English and drama at university, so there was definitely a creative atmosphere. We had a lot of books at home which were brought to life by their animated reading. My dad read us all the Narnia stories and The Lord of the Rings at quite a young age, and those books, along with their black and white line drawings, will stay with me forever. My mum didn’t draw, but she was always sewing, knitting, gardening or doing something. She never sat still.

What was your childhood home like?

My dad was a vicar when I was growing up so we were a bit nomadic and lived in all sorts of church owned houses; some big, some small. We didn’t have much money but my parents made sure they made each new house a home. I remember every time we moved my dad would go around putting up hundreds of pictures even before the boxes were unpacked. Then when I was eight we moved to big rambling rectory on the Suffolk coast with lots of rooms and acres of garden. That place was magical and offered us endless opportunities for creative play.

Did school nurture you, artistically?
I went to a lot of different schools so I don’t remember one specifically drawing that out of me, but I do remember feeling confident in my ability to draw. My sixth form college in Esher, Surrey, had an especially strong art department and the teachers there were brilliant and inspiring, and the first ones I remember who actually taught me something.

What piece of artwork do you remember feeling particularly proud of as a child/teenager?
I once won a competition drawing a poster for a ‘Keep Berkshire Tidy’ campaign. I must have been six or seven. My picture was of a family having a picnic and then cleaning up after their dog. We won family tickets to Whipsnade Zoo, and I was so proud as we could never have afforded to go otherwise.

Did you go on to study art?
After my A-Levels I went to Wimbledon School of Art for a year to do a Foundation course, which I loved, but after that year I wanted to travel so I went to South America for seven months. When I returned I ended up not taking the university place I’d deferred studying fine art and English. Instead I moved to London, studied theology and music for a year, got married and started working – so my art practise sort of took a back seat. I loved art but looking back I wasn’t ready to make it my primary focus; I wanted to explore lots of other things as well.

When did you begin focusing on art as a career?

After I had my two children I knew I wanted to stay at home with them when they were little, so we managed to scrape by on one income for a few years, but when my youngest went to school I was keen to get back to work. By then I’d completed an English degree through the Open University, so I looked into lots of different career paths, but ultimately it always felt like I was running away from what I really wanted to do, which was to get back to my roots and pursue being an artist. So with much fear and trepidation I decided to take the plunge and start drawing again. Although it felt terrifying at first to do something that I’d put aside for so many years, it’s also been an amazing journey of rediscovery and has now turned into a little business.

Can you describe your work?
Drawing is my first love, and when I picked up a pencil after that long hiatus it felt very natural. So generally my work focuses around line, either using dip pen and ink or ink and brushes. I still feel I’m developing my style, but I tend to focus on paring things down to the bare minimum. I try to use marks that are as simple and free flowing as possible so the essence of the subject can shine through in it’s purest form. Lots of my work is figurative; ever since I first studied life drawing at college I’ve loved the challenge of capturing a face or body and all the emotion they carry.

I’m also fascinated by the way humans interact with nature, and how the natural world often has the power to slow us right down and make us see what’s important. Children do this too so they also often crop up in my work. I’ve also found since having my girls that I often end up drawing mothers and babies. I think this is cathartic for me and helps me to explore that depth of feeling between mother and child.

As well as my own work I do commissions – generally black and white line drawings. Family portraits are my favourite commission to do, especially those with newborns, as there’s an energy there amongst the group that’s very special.

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Is it difficult to make a living as an artist?
For me at the moment, yes! As my business is quite new I’m not at the stage where I’m making a living solely through art; I currently work part time at my daughters’ school as well as selling my work and doing commissions. I could steer my business into a more commercial route and in the future I may branch out into other things, but for now my primary ambition is to try and keep life as simple as possible, being free to do the school run and be around in the school holidays as well as make work that I love. This means there’s a limit on how much my business will grow over the next few years, and how much I’m able to earn, but for now I’m OK with that.

When did children come along, and how has this impacted your practise?
I still wasn’t doing much creatively speaking when my children were born, and then the fog of the baby days and the exhaustion that comes with full time toddler taming meant I continued to carve out next to no time for myself or any creativity during their early years. I would marvel at other mothers who continued to be creative when all I wanted to do was pour myself a glass of wine at the end of the day. However, as the girls grew their abundant curiosity and drive to create reignited my own childhood passion to draw. Now, looking back, without them and the inspiration I got from them I think my own creativity may have lay dormant forever. Ultimately they reminded me of who I was and gave me the push that I needed.

Where do you look for inspiration now?
I’ve travelled a lot and a change in surroundings and culture always gives me an injection of inspiration. When I can I love visiting exhibitions – it’s my idea of ultimate luxury to wander round a gallery on my own. But generally, it’s the simple things that spark something in me; the walk to school with the girls, the little things they pick up and notice. Their natural pace and way of seeing never fails to rekindle my own wonder and appreciation of the world around me if I slow down enough to listen.

In what ways do you encourage creativity with your children?
I don’t find I need to encourage it – it’s there in abundance! I’ve always been of the parenting school of ‘leaving them to it’ as my parents did with me. I structured things a little when they were younger, using chalk to draw on the patio, painting and sticking etc, letting them get messy – but now they just get on with it themselves. They have a lot of unscheduled free time in which to play. I think that’s so important. They might be bored for five minutes but then it’s amazing what they come up with. I have tried to make sure they had a few materials; simple stuff, some good quality  pens and paints, a supply of paper. I try not to interfere too much. I think Picasso’s famous quote is so true, ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one when he grows up’. Children have so much to teach us.

What is your home like now?
Our house is a pretty normal three bed semi. Our two girls share a room at the moment and our third bedroom is a playroom of sorts where they spread their stuff. Lots of free time to play at home means their artwork, dressing up clothes and creations are often strewn around the house which drives me mad – I’m constantly battling the clutter. But ultimately I would rather have the mess as evidence of their creativity than a show home. I normally just close the door on it at the end of the day and pour myself that glass of wine.

When do you spend time on your artwork?
I work on my art when the girls are at school between 9.30am and 3pm, roughly three days a week. I need it to be quiet with minimal interruptions. I’ve never been one of those people who can be creative when they are around, get up super early (although it would be hard to get up earlier than my girls) or work late into the evening. When I’m in a creative flow I tend to get in the zone and then often look up and see that hours have flown by, I haven’t eaten and I’m running late to collect them from school.

Can you describe your workspace?
I’ve got a desk in the bay window of our bedroom which has lovely light and a view of the front garden and trees. I love it. Until I carved out my own space I pretty much accomplished nothing. That space changed everything for me. My desk is normally covered in paper, drawings from the girls and pickings from the garden. We have an old wooden floor which I usually end up on when I’m working on a larger scale so that’s also splattered with ink and strewn with drawings. I work from life so there a mirrors dotted everywhere. My husband is very tolerant and often has to step over all my mess to get into bed. I dream of having a dedicated studio but this works for now.

Any tips for other creative parents looking to make a living from their work?

I’m not sure I have any tips for making much money from what you do as I consider myself to be very new to this journey. If I wanted to make a lot of money I wouldn’t have chosen this path, as my work hours are limited, and my primary focus is to be available for my family whilst also having a personal creative outlet. For me at the moment the financial sacrifice is worth it so I can pursue something I love and have that flexibility.

However, in terms of tips I would give to those who are starting out on a creative journey themselves, or want to explore that, I found that having an Instagram account that’s dedicated to my work has been hugely helpful for me personally. It’s documented my journey and also enabled me to connect with lots of other people who are on that same path; juggling creativity with parenting, starting a business, carving out time for art. I’ve found it to be a hugely supportive and encouraging community. Many of my sales and commissions have also come through Instagram, which acts as an online portfolio, and it’s a lovely way to be able to connect with your customers directly.

Etsy has also been a great platform to sell through, as it’s super easy to set up with minimal costs. It also really helps if you know other creative parents in the same boat as you; my cousin Rachel runs her own letterpress stationery business (Prickle Press). Her advice has been invaluable but I’ve still got loads to learn.

Future goals/dreams?

I would love to study children’s book illustration as that was my first love as a child and would unite my passion for words as well as pictures. I’ve also thought about starting some art classes for children where they can be free to play and make a mess to their heart’s content. I’d love to have my own exhibition one day of my work. But I’m also really happy that things are simple right now and that I get to create every day. I feel very lucky.