Q&A with Melissa White

Q. Tell me about your route into illustration.
A. It was probably when I was studying painting. I found that instead of using a paint brush I was using a pencil or a pen and my final work didn’t contain a drop of paint. I started using my computer and projection then, which is how I got away with it in the painting realm because the painting studio, for some reason, was the loosest studio that you could be in, you could get away with doing anything so long as you had something to back up.
I’ve always drawn, I’ve always loved drawing and after finishing art school I thought okay, maybe I want to do this instead and didn’t really know what I’d do with myself with a fine arts degree and applied for design.

Q. This was in Australia?
A. Yes. Tertiary education, I don’t know what they’d call it here? Maybe a diploma? So I applied at the Creative Centre to do either graphic design or illustration. I got into both courses but I chose Graphic Design. I have no idea why. I think in my head I was always, from when I was younger, thinking Graphic Design was the only way I could make money and be creative. I had two weeks when starting the course and had one class where we were tasked with drawing a gene pool. We had a break and I walked to the front of the class and every single person had drawn a kidney shape with pairs of trousers in it and I thought hmmm don’t want to be here and I walked out and didn’t go back. And after that many years just faffing around doing various things, always doing creative things but nothing solid. That was why I moved to the UK and realised that there’s a real market for illustrators. Back home I didn’t feel that what I did really fitted in with the Australian aesthetic or what was available. You were either a graphic designer or a fine artist or a street artist. That was the difference there and I didn’t really fit into any of those things. Whereas here in the UK I feel those boundaries are quite so set and illustration is a popular medium for commercial work as well as creative work, so it wasn’t until I came here I thought I could give that a go and make money from it.

Q. Could you tell me about your process? What are you working on now?
A. At the moment my grand scheme is a children’s book, which is mainly in my head at the moment and I haven’t had the time to dedicate to it. I work best when I have a day to potter around, clean the house from top to bottom, move things around, I’ll be in my space. I need to be in my space for a while and have the time.

Q. Using sketchbooks?
A. Pieces of paper, it’s totally random, I wish I had a more clear, defined process. Because that would make life so much easier! But it’s never worked like that. I always try to start off with books, but that doesn’t seem to work, so it’s a bit haphazard really. I have scraps of paper or have on my computer stuff that I’ve worked on digitally and from that I think I’ve got enough time to work on it I do. Originally it’s always on a piece of paper and then I’ll work on it digitally. I’m wanting to work more with just pen and paper. I’ve been working on a computer since university and I think print making has really pushed me towards getting back to analogue processes as I feel that I’m stuck in this computer screen, which has been really interesting and has helped me progress my style because I don’t give things that much time when I’m actually doing them. It either works or it doesn’t. Seeing it on a screen is so different from seeing it after that squeegee I like using my hands an getting a bit messy and I feel I’ve constrained myself a bit, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment and that’s what I want for my next project, the children’s book, to bring out in me.

Q. I saw you screen printing an alligator using printing medium painted onto the screen. Can you tell me a bit about that?
A. That was my break out from the screen a bit and going back to my painterly/non-painterly ways. I do love paint, I just don’t have much patience and I think that’s why I initially moved to the screen because I was impatient as an eighteen year old. You’ve got something in front of you that’s quicker than spending a day in the studio, that’s far more appealing. So getting back to the mono prints I saw a video of a girl doing these massive prints. She was treating them as paintings, not prints, and I thought that was really interesting. I wanted to use that process with my own style and having constraints on it, not letting it be completely abstract. Having a barrier around it in a way but not completely. That’s what I find exciting about printmaking, having that ability to play around and not knowing what’s going to come out. I like mixing the medium, with mono prints and cut outs and screen printing.

Q. How did you find out about Print to the People?
A. I tried screenprinting for the first time at a hen party, of all things, in Whitstable. I was told about Paul Bommer (see Q&A below) who has his stuff printed there. I admire how set his style is, that’s what I admire in illustrators

Q. What new medium would you like to try?
A. Printing is definitely a new medium for me. I quite like the idea of using clay just to get a bit messy. I very much enjoy letterpress. I did end up doing up eventually doing a postgraduate diploma in Design years after being accepted into the other design but went to University to do this and my favourite aspect of that was the typography course. I really enjoy letters and I felt like it was something I could have got really geeky about and that class was quite short though and so I didn’t end up progressing that geekiness quite so much as it could have gone. I ended up finishing that course early as well and I left the thought of doing design altogether. But letters I’ve always found them incredibly pleasing when they’re right and the idea of mixing really lovely letters and printing them out, that’s something that’s quite appealing to me. I have done letterpress at Print to the People. That started off as a ‘call out’ helping clean letterpress initially, which was a good introduction to the trays and how it’s laid out and the general understanding of how letterpress is done. And also going to The John Jarrold Printing Museum, in Norwich. I’ve only done a few actual prints though. That was an absolute joy, printing out a Gill alphabet. I want to print something that actually means something rather than just an alphabet now though. Words have always played a big role in my work, so I guess that makes sense.

Q. What artist do you admire?
A. As I’ve said I admire people who give the sense that they know what they’re doing. Working on a style, something that’s recognisably mine, something that I think is important for an artist purely to know what they’re doing , what they’re trying to say and how they doing to do that. The difficulty with that is being put in a box and that can be a problem. So as long as you’re doing new things, to change mediums. Somebody at the moment who is Jean Julian, his work I’ve come across online, as I do most artists these days, that’s kind of what’s great about Instagram, you can follow the progression of an artist and he’s huge now. A few years ago he was not, known in illustration circles I suppose. He’s the guy who did the Eiffel Tower peace sign. His work is so simple and so recognisably him and clever and thoughtful. That’s what appeals to me with him. His work is also often humorous, it’s reflective and it’s simple. I admire him and I admire his work.

Q. Apart from artists, where do you find inspiration?
A. Music. This was probably my first introduction to a visual language and was through music and album covers and film clips. Things like The Beach Boys and Revolver and Peter Gabriel’s film for Sledgehammer. I really remember those things from when I was little and its still music. I listen to music all day and there are sentiments in music I try to convey in my work.

Q. Let’s jump to ‘Marks on Paper’ – how did that come about?
A. ‘Marks on Paper’ came about because when I first moved to Norwich I knew you guys at Print to the People, which was a good introduction to being in Norwich, I’d met Flik at Anteros, purely by walking in and saying hello and I’m an artist and got a job? So she took my details down. I’d been thinking about doing a creative club for a while. I’d come across a place with a woman in New York who does it. She does something called ‘Ladies drawing nights’, so it’s very specific and generally involving other illustrators and that’s not what I wanted but I liked the idea of people coming together and Flik offered me an exhibition and asked if I wanted to teach drawing. I said I’d love to have an exhibition and I don’t want to teach drawing but I’d like to do a club night there. And so the idea was there are a lot of drawing classes in Norwich and a lot of them are quite traditional and I found them scary. So I wanted to offer an alternative that wasn’t scary and was basically something I’d like to go to. I think the premise is still the same, though it’s become a little more like therapy than I’d first imagined. But it’s generally a good laugh and cheaper than therapy. It’s basically for people who enjoy drawing and want to remember why they enjoy drawing. Because I really hate that idea that people say they can’t draw, which everyone does and everyone can draw.

Q. Do you collect anything?
A. I would say I am a collector of almost trash! Well, rocks aren’t trash. I do collect found objects. If you look anywhere around here you’ll find some kind of rock or twig or shell.

Q. How do you deal with creative blocks?
A. You just have to push through it. You just have to draw a lot of crap and throw a lot away.

Q. ‘She’s laughing’ – tell me about that name?
A. I’ve used that name since University. My logo is a Kookaburra. ‘She’s laughing’ is a euphemism for ‘everything will be fine’. It’s an Australian thing, she’s laughing, no worries, it will be okay.

Q. Where do you sell your work?
A. On a newly made web shop. I don’t have much to sell yet. That’s what this year is about and that list of work to do is about. I want to start having a coherent grouping of work that works nicely together to be able to sell.

Q. What is your favourite Bowie song?
A. Easily ‘Let’s dance’. It’s just one of the best songs of all time.


Questions: Paul McNeill   Editor: Yasmin Keyani