Sophie Blackhall-Cain is a colour tragic. From her artwork – a riotous pastiche of contrasting colours and whimsical narratives – right through to her wardrobe (“eye-wateringly bright”), Blackhall-Cain’s weakness for colour is what makes her illustrations what they are.
The obsession is scattered throughout the cosy apartment studio Blackhall-Cain shares with her fiancé, Reuben Beer. It’s here she – armed with Photoshop, a Wacom tablet and inks and water colours – spends her days creating playful, abstract and punchy pieces for a variety of commercial and editorial clients, as well as for her Etsy shop.
The illustrator’s abstract work explores childhood nostalgia, strong female characters and representations of power. After a collaboration with Museum of Brisbane, she’s turning her attention to children’s books.
Blackhall-Cain likens finding illustration as a career to finding her pop song – the thing that truly makes her happy. She sat down with Broadsheet to chat about her childhood, ghost stories and how she managed to become a “lone wolf”.
Broadsheet: Do you think your upbringing and childhood in Brisbane as one of four kids had an effect on your art?
Sophie Blackhall-Cain: Oh, definitely. The children’s book that will be published next year by Scribble Kids Books [Wren, written by Katrina Lehman], I really connected with the story because it’s about a little kid who grew up with lots of siblings in a noisy house, and I said to myself, “That’s me. That was me!” So it’s definitely had an effect. There’s a beauty in crazy chaos; I don’t think perfect things are that fun.
BS: When did you realise you could do art and illustration full time?
SBC: We were moving back to Brisbane [from Toowoomba, where Blackhall-Cain had a design marketing role at the University of Southern Queensland] and I was like: “I either look for a new job, or I become a lone wolf.” And I decided to do the lone-wolf thing and thankfully it’s kind of worked out. It was really, really hard at the start. It’s really difficult putting in the hours and trying to build up the contacts and that kind of thing. But once you get there it pays off a little bit and it’s not that hard.
BS: What is your dream project or collaboration?
SBC: I'd love to write and illustrate my own children's book. And I actually really want to illustrate a compendium of Australian ghost stories. That would be my dream project.
BS: Can you tell me a little about your recent collaboration with Museum of Brisbane?
SBC: This is the coolest brief I've ever done. The creative studio, Liquid Interactive, collaborated with me on a huge interactive mural of Brisbane for the 100% Brisbane exhibition. When you touch certain “hot spots”, a statistic about Brisbane flashes up via a projection, along with animated versions of the static mural layer. The guys at Liquid are wizards; I've seen little kids interacting with it and they touch it like it's magical.
How do you create your prints?
I start out doodling on the computer, because it's easier to transfer shape and energy on there. My roughs always look awful because I concentrate my time and energy in other stages. I'll then print it off and fix anything composition-wise that looks off. I then go over the amended print-off with ink, water colours or pencils, drawing in detail and giving it a more traditional feel. Then I rescan that drawing and then comes the colour process. I love colours and they are definitely a defining point of my work, but they cause me so much grief. Sometimes tweaking one colour can take an illustration from okay to wow.
Why do you think you’ve gravitated towards children’s books?
I just loved stories as a kid so if I can bring that joy to another little kid, that would be really fun. I always used to make little books and illustrate front covers for them. I never thought I could actually make a career out of it but here we are. Also, my illustrations are crazy bright and a few people have said to me that I should illustrate children’s books because my style lends itself to kids books.
Your work is quite thematically varied. What do you find most interesting to draw?
Women. I really love strong female protagonists. A lot of my personal work is female protagonists in natural settings. I think there’s a lot of beauty to be explored in that. The children’s books I’m pitching at the moment will have strong female characters in them.