In The Studio With: The Small Illustrator

We caught up with Hellie Cartledge (a.k.a The Small Illustrator) to find out more about her practice for the first instalment of our new series, In the Studio with, where we’ll be featuring emerging artists and creatives who live and work in Manchester.

By Manchester's Finest | 16 January 2021

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Having graduated in the summer of 2020 from Camberwell College of Art, Hellie is a freelance illustrator working predominantly with collage. The pandemic has undoubtedly made it even more difficult for emerging creatives and graduates, but with that being said, Hellie has continued to undertake a range of commissions, as well as winning awards and competitions with her whimsical works; from Shrimps’ #stayathomeshrimps illustration competition which ran during the first lockdown, to being selected by Short Supply for their MADE IT 2020 Graduate Art Prize. Hellie tells us more about how she found her feet as an illustrator, and what she’s hoping 2021 will bring for The Small Illustrator.

Your work is so intricate and detailed, as well as being a really unique blend of illustration and collage. Tell us about your process!

For years I struggled to find my feet with technique, dipping my toe into lots of different areas. I found myself spending a lot of time buried in sketchbooks building on the pencil skills which are now rooted at the core of my practice. There is nothing more harmonious to me than the simplicity of pencil to paper. Sketchbooks in particular are a treasured place for me to be physically and mentally. Through drawing, my confidence in line eventually led me to collage.

Before the gloom of the first lockdown, I was furthering those sharp and textured lines through etching, spending Wednesdays volunteering at a print studio. Losing access to these resources I had to rethink making imagery, so I went back to basics. I cut and layered paper to find shapes from my pencil work which translated into cut pieces. I realised I could look back at the page and see my whole self for the first time, which gave me the confidence to take all the weirdly wonderful imagery out of my head or sketchbook and bring it to life. It seems from that first snip I haven’t been able to stop. Having only started on this particular adventure in March, I find collage a constant challenge. I have found that the intricacy builds with each new idea – whether it’s cutting thinner lines or more complex shapes – I am learning more each day. The unknown potentials excite me, which is what illustration and storytelling is all about.

My concepts are largely plucked from the everyday; from the frog’s mothers meeting at the bottom of the garden, to how the evening light hits through the window, or even just my favourite jumper that week. My sketchbook is never too far away to jot down any inspiration found at home or on the go.

In terms of process, from the first scribble to the end product I would say it’s quite a lengthy process. I sit on ideas from weeks to months whereas the actual making takes around a day or two depending on the size! And my materials? Here’s what you’d find scattered – and I mean scattered – around my desk during a day’s work: a craft knife, scissors, masking tape (to life the paper and cast the best shadows on the page), pritt stick, paper (new pieces amongst offcuts of my favourite colours and texture which I can’t bear to part with), pencil crayons, a mechanical pencil.


Is there an aspect of your practice that has been influenced by living and working in Manchester?

Oh absolutely. I owe so much of who I am to Manchester which in turn makes up my whole practice. Moving away for university, the Mancunian spirit that runs through all of us became really important to my character – that shared sense of pride in the place we call home. The beautiful chaos of a city is essential for me to work and Manchester holds inspiration around every corner, from its architecture to its galleries. A particular point of change in my creative journey was my time at Manchester School of Art. Doing an art foundation allows you a year to find your place within the umbrella term that is ‘art’. At MSoA, I was truly allowed to stretch my abilities as far as possible, trying everything and anything, before refining them into a specialism, which for me was illustration. The tutors consistently encouraged me to have fun, make a mess and play with techniques – a mindset I will always come back to when the industry feels daunting.These wonderful people gave me the appetite for curiosity and joy for creating which keeps me going today through even the hardest of times.

Talk us through your studio space – do you have any essentials or rituals for your working environment?

It’s not as much a ritual I have with my workspace, but over time I’ve realised I have to work by a window. I think the view gives me room to breathe when I’m incubating ideas and keeps me out of any looming ruts. I look at the sky and it’s changing colours a lot throughout the day. This ties into the need I have for my desk to be bright and inspiring. I buy myself flowers each week and pop my favourite artists up on the wall. I recently did a print swap with other emerging creatives over Instagram – it’s a great way to get to connect and share with one another. It’s funny, I’m an extremely organised individual – my desk is spotless at the start and end of each day. However, once my headphones are on and work begins, the mess made in between those hours is almost unforgivable. Paper and masking tape in any shape, size or form becomes dotted around the room, but there is method in the madness – I believe mess is an unavoidable product of creativity.

My essentials would be a variety of mugs to feed my tea addiction throughout the day, materials laid out at the ready, and my Pinterest boards not too far away.

Although the past year has been nothing short of a nightmare for anyone working the
arts, and there’s so much uncertainty about how things will move forward, let’s end on a positive note! Do you have any future projects lined up, or things you would like to work towards in 2021, in Manchester and beyond?

My main mantra at the moment is to just keep going – it’s all any of us can do. I think for a lot of graduates more than ever it’s about creating opportunities for yourself. What I’ve learnt over this period is the power behind a hello. Connecting with other designers through social media, Zoom or email was the best way to utilize my time in lockdown. I couldn’t have imagined where those warm welcomes would lead and the doors that could open from that. For example, I was chosen for the Short Supply Art Award, and featured in their We Made It 2020 exhibition back in December. They are a Manchester-based collective who support emerging artists, and they had some truly amazing creatives involved who I am honoured to have been featured alongside.

In the works right now, I am currently collaborating with independent businesses in support of shopping small now and always. This is an extremely important matter close to my heart as a small business myself. A large portion of my time, however, goes on building my portfolio for editorial work. I have that graduate steam I’ve heard so much about – and it’s true – I could not feel more determined. I want to be my own boss, see my collages on the front of magazines and on advertisements at train stations. I want to make prints people hang with pride in their living rooms and give as gifts for birthdays. It’s up to me to get out there!

Find Hellie on Instagram @thesmallillustrator, or visit her website to see more of her beautiful creations.