16 November 2021
Tombow Talks to: Nina Cosford
Nina Cosford is a freelance illustrator based in Hastings, UK.
She has illustrated over twenty published books and has worked with numerous brands including Apple, HBO, WaterAid, TATE, Google, UN Refugee Agency, Radio Times, H&M, Lonely Planet and Netflix. Her work became particularly well-known after she collaborated with Lena Dunham and HBO on the award-winning TV show GIRLS, which sparked a huge interest in the girl-centric zeitgeist of today. She has over 325,000 followers on Instagram and was recently named one of the Top 20 Female Illustrators by Stylist Magazine.
We had the pleasure of chatting to Nina recently to discuss some of her career highlights and to gain insight into her creative process and life as an illustrator...
How did your career as an illustrator begin?
It all started at my final degree show when a children's book commissioning editor saw my work and got in touch about illustrating a series of pop-up guide books. I've always loved drawing buildings and compiled my favourite pieces in a huge poster for my show. The main imagery for the pop-up books was of architecture and scenery so I think the editor had a clear vision of my work being applied to the project. My first big career highlight was being in the Tate Modern gift shop and seeing my pop-up Royal Palaces of London book on the shelf - I couldn't believe my work was in print and out there in the real world!
What does a typical ‘day-in-the-life-of-Nina-Cosford’ look like?
Being freelance, each day is often different which keeps things varied and interesting. But I also like patterns and routine, so I try to implement these where I can, however unpredictable work can be. The day usually starts a little on the slow side; sitting still with a cup of coffee or tea and making a to do list in my sketchbook. I often doodle the date or a title which helps to warm up my hands / creativity (and can be a useful form of procrastination too ha!). It totally depends on my schedule and what projects I have on, but I try to tackle the more administrative (or boring) tasks first, and then spend the afternoon drawing or putting stuff together (the more creative aspects of my job). I'm a keen walker and love being outdoors so appreciate the walk to work (I have a studio away from home). I find fresh air and visual stimulation really important for my eyes and head and like to be able to ease in and out of work mode. Walking always helps!
You love to travel, which destination inspires you most of all?
I miss travelling so much! I'm super fortunate to have got in a lot of travelling early on in adulthood and pre-pandemic. Having visited over 30 countries, it's hard to pick a favourite but one place I often go back to in my mind is the Faroe Islands, where I travelled to in 2019. It feels like it's on the edge of the world and from another time - there's no other place like it! Walking across rugged landscapes, through clouds, past dramatic rock formations, surrounded by crashing Atlantic waves and spotting the cutest little houses painted black with grass rooves. It's a fascinating culture that feels so unique and cut off from the rest of the world. Living in the highly-populated South East of England, I really enjoy visiting places that are vast, wide and open. It's so refreshing.
How do you develop your ideas?
It always starts with notes in my sketchbook (or on my phone first if I need to quickly record an idea). From this comes many lists and rough sketches which explore the different ways of getting an idea across. Through scribbly thumbnails, I test out different compositions and then move onto the colour palette - gathering different shades and seeing what could work together. Sometimes I'll make a more detailed digital mock-up which can be cut up and moved about until it feels right, and then I'll begin to make the final piece using that as reference. I use a mix of digital and physical drawing mediums but my absolute favourite drawing medium is simply pen, pencil and paper. Keeping it simple!
Pinch me moment?
When my Trans-Siberian Railway Kickstarted campaign went through the roof! I was amazed and touched at how much support and encouragement I got when I asked for help from my audience in pre-ordering a book I wanted to self-publish. It really was the trip of a lifetime travelling from Moscow to Beijing by train, through the stunning landscapes of Siberia and Mongolia. I felt so happy and lucky to be able to do something so epic and turn it into work as well.
Another pinch me moment was earlier this year when I first saw and held the sketchbook I'd designed! After years of using sketchbooks (my favourite stage of the creative process) and endlessly searching for one that ticked all the boxes for me, I decided to take a leap of faith and design my own. It's feels pretty surreal to be making work in a product I've 100% designed myself and to see lots of other people using it too!
Talk to us about GIRLS – how did your collaboration with Lena Dunham & HBO come about?
It all started as fan art. I was at a bit of a low point in and had no work on. I needed something to keep me busy so decided to respond the show GIRLS which I was really interested in at the time. It was encouraging to see a show that dealt directly (and very honestly) with the issues many young women face as they enter adulthood. I related to a lot of the themes and knew others would too, so I started to make illustrations that highlighted certain characters, quotes and scenes. Lena Dunham picked up on it straight away and started sharing my work. Soon after, HBO got in touch and commissioned me to create promotional "teaser" illustrations for the upcoming season and also work on an official merchandise range for the show. I even got to meet Lena backstage at a London show she did which was a proper "pinch me" moment! As was creating the title cards and graphics for a TV documentary about the making of the show (Goodbye to Girls). I always go back to this example of making your own success and turning something you love or are super interested in, into a viable commercial project or collaboration. After that GIRLS project, my online following went up as did my confidence and I continued to build on the female narrative that is a huge part of my work today.
How do you use Tombow products in your work? What are your most used ABT colours?
I use Tombow brush pens all the time and love them so much! I remember the first time I switched over to them after using chisel-tip alcohol markers - they felt so natural to use, the perfect combo of a paintbrush feeling but with fast-drying ink and in all the colours I'd ever need. My favourites are: 772 (blush), 845 (carmine), 296 (green), 555 (ultramarine) and 899 (redwood).
Pen or Pencil?
Favourite thing to draw?
If you could have dinner with three artists (past or present) who would they be?
Mary Blair, Mogu Takahashi and Frida Kahlo.
Favourite Gallery or Museum?
Nordiska Museet aka The Nordic Museum in Stockholm, Sweden
What should we be watching on TV right now?
Piece of design you wished you had created?
The mechanical pencil
"The world is a playground and artists are the ones having fun"
Best advice you have ever been given?
Get on with it
Discover more about Nina and her upcoming projects...