This British illustrator has been carving her way across the illustration world, using traditional printmaking techniques to give myths and legends a sassy makeover. Heel-clad witches and twisted tarots fill her glam-punk-medieval prints. Sophy Hollington previously worked with the New York Times, the V&A London, Esquire magazine and a whole load of other great projects. But as more and more illustrators go digital, we sit down with her to find out why she hasn’t quite followed suit.
We love your work and would love to know more about the person behind it. Could you tell us?
I live and work in Brighton, a small city on the southern coast of England. I’m twenty-nine and have been a practising illustrator pretty much since I left university in 2011. I studied illustration at UAL’s Camberwell College in London. I have a scrappy little dog called Patty who keeps me company in my studio and my favourite things to do when I’m not working are walking on the South Downs and swimming in the sea.
A lot of work is influenced by or focussed on foreign folktales, medieval stories, and ancient spirituality. I’m guessing you must do a lot of research. Are you a Google whiz or do you spend a lot of time in the library?
I do a lot! And I do it all online. There are some incredible archives that have been digitised and turned into PDFs that you can literally flick through as if you’re reading a book. The Wellcome Collection and British Library both have a huge quantity of obscure materials available to view this way. Google Books are also fantastic for finding things like this and it’s much easier to search through, although they often limit you to a certain amount of pages unless you pay.
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Obviously, linocut is tedious and time-consuming, and carving can sometimes go really wrong. But to top it all off, as it’s a form of printing, you have to carve backwards. How often do you mix up your p’s and q’s, or are you able to flip things in your head?
Generally speaking, I’ll do a sketch the way I intend it to look printed, scan this in, flip it, print it and then transfer this to the lino using carbon paper so I don't need to do the flipping in my head. I’m not going to lie though, mistakes still happen. But luckily, most of my work is scanned in and coloured digitally anyway, so I can always flip the printed image once it’s done.
Each of your illustrations’ compositions is incredibly intricate, considering the entire space of the page including the edges. Does this come from your medieval inspirations, such as illuminated texts, or is it simply because with lino cutting you utilise the whole sheet?
Certainly, a bit of both. I like my compositions and carvings to have a balance of black and white areas – there’s something wasteful to me about carving a lot away completely. However, regardless of the lino, I’ve always appreciated detail and scenes and tableaus. Why not say more if you can?
Printmaking is such a beautiful process and the textures in your illustrations add a complete other dimension to them. What do you use for this, is it sandpaper?
It’s actually just the texture of the ink when it’s rolled thinly on to the lino and printed. The grain of the paper plays a part in this too, but there’s no other process involved. I don’t have a proper press, so I print everything either using my small pinch press or the back of a wooden spoon, which also causes the textured finish, as I can’t ever apply a strong and entirely even pressure. I’m certainly not a fantastic printmaker in the traditional sense at all but I prefer the textures and imperfections to a solid black print, especially when that’s so easily achieved digitally.
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I’m a big lover of handcrafted and analogue techniques and I know that you are too. But how do you feel about the different tools and brushes you can get on digital design software that try to replicate an authentic or handmade aesthetic?
Good question! I’m not adverse to these things and have even tried them out a bit myself. But it’s just not the same. When I think about what I want to spend my life doing, it’s not sitting in front of a screen. I also think the printing process extends beyond a rough-hewn, printed aesthetic. It actually forces you to make compositional and creative decisions at the designing stage, which you don't need to consider if working digitally. I enjoy the restrictions of lino. Sometimes, I end up spending more time on pieces that I’ve created on screen as the choices overwhelm me and I end up trying out everything before settling with what I had to begin with.
That being said, I read somewhere that you digitally colour your illustrations, so you only print the black layer in linocut, right?
Correct. I’d love to make a lino/plate for every colour layer, but when I’m working as an illustrator, my deadlines are often extremely tight and I need a certain amount of flexibility, which I already lack using this medium. I just make sure that the black lino print is the star of the show and the colour is a highlight.
Another thing that is very unique in your work is how one image can have the power and the narrative of an entire story – such as an entire folktale. It’s kind of like fitting a whole comic strip into one – minus the separating panels. How do you go about this, is there a long process of mind-maps, doodles and various sketches before you start carving?
Absolutely. I already have to plan an image very thoroughly because once I start carving, there’s no going back, and any changes require me to cut the whole thing again, generally. Luckily, most of my clients understand this and are very accommodating at getting everything a hundred per cent nailed down in the sketching stage. But you’re right, it also just so happens that the images I like to produce are generally complex with a lot of narrative devices thrown around. This does make the planning stage even more intense sometimes.
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I’d love to know more about your recent collaboration with David Keenan for the autonomic tarot cards. They contain some traditional tarot aspects but with a very Sophy Hollington glam-punk-magical take on things. How did the project come about, and how did you find collaborating?
David and I were introduced by Nina from Rough Trade Books, who published the project. She had the brainwave that we’d make a good partnership after seeing a couple of tarot designs I’d done on my own time. She imagined them as illustrations for a book project she was already working on with David that orbited around the idea of an ‘autonomic tarot’. David had already written most of To Run Wild In It. This was structured using tarot cards as headings for each small chunk of prose, which I then used as a springboard for the design of each card.
Every time I sent a finished card to David, he’d reel back interpretations and symbolism that I hadn't even considered when I was designing them, which made me feel like I was actually tapping in to some deep, arcane, magic well! This then spurred me on and gave me confidence in my gut feelings as the deck progressed. It was certainly the most satisfying and engaging collaboration I’ve been a part of.
Has someone read you your cards, and if so, what did they say?
Sadly, not yet. Although David has promised he’ll read mine using our deck on the launch night at Rough Trade Books and I couldn't be more excited.
Alongside your illustration profession, you’re also a guitarist in the band Novella. If it suddenly took off and you went worldwide, would you give up your illustration practice (at least for the time being)?
I juggled the two for many years in my early twenties, but as I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve started to focus more on my artwork. While I adore playing music, I don't feel like a musician. I’m an artist, and that’s just how it is.
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Speaking of music, and art too actually, whom are you listening to at the moment and whom should we be following on Instagram?
I’m really enjoying Song Of A Gypsy, the only album by an artist called Damon, released in 1969. On Instagram, I’d have a look at @50wattsdotcom, @desertislandcomics, and @peterlubach
What exciting things are coming up soon in the magical world of Sophy Hollingsworth?
I’ll be working on a new zine to follow My Mind Hides A Friendly Crater this summer, which I’m considering self-publishing, and I’m also working on some more merch for the band Kikagaku Moyo, whose music I love.
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