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Katie Gabriel Allen

We talk to illustrator extraordinaire, Katie Gabriel Allen, about her career to date, recent collaborations, daily process, and work with Samh for his new album.

So… tell us about yourself, your journey…how did you get into art?

I’ve always been incredibly passionate about art and illustration: I was one of those weirdos who would spend their school lunch hours hanging out in the art room. Then I did a year foundation degree at college and hated it with a passion; I felt like the way I wanted to work was unfashionable, and that I was being pushed towards a creative path that didn’t interest me at all. I ended up pulling my applications for creative degrees and doing a degree then a masters in English literature instead. Ironically, I then spent most of my degree making posters for student theatre and music, a portfolio that helped me get my first graphic design job at a publishing company in Oxford, where I still live. 

What’s your process for creation, what’s the average creative day for Katie Gabe like… you know, lots of coffee, heavy procrastination, early riser, lots of music, total silence… how do you roll?

I am the biggest night owl going! My most productive hours have always been some time between the early evening and the middle of the night. I’m a compulsive podcast listener, so on a normal day you’ll find me mainlining Yorkshire tea and making my way through my latest football or true-crime podcast until the early hours. If I’m illustrating and feeling a bit uninspired, I’ll try and make a playlist that matches the mood of the piece I’m working on to get the creativity flowing.

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What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career you now know?

I’m sure this is the same for most creative people, but I wish I’d had more confidence that my work had value, and known when to step away from a project. There’s an annoying attitude when you work at something you love that you should be grateful for any opportunity that comes your way, and lots of people will use that to underpay or exploit young artists.

Who were your personal influences growing up, they don’t necessarily have to be from the world of art just anyone that inspired you?

I would say music has maybe more of a direct influence on my work than other visual art. I’m a superfan of Joanna Newsom’s music, and there’s a tonne of features of her music that I want to replicate in my art – intricate, dense with symbolism and natural imagery, and using whimsical or fantastical images to explore darker subjects and emotions. I’ve always felt that I want to create art that evokes the same feeling that her music gives me. I also adore the work of Anna Pugh – she’s an English folk artist who paints these incredibly detailed, slightly surreal landscapes that have a really magical quality to them.

There are a stack of really talented female illustrators that have emerged in the last few years doing some really big things like; Mercedes de Bellard, Gail Armstrong, Minna Sundberg, Tasia, Alena Tkach, Hattie Stewart, Uijung Kim, Kirsten Ulve, Malika Favre, Martina Paukova, Shreya Gupta, Lisa Perrin, I could go on and on… You definitely have your own very distinctive style, is that something that came to you quite naturally or has it been a process to develop your own style? 

I still do a lot of commercial artwork alongside my passion projects, and there’s definitely an advantage in commercial illustration to be stylistically flexible to some extent if the client wants. I really enjoy this, because it forces me to sometimes come out of my comfort zone and work in ways that I wouldn’t necessarily think about if I purely worked on my own personal projects. As a teenager, I was really obsessed with 19th Century Japanese woodblock printing and also Victorian watercolour botanical art, and I definitely think both of those styles are still quite visible in my art.

How would you say covid has affected your own creative process and artistic livelihood? Have you benefited from lockdown or have you found it a hindrance?

As most of my clients pre-covid were theatres, producers, and musicians, it’s been pretty tough: the Edinburgh Fringe and festival season is normally my busiest time of year, and seeing that collapse virtually overnight was mad.

I’ve definitely had it easier than most in the sector as I was able to try and find work in other industries, but the first six months were a little scary. On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like the sense of inadequacy that comes from weeks of scrolling other artists’ Instagram feeds while you’re unemployed to guilt/motivate you to go and make some of your own art! It definitely gave me plenty of time to think about the kind of work I wanted to be creating for myself.

You’ve collaborated with quite a few people & companies haven’t you – can you tell us about any particular projects you’ve really enjoyed working on?

I am really proud of the work I’ve done recently with both Samh and Johnny Campbell on their record artwork. I hold a special place in my heart for working in performing arts, but I’ve loved so many of these it’s hard to choose! I work on a lot of projects with the 45North Theatre and am currently working on a really fun multimedia project with them, they always have diverse and interesting projects and are also really lovely people.

So the work you did with Samh on his album artwork, it’s amazing btw, what’s the story there, how did that connection come about?

Thank you so much! I was actually introduced to Samh by Yorkshire folk singer Johnny Campbell, who I’ve worked with on a few projects now. Samh was basically the ideal client. He was able to really eloquently explain what he felt were the central themes and images in his work, and how he wanted these to be reflected in the album artwork, while still being really open to my ideas on the different directions we could potentially go with it. He was also really trusting when it came to me delivering on the concept that I’d pitched him.

Who would you like to work with in the future?
In my wildest dreams, Joanna Newsom if she ever makes a fifth album. I’d settle for any genre-defying, platinum certified album artwork though. I’m pragmatic like that.

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Lol, so you’ve got a collection of work on your etsy account all with rave reviews, which technologies do you think have helped you make a name for yourself over the years as an artist?
Instagram and Etsy are both great for visual media, but to be honest, I still think there’s nothing better than word of mouth. I work a lot with theatre makers and musicians, and performing arts is such a tight knit community that there’s no shortage of opportunities to get your name out there. Like all of us, over the pandemic that networking has moved largely online, but I’ve still found that recommendations from people I already have working relationships bring in 90% of my work.

Forgive this question. I always ask it but if you could go back in time and talk to a 10-year-old Katie. What would you tell her?

I think I’d try and reassure her that one day being a bit weird and eccentric would work in her favour. I’m not sure 10-year-old Katie would listen to my advice though. She was extremely stubborn and precocious.

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If people are interested in checking out your work, where are the best place/s to go?
The majority of my personal work and illustration is posted on my Instagram @katie.gabe. You can also find a wider range of my commercial work and graphic design on my website katiegabrielallen.com