Signe Gabriel is a 26-year-old freelance illustrator and artist living in Copenhagen, Denmark. Her beautiful narrative illustrations are aimed at children and adults all alike. Her work is very imaginative, colorful, soft and tender. Signe creates illustrations for children’s books and also makes posters, paintings, wall calendars, jumping jacks and greeting cards. Most of her personal work is available at her Etsy shop. In the beginning of this year she did a Mural project for the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication at the University of Copenhagen. Like many artists in the former phase of their professional life, Signe too had doubts and desperation about making it a career choice but she knew she just wanted to draw. Her persistence is beginning to pay and she’s received assignments from an impressive clientèle. Signe likes to talk, as evident from her detailed replies and share some insight and info on her work in the interview below:
Please tell us about yourself:
My name is Signe Gabriel and I am an illustrator and artist living in Copenhagen, Denmark. I specialize in children’s book illustration and editorial illustrations, especially in the fields of fairy-tales, home, gardening, and food.
I was always drawing as a child and then I just never stopped. I think I always had a dream of becoming an artist, but just didn’t believe that it was something I would ever be able to live off. I was told that it might have to just be a hobby, and I tried to settle with that, but it wasn’t satisfying. I kept having one foot in the art world, took some classes and drew and painted in my free time, but didn’t try to make a career out of it, because I didn’t dare. I had different jobs and travelled a lot, while trying to find another career path to fall in love with, but it never happened - now it is obvious to me that this is what I’m supposed to do and I would never want to do anything else! About one year ago, I finally decided that now was the time to jump in and give it all I had - full time - so I arranged my life around my illustration work. I had just gone through yoga teacher training and started teaching yoga, both because I love yoga and teaching is a fun contrast to sitting and drawing by myself, but also because I would only have to work for relatively few hours every week to make ends meet. I started making posters and greeting cards and going to craft fairs, I started my Etsy shop and wrote a lot of art directors asking for commissions. It paid off and I’m really happy with that decision.
I do have a description of myself and my work on my website that I put some thought into, but I wouldn’t call it an artist statement. A statement has this definitive sense to it, and I think that exploring and crossing borders both in the materials I use and the themes I deal with in my art is really exciting. That being said, I think that it is really important for illustrators to be able to talk about and describe their work, and it’s something that I’m working on a lot myself.
Most of your work is full of vintage humor in form and content. Is than an extension of your personality?
Yes! I think I am both fun and childish and silly on the inside and I really hope it shines through in my work. When I was younger, not a lot of people knew this because I was a bit shy, but I got over it eventually. I think basically I am also just a very happy and relaxed person, and I’m never bored. I never understand what people mean when they say they are bored.
Besides my illustration work, which I normally do in pencil, ink and watercolor, I also paint large-scale paintings, mostly in acrylic. My paintings, even though I think they do have something in common with my illustrations when it comes to themes and colors, are very different in their expression. There are still a lot of forests, and quirky characters, but they are more surrealistic and not as child-friendly and happy as my drawings. The characters tend to be a lot more realistic and the forest backgrounds more abstract. Most of the paintings I do are personal work, but I have had some commissions that I have enjoyed a lot. The biggest commission was a huge mural (see above and detail below) I did last winter for the University of Copenhagen. It had to fit the wall, which was 5×2 meters, and besides that I was totally free to do whatever I wanted. I spent 3 whole weeks in the student’s lounge area painting. It was at the faculty for Media, Cognition and Communication and at a time when the students were preparing for their exams, so I learned a lot about philosophical theories listening to them all day. It was a really fun opportunity, and an amazing feeling to get off the paper and work on such a big space. I also do cardboard printing on occasion, when I have the chance to actually get them printed, as I need a real printing press for that.
If I am already working on something or know what I have to work on, the best thing for me is to go straight to work as soon as I wake up. I make a cup of coffee and get going. I often listen to podcasts, since music seems to be too distracting for me. The time when I get the most ideas is when I’m riding the bus or train, so I try to always carry a small sketchbook around, but sometimes end up sketching on napkins and old receipts.
I have a lot of half-finished projects and illustrations lying around but there is nothing better than finishing a piece that you are satisfied with. I think a good illustration has to be immediately satisfying to look at - it has to be aesthetically appealing, and you have to be able to decode what it is about or what it shows at a glance, but at the same time have details and treasures hidden that you have to look longer to notice. It could be small leaves, a little animal hiding behind a tree, or a pattern on a character’s clothes. And for me personally, I want all my illustrations to tell a story in one way or another.
Tell us about the equipment you use at work. Do you also use some digital tools in your work?
I do my first sketches with pencil or micron pen on cheap, shitty paper. When I’m just exploring ideas I really can’t use good paper, it makes me nervous and perfectionist and nothing good comes out of that. Then I move on to better paper later in the process, and work with micron pen and water-color, sometimes I use an old-fashioned fountain pen. I also cut out and glue things on. Sometimes I will cut out a character from a shitty piece of paper and glue it onto my good water-color paper, simply because I sometimes fail to recreate the natural feeling of the character on the better paper, because I’m afraid to fail and get all anxious about it. I am getting better at being loose and improvising more though, also on the expensive paper.
I never use digital drawing tools. I never found it interesting so I never really tried, and I just love to touch and feel the paper. I only use Photoshop for cleaning up scans and cropping and that sort of thing.
Right now my favorite work is a calendar project that I spent most of spring and summer getting done. It turned into a wall calendar for 2016 called “Stories from the Yellow House” (see above), and it is built up almost like a story that revolves around a little girl and her life in a big yellow house in the woods where she lives with a pair of giant pet hares and a bunch of chickens. So we follow this girl around the house and garden as the seasons change, and see her planting seeds in spring, going on fishing trips and picnics in summer, collecting mushrooms in the fall and so on. It was a big project and took a long time to finish but in the meantime I felt like I really got to know the characters and it was fun creating this tiny world for them.
Since I started looking for clients and making this my career only a little more than one year ago I have had so many little successes. One of my big dreams was to be featured in Taproot magazine and I am thrilled to be featured in their current issue named FOLK. My artwork (see below) is on the first page inside the magazine and they even printed a small address book with my art on it to sell in their web shop, so that is something I am really proud of. I also got to do my first children’s book illustrations this year, illustrating three of H.C. Andersen’s fairy-tales for a Danish publisher, AND I just finished my second job for Copenhagen Food Magazine which has made them my first returning costumer. So there have been a lot of small victories.
I have a few personal illustrations on my website and shop with this giant old woman who is living alone in the forest (see below). I have a few cardboard prints lying around with the same character on them and I am working on turning them into a children’s story/cartoon. Writing and illustrating my own and other people’s children’s books is definitely an ambition of mine.
I have a lot of favorite artists but the most favorite one has got to be Tove Jansson who is the woman who created the Moomins. The way she created an entire world and filled it with so many wonderful characters and stories is just amazing. Also, the little guy with the green hat Snufkin (called Mumriken in Danish) was one of my first crushes. I spent a few years doing a lot of travelling in Latin America and it is still Peruvian cumbia music that really gets me going. As for a favorite movie, I recently discovered Mystic Pizza from 1988 with Julia Roberts. It has everything a real teen movie needs to have (even 2 minutes of Matt Damon).
Something to say to our readers or aspiring artists:
I have no aspirations to be a self-help coach but I think this is very important and I want everybody to realize this: If there is something you really want to do and you know will make you happy and give you the life you want, go for it! It might seem like a difficult path to start your own business and live off your creativity or something else you are passionate about, but when you work on something you love you can gather so much more strength and discipline and courage and you can work twice as hard and still have fun. Having fun is the most important 🙂