In the Studio | A Conversation with Illustrator Katrin Coetzer
Katrin Coetzer is a Cape Town-based illustrator, who recently produced a series of illustrations for a new range of gift cards for our brick-and-mortar stores in South Africa. We talked to her about her work and artistic philosophy, her most compelling sources of inspiration, and her thoughts on our newest piece of workwear apparel, the Mungo Artist’s Apron.
Can you speak to your upbringing, and some of your early influences?
I was born in Cape Town, an only child to medical workers with creative skills. I had a happy childhood with lots of animals, many freedoms and artistic pursuits. Books, plants and animals were primary sources of exploration, fun and engagement in my childhood and I’ve carried it through to my work. My mother kept a notebook and markers in her handbag ready for me whenever I needed occupying.
Our family farm in Botswana had a formative influence on my spatial sense of who we are in the world. It was a strong contrast to busy urban life during the school holidays where we would do nothing but walk in the bush and quietly observe every living thing. I also had a very special art teacher aged 3 -12. Mavis Foale introduced the magic that can be brought from material limitations and affirmed my art making such that I really believed for the first time that art making could become a vocation.
Did you study art, or find your way to it naturally?
I studied Applied Art at Stellenbosch University and then a Postgrad in Illustration at the same institution. I loved it and might have kept at academics if practical work hadn’t taken over. The critical skills from theory and philosophy classes which felt useless as a twenty-year old starting out in graphic design turned out to be far reaching later in life. I know that art school isn’t for everybody but I’m the sort of worker who likes to know the “rules’ before I break them.
What does your studio look like?
My studio is a converted office in a Victorian house in Rondebosch Cape Town with a tiny view of Devil’s Peak. It has a bay window and a fireplace and it faces west, the wrong way for good light so I have many lamps and a heater. It is literally full of materials, paper, pigments, art and objects. I tend towards control and order in the work I produce but my studio is a chaotic compost heap of stuff. Erin Road is a hub of fruiting banana trees, private school moms in SUVs and a steady Malawian expat community.
Who (or what) is a major source of inspiration?
Colour and paper. My biggest creative compulsions are about colour. I feel as though I’m thinking about colour combinations or gradations of monotones all the time. I’ll mentally file ideas for colour themes and draw from those when a matching opportunity comes up in an image execution. I love paper. The way an unmarked piece is already a beautiful form in itself and the way in which every mark or manipulation to it leaves an obvious trace. I heard someone say recently that paper eats pigment and that is probably my favourite thing about it.
How would you describe your artistic philosophy or style?
I like to think my ambition for each image I create is to always hit an interesting midpoint between the perceived world and the inner dream world. Equal parts observation and imagination are good for most things I think…
My creative process has mostly two modes; one I call directive, in which the image is planned researched, plotted, rendered. In this mode the end result is pre-imagined and known. In the second mode which is essentially a flow state, I am at play and the images and constructions pour out from who knows where. I love both and they’re mostly complimentary.
Can you find a parallel here with your personal philosophy?
Yes, I’m always trying to understand and interpret existence. I watch, observe, interpret, then try and fail to make sense in creating tiny worlds.
What does your process look like?
My regular job is as a commercial freelance illustrator so the work begins with a client’s request and then I begin the process of visual problem solving, research and image production to match the client/art director’s need. When I’m making self-directed work I’ll refer to my notebooks and sketchbooks where I hoard unrealised visual and sculptural ideas. There are many. Both processes start in analog mode with scrap paper, a pencil and a huge curiosity about the world.
Can you talk through the illustrations you did for Mungo?
In the depth of winter we dream of summer! My inspiration was summer in my home town. Cape Town is nothing if not an outdoorsy town and the life here is always geared for a towel or a picnic blanket moment. I started drawing people in different scenarios with their Mungo towels and just kept going as my longing for a beach holiday grew. I wanted to include silence and talking, relaxation, joy and rest in the scenes. I used my favourite gouache pigments for a flat-painterly effect with opaque colours. Towels and blankets are a lovely subject matter towards creating characters absorbed in their pragmatisms and comforts.
What challenges did you face getting to where you are now? And how this impact your life and art?
With the expanding personal and public responsibilities as an adult in the world and more than anything as a parent and a partner; the major current challenge is always the battle for solitary time. Likely not all artists will agree with me but I tend to think of art as a selfish pursuit. Perhaps it’s selfless in the honesty and expression it requires, but certainly selfish in the time it demands of the artist to be alone, childlike and to show up for the work. I had a relatively easy way up in life with most of the privileges you could want. Working for yourself is a constant challenge of invention, trial and error. Self-reliance supported by art is hard and jointly supporting a family with it even more so. So I think it’s helped me recognise my selfishness and tempered it a little bit. The challenge of time also highlights the temporality of absolutely everything and so I am not precious about what I create although I can become overly sentimental thinking about the transience of people and place.
What else keeps you busy?
My growing kid keeps me very busy. Also cycling, walking, birdwatching, swimming, reading in bed, cooking, treasure hunting. I like to find pottery shards in the dirt near old dumps and printed skirts in Observatory’s vintage shops.
What are your thoughts on the Mungo Artist’s Apron?
I’m definitely the target audience for aprons, I wear my Mungo Artist’s Apron every working day. My German grandmother was an apron person and we gave her one each Christmas when she was alive. I aim to follow in her footsteps. An apron is a signifier of a hand-worker; it signals preparation and consideration. The Mungo Artist’s Apron is long and generous but it doesn’t swamp you. I’d never come across a linen apron before and I think it’s such a clever textile for this type of workwear. It’s somehow sturdy and soft at the same time. Kind of perfect.
Where do you see yourself going forward?
To sustain the thing I already do and to do more of it. In the post-pandemic, politically confusing world order, with mounting climate worries, I find my formerly reliable sense of ease has shifted. I hope to figure it out and be a bit kinder and calmer moving forward.
Illustrations by Katrin Coetzer @trini_prins. Photographs by Rebecca Meissner @becsmadevisible