Day In the Life of an Illustrator: Catherine Bagnall

We have a delightful installment of our Day In the Life of an Illustrator feature today—with someone more used to gallery walls than pages of a book. But being new to the world of art on the page doesn’t make Catherine Bagnall’s debut On We Go (a visual and poetic collaboration with Jane Sayle) any less of a treasure. Read on to see what a day in the life of this artist looks like.

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I think of myself as a painter rather than an illustrator. I think this is because my full-time job is as a teacher, and so the painting happens when I am not teaching. On We Go is the first book that I have published of my paintings—usually I exhibit my work in galleries.

At the moment I am painting in watercolours because I like the way the paint is so watery and fluid. The paint seeps into the paper and it is quite hard to control depending on how much water you fill up the paint brush with. With the watercolour paint, I can layer up the colour and density, and because the paint has a translucent quality,the colours underneath shift and change density depending on how watery the next layer of paint is. Colours subtly change or bleed into each other and there is a lack of control, which I love.

Colours subtly change or bleed into each other and there is a lack of control, which I love.

I might be painting with watercolours in not quite the ‘correct’ way, but I enjoy experimenting with what happens when I paint onto different types of paper and with different amounts of water.

A Misty at the Creek, 2021

When I paint, I sort of disappear into the painting or into the world or place I am painting. Something like how Moominmama could disappear into the garden that she painted on the wall of the light house in the book by Tove Jansson, Moominpapa at Sea.

Most of my recent paintings are full of trees, trees layered up, tree roots, tiny mosses and ferns, leaves falling. In these forests are often creatures that look like girls dressed up in sort of animal suits with tails, long ears, and furry legs. These animal girls or The Mistys, as I have named them, are walking through the trees or sitting or standing around at the edge of the forest. Sometimes they are drinking from clean clear streams—or are they crying? I am not exactly sure what they are doing but the idea of painting them in the bush comes from my own love of walking and tramping in the bush through trees.

Dance 2020

I have big sketchbooks where I paint and draw, and sometimes I go back to these, years later, and rework ideas that I just sketched out. I sometimes paint or draw from life,but mostly I paint from what is my mind. The pictures in my mind mostly come from my walking through trees, whether that be through the town belt on my way to work, or tramping or picnicking up in the bush behind Wellington where we live.

Sketch Book page

A few years ago, I made some performance works where I dressed up in animal type outfits that I stitched together. I did this to see what it would feel like to be a different kind of creature, one with a long tail and long ears. Would I feel and hear things differently being in the trees with long blue velvet ears with pink satin linings? The creatures in my paintings are loosely based on these early performance works. Now I think they are also about myself as a human pest because creatures that have long tails and fur are pests here in Aotearoa. I think trees are so utterly important–I worship them. Maybe I dress up also in reverence for them.

Twilight, 2018
Furry Creatures, 2021

The book On We Go is a small book of my good friend Jane Sayle’s poems and my paintings. The book came together through our conversations about what it means to live in a time when a few of us humans are having such a detrimental impact on the planet and how can we re-imagine different ways of being alive in the world. We share an awareness and the wonderment of being in and of the natural world, and we wanted the book to be about that.

The paintings do not illustrate the poems nor do the poems respond specifically to the paintings but we experimented with placing them together in different ways until we got the right feel of how the paintings and poems might sit together. This took a long time of trying out different ways of putting the paintings and poems together. We spent a lot of time laying everything out on the floor and using scissors and tape to stick the pages together in different ways. In the end, my husband Julian helped by editing the book and rearranging the poems and paintings until it worked.

…we experimented with placing them together in different ways until we got the right feel of how the paintings and poems might sit together.

Making On We Go has been such a fun project. I have always been nervous about reading poetry, but I’m beginning to understand just how extraordinary poetry can be, opening up ways of thinking and feeling about being alive in a world so full of other real-life creatures and living things. And I guess my paintings are another response to that. I hope our readers will feel that too. Jane and I have already started work on another book of poems and paintings.

On We Go

Art by Catherine Bagnall

Poetry by L. Jane Sayle

Massey University Press

RRP $34.99

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Catherine Bagnall

Catherine Bagnall is a senior lecturer in the School of Design at Massey University. Her work focuses on performance practices and its intersection with dress.