Artist Feature: Harrie Sowerby
When Harrie and I finally connect on our interview call (my technical limitations with Facebook messenger are startlingly apparent), it's a moment of extra special joy for me. I'm excited to kick off this artist feature series, but I'm also excited to catch up with an old friend whom I haven't seen since we were at school together. After watching Harrie's life and artwork scroll across my timeline for years, it's refreshing to be having a proper conversation with her again after so long.
She's the same striking person she ever was, strong featured, elegant and with a certain steady grace to her movements. When she speaks she's measured and self-assured, but still expressive. I can see how the characterful illustrations she's shared with me are born of both flair and practiced talent.
The illustrations are largely taken from the body of work she built while studying Fashion Design & Marketing, in which she graduated last summer. I ask how her study has impacted her style over the years.
'I tried out lots of different illustrative style during my degree - fashion, caricature, costume - because they all have their own unique feel.
'When you’re doing fashion illustration, you’re meant to communicate the essence of the garment through drawing. With a good fashion illustration, the person looking at it should be immediately informed what the garment is made of, what style it is, and get a clear sense of the concept and the feel behind it.
'With mine, I had to try to create a style that was very much my own and was personal and stood out from everybody’s else’s, because otherwise your drawings will end up looking generic. At uni they’re always looking for individuality, both in the illustrations and the clothes you’re making.
illustration for 1930s-inspired menswear collection; charcoal, oil pastel and pen
'I think when I was doing my illustrations I wanted them to be personal to my own style; I didn’t want to copy somebody. More recently when I was doing work experience in a school, I met an art teacher who had done a Master's in costume at university. She looked at my drawings and said "your work is more about the character who wears the clothes than about the clothes themselves."
'I liked to use different materials as well - I used charcoal for drawing the figures, whereas a lot of people were using digital illustration.
'On fashion courses, people are often going to workshops to learn Adobe Illustrator because they find it better at figuring out the concepts and garment construction than drawing. Perhaps they use Illustrator as a safety net if they feel they’re not able to draw so well because their talents are in other things, or if they're a good illustrator they’ll use the program to enhance their drawings, to polish them up. Personally I think it's easy for something to be too heavily edited or overworked on the computer; I prefer the rawer pieces.'
I ask where she thinks this more character-driven illustrative style comes from; is there more to it than just trying to be original?
'When you’re an artist you do things to your personal taste, so when you think you've done something good that's based on all your own ideas of what's good and what you like. But then seeing other people's reactions is a factor - if you see a positive reaction to your work, you feel you're doing something right so you’ll keep on using that style.
'My style has developed from an early love of drawing people, right back when I was doing my Art GCSE. People are the most interesting subject to draw. When you look at a picture or a photograph, if there’s a face in it your focus is instantly drawn to the face. We just naturally look at the face first, and there's something about drawing a face and getting that likeness, or playing about with facial features and hair.
illustration for 1930s-inspired menswear collection; charcoal, oil pastel and pen
How, I wonder, did this develop into doing a degree specifically in fashion?
'At GCSE and A level I was mostly painting. I wasn’t making clothes; I was just sticking to the art brief we were given and wasn’t interested very heavily in fashion. I liked clothes and styling, and I used to look at what people were wearing, but not really as in depth as I do now.
'When I went on a Foundation Diploma in Art & Design, I had a taster of all the art areas that you could specialise in on the course. You’d spend a week in photography, a week in ceramics, a week in fashion, a week in textiles, a week in fine art etc. They’d give you a mini project to do over that week and you’d be marked by it. Afterward you choose which one you’d like to do.
'For me it ended up being a tie between fine art and fashion. The fine art teacher rather put me off, because when I was asking what kind of career routes you could go down if you did fine art, he said the only options were lecturing or teaching. So I thought, I’ll do fashion then, because there were more things you could do with a fashion degree.
'homage to Lowry', for a project marrying fashion with fine art; oils
'During my degree art was always my passion. A lot of my friends on my course would look through my work and say, you should be on the fine art course, why did you choose fashion? I think it was because I saw fashion as something where you could express your creativity through drawing and clothing, and I thought it was a bit more interesting than just drawing. You could make something 3D out of your creativity by actually making the clothes.
'There is nothing more satisfying than seeing something go from being a drawing to being a piece of clothing that someone could actually wear out and about, especially when you’ve put a lot of thought and work into it and it finally gets made and you can see it all coming together.
mood and colour board for 1930s-inspired menswear project; watercolour and pencil
'With the fashion degree, I was putting my heart and soul into each project I was doing but I never felt I could completely click with it, although I did enjoy it.
'The summer I left university I was applying for design jobs with menswear tailors in London and getting nowhere. For a proper job with a proper salary, they want you to have had years and years of experience already in the field, even if it’s for an assistant designer job. If you’re lucky enough to find a paid internship, you're being paid the minimum wage. For a life in London at minimum wage rates, it’s pretty grim if you haven’t got any savings as well.
'I realised I needed an alternative option, and having done some teaching in the past, it occurred to me that I might be interested in teaching after all. I began looking at the OFSTED reports for all the schools in the area, and just rang up the heads of art, told them I was interested in teaching, and asked if they would let me come in for some experience. With the first few schools no one was interested, but then I got through to a special needs school, and they were really nice to me and said yes.
'I went there for a couple of weeks, and to another school which was a large comprehensive for years 7-11, and spent a few days at Durham High School for Girls. I enjoyed all of it so much that I thought, this is for me. So I’ve come back to the original career option that was being presented to me before I took fashion!
As she prepares to start her PGCE in Art Craft and Design at Northumbria University in the autumn, Harrie hopes to have a bit more time to practice her own art in different ways.
sketch from life drawing class; charcoal
'I haven’t started any other projects at the moment because I’ve been revising for pre-PGCE skills tests, but I do go to life drawing classes when I can. It’s hard to find a good one in the north; I had an amazing one in Dorset but had to leave it because I moved up here.
'I still carry a love of portraiture and would like to get back into it. I love to create the likeness of a person; I like a portrait drawing to look like them, in a more traditional style than the one that came in for portraiture in the twentieth century. Now portrait artists are going back to older techniques, rather than impressionism where artists were deconstructing what a portrait should be like.
'I also plan to set up an art teachers blog when I go on the PGCE course. They do say if you’re an art teacher you must continue on with your own work to keep you fresh. I thought this would be a good way to stay engaged, and I want to get into the habit of always taking a sketchbook out with me so I can just sit and draw people wherever I go.'
As a final question, I ask who has inspired her in her love of art. It's an easy answer:
'My mum has been a huge inspiration, I have to say. She was an oil painting restorer before I was born - her father taught her, so there’s obviously a natural creativity in the family. She used to take me to see art when I was younger – I remember we went to see a Holbein exhibit and also visited Tate Britain together. She always encouraged me to draw and to be an artist, and to pursue what I love in life.'