“Looking back, I think I always wanted to be an illustrator. I just didn’t realize that what I was doing was called illustration,” says British illustrator Zara Picken. The clear, graphic nature of her work stems from a design education, though the way she’s able to tell stories in a single, seemingly simple image is entirely her own doing. Relying on a knack for shape and color, Picken favors a palette of turquoise, burnt orange, deep brown, and creamy yellow to create tactile compositions meant to stop you in your tracks. That’s not unintentional. As we learned, Picken employs an extremely purpose-driven approach to her work—though she still finds time for the cartoons and animated films that got her excited about drawing in the first place.

Have you always drawn?
I’ve been making images for as long as I can remember. I spent much of my time at school drawing. I used to rush to finish my written schoolwork just so I could illustrate it. I’ve always used art to process my thoughts and express opinions—drawing is an extension of my voice. Plus, creating images allows me to put my problem-solving tendencies to good use. I would never draw for the sake of drawing. I like to think there has always been a purpose behind everything I do.

What led you to illustration?
I studied on a foundation course at Stafford College and was fortunate to obtain funding for all my travel and art materials, which allowed me to experiment in a few different areas (fine art, textiles, 3D), before focusing on graphic design. While studying design, my tutors suggested illustration might suit my way of working better. After looking into it I became a bit obsessed. I bought as many illustration books as possible and became more aware of its applications in the world around me. I applied to study for a degree in illustration at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and started working as a freelance illustrator after graduation.

Tell us about your early creative influences.
Much of my childhood was spent watching cartoons and films, reading books and comics, and playing video games. They all fed into my early visual language in one form or another. I even sent a drawing of my dog to Walt Disney Studios when I was 10, with a letter asking how I could get into a career as a storyboard artist. They kindly replied with several pages of information, telling me how I could work towards art school and build a portfolio.

Once I got to art school, my interests turned to graphic novels and narrative artists like Edward Gorey. My fascination with animation continued. I watched every Miyazaki film I could find, and one of my favorites is still Belleville Rendez-Vous. Later, I discovered the beautiful concept designs in animation from the ’50s and ’60s. Cartoon Modern by Amid Amidi was a big influence during my university studies.

How would you describe your style?
I like to use blocks of colors and texture that are bold and visually striking. Composition is important to me, and I strive to achieve the right amount of detail for what is required—often less is more.

How do you stay motivated?
I’m motivated by not knowing what’s coming next. You can never be sure what you’re going to be doing from each month or even each week. There are lots of surprises and you get to create work you would never have expected to make. I love the freedom I have and being paid to do what I love for a living.

Where do you go for inspiration?
Music, books, and movies are all influential, but anything has the potential to inspire me. News, stories, philosophy, science, museums, word play…the list goes on. I’m drawn to the look and feel of old, paper-based ephemera, such as matchbox labels, tickets, and stamps—especially the color, graphic simplicity, pattern, and tactile nature of old printed paper, which is probably reflected in my work.

There’s a timeless, classic quality inherent in work produced during the mid-century era. The values of clear communication align with my own, using simple and eye-catching aesthetics to the maximum effect—to convey an idea effectively without taking the personality out of the image.