From book covers, animation, and rugs, the work of illustrator Lesley Barnes sings with bright color and dances in rich rhythm and patterns. Barnes hails from Glasgow, and we have to wonder if the perpetually gray sky above gave way to her love of color. Despite its weather, the Scottish city is known for its creative scene, and Barnes works out of “The Briggait”—a former Victorian fish market with a courtyard that dates back to 1873—that was recently transformed into artist studios and exhibition spaces.
As she debuts new work for the V&A and makes headway on a book for the Tate, we thought it was high time to find out more about how this in-demand illustrator approaches her broad range of projects without losing her cool.
Your illustrations for the V&A’s “Glamour of Italian Fashion” exhibition are striking. What’s it like creating images for such a storied institution?
It’s always exciting to get an email from the V&A. I was given a bit more confidence as I had previously created Christmas card designs and posters [for them]. I’ve also worked on a few other fashion-related projects as part of their “Friday Late” events—for the Yohji Yamamoto exhibition and a fashion illustration workshop in Paris that was part of Fashion Week.
But working on the “Glamour of Italian Fashion” exhibition was special. I was commissioned to create a timeline of Italian fashion design from the 1940’s to the present day. As well as creating the concertina print, my illustrations were used on all sorts of products, from screen-printed notebooks and bags to badges, calendars, cards, and even luggage tags. It really was exciting to see my illustrations translated onto so many different products.
Have you been drawing since childhood?
Yes. I recently found a painting I did when I was very small, and I still remember the special feeling that creating it gave me at the time. I’m always trying to capture some of that wonder in my work now… though it gets a little harder once you’re older and no longer just drawing for yourself.
Much of your work reminds me of the animation I grew up with. Who are your art heroes?
I actually started out as an animator; it’s an artform I really love. [Above, animated music video for Belle and Sebastian.] Lotte Reiniger, for example, was a huge influence on my work, as were the title sequences by Saul Bass. Other influences range from graphic artists like Abram Games and Fredun Shapur to printmakers like Edward Bawden and David Weidman.
I also collect vintage children’s books, and I particularly love the work of Alice and Martin Provensen. Children’s picture books have a very special place in my heart; they make such a strong impression on you. Before you can read, the illustrations on the pages really come alive.
How do you approach book cover designs?
Doing cover designs is such a privilege. I usually read the book first, so I have a good understanding of what the cover art should be saying. It should be a teaser—enticing the reader into the pages without revealing too much. I’m fairly lucky that, in addition to giving me a lot of guidance, most of the art directors I’ve worked with have put a lot of trust in me as an illustrator.
What keeps you motivated?
I get to work with such a variety of interesting people on diverse projects. Collaboration definitely keeps me motivated and inspired—from working with musicians like Kit Downes and bands like Belle and Sebastian to institutions such as the V&A and the Tate. I’m lucky to know so many fantastic and inspiring people.
One of my very favorite collaborations was working with Node to create a limited edition, fair-trade rug design, which was then handmade in Nepal.
What are you working on now?
Lately I’ve been working with the Tate on a children’s book called Jill and Dragon. It’s probably one of the biggest projects I’ve ever done and it really has taken over most of my life. Stay tuned, it’s due out in September.