Nina Cosford’s work for  Girls, Lonely Planet, and others puts her in the middle of a cultural zeitgeist where young women rule the cultural conversation.

Nina Cosford’s illustrations offer a humorous, relatable narrative with a particular focus on the contemporary female experience. Her honesty and signature style—comprised of quick marks and pops of color—caught the attention of Lena Dunham in 2012 and their collaboration through Dunham’s show Girls launched Cosford’s work into the public eye. Cosford’s illustrations haven’t stopped spilling from the pages of her sketchbooks into the world through partnerships with Lonely Planet, Marie Claire, The Huffington Post, HBO, Teen Vogue, and Apple.

Cosford honed her nostalgic illustration style while earning her BA in illustration and animation from Kingston University. Her work feels effortless and precise—like a familiar caricature from a children’s book. Her figure drawings are inviting and manage to communicate a library of emotional complexity with the simplest of dotted eyes, dashed eyebrows, rosy cheeks, and triangle noses. While she’s made the seaside town of Hastings, England her home, she travels frequently for work and the pleasure of inspiration, making quick sketches of the buildings and people who catch her eye along the way.

Earlier this year, Cosford ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund her book The Trans-Siberian Railway, an illustrated travelogue of her adventures traveling by rail from Moscow to Beijing. Copies of her books can be found at her online shop, and if you’d like to keep up with Cosford, follow @ninacosford on Twitter and Instagram. 

Nina Cosford in Mongolia.

You describe the freedom you felt when you realized that photo-realistic art wasn’t necessarily “good.” When did you experience that shift?

That was such a revelational moment! I was in my second year of art school, in an “experimental life drawing” class (whereby the model moves, acts, dances, dresses up and suggests narratives) and I was very confused with how to respond. Up until that point, I had focused on a fairly traditional and labored approach to drawing from life and hadn’t allowed myself much room for play. My tutor told me to be more intuitive and trust my mark-making skills more. That instantly gave me a boost of self-confidence, and I began to really enjoy an instantaneous and less self-conscious way of illustrating. It opened up a new path for me where I trusted myself to capture things in my own way.

 

Handwriting is a prominent part of your work. When did you start looking at your handwriting as a sort of artistic currency?

I have always enjoyed writing by hand. At school, my friends and I would write letters to each other, obsessively comparing our handwriting and experimenting with different styles. Growing up, we had a computer at home which we inherited but we couldn’t afford a printer, so I found myself copying text from the screen. Homework, research, revision notes—everything was written by hand and presented in a very conscious way, which coincidentally was a very effective way for me to process information. This naturally developed in my artwork too and became my preferred method of incorporating type and lettering. 

Hand-lettering often helps to complete an image, whether it’s a title, a speech bubble or an annotation. It can be a very useful tool to contextualize a piece and it adds something unique, like a signature.

 

Your father, Mike Cosford, is a successful commercial artist. Can you explain what “work ethic” means to you?

I think we all set our own standards by which we measure ourselves. I have always been on the harsh side but that ambition and drive are really what has made my career. To me, work ethic means maintaining consistency. However short or long your hours, whatever the subject matter you choose to focus on, however you work—that ongoing commitment and seriousness to something you care about is work ethic. 

I also tie my work into my daily life—whether that’s gathering research or ideas for my next piece, scribbling in my journal or capturing little moments in my Instagram stories. The line between work and life can often be very blurred for me, but that’s something I’ve learned to accept and even enjoy (most of the time).

What lifestyle choices have you made in order to become successfully self-sustaining as an artist?

Success didn’t come super easy but I was fortunate in landing some good, steady illustration jobs after graduating from university and I was able to build on a list of clients from early on. It took me a while to become financially stable and secure in my freelance work. Of course, there have been a few times where I’ve been dangerously low on funds. 

I’ve made my own money since I was 15, spending years working at a cinema, as a waitress, doing a paper round, nannying and cleaning jobs, amongst other bits and bobs which allowed me to save up and pursue my own career. A strong work ethic and a lot of perseverance can go a long way if there is something you truly want to do.

 

What hardships have you faced that have helped shape you?

Overcoming tricky situations like my studio robbery, being broke, having no work on the horizon, and feeling low has weirdly lead to the most progress being made. Finding a brand new, much better studio to work from; learning how to be self-sustainable and resourceful with what I have; creating my own projects from scratch and making work for myself; finding what makes me happy or inspired and what doesn’t. There is always something to be learned.

You love depicting everyday ups and downs. What do your struggles and successes look now? 

I’m not very good at practicing self-care or being kind to myself when I’m in the midst of a big project or when I don’t have much work on. Whether I feel good or bad is nearly always down to how I’m treating myself at the time. 

It can be so tiring seeing yourself or your work through other people’s eyes and always fret about what others might be thinking. Life is too short to second guess everything and worry about abstract things! It helps to share these issues through illustration and try to find humor in things—that is super important to me.

 

You’ve said you want your work to help people feel less alone. Which artist’s work has made you feel less alone?

Lena Dunham is someone who totally inspired and encouraged me with my focus on the female narrative. I admired her work on the show Girls and related to many of the thoughts and feelings she depicted. I was so excited to see a contemporary create such a relevant, sensitive, hilarious, and complicated set of stories. I immediately felt the need to share these themes and characters through my style of illustration. 

I like feeling as though I’m part of a zeitgeist, a snapshot or a moment in time—something that can only be made there and then, whilst you’re at a certain age, in a certain era or feeling certain feelings. It’s a great way to process things.

 

What does your studio space look like and how does it feed your creativity and happiness?

I am a collector and an organizer and enjoy small tasks, so I tend to surround myself with a lot of stuff. On my walls, shelves, and desk you’ll find trinkets, souvenirs, old maps, vintage picture books, flags, color swatches, miniature houses, pinecones, dried flowers, strange doll faces, ceramic dogs, Asian stationery, and scraps of drawings. 

If I’m ever feeling down or unmotivated, I like to scroll through Pinterest, make playlists on Spotify, or rearrange shelves. It’s good to look outward when I feel too caught up in my own head or tired of myself.

I also love being outdoors and am an avid walker—whatever the weather. I love looking at buildings and people watching.

You live in a small town by the sea a couple of hours outside London. How has this influenced your work?

I accidentally ended up living by the sea. I temporarily moved to Hastings to live with my mum (who had just moved there) while I saved money to move back up to London. It wasn’t long before I realized how much I love the town, the people there, and the lifestyle it allows. I met a bunch of local creatives (including my wonderful partner, Ali) which opened up a new world to me. I started renting a desk space, then my own studio, and I found a way to work remotely for clients from around the world. 

Living in London or any city is not essential for me and my work. I appreciate the slower pace of life here, the huge sky, meaningful interactions with the community, and the sense of space it allows. It’s a lot of fun. Life would have been so different if I hadn’t stayed in Hastings, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

 

You made a fascinating comparison between Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf in regards to journaling and privacy. You said Austen seemed more guarded, because Woolf left behind so many diaries whereas Austen and her sister would cut up their letters into tiny pieces after reading them so their intimate exchanges wouldn’t be seen by anyone else. Are you more Austen or Woolf when it comes to your sketchbooks and social media? 

I use my sketchbooks for absolutely everything—scribbling notes, shopping lists, research, exploring ideas, planning, therapeutic journaling—anything! Naturally, a lot of this I prefer not to share. The things I do share are very consciously done so, otherwise, I feel a little too tangled up in between my “real” life and what I show online. 

People often say to me “Why don’t you post photos of other people on your Instagram stories?” and “Why are you always alone?!” Ha! I guess it would seem that way from the angle I show. If I started sharing things from my personal life, of my nearest and dearest, I would feel so weird about that. For me, it brings that into a public realm; one that involves statistics, views, comments, and likes which bears no relevance for something personal. I have to draw a line somewhere (excuse the pun!).

 

You said you used to struggle with self-initiated work, but that the immediacy of sharing your work online has helped. Why has access to an audience helped you work better?

Validation (as much as I dislike to admit it) is a big part of my work, and the reward I get from making it. Illustration obviously gives me great pleasure, but sharing it brings another element of satisfaction and reassurance. It makes me feel connected to an audience and gives me a role to play. 

Saying that, the pressure can be overwhelming at times and I don’t always enjoy that sense of responsibility or need to be relevant. It’s both exciting and daunting when people look to you for a response to things. 

 

What are a few brief snapshots of your most memorable traveling moments?

Traveling is a huge passion of mine and I hope I can always find time to do it in my life. I’ve been lucky enough to draw people’s portraits all around the world. So far, I’ve been to 30 different countries and am always adding to the long list of where I’d like to go next! There have been many highlights and stories along the way, including cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge in thick fog, getting lost in the Bornean jungle and emerging covered in leeches and blood, and sketching in Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico.

What are you working on right now?

I recently made a drawing for Greenpeace about the environmental risks of deep sea drilling. It was scary and sad working on it but a very important message to spread. A few weeks before that I was drawing clothes for H&M. Right now, I’m working on proofs for my upcoming self-published book about the Trans-Siberian Railway. Every day it changes!


Grace Boyle is a writer for Rebel Girls, where she focuses on interviewing contemporary feminist artists and researching historical feminist leaders. Previously, she led the writing and content team at MentorBox as executive writer and editor, where she created educational content for world-class experts and thought leaders including New York Times bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grace studied writing at the Ezra Pound Center for Literature and learned to interview at the Nationally Acclaimed Public Radio show New Dimensions Radio. She regularly consults with podcasts and businesses on brand narrative and communication strategy. Grace lives by the ocean in San Francisco and begins each day with a cup of tea and a text to her mom. You can find Grace on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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