Claire Prouvost - The Queen of Colour

“One day at that sketch club, I took some gouache, and instead of drawing with a line, I was like, “oh, I will draw with colour blocks”. And I think that’s what stayed with me. And the moment I did that portrait, I thought, “Oh this, is it…bright colour, enough of this black line!”

Cubanist characters, sharp silhouettes and clever colour pops – Claire Prouvost’s designs can be found anywhere and on anything. From murals, tshirts, Gucci artwork, Guardian articles and electrical control boxes in Temple Bar – Claire’s work is as transferable as it is unique.

Claire chats with me about how lockdown has impacted her industry, discovering your niche, creating creative habits, challenging Instagram opinions and protecting your curiosity.

How your industry and business has been impacted by lockdown

2020 has been pretty hard in many ways on creativity, but also good and so kind of transformative. It was my first year being a full-time freelancer. And before that, I was working as a graphic designer. And then I took the leap into being a full-time freelance illustrator at the end of January 2020. Little did I know!

I had so many things lined up that ended up being canceled. Some of them involved traveling and teaching workshops and going to festivals and I had a residency as well. All of that was out the window, like most people, we have all had to adapt. It was a bit hard at the very beginning because I was trying to adjust from being a full-time employee to my own rhythm. And I’ve never been there before. So I can’t really compare it to 2019 saying “Yeah, and March was a bit slow.”

I had worked for a while before going freelance, so I had savings. So all of that was set up for me to start. And so there wasn’t too much stress for a while, it was really good to just put my head down and create a lot of things, and use that time to draw.

It was really good to transform my practice and see the things I needed to adjust or what I wanted to work on more, it was a great time to reflect and get feedback…I got a few portfolio reviews. I took that time to really focus on that, and I think it is really necessary to do that.

And then over the summer was nice, because I had a few festivals in Ireland. That was nice to see other artists and feel like you’re part of a community, because that’s the biggest challenge I think, the creativity part is also fueled by community and feeling like you’re part of a creative community somewhere.

And then for the whole field, I don’t know if we can already say we can measure the impact? And again, I have no real reference points. But I know for me work dried up during the summer, and at the end of the summer, and then it picked up again before Christmas. And now it’s crazy. It’s amazing.

And I also think it’s because I’ve spent that time working on different things. And there seems to be work out there. And I’ve heard a few people in the industry saying, look, we can’t have photoshoots, we can’t have exhibitions, so people are looking at illustration and influencers to promote things or create custom artwork or make some animations. Murals are popular because exhibitions have been canceled, people are trying to find ways to get art into public space. People said, ‘Oh, we had all these exhibitions lined up but can you do just a mural?’

Your creative journey

I always knew I wanted to have some kind of creative career. In France, we have an option for secondary school, what we call Applied Arts for three years. It gives you a big overview in architecture, design, fine arts.

I got into one graphic design school and one product design school. And I chose the product design one because it was closer to my home…which I didn’t end up liking! That was a two-year course. And then you have to do an extra year course to get to Undergraduate and then you can get a Master’s. So I’ve done a lot of different kinds of little coursesto get to the master’s degree. And that’s the moment where I realized, oh, product design, I’m not sure I like the 3D aspect of it, imagining a product in its usage and in real life, so I just switched to graphic design and I knew that’s really what I want to do.

And I came here, and I got an internship, then working for four years before going freelance. I was working in publishing and it was a great way to get to know the illustration world. It was in a lovely environment in the Fumbally Exchange where I was working – photographers, illustrators, architects. And they kind of became my second family. They were also very inspiring to start going your own way. I started building a network and feeling good in that community…in that environment. And then through building a community online and Instagram, you can see who is in your city and who is doing what. So I met a lot more artists outside of that bubble that way. It’s easier in Dublin because it’s a small city.

In that co-working space, we had a sketch club. We were just drawing each other every Friday at lunchtime. That’s really what got me back into drawing. For a long time, I’ve been collecting images that I really enjoy. I guess this inspiration ends up in your work in some ways, like what you’re instinctively drawn to. And then we were experimenting – we might be drawing with your left hand, bringing a new tool, drawing without looking at the page. It makes you think and makes you look at references and your drawings and something and start there.

One day at that sketch club, I took some gouache, and instead of drawing with a line, I was like, ‘oh, I will draw with colour blocks’. And I think that’s what stayed with me. And the moment I did that portrait, I thought, ‘Oh this, is it…bright colour, enough of this black line!’.

After that, ‘ve just set myself a challenge, which was called The 100 Day Project. I think it initiated from Yale University – with research projects, habits, and the things you can develop within 100 days. It’s just about creating a habit and developing a practice. And that was groundbreaking for me because it brought me an audience on Instagram. Just working with the same tools with an idea in mind. I thought, ‘Oh, I really like colour blocks, and how can I explore that?’ And I like drawing women, I saw the idea of a theme, medium, and style. I had some people ask me ‘Oh, would you like to work for us?’ So that’s kind of really started. And I always recommend taking on challenges like that if you want to grow any kind of creative practice.

It was almost like putting it out there in that community… some kind of accountability and support but it wasn’t really for feedback but it just pushed me to be accountable and draw everyday.

On finding inspiration

I think something comes from the difference in observing and being in daily life. But I also spend a lot of time online. I’ve been putting a lot of paintings and styles that I really like on boards and on Pinterest. And that comes back from when I started studying, I started to see a pattern in what I like. I have these huge collections of books – all of that compiling, that works! I try to refer to that, to see how they approach perspective, colours. But then I try to put a modern twist on it…what is happening in daily life now.

There were so many things that I tried for curiosity…I want to try so many different things. But there is a bad side. You can very easily spread your energy in too many ways instead of focusing on one thing – I try to focus on one or two things and not get too distracted. There are many other things that I’ve tried. I think one of them was writing a comic book but that’s not really my vibe.

What’s great is that now I have agents – they take on all of the contracts, quoting, invoicing, so I’m delighted to be able to dedicate most of my time to illustration. The agency approached me – at the time they only had 10 or 12 female illustrators.

It’s a pretty new field, and they want to really advocate for equality and gender balance and getting fair rates, not only for illustrators, because that’s already hard, but also female illustrators and getting projects that resonate as well. It’s exciting to build up a relationship like that -see where they go, the variety of people they try to represent.

What you would look for in a client or in a brief?

For now, my priority is to explore as many ways as possible that I can put my illustrations on things. You have so many objects or trends that are coming out right now that you wouldn’t have thought. When I was studying Initially, I hated illustration or the idea of illustrating children’s books!

Right now, I’m getting a lot of exciting projects, they are not the typical illustration project. I’m working on patterns for shoes, ideas for some reusable menstrual pads, skincare products. Things that just wouldn’t come to mind when you think of illustration. I’m just experimenting and seeing that there is a world of opportunities within illustration.

There are also other things that I would be careful about – some people contact you for your artwork, and some people contact you for your followers on Instagram. At the very beginning, I was just so happy to get work and to get the attention of a brand or project. And then you quickly realise they don’t really care about the illustration, they just care about what kind of message you’re going to put out there, how many times you would tag them. Once I was asked to give my login details from Instagram to a brand, which I turned down, but that’s really when I realised oh, okay, they really don’t care about what I’m doing – they just want my platform. Now I would definitely try to draw the line between my value as an illustrator and as an influencer.

But on the other end, I want to do more murals, there is a different kind of engagement. That’s out of the office or out of the studio.

Protecting your work

Recently, someone was found to be copying my work for a client project, I got many messages of support which was very much appreciated. A freelance designer took some of my work and put it on a client project – mirroring the illustrations, changing the colours and adding elements. And that’s not ok to do that. It’s ok to take inspiration from my style, from my palette, and maybe the subject and turn it into your own. We all take inspiration from other artists and feel inspired by some topics we see, but we are smart about it. So, maybe copy things to learn for your personal experience, and don’t share them online.

But obviously sharing that kind of stuff and basing your portfolio of work on someone else’s is not ok. And it’s going to come back on you at some stage. It might benefit someone in the short term, but not in the long term. You can’t build a career on that.

In the end, it was a frustrating experience but I got what I wanted, the artwork isn’t going to be commercialised. I hope the person that copied the artwork will have time to think about where they want their career and maybe build their own work. They should work out a style and not build it into anyone’s work. Yes, it takes time, work and research. But it’s totally worth it to have your own style. 

Epoch and painting murals

Epoch was another online meeting. It’s been very interesting as a journey because again, referring to a community, it’s really important to have people you can refer to and work with to grow. I’m a really big collaborative practice person. There were many, many things that were scary at first, when you’re on your own, like painting a mural

And we all had that idea and desire to paint murals and find ways to do that. We painted our first big mural in Lucky’s two years ago, which was a learning experience and gave us the confidence to do some more, individually and together. I just love doing them, it is so rewarding and allows me to get away from the computer and work with my hands in the real world. I guess it took the fear out of doing bigger scale things and also going to people saying, ‘Hey, we are five girls looking for an exhibition’. It’s just a lot less scary and a lot less intimidating. Right now the idea is to get more people on board. But we’re very much at a stage, like a lot of things during the pandemic, where we want to start shaping what it is that we want to do.

People contact us for a mural or say we’d love to have you involved in this. But sometimes it’s really obvious why we should turn down projects because they don’t reflect our ethics. We’re really trying to define what we are about and what we want to achieve with this group. We haven’t really done anything with a direct political message. We wanted to do one for direct provision, we were supposed to do it at the Bernard Shaw, but then the pub ended up closing. But it’s definitely something we would like to do more of. We contacted other artists to maybe start and do a project together. And a few of them were saying I’m making a point of not making my art political or not taking one side. So it’s a choice you have to make at some stage.

And that maybe links back to your previous question. What do you want to say? How do you want to say it? And, yes, there is a power in that. But you have to also accept the consequences of that. Let’s say I’m taking on a bit of commercial work but I have to be careful as well, not to be too political in all the things that I do.

I am first and foremost a commercial artist for hire, and trying to find a balance in between that and my personal practice. I do stand up to my values, and will speak about issues that are close to my heart and to my community, but I don’t think that makes me an activist. I guess that with Epoch, we would like to promote the diversity of female made art, and overall just promote a fairer and more equal pay for women in the industry. It is also to have a female representative body in an industry that is quite male-dominated. I suppose agencies and other companies are delighted to have a go-to collective when it comes to promoting female art and meeting their ‘quotas’ in terms of gender equality. But this is still a work in progress and we have a long way to go in terms of having more women involved and a more diverse group.

Acknowledging privilege

I think making the effort to step out of that Instagram bubble, whatever we are into, and that’s something I find hard to do. Because, you know, I post things maybe online on Instagram, and I’m used to an audience that’s very positive, very supportive, very encouraging, and stepping out of that zone and maybe challenging somebody’s opinion – maybe you’re facing rejection or criticism. Maybe step out of that comfort zone and engage in conversation that you weren’t feeling like having. And also researching and opening more circles of not only news and the people you follow. Going the extra mile to find more about what it is that people are doing and also reflecting on your practice and how you contribute in some ways to that circle.

Diversity in your creative work

This is something I’m trying to work on overall because I started painting things, I suppose that looked like me. And I follow a few artists that are just 100% all the time putting themselves in the picture. And they are the main topic, and it’s a reflection of their mind. I try to use colours that are completely so far away from what the real skin or hair colour is so that you can wander. I’m challenging myself in the making, in the process, to create that ambiguity. And she thin? Or is she thicker? Does she have curly or straight hair? That’s something I enjoy doing and kind of mixing. So people can see what they want in the image.

For example, I see a lot of things about fatphobia in socials in France at the moment. It makes me pay more attention every time I draw somebody like this or like that, I definitely learn a lot from other people. As I now have more people looking at my art, I definitely don’t want to come across as a person that only thinks of drawing skinny white girls. When you go to a museum, it’s mainly men’s art throughout history. And it’s mainly one body ideal ..representing the trend at a given time. That perfect Venus surely doesn’t represent the diversity of women and female form present at the time.

You can find more of Claire’s work on her website,  Instagram  and agency page.