Becoming Nina Cosford

We started the Becoming interview series after reading Michelle Obama’s book Becoming in our book club a few years ago. We wanted to hear from women in different walks of life and how they were approaching creativity, mothering, career goals, and more. It’s been amazing to conduct these interviews and get a “behind the scenes” look at so many inspirational women!

This week’s interviewee is the beautifully talented Nina Cosford. I’ve known about Nina for a while now, and am absolutely taken with her work! Her whimsical and playful illustrations are impactful, to say the least. Introducing Nina Cosford!

Please write a short, 3rd-person bio about yourself

Nina Cosford is a freelance illustrator based in the seaside town of Hastings, UK. Her work centres around storytelling and capturing the woes and wonders, ups and downs of everyday life – particularly themes experienced by women. She loves to travel whenever possible and never goes anywhere without her sketchbook!
Nina Cosford illustating

What do you consider yourself? Example: Artist, designer, illustrator, maker, business person, educator, etc.?

Overall, I’d refer to myself as a creative. Professionally, I’m an illustrator.

Where did you grow up? Were there aspects of your childhood that have influenced what you do now?

I grew up in a small Surrey town, about an hour away from London. My bedroom window looked out onto the North Downs – chalky cliffs and wooded hills – which I would draw countless times in all seasons. I was lucky to live in a place with lots of history, pretty architecture and stunning natural landscapes. It really got me looking at places and people from a young age and encouraged me to document my surroundings through observational drawing and imaginative writing. I think that urge to document and respond has stayed with me ever since, both as a person and as a creative professional.

What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?

Ha! A lot of things over the years…an Egyptologist, a detective constable, an astronaut. Funnily enough, I don’t recall ever setting out to be an artist or work in the creative industry – it just gradually happened as my life went on.
Nina Cosford illustration

Is there a person who has been influential in your chosen career path?

Lots of people! But I guess a lot of things can start from home. My dad is a freelance commercial artist so I grew up observing how he worked and how seriously he took his craft. I think that inspired me to see the arts in a more legitimate light unlike many other young people who can – sadly – often be discouraged from pursuing a creative career. I just thought “of course you can draw for a living” because that’s what I could see and thought it could be as normal as any other job. Whilst I wasn’t actively guided into being a commercial artist, I wasn’t discouraged. I felt a sense of unconditional trust and support from my family which I was fortunate to have. This gave me the space and confidence to make my own choices.

What sparked your interest in illustration?

I’ve drawn for as long as I’ve been able to hold a pen. I have an inherent need to observe, record and respond to the world around me. I find that illustration is such an effective and powerful way to capture a moment, idea, message or feeling.
Nina Cosford illustration
Nina Cosford illustration

What is one piece of work that you are especially proud of and why?

Back in 2019, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to create and self-publish a book about the Trans-Siberian Railway. I was amazed and touched at how much support and encouragement I got. It really was the trip of a lifetime travelling from Moscow to Beijing by train, through the stunning landscapes of Siberia and Mongolia. I felt so happy and lucky to be able to do something so epic and turn it into work as well.

Nina Cosford book

Another “pinch me” moment was last year when I first saw and held the sketchbook I’d designed! After years of using sketchbooks (my favourite stage of the creative process) and endlessly searching for one that ticked all the boxes for me, I decided to take a leap of faith and design my own. It’s feels pretty surreal to be making work in a product I’ve 100% designed myself and to see lots of other people using it too! It’s something I’m super proud of.

Nina Cosford sketchbook

Nina Cosford sketchbook

What is your illustrative process like?

Generally, I start a project by studying the brief, researching the client I’m working with, and considering the audience and context the work is going to be made for. Once I have all this information, I think up different ways of approaching the brief. That means trying out different elements, compositions, angles, colour schemes etc. Once the client is happy with an approach, I crack on with mocking up finals or jumping straight into the final execution. Sometimes I do a piece early on which I end up preferring to overworked pieces later made, and try to retain or revert back to the energy and feeling of the earlier works, if that’s working better.

Nina Cosford illustrating

With self-initiated work, I generate work far more spontaneously and particularly like to work when I’m on the move or between jobs. When I start working on something, I often begin by making lots of scribbles and notes which turn into tiny roughs. I play around with different composition options until I develop the one I think is best, which I then scale up to a bigger rough. Next, I either trace this to make the final piece from, using a mix of brush pen markers and coloured pencil (if I am working physically) or I make the final artwork on my iPad (using ProCreate and the Apple Pencil).

Sometimes I just photograph the finished (physical) drawing on my phone and share it straight away, other times I scan it in and tweak it on the computer; it depends on what the piece is for and how refined it needs to be. I do enjoy the immediacy of uploading a piece I’ve just drawn – straight from my sketchbook – as it still feels fresh and raw and not too overworked. I also quite like having more than one project on the go (whether another commission or a self-initiated project) as it breaks up my schedule and bit and keeps it all feeling a little fresher.

Where do you find inspiration for new creations?

It’s always hard to pinpoint an answer to this question. It sounds cheesy, but I try to be inspired by (almost) everything or at least have an interest in most things. The best inspiration can be found in the most unusual or unexpected places. As much as I admire the work of other illustrators / artists, I find it’s best not to look too closely or too often as this doesn’t always give me confidence – comparison is not a good habit!

Instead, I love going to museums, browsing Pinterest where I have dozens of specifically themed boards, listening to film scores, going for walks outside, looking at buildings, rearranging my shelves and making displays, sitting in coffee shops, people-watching, journalling and travelling as much as I can. These habits help to refresh my head and eyeballs and allow me to step outside of myself.

Nina Cosford sketchbook

Nina Cosford illustrations

What is a piece of advice that you have carried with you and who is it from? Do you have a personal motto?

It’s easy to get into a funk, especially when your job relies on being inspired, motivated, creative and productive like ALL the time (and there’s only one of you!). I think it’s really important to identify when it’s time to take a break and when it’s time to “just get on with it” (that motto helps me get through a lot!).

Nina Cosford quote

How do your surroundings influence your work?

Over the pandemic, particularly during the lockdowns, I was mainly working from home and, whilst I was fortunate to be able to do that, it wasn’t my ideal working environment. I found myself getting so easily distracted and that line between home mode and work mode became blurrier and blurrier. Instead, I love going into my studio to work (which is in a shared building in town, a 10 minute walk from my home).

I really appreciate having my own space, playing whatever music I’m in the mood for and cracking on with tasks at my big desk with my ergonomic chair (cannot stress how important a decent chair is!). My room is full of all my art materials, inspirational books, my drawing archives, a comfy armchair to read in and all sorts of weird and wonderful trinkets I’ve collected over the years. It totally feels like my own space.

Nina Cosford materials

What is a typical day like for you?

Being freelance, each day is often different which keeps things varied and interesting. But I also like patterns and routine, so I try to implement these where I can, however unpredictable work can be. The day usually starts a little on the slow side; sitting still with a cup of coffee or tea and making a to do list in my sketchbook. I often doodle the date or a title which helps to warm up my hands / creativity (and can be a useful form of procrastination too ha!).

It totally depends on my schedule and what projects I have on, but I try to tackle the more administrative (or boring) tasks first, and then spend the afternoon drawing or putting stuff together (the more creative aspects of my job). There’s so much more backend stuff that goes into being a self-employed illustrator! Research, time and project management, admin, negotiating contracts, managing my accounts, self-promotion etc etc etc! Drawing is just the fun bit on top

I’m a keen walker and love being outdoors so appreciate the walk to work (I have a studio away from home). I find fresh air and visual stimulation really important for my eyes and head and like to be able to ease in and out of work mode. Walking always helps!

Nina Cosford illustration

What advice would you give to someone who wants to self-teach a new hobby or skill?

Over lockdown, I taught myself to needle punch. It was challenging and frustrating at times but eventually I got the hang of it and ended up really enjoying it! I think it’s super important to channel one’s creativity in more than one way. Our jobs don’t have to define us and I believe everyone is creative – they just need to find their outlet. To self-teach, I used YouTube tutorials (it’s amazing how many resources there are on the internet), books, blogs and some advice from people and friends who had also tried it before. Don’t be afraid to ask others. Just give it a go!

Nina Cosford illustration

Do you have a secret talent? What is one skill that you are working on?

I make video game music! I’ve played piano since childhood and studied music technology at college. I regularly compose and practice on my Nord keyboard as I don’t want to forget how to play. A few years ago, when my partner Ali asked me to make a 16-bit style, retro-inspired soundtrack for the video game he was making, I jumped at the chance!

Nobody likes to talk about it, but can you share any advice regarding financing your business?

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, see what your peers are charging and how they generally manage things, keep all your receipts, have a separate business account to keep everything tidy, try your best to live and spend within your means and learn to recognise when you can / should invest back into your business.

What is your long-term goal?

I’ve never been great at setting goals (long term or short term). I barely know what I’m doing next week! Saying that, I think it’s super important to keep stepping back from your work / life / self to acknowledge where you’re at, what you’ve achieved and where you’re headed. I like to do this through journalling and book in little “catch-up dates” with myself every couple of months. When it comes to looking toward the future, for me it can just be a vague outline or a feeling of what I think I want. And I guess that is to always pursue a creative life – not just through my illustration work but in how I live, my relationships with others, with nature and with the world.

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