Based in Southeast England, Nina Cosford’s illustration practice focuses on female narrative and the daily documentation of people and places. Her work is inspired by everything from travel to TV; she has collaborated with HBO on promotions for Lena Dunham’s award-winning show GIRLS as well as numerous books, editorials and advertising projects. Her work has an international following of loyal fans that are drawn to her expressive and painterly style.
On growing up
I grew up in Surrey, about an hour away from London, in a town nestled in the North Downs. It’s a beautiful place, and I used to sketch a lot there, especially in my college days; the hilly view from my window, the local graveyard and the old Victorian buildings that line almost every street. It was a great place for observational drawing, and I was lucky to have grown up in a creative family (my dad is a commercial artist) who supported my artistic pursuits since day one.
It sort of happened subconsciously, as I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. Growing up, I’d spend hours drawing, everything from food packaging to portraits of movie stars from the pages of Radio Times. I’d labour over tone and perspective and was obsessed with photo-realism. It wasn’t until I went to art school (I studied BA Illustration and Animation at Kingston University) that I learnt to “untrain” that restrictive approach and started to explore a much more unique way of seeing and drawing – becoming more intuitive with my mark-making and expressing more emotion and narrative in my work.
On influence and inspiration
It’s always hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that inspires me. It can be a line from a song, a certain colour combination, an artefact from a museum or the windows of a building. Anything! As a student, I was very influenced by illustrators from the mid 20th century like Mary Blair, Miroslav Sasek and Alice and Martin Provensen. There was something in each of their work that struck a chord with me – essentially an ability to captivate an audience through playful, vibrant yet sensitive work and a skill of balancing naivety with maturity.
On female-focused narrative
I think it’s so important to share stories, and the ones I know the most about are the ones about myself. I enjoy sharing thoughts about identity, self-doubt and over-analysis because I feel these themes are so prevalent – particularly for young women who are in that strange in-between phase of being too young to be old and too old to be young! More than ever, identity and comparison are huge topics amongst women, and I try to bring a little bit of understanding and humour to this through my drawings and using myself as an example. Relativity is important in my work – I like my pieces to spark conversations or offer comfort to someone who might have felt alone otherwise.
I started travelling when I was about 18, and have since then made it my quest to see as much of the world as possible – bit by bit! I’ve drawn in places like Iceland, Australia, India, Mexico and South Korea and on each trip; I always keep a little travel journal and a sketchbook. I love observing what makes a place look and feel the way it does, what makes it unique and unlike anywhere else in the world. It also gives me another purpose and something to focus on when I go somewhere, as I’m not that good at “switching off” or just having a holiday!
People-watching is one of my favourite hobbies, and I love documenting both the ordinary and odd rituals of every day, wherever I am. When I’m not travelling, I try to carry around that same sense of wonder and curiosity, whether on a train journey, in my local museum or sitting in a coffee shop. Observing, recording and collecting notes, drawings and ideas is something that keeps me inspired and busy – and I like to contain all of this in my sketchbooks. I’ve been using the same type of Moleskine for the past eight years and am currently on my 21st one! It’s a habit I’ve kept up since university and one of my favourite parts of the creative process.
On developing ideas
It varies depending on what project I’m working on, but typically it starts with an idea that I’ve been chipping away at in my notes for a while. I scribble out various ways of executing that idea – usually in the form of tiny thumbnail drawings with lots of notes and annotations. Once the main parts and the composition are decided on, I choose a colour palette. The next step is to sketch it out at a bigger scale until I’m happy with it, plotting it out on tracing paper and transferring that onto my final drawing paper (I skip a lot of this if I’m just working spontaneously in my journals or feel like sketching just for the sake of it). I then make the finished piece by using a combination of brush marker pens and watercolour pencils to add a little texture and detail and make the drawing feel less flat. I scan the artwork in, do a few touch-ups on the computer and then it’s ready to go! I also like the immediacy of just photographing work on my phone and sharing it right away.
On personal work
Personal work is really important to me because it reminds me of my main goals as an illustrator and what I enjoy doing. It allows me to explore and develop my own themes, which I need to balance out the commissioned / commercial work I take on too. I enjoy the immediacy of thinking up an idea, drawing it and then sharing it with an audience. That said, it can be hard to motivate myself some days which is when it can be easier to work on projects set by other people! The dream jobs for me are those that merge personal areas of interest with a brand I feel aligned with.
My partner (Ali Graham) is a filmmaker, illustrator and animator and we often collaborate. We’ve made a lot of animations for The School of Life (on themes such as flirting, self-help books and identity) and have also made a series of mini travel documentaries called ‘Illustrated Adventures’ where Ali films me drawing in different locations around the world. We’re about to embark on The Trans-Siberian Railway, and I’m super excited to see what material we’re going to gather from it!
My ‘Girls Illustrated’ project came about after I fell in love with the TV show ‘GIRLS’. There was something in the humour and character observations that resonated with me and inspired me to respond to the themes in my way. The fan art gained traction pretty fast, and I was commissioned by HBO to collaborate on official promotion for the show. It was a dream job! It led to three more years of work with the show, and I got to meet Lena Dunham which was a big life highlight for me. I’d say this project was pivotal in paving the way for my work on female narratives.
On the challenges of freelance life
There’s a new challenge every day! But I’d say the biggest one is pressure. The relentless pressure to be motivated, do better work than before and to maintain relevance. Fortunately, I’m a natural hard-worker but on down days, being self-employed and solely responsible for my income and career can be exhausting and confusing. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way!