Ten questions for...Robbie Cathro

The warm up act is one of our favourite additions to the WEDF talks — showcasing new talent and being inspired by those just beginning their career. Next week we welcome Bristol Illustrator and Storyteller Robbie Cathro. Before we all meet in person we’ve been finding out a bit more about him… 

1. What was the Eureka moment that made you become a designer?

I always remember as a kid noticing and enjoying all of the different Google Doodles and thinking these are fun!’. Maybe that planted the seed of wanting to make work that makes people happy. Apart from that, I feel that from a young age (and up until now) slowly building up a collection of artists, animations and books that I love guides me in the right direction. Knowing what inspires me really helps me to know where I want to go as the work that I love has always been the sort of work I’ve wanted to create!!

2. What was the first thing you ever designed?

The earliest thing I remember making was a sci-fi comic when I was maybe around 10? I had just watched Aliens’ for the first time and the comic followed a lead who was definitely inspired by Sigourney Weaver. I don’t really remember the plot that well, or remember where I put it.. but the odd panel flashes in my head now and again. 

3. Where did you study and who taught you?

I studied on the BA (Hons) Illustration course at UWE Bristol which is a great course (and the Uni has wonderful print facilities too!). I had amazing tutors who came from different artistic practises — Jonathan Ward, Chris Hill, Marian Hill, Phil Wrigglesworth, Gary Embury and Paul Laidler. They were all wonderful! I recently went back for a few weeks to help out on the course which was a nice full circle moment. 

4. Design heroes? Who influenced you in those early days? And who influences you now?

When I was younger I was glued to the illustrations in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Brett Helquest — they were striking, so full of character and perfectly brought that world to life! They were definitely an inspiration growing up. I also heavily grew up on Disney animations, as did every other kid, and I feel that it’s this foundation of visuals and story telling that set me up with my interests and loves for when I was older. Then discovering Studio Ghibli and their films for the first time at 12 was a definite turning point. I’d never seen worlds and characters built in that particular magical way before, and they’re still a massive reference point for me. 

At the moment I love a lot of artists — Ivan Bilibin and his beautiful illustrations for Vasilisa the Beautiful’, Rebecca Sugar and how she builds worlds and characters in Steven Universe’, Karl James Mountford for his stunning use of limited colour palettes, Jon McNaught and his thoughtful means of storytelling, Alexander Utkin for his Gamayun Tales series, Camille Ferarri creates lovely and bright city scenes, and Tove Jansson and Hayao Miyazaki (as always).

Brett Helquest // Ivan Bilibin and Rebecca Sugar // Karl James Mountford // Jon McNaught // Alexander Utkin // Tove Jansson // Studio Ghibli

5. Where was your first creative job? What did you learn?

Whilst at Uni, Anorak Magazine came in and briefed our class to create a spread based on childhood dreams for their 41st issue. I created a piece telling the story of a boy waiting up in the night for his hero figures to greet him on a cloud and to take him away to train with them and to teach him what they knew. I was lucky enough to have the spread picked to be published in the magazine which was amazing, and because of this I’ve worked with Anorak a couple of times since! This was my first time laying out work for a magazine and communicating with an art director to make changes and amends, so for that reason I learnt a lot. It was also a great early insight into the word of publishing and to the kind of work I wanted to get into.

6. What’s your favourite piece of work you’ve created? And what’s your favourite piece of work someone else created?

I recently illustrated a lovely Maltese young fiction book called Arlekkin Isfar’ (The Yellow Harlequin) for Merlin Publishers, about a pocket watch with magical capabilities that allows characters from paintings to step out of their frame and cause havoc in the real world. I love the collection of images I made for it and I feel like they really symbolise where I’m at as an illustrator right now. But I have a particular favourite right at the end of the book where the two main kids are riding off on an elephant that’s melting into the ocean as a circus tent blows past them in the sky.

One of my favourite pieces of work is The Illusionist’ by Sylvain Chomet. It’s a beautiful animated film set in Scotland about a magician and his daughter-like relationship with a girl that he meets from performing in a remote village. It’s touching, funny and human, and it’s completely dialogue-free with the animation, expressions and set-pieces conveying everything you need to know. It’s really lovely.

Arlekkin Isfar, Merlin Publishers

The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet

7. When you’re stuck in a rut, how to you get creative ideas flowing?

I go back to the references I love and rediscover the pieces of work that made me fall in love with illustration in the first place! For example, that could be sitting down to watch a Miyazaki film because the way he builds worlds and characters was one of my main inspirations growing up and still is! Or by watching a documentary about areas of the world that inspire you.

Smaller things like talking to your friends and colleagues about your projects is great as spending too much time with your own work can cause your ideas to feel stagnant. An outside perspective is always positive and it might help you to see your projects in a different light! Even just leaving your desk and going to a coffee shop with a notebook and writing down how you’re feeling and how you can tackle your problems is a real help. I feel like a change of scenery and perspective is important to help get out of a rut. 

An outside perspective is always positive and it might help you to see your projects in a different light

— Robbie Cathro

8. The worst thing that ever happened to you during one of your talks?

Nothing really that awful has ever happened to me during a talk to be honest, just the usual internal fear of public speaking. Afterwards though I’m always proud of myself for going up there and giving a talk.

9. The best book you’ve read lately?

At the moment I’m reading Monkey: Journey To The West by Wu Ch’eng-en — a wild and dreamy Chinese folklore tale from the 16th Century about a Monkey King who wants to live forever! Reading each chapter feels like watching an episode of a timeless cartoon. It’s full of the most gorgeous imagery and character descriptions, and is really great to dip into for inspiration. 

10. If you could have a super power what would it be?

Mine would probably be something like I could hold a cup of tea and it would always be the perfect drinking temperature or I could sense exactly when the toast is the right tone of golden brown so it never burns — nothing special, but useful when it comes to breakfast. 

robbiecathro // twit​ter​.com/​R​o​b​b​i​e​C​athro // insta​gram​.com/​r​o​b​b​i​e​c​athro