Last week I had the delight of hopping on a train to Tooting, South London, to visit contemporary illustrator Helen Lang and her hysterical muse, Desmond the Border Terrier dog. Over tea (sadly not from a Helen Lang mug…), we chatted about her exciting venture into free lance illustration, inspiring British designers, Desert Island Discs, and life’s simple pleasures.
Helen lives and works in a bright South London flat, structuring her days around Desmond’s enthusiastic walks. From one table and a compact set drawers she manages the production of limited edition prints, a product range, private commissions and of course the creation of her quirky, illustrative world, bursting with colourful blooms and humorous characters. Meeting Helen it’s very apparent that behind her whimsical painted world is a highly organised professional.
Sometimes it can seem as though the only way into the art world is through a sensational media stunt or an incredibly wealthy patron, but Helen’s journey to free lance illustrator is inspirational and could almost be described as poetic. Before breaking free to concentrate full time on her own art, she worked as an illustration agent and for the creative team of a monolithic poster and canvas publishing company. She was part of a team searching the world for new work by artists and illustrators; little did they know that they needn’t have travelled quite so far and wide because an incredibly talented illustrator was waiting to unleash her creativity in their own office!
This commercial experience finally tuned Helen’s radar for ‘popular taste’. Whilst feeding Desmond, she reeled off a list of top selling images like a pro… red London buses, colourful tulips, black and white urban landscapes… Although public taste suddenly seemed depressingly formulaic, this library of commercial success seems to have provided Helen with a fantastic foundation. Asking her how it’s informed her own work she acknowledges the skills she has acquired in formatting, editing, communicating with customers, and picking up on trends. She points to her incredibly successful ‘In the Woods’ print which is now in its third edition. She just liked the shape of the stag’s head and how it could be depicted with her quirky birds and floral forms, but now she realises how she must have been subconsciously in tune with the current stag head craze. I asked whether she is concerned that years of commercial experience could have warped her creative expression. Thankfully not! Helen definitely has her own genuine artistic vision and “there’s no way I’m doing a moustache!”
Helen seems to have found a clever balance between essentially painting what she likes and having sensitivity to her audience. I love her commissions. She creates beautiful handmade original paintings of people’s names entwined in her characteristic foliage. They’re often commissioned to celebrate engagements, weddings, and births. This meeting between her pretty illustrations and the significant stages in people’s lives reveals the timeless purpose of her art; to celebrate, to record, amuse, and delight. She receives thank you messages informing her that her paintings have produced joyful tears at weddings, “and that’s pretty amazing.”
These commissioned pieces combine Helen’s interests in text, typography, floral motifs, and decoration. Her colourful flowers spiral and intertwine but they never grow out of control, they are always cleverly teased into simple shapes like hearts and trees. It seems as though her work is at its best when it is contained and constrained, for example by the alphabet. Her alphabet prints are the best examples of her clever, imaginative visual wit. In our article ‘Peter Blake: Man of Letters and Alphabet Art’ we looked at Helen’s love of the alphabet, which was only confirmed when she pointed out Paul Bonham’s ‘The Cockney Alphabet’ hanging on her wall.
With Desmond fed, I had the exciting opportunity to see some of Helen’s work up close. I was privileged with a view of a rare vintage Helen Lang – a dark, edgy work depicting Camden Town with empty beer bottles, guns and a drunken Amy Winehouse. It was a far cry from Helen’s colourful love birds and blooms and a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of her style. She told me that she thinks the more romantic spirit in her work appeared in correlation with developments in her personal life, which made me smile. Unashamedly she confessed, “gritty political art – it’s just not me. I really like what I do.” Now, with her distinctive decorative style, she is building a coherent collection.
Helen has high standards for the production of her prints; she talked passionately about how much she cares about the quality of the paper and the expertise of the printing. It was admirable to hear her commitment to every stage her limited edition print takes, from initial sketch to postage tube. Admiring her work I think it is easy to imagine her painting away in a flower bed whilst Desmond chases butterflies, but Helen is a professional meeting printers, sourcing materials, running online outlets and exploring product manufacturing. Her meticulous attention to detail has made an enormous difference. She showed me her limited edition print ‘In the Woods’ and it was difficult to believe that it’s only a three colour silkscreen. The printing is so precise, crisp and detailed that the result is rich and surprisingly tonal.
My overriding impression of Helen is that she is an incredibly generous and conscientious artist. She clearly works incredibly hard to produce work that is accessible, affordable and enjoyable. Perhaps her commitment to affordability stems from her childhood, she suggests. She grew up in rural Devon and wasn’t aware of a luxury art market as such. Apparently her mother still gasps at the (exceptionally reasonable) prices her work reaches! Often the art world has to battle a stereotype of being pretentious and conceited but Helen Lang is an inspiring example of the complete opposite. Going freelance apparently changed her frame of mind and she has become more focused on what she can give to other people. She happily told me that she just wants a simple life and hopes that she can “be nice and work hard.” Clearly her beautiful creations are an illustration of her lovely philosophy!
I found it particularly interesting that Helen doesn’t describe herself as an artist and prefers the term ‘illustrator’. When asked why she didn’t refer to herself as an artist Helen explained that she thought it was a matter of confidence. She doesn’t feel confident enough to appropriate the label artist. In fact, Helen was quite open about her nerves. She talked about how nerve wracking going into product was and how she has been taking “cautious steps” which have been affected by bouts of uncertainty, “my confidence fluctuates massively”. Listening to her story, however, I was struck by her bravery and determination. It is unusual to meet someone who has the strength to leave a stable income and structured professional life to follow a freelance creative dream. She has iimpressively independently built a life full of drawing, painting and Desmond shaped dog walks.
Helen’s tangible success in the last year must be building her confidence. Her work has sold well, she is a regular at Spitalfields, the commissions are rolling in, and she is preparing for her second Pulse Contemporary Art Fair. I asked her whether she has confidence in the future of British art and she told me how she has been inspired by British designers such as Cath Kidston, Rob Ryan, and Orla Kiely. By pushing the boundaries between art, design, and manufacturing their creative visions have become a decorative presence in people’s homes. Their abilities to build creative businesses has given Helen hope, and we both agreed that Cath Kidston’s Desert Island Discs interview is the ultimate source of business advice and inspiration! In fact, Helen told me that she’d recently sent the three designers thank you/ well done letters. She really is that blooming lovely.
Helen is excited by the potential of her illustrations and she’s looking forward to building her versatility. She wants to look at depicting some other animals, like foxes and hares (I’m pretty sure Desmond the dog is going to be jealous) and artrepublic will certainly be looking forward to her next print releases.
Perhaps Helen wants a simple life and her work may appear understated and whimsical, but it’s only the most accomplished people who can pull off simple! Helen’s joyful illustrative world is a testament to her determination, intelligence, business acumen and philosophy.
Although, I wonder whether it is really Desmond who’s the genius behind it all?