You may recognise the style of our VeloArtist, Eliza Southwood. A popular illustrator, she has done work for boneshaker and Cycling Active magazines, Look Mum No Hands! and special commissions for the V&A museum. We got to talk to her as she was getting ready for an exhibition at Bath’s Society Cafe. (Original illustrations ©Eliza Southwood.)
Kitty: First of all, have you always wanted to be an illustrator? Tell me how your career has progressed.
Eliza: Yes, secretly! I always loved painting and drawing. I was constantly drawing all through my childhood and as an adult – I’ve never stopped. But I thought I should study a more practical subject than fine art so I trained as an architect instead.
Kitty: Is there a particular artist that inspired you when you were starting out? Anyone who particularly inspires you now?
Eliza: Anything can inspire me. For figurative inspiration I love the work of the old masters of line drawing such as Toulouse-Lautrec or Goya, and in terms of colour and line, modern artists such as Adrian Berg, David Hockney, Ben Nicholson, Calum Innes, Idris Khan and Bronwen Sleigh. In terms of bike art, my fellow cycling artists are always an inspiration. The Artcrank bunch always produce a treasure trove of cycling prints and I love the work of Neil Stevens, Rebecca Kaye and Anthony Oram. They have different styles from mine but that makes their work all the more interesting.
Kitty: Have you always been interested in cycling?
Eliza: Yes, ever since I bought my first bike when I was 18. It was a Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike but I’m afraid to say I went for colour and only chose it because it was red. At the time I lived in a remote mountainous area of Northern Spain and it was handy for going off into the hills and finding a nice village bar to while away the afternoon.
Kitty: When did you do your first cycling illustration?
Eliza: I didn’t start drawing bikes until about three years ago. I’d found some old images of the American cyclist Major Taylor and wanted to do something with them in a graphic style. That led to more research into classic Tour de France riders and I was hooked. I can’t explain why I like old images of cycling so much. It’s instinctive. I see everything through a kind of filter in terms of colour and line and wonder how it would look as an artwork. I do branch out into contemporary cycling sometimes. I go through phases – I’ve drawn urban scenes, horses, insects and portraits of people. But the cycling phase is pretty much ongoing.
Kitty: Do you have a favourite cyclist?
Eliza: Yes, I love Eddy Merckx. I have an Eddy Merckx classic 80s bike so maybe that’s partly to do with it. Also in his heyday he wasn’t very ugly 😉
Kitty: I know! Merckx was like the cycling Elvis in his heyday! How about your favourite race?
Eliza: I really enjoy watching the Vuelta de Espana, probably because it reminds me of the time when I grew up there. I know Spain pretty well, having travelled all over the country. So it’s always nice to watch the Vuelta. I’m also enjoying this year’s Tour de France – very exciting.
Kitty: How do you get inspiration for your illustrations?
Eliza: If I see something inspiring, I can’t tear my eyes away! I find it’s always useful to go out and see exhibitions, even if they’re not my kind of thing. In some ways I’m lucky to live in London where there’s a lot going on. But anything can trigger an idea. I never get tired of looking at stuff. Even a walk down the road can spark an idea.
Eliza: It’s fairly technical. I really like screen printing – there’s something about the unsubtlety of the colour layers and the boldness of the outlines. The method I use involves a fine mesh stretched over a frame, which is coated with photosensitive emulsion. Then you lay your negative or stencil underneath and expose the screen to UV light in a special machine. The coating washes away with water where the stencil has been, leaving an imprint on the screen. Then you push ink through with a squeegee. You do this process for each colour on your print, so it makes sense to keep the colours simple and to a minimum. Although I did do a nine-colour print for Sustrans. And Brompton are getting a ten-colour print (although I can’t claim the credit for that as I had an assistant to do that one).
Kitty: What about the digital prints?
Eliza: They all start with a hand drawing in pencil, charcoal or ink pen, which I scan into my computer. I then render the colours with Photoshop or Illustrator. The nice thing about digital designs is the versatility – I like adding textures and layers so the build up can be quite varied.
But I find that my screen prints are more popular, possibly because the whole process is a hand-made one, and I think it makes a difference that the prints are limited – you can never replicate an edition exactly. I sometimes re-edition my hand screen prints in different colourways, but no print run is the same. Whereas digital prints are only limited if you ‘say so’ – there’s nothing to stop you printing them endlessly.
I usually get my digital prints done professionally by a fine art printer – the inks are very high quality, as is the paper. It makes a difference as anyone can churn out a load of prints on a printer at home.
Kitty: You’ve worked with a lot of great publications and great institutions like the V&A. Did you originally go in with your portfolio and pitch your work or did they come to you?
Eliza: I was asked to design a print exclusive to the V&A after someone in their buying department spotted one of my prints on display in Look Mum No Hands! on Old Street in London. The first edition sold out so now they are selling the same print in a different colourway. I produced a run of 100 prints. It was a fantastic opportunity for me. I’m now working with them on a Christmas card design. I’ve been lucky in that my publicity has kind of self-generated so I haven’t had to pitch for work so far. In some ways, it would be good to have a bit of breathing space so I can develop new ideas! I’ve also done work for Orbital Festival, Sustrans, Bikeparka, Cycle to Cannes, Brompton, Boneshaker Magazine and Cycling Active magazine, and a painting for Chris Boardman – great clients to have.
Orbital have commissioned a lot of artwork from me for the cycling festival at the end of July – I’ve designed several event posters for them, some of which will be available as limited edition screen prints.
Kitty: Tell us about some of your other work – your figurative and abstract projects. (I love the screen print of the Barbican, by the way!)
Eliza: Thanks! I love doing abstract paintings – stripping everything down to the barest essence. I don’t have much time for them now but I will definitely keep painting when I have a spare moment. I recently sold a large abstract piece at the Affordable Art Fair with Gas Gallery. It’s very different from my figurative work but I love experimenting and trying out new techniques and styles. I also love drawing buildings – a hangover from the architect days, definitely. I can’t see myself going back into architecture though – I enjoy what I do now far more.
Kitty: You have an exhibition at the Society Café, Bath – how did that come about?
Eliza: Yes, Adrian the owner of Society has exhibited my prints before. They sold well and the show was a success, so he asked if I’d be willing to do something related to the Tour de France this summer. He’s a nice guy and Society is a lovely little café so I was quite happy to do that. It’s going to be up until the end of August, and the café opens between 7:30 am and 6:30 pm.
I also have some prints on display at the new branch of Look Mum No Hands on Mare Street. I’ve just finished painting a mural for them, too. It’s nine metres long and features a peloton. It leads you into the beer garden patio area.
Kitty: I always ask photographers/illustrators I interview to pick out five of their favourite pieces – what are yours?
Eliza: It’s very easy to get bored of my own work. I just want to keep producing more interesting and new things all the time.
I like my Peloton print, it’s a recent screen print based on a painting I did a couple of years ago.
Also, I like my Two Tunnels print for Sustrans.
I have to nominate my yellow Major Taylor print, it’s one of the first cycling images I ever did.
Although I can’t stand the sight of it now I have to nominate Tactics. It was my first screen print and I’ve sold so many of them all over the world. I’ve no idea why it’s so popular.
And for a non-cycling print, I’ll choose the Barbican print. Looking forward to doing a few more like that one.
Kitty: What’s coming up in the rest of the year for you? Any more exhibitions, big new projects?
Eliza: I’ve got Artcrank coming up at the end of August which should be exciting. I also have some screenprints to produce for the Orbital Festival and a couple of private commissions to do. There’s the possibility of a collaboration with photographer Balint Hamvas this autumn on the subject of cyclocross. Then I want to do some big abstract pieces for Gas Gallery when I’ve got everything else out of the way. So a busy summer ahead!
Check out Eliza’s website, where you can buy her original work,, plus find out more about her exhibitions this summer.