Carla McRae on her fashionable form of self-expression through illustration
The hazy, sensitive beauty of Carla McRae’s crisp lines and vibrant color arrangement act as magnetic pulls that command attention and alleviate stress, inciting an uplifting mood needed in times like these. Drawn and positioned like poetry in motion, the Australian illustrator depicts open narratives with an element of playful storytelling.
A comic-fueled childhood on the Sunshine Coast led to an inquisitive obsession with cartoons and visual culture, paving the way for her future in design and graphics. During her teenage years drawing was a freeing and fun relief, she’d “hunt down anything that was bright and graphic to cut up or copy.” Having trained as a graphic designer at university, she recalls drawing ultimately being her calling card as she illustrated through most of her degree. She tells us, “sometimes I think that if I had been a better designer, I would never have ended up an illustrator.”
Her artworks over the years have followed a ‘less is more’ design approach. Today she is focused on creating more minimal, simple imagery that plays on geometry and abstraction. Having recently created the visual identity of Let’s Play Outdoors!, a new book that teaches how to interact with the outside world, she discusses the processes that go into illustrating a book.
Taking children on an adventure that shows ways to preserve nature by helping bees, creating controlled outdoor entertainment like campfires and cooking, alongside observing the rhythmic cycle of Mother Nature, McRae beautifully conveys the ways to interact with nature through illustration.
Working with writer Catherine Ard and researcher Polly Jarman, both experts on children’s literature and environmental education projects, the trio have created a winsome Little Gestalten book that teaches children how to be mindful of other life forms and a guide to roaming the countryside with the family.
From constructing careful environments for 'minibeast' observation to making bark rubbings, McRae discusses design processes and developing a signature aesthetic over time.
As an illustrator, how did you develop your approach, and what influences your style of geometric shapes and strong colors?
I like to explore new mediums all the time—this helps push work in new directions. My style shifts with me, depending on what mediums I want to try and what I’m interested in and consuming visually. I am a sucker for Modernism but I also grew up in the 1990s, and I think this has something to do with why strong shape and color always moves me in a deep and satisfying way.
What is your process of creation, how do you turn an idea into a design, and through what techniques?
My process is pretty straightforward, and just involves a lot of drawing, either digitally or on paper. I look at references if I need them and simply start sketching. I start with roughs and trace and re-draw to refine until the image satisfies me. I aim for warm simplicity.
Your work is always pleasantly refreshing and uplifting on a gloomy day, what message do you convey with your work and what emotions do you want people to feel when first coming across it?
I always hope that my work makes people feel some kind of happiness or joy. We need it now more than ever. Even when the subject matter or theme of a drawing is tough or negative, I try to always create an image that is optimistic or focuses on hopeful solutions.
What style and aesthetic did you want to bring to the book? Did you have any references in mind?
Perhaps naturally, I thought about the books from my childhood, and I actually ended up thinking a lot about this old school set of ‘Childcraft’ books from the 1970s that we had in our house! They have illustrated encyclopedias for kids that I think a lot of families probably had in the 1980s and 1990s. I spent a lot of time reading, learning, and drawing from them—the styles of illustration in those books are burnt into my brain forever. It always felt like the children in ‘Childcraft’ were having the best time, and I wanted to try to create that really fun, open, and welcoming feeling with my drawings too.
What do you hope Let's Play Outdoors! teaches readers about the environment and how to interact with nature?
The big message is simply to take care, be curious, and be mindful of nature. I do think that there is a new generation of kids that are a lot more aware of what’s going on around them in regards to environmental issues, which is a positive thing, but with this awareness also comes a lot of fear and anxiety. So I hope that this book provides children with fun, creative ways to learn about and engage joyfully with nature.
You previously said success is creating something meaningful, where does Let's Play Outdoors! and your other work fit into this?
I hope that Let’s Play Outdoors! encourages children to feel more curiosity or inspiration for their environment. If my work can make someone feel good, inspired, or help to convey a deeper understanding of an idea, then I have done my job!