Zoe Boltt

Zoe Boltt is the illustrator using plasticine to create funny, nostalgic imagery.

We all used to play with plasticine as a child, but our creations were nothing like Falmouth-based illustrator Zoe Boltt’s. Creating colourful, uplifting images using carefully crafted plasticine shapes, Boltt’s images are a much needed light-hearted injection of pure fun that takes us back to the happy times playing at the arts and crafts table as children.

A relative newcomer to illustration (she only started in 2013), Boltt’s nostalgic yet contemporary style stems from her fascination with garish 80s culture and her effective use of colour to create illustrations so dynamic they’re almost 3D. Boltt’s work always encourages you to look on the bright side.

Boltt’s retro aesthetic, full of saturated colours and natural light and shadow, is used by Boltt to remind the viewer of a time, a place or a memory, often evoking delightful childhood memories (clear from her inspirations of the children’s TV programmes we grew up with, namely Arthur, Barney The Dinosaur and The Rugrats). Also inspired by the Memphis design group, Boltt’s striking use of colour and texture draws you in, creating funny yet thought-provoking images that are often indicative of contemporary and local issues that Boltt wants to bring attention to. Using plasticine to create a comfortable nostalgia and buckets of fun, Boltt unleashes the child within.

When did you start illustration and what drew you to it?

The first time I practiced illustration was in 2013 during my art and design foundation diploma at Central Saint Martins. We had to pick two words at random from a box, an adjective and a verb, I got ‘argumentative’ and ‘sandwich’. Then we were given a day to communicate this in one drawing. The finished outcome was left uncaptioned, for the rest of class to guess! It was the first time I had experienced coming up with quick solutions through sketches, after spending the entirety of my Fine Art A Level drawing intricately and wanting everything to look ‘pretty’. I think what I loved about this new approach was the ability to instantly convey two words in a single image, unlike in Fine Art where interpretation seemed limitless.

What’s your first art related memory?

The most vivid early memory that pops into my head has to be when I was about 5 years old. I was colouring in at the kitchen table, I was completely in the zone. So thoroughly in the zone that I forgot I needed a wee and I’m sure you can picture the rest of the scene!

What’s your experience at Falmouth University been like? Do you think formal training is necessary for a successful art career?

I have loved being a student at Falmouth! My tutors are all established illustrators, so they really know what they’re talking about. If I hadn’t studied Illustration at university I wouldn’t have been exposed to all the different directions it can take you, nor would I have gained the knowledge and motivation to get there. Whilst formal training isn’t vital, the illustration industry is highly competitive and at Falmouth the focus is on finding your visual identity, branding yourself, and getting your work published. We achieve this through lessons in generating ideas, colour and composition, print making, life drawing, digital skills as well as lectures on becoming a professional. Falmouth has a strong reputation in the creative industry, their connections from London to New York have been responsible for the launch of many past graduates’ successful careers as freelance illustrators.

When did you start working with plasticine and why? Why do you think it suits your style?

I started working with plasticine a few weeks before our final deadline in 2nd year. We were assessed on ‘visual studies’, which was basically a big sketchbook filled with media experiments. I ran into the campus art shop in a bit of a panic and picked up a bar of plasticine and I felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. For the sake of experimenting, I started sculpting some characters. Until now, my characters had felt generic, as if they lacked authenticity, yet plasticine gave my work the punch it was missing. I had already developed an admiration for 80s culture, and plasticine suited the retro aesthetic of my illustrations. I’m also addicted to saturated colours, before I would pack in so many colours that elements became lost in the background, but plasticine captures all the natural light and shadows, making objects pop!

What other illustration methods do you use?

I draw from time to time, but that’s mostly become my method of designing ideas and compositions to then make into a plasticine artwork! I have explored print making, collage, embroidery, painting, digital and more over the years, but plasticine modelling feels like my thing now!

“I have explored print making, collage, embroidery, painting, digital and more over the years, but plasticine modelling feels like my thing now!”

How important is colour in your work?

Colour has always been vital to my work. Before I found my illustrative style with plasticine, my classmates would always say ‘your work is so colourful!’, I took it as a compliment. I feel it can communicate so many different things, one colour might say ‘happy’ yet the combination of that colour with another might remind the viewer of a food, a place or an experience. I like each of my artworks to have a colour palette, and often feature both warm and cool colours like orange and turquoise or pink and green.

Your work is so much fun! Do you think it’s important to be lighthearted in your work?

Thank you! I strongly believe it’s important to be lighthearted in my work, as well as life in general. Having said that, I do take my course very seriously, as a third year student I must negotiate my own projects and set tight deadlines, with every artwork potentially determining my future career! So with all the heavy, serious stuff to get on with, I have make my work fun to keep me upbeat and maintain my enjoyment in the creative process. I think there’s still very much a child within me that’s expressing itself in the form of playful plasticine shapes and colours!

What do you draw inspiration from?

I take inspiration mostly from my childhood, TV programmes like Arthur, Rugrats and Barney the Dinosaur. I also take influence from 80s style, particularly Memphis, the radical design movement that layered striking textures, patterns, colours and shapes onto furniture. My favourite illustrators currently are Jack Sachs and Falmouth graduate Ana Jaks, their work seems nostalgic whilst feeling fresh and contemporary. I think there’s something about nostalgia that makes people feel comfortable, I want to create that feeling but shake things up a little!

What themes do you like to explore in your work?

I think as a general theme, I aim to challenge expectations, using plasticine which has connotations of being cheap, cheerful and artificial, yet applying it to a matter of more depth and gravitas. Lately I have designed some speculative cereal packaging, the obvious theme is dinosaurs, as it’s fun and for a young audience, but the other key concept is that it’s a healthy children’s cereal. Typically, the themes of my work tend to target children, however I think plasticine can also target an adult audience particularly through the tool of humour. When Falmouth’s popular student bar, Mango’s, was shut down, I responded with a plasticine illustration of two weeping mango fruits, mourning the loss of their beloved mango laid to rest in a coffin. To my surprise, it actually got published in the local newspaper! I think people want to see something that shocks them, or makes them laugh/cringe uncontrollably, it can provide comic relief from the mundanity of life.

Do you have any projects in the pipeline?

I am currently working on some quick speculative editorial pieces, accompanying illustrations for articles from The Guardian’s ‘Look back in joy: the power of nostalgia’ and a New York Times piece called ‘Let the children learn through play’. I am excited to capture the tone of the texts through the medium of plasticine, since they both communicate references to youth and the past. On a more daring mission, I have started planning on reinventing the identity of classic novel, think of those English Lit GCSE texts you used to read in school yet with a plasticine punch! Watch this space!

Zoe Boltt

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