In our first straight-out Q&A interview (#lazy), we speak to illustrator Carla McRae about about flipping burgers, frangipani art and what happens when you stop overthinking things.
There’s a laneway just off Sydney Road in Brunswick, forging a path between Hound and Bone Fine Art Printers and a barrister’s office strangely reminiscent of Dennis Denuto’s. If you were in a hurry on your way to, say, Very Good Falafel (just us?), you probably wouldn’t even notice it—this is Melbourne, after all, and laneways are a dime a dozen.
But that nondescript laneway is home to a Very Striking Mural™—a 21-metre, pastel-hued beauty commissioned by Hound and Bone itself. The artist? Carla McRae, a young illustrator quickly making a name for herself in an industry swamped with talented wannabes.
Represented by creative agency Jacky Winter (as many Outlier feature women seem to be), McRae’s work is immediately recognisable as her own. Minimal geometric shapes and strong blocks of colour depict quiet moments in everyday life: girls on bikes, houseplants, streetscapes. It’s a restrained style that poetically mirrors McRae’s own calm, confident and warm personality.
Among McRae’s growing list of clients are Oxfam, Smith Street Books and the International Women’s Development Agency. And in a recent coup, legendary New York design studio Pentagram commissioned her to create an identity for a tech startup—a ‘pinch me’ moment for a girl who grew up with zero concept of illustration as a career option.
Alongside her flourishing freelance work, McRae also works as the creative director of sock company Odd Pears—a position she took on at the beginning of her career—and has a strong presence on the Melbourne exhibition scene. She’s also well known for her self-published zines and, if we’re totally honest, for being the kind of person you want in your iPhone contacts.
Hey Carla! let’s get started with the story of your career path so far—can you tell us a bit about that?
I grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. I had a pretty normal beach-y childhood and really loved drawing. I spent a lot of time at the coffee table creating my own worlds, copying and tracing cartoons, making comics and magazines, and fan art from PlayStation game manuals. All through school I had the ‘art kid‘ nickname, and although I was pretty shy, quiet and nerdy I managed to avoid being bullied because I could draw.
At the recommendation of my art teachers, when I finished high school I went straight onto uni on the coast to study graphic design. I didn’t really know what design was. I kept drawing all through my degree and left with what was basically an illustration folio, which did not do me much justice when applying for design jobs.
I decided to move away as soon as I graduated. I had visited Melbourne for the first time in my third year of uni and really loved it. Also, a lot of artists and designers I admired made work there so I thought, ‘What's good?’.
I moved down in 2012, and I was pretty clueless. I started applying for work with design companies, and totally flopped. In retrospect, my folio was pretty poor and I had no experience except with illustration—I wouldn’t have employed me either! I was slowly cracking away at some low-level freelance illo work at this time, and I got a job flipping burgers to supplement my income until I worked out what the heck I was doing.
In 2013, I also started working casually and remotely for the sock company Odd Pears, doing direction, design and social media. I took my hands off the metaphorical handlebars and quit my burger job mid-2014, when I got a short internship with Lamington Drive, the gallery at the Jacky Winter Group.
I was earning the minimum to get by but this was a big turning point for me—I was freelancing solely, and have been since then. I was offered a solo show with Lamington last year, and off the back of that show I was offered representation! In the last few years I feel like I’ve been growing constantly and quickly, trying to learn new skills and level up every year.
Did you always want to be an illustrator?
I remember as a kid thinking that I would love to be paid to draw, but it just didn’t exist as an occupation in the real world to me. Growing up in a pretty regional area, I didn’t see any examples of people living that kind of life or having those careers. It felt like most of the art I was exposed to was, like, paintings of frangipanis and stuff.
I didn’t have a proper internet connection at home until I was in high school, so that was when I started discovering online spaces and seeing what other young people in Australia were making; finding out about people like Rinzen; and getting interested in magazines and small press. I still really struggled with understanding that these were careers though—I just couldn’t see a clear path. I thought I could be a writer or a journalist.
I did have a couple of really great encouraging art teachers at high school who pushed me in the direction of graphic design. I just kept drawing and making stuff, because it was my favourite thing to do. I’m really lucky that people liked it as well.
What was your biggest fear when you started out on your illustration career?
That’s difficult to answer, because I can’t really think of a moment where I ‘decided’ to start my career. I think my fear was more related to starting a design career; beginning something that I wasn't sure that I wanted. I loved design and the skills I learnt there, but I just knew I would rather be drawing.
When I started freelancing design in my final year of uni, I also had a blog where I was putting a lot of drawings up online. I started getting commissions through people finding my work on there, and every time it felt like a happy accident. I was stoked people were paying me for my drawings, and each time they did it felt like a push towards my own independence. Empowering!
Do you have any fears around your career now? How do you get past Them?
Yes! My brain can always make me feel like the next job I get will be my last. But there’s no escaping that feeling—the fear will always be there.
The doubt can be crippling if you focus on it too much. I never know what’s going to be going down in my email inbox tomorrow or next week, and that’s scary and exciting. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, but I know each year it gets better and better and I’m always learning more. That’s really encouraging.
Do you experience resistance or procrastination when it comes to your work? What strategies do you use to overcome it?
Resistance flows in and out. It’s more that I sometimes get a bit bratty when the sun’s out and it’s too nice out to be at the desk. But that’s a challenge that comes with having to be self-motivated—having the mini-boss in your head breathing down your neck!
I find that if I’m procrastinating I have a little routine that usually sets me straight: make a hot drink, and play a good ambient mix to focus. I think I’ve almost trained my brain to kick into gear whenever I play Xtal by Aphex Twin. Also, mini bonuses and reward systems work for me, even if it’s making a quick trip to the post office for a break.
What about self-doubt—do you experience it? How do you get past it?
Of course. I think everyone doubts themselves from time to time. Instagram and the online persona can be counterproductive. It’s a crucial tool for now, but it’s also a fantasy world where everyone can appear more productive, more successful, more important.
If you focus on it, or aspire to parts of it, it just becomes toxic to your self-esteem. I find to get past self-doubt you actually just have to get down and do the work; get a self-confidence boost by impressing yourself first.
Do you ever worry about originality in your work, compare your work to others, wonder what you’re contributing to the landscape, or get jealous of others’ work?
Yes! Again, I think this is something most of us grapple with. Sometimes it does feel a bit pointless! There is so much amazing work, so many talented people, and it takes so long and so much practice to level up and get better.
But again and again, it just comes back to getting down to making the work. When I’m in a drawing wormhole, and I feel happy, free, smashing goals, challenging myself and sometimes even surprising myself … that’s when it all feels worthwhile. You just think, ‘Ah, yes, that feels right‘. And that’s the push to keep going.
Do you ever struggle to share your work?
I don’t really struggle with sharing work online anymore. I’ve been putting drawings on the internet for about seven years now, so that’s more or less part of my work routine. And for a lot of that time I was using a pseudonym, which felt protective.
But sometimes I struggle with physically standing next to my work, at shows and stuff. I can feel a bit vulnerable.
What have been the biggest challenges or failures of your career so far?
The biggest challenge was getting the ball rolling in the beginning. When I first moved to Melbourne, I was cold-emailing and posting packages to big lists of publications and design firms looking for work. It almost always was a non-reply.
This got tiring and depleted my self-esteem. But you have to keep going. I stopped cold-calling and just made work. Amazingly, over the last few years, some of those companies I didn't hear back from have now hired me for work and I’m represented by one of them! I think it’s a common story that once you stop over-thinking and start working, that’s when things slowly happen.
And just finally, can you tell us what you hope to achieve in your career in the future?
Better drawings, more walls, books, collaborations, meaningful projects and level-ups. New materials and new places, travelling and soaking in all that I can. I hope that I’ll get better at making healthy snacks, acceptable posture and stretching more. I hope I can work for myself for as long as possible, and that my work continues to make me happy!
Virtual pep talk
“Be prepared to do the time!”