Illustrator in her natural habitat

- Interview by Philip Parker

With the launch of 26Habitats getting ever nearer, it’s not just the writers who’ve been busy. Philip Parker caught up with Lydia Thornley, whose illustrations will bring a visual element to the project.

After working at some of London’s leading design practices, Lydia Thornley has built a reputation over the last 30 years as an independent graphic designer, guiding clients (especially in the public and charitable sectors and small businesses) in creative direction, brand identity and communication design. The imminent launch of 26Habitats will see our writers’ work adorned with her original illustrations.

How would you describe your design style?

I design like a journalist. I do my best work when clients let me delve into the subject matter and that informs everything from type to surface. So it’s more a working style than a visual one.

How did you come to start sketching, and how important is it in your creative work?

I’ve been drawing since before I could walk. I studied graphic design at a time when you had to specialise and drawing became the unseen bit of my work – the thinking on paper. Six years ago, on a trip to Gothenburg, I took a camera and a sketchbook, just in case I didn’t have enough to do. I loved the place so much I nearly didn’t come back – and I found myself drawing in cafés again. So I produced a studio book, This is shorthand, about drawing as part of my design practice and I was challenged to do a drawing a day until it had to go to press. I started drawing on the tube… and I didn’t stop drawing. That turned into my Instagram feed and people got in touch asking me to sketch for them, have an exhibition, run workshops…  It’s become a strand of my work in its own right.

Tell me about your research process to create the dozens of pieces for 26Habitats

It’s been wonderful to be included in discussions about the writing process and the project as a whole – to hear from writers, editors and The Wildlife Trusts. I wanted to draw from the writers’ perspective – to see the habitats that I couldn’t get to myself through their eyes. So I asked for pictures, however rough, of writers’ views and I read the words to work out which views to draw and what, in those views, was most important.

And you also travelled to many of the locations. Was there a favourite place you visited or one that sticks in your memory?

Oh, goodness, I’d love to have travelled further and wider! Normally, I’d have been striding out all over the country but, so far, it’s just been two locations I can get at in a day on public transport. Rye Harbour Nature Reserve was my first sight of the sea since the start of the pandemic. I stood at the shore, watching the waves roll in, feeling indescribably happy. The to-ings and fro-ings of cormorants, avocets with their young, big sky, wildflowers, properly-fresh air… to me, a country girl in the city, that was freedom.

What is you working practice? Did you make any changes to your usual style for 26Habitats?

Drawing is my way of looking. It’s something interesting that I’ve spotted that makes me want to draw and that’s the approach that I’ve brought to 26 Habitats. Drawing the habitats has been a natural progression from sketchwalks I’ve been doing in the pandemic, getting out into nature in London’s wild places.

Where I’ve been able to visit habitats, I’ve drawn live and photographed the sketchbook spreads. I can scan those sketches or redraw them later, adding colour. Drawing from writers’ photos and video and Wildlife Trusts reference, I’ve had the pictures up on screen and drawn freehand on iPad. My sightline is similar to drawing – that keeps the line, and the view, fresh. The biggest challenge has been that in sketching live, I’m often drawing moving creatures, making quick visual notes. In a photo, they’re static. And here, it’s the writers’ words that have given me the movement to follow.

Drawing live, I normally start with the story in case it moves! But on some of the iPad sketches I’ve ended with the story so that it reveals during the timelapse. 

What are the technical aspects of your work?

I love a ballpen – they’re surprisingly sensitive drawing tools. (I’m using eco versions for this project, made mostly from recycled paper.) I started using waste paper by way of tidying up – in the first lockdown I had to move everything out of my co-working space at 24 hours’ notice, I was tripping over old dummies and swatch books. I needed sketchbooks and flat paper to draw on so I used what I had, with no idea how materials would behave on the surfaces. I’ve bound some sketchbooks for the 26 Habitats location sketches.

I first got into iPad drawing and Procreate software when I needed it for a conference drawing gig, to transfer drawings quickly between people and onto social media. It’s handy for illustrations that I know will need to develop. For this project, it’s enabled me to produce black and white and colour versions of the same drawing and to save them as timelapse videos.

Running out of waste paper, I did a callout for printers’ and paper companies’ waste and my GF Smith paper rep delivered a sack of offcuts and swatches. So I plan to do some proper watercolour sketches from some of the sketchbook drawings and bind more sketchbooks.

What is the most striking thing you learned during the project?

Peat. Am I allowed to make a pledge? That, then: I promise for ever more to read the label when buying potting compost!

Who, or what, inspires you creatively?

Right now, wildlife. Here’s an example: walking along the River Lea, I spotted a cormorant, still wet from fishing, drying its wings, stretching out its feathers like fingers and there it was, full Pterodactyl… I was absolutely gripped by how prehistoric that bird looked and, obligingly, it gave me several poses, watching me as I drew. It’s a visceral thing, that need to draw something. (Tip to anyone who knows me: never go on a walk with me…)

What is your favourite thing to draw?

Something I would never have seen if I hadn’t paused to draw it.

This year marks 30 years since you established yourself as an independent creative. What advice would you give to others contemplating a freelance creative career?

Be curious – and stay curious.

Did your sketching take on a new meaning and purpose during lockdown? 

In the first lockdown, with ‘keep moving’ signs in my local park,  I couldn’t do sketchwalks so, lucky to have a garden, I decided to report from there. My way of drawing is very loose for botanical illustration but there’s so much to find and tell that it’s a story of its own. I’ve taken my project Dispatches from a Small World into a second growing season. It’s sprouted a blog. And T-shirts.

It’s got slightly out of hand. I describe it as ‘over 200 drawings’ but it’s probably a lot more than that. It’s just as well that I can’t count…

– Interview by Philip Parker


For more, check out Lydias instagram feed: @lydiathornley and blog. 

26Habitats launches on 1 September. You can hear Lydia talk about the project, and also listen to writers reading their centenas, on our launch Zoom at 6:30pm on Thursday 9 September. We’ll also be talking to our friends at the Wildlife Trusts for their views. Join us if you can – we’ll be sending out invitations soon. All 26 members welcome.

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