Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio
with Carolyn Gavin

February 6, 2018

Artist Carolyn Gavin and her puppy Eggroll, photos by Jen Coleman

If you deconstruct the most inspiring quotes throughout history, you’ll find that they all have a few things in common: great wordsmithing, flawless pacing, memorable messaging. So when I asked artist Carolyn Gavin what inspires her to illustrate quotes, I thought she might say she enjoyed experimenting with fonts in watercolor, or that wanted her art to honor influential leaders or her favorite musicians. I quickly learned that these assumptions were too surface level for an artist who uses color like Carolyn. When describing her design process for our “World is Full of Magic” print, she simply said, “it’s just a feeling. I knew that quote would need flowers.”

After visiting Carolyn’s home studio in downtown Toronto, it is evident that this beautiful, gentle approach to her art manifests in every aspect of her life. Where the average person sees words or objects, Carolyn envisions bouquets, nature, and exotic shapes. Every corner inside of the 120-year-old Victorian house that she shares with her husband, her daughter Lily, and their English Bulldog Eggroll, is drenched in her signature color palette. From the quaint garden that she maintains in her off time, to the walls decorated with bright patterns that would make Justina Blakeney pause, every detail embodies the same joy that we find so captivating about her prints.

Carolyn is an artist who truly lives the words penned by writer Khalil Gibran, “Work is love made visible.” As I made my way around her sun-drenched studio, it was hard to distinguish which of her projects would be defined as work or “play.” She approaches every opportunity to create as a chance to learn and explore. Whether it’s sharing watercolors with her enthusiastic Instagram followers, or experimenting with new graphic design techniques for a commissioned project. Her creative perspective is always evolving.  

Read on to discover how Carolyn finds inspiration in her travels, how she maintains balance between her family’s business and her own artistic goals, and why she believes that the world is always full of magic. 

What are your most essential tools?

Paint, brushes, and paper all of the best quality I can afford. Lately I’ve also been dabbling on the iPad using Procreate with the Apple Pencil and it’s super fun; a totally different experience to painting, but unique in its own way. It feels a bit like using pencil crayons again. It’s good to try new techniques and keep things fresh. I also use my computer with programs like Illustrator and Photoshop to scan and retouch paintings and create designs, of course.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?  

I have favorite photos up: some work that I love and that is meaningful in some way, mine and others, my daughters drawings, color combos for inspiration, bits from my travels, etc. Plus the light coming in from the big window is really good in the afternoons, and the view, especially during the warmer months, is lovely to look at for a moment of silence and contemplation within a busy work day.

Where does downtime fit into a day in the studio?

I go to yoga twice a week, which really is very uplifting and calming at the same time. I try and walk as much as possible. But really painting is very meditative for me and if I can paint every day, that makes me happy and fills a void that seems to get empty pretty fast. I seem to lose myself in the art of creating and it’s very therapeutic.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a designer starting a business?

I realized that I had to tone down my color sensibility for North American tastes at the time [when I started my business]. Now I think people are more in tune and have developed a more sophisticated color palette, so it doesn’t seem as difficult and people seem to be embracing color more. Maybe they’re just now getting used to me. Another tough lesson I learned in the beginning is that nobody is waiting for you. YOU have to do the work, you have to put in the hours, you have to practice like mad to get better. You have to put in your 10,000 hours. It just works that way if you really want to do well and get ahead and stand out among the gray crowd.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?

I’d say exactly what I’d say today: “Keep on going. You never really get there, but its the process that keeps you motivated and the knowledge that there is still so much to learn and so much to explore and you haven’t really covered much, have you?”

How do you set goals for yourself?

This is a tough one. I don’t really set goals for myself. I just do what I do and try and stay as focused as possible on the good stuff and getting on with it. I love it when I’m creating and it’s going well and flowing and one piece moves onto the next. The best part is when someone recognizes the work and uses it for commissioned project or purchases a piece. I guess my goal is to keep on being inspired and keep on creating.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory? 

There are many little victories. so I guess I’d be drinking Champagne every day! I consider myself to be so lucky and blessed to have a wonderful family, good health, a great job, and a lovely life. I’m in fact a very happy person, so living life with so many freedoms at my fingertips is a victory in unto itself.

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you? 

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” — W.B. Yeats

Thats the full version, but I did illustrate “The world is full of magic” and I just love this quote for its simplicity and heaviness. No matter how dark things can be, there is always something there to help us through, and I mean this in a purely sensual way. Could be a bird’s song, a beautiful leaf, a funny thing the dog did, or a thoughtful gesture by a friend. It’s a love of life and a joyfulness in seeing whats underneath, lying in wait.

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?

I am always painting and trying to get better at my technique, and its constantly evolving and I hope improving along the way. For me, it’s approaching subject matter that I’m not comfortable with, like drawing figures. I’m much more inclined to paint a dog riding a bicycle than even attempt to do a person on a bike. It’s a bit of a struggle, but I’m hoping to get better at it. For now, it’s animals only and faces. I don’t mind doing a page of interesting female faces, and I’ve explored this quite a bit, too.

How do you recharge your creativity? 

Travel is the biggest and best re-charger for me. If I can go to one new place once a year plus an old favorite, that is ideal. I find getting lost in a place so restorative and essential for one’s creative journey. I love finding new worlds and exploring new areas of color, pattern, traditions, and local crafts. For example, I went to India last year and spent three weeks immersed in Rajasthan on a textile tour. We did mud-resist printing, block printing, Indigo dyeing, tie dyeing, and stitching. It was so fantastic and it has inspired me for life!

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?

I love collaborations using my work, especially for good and noble causes. The recent collaboration with Ecojot and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was really a great example of how a designer, a stationery company, and a great cause can work together to create magic. I painted an elephant in a sweet jungle type setting, which we used for a journal and a planner, all made by Ecojot in Canada, and 50 percent of the proceeds went directly to the foundation. Helping orphan elephants and other animals in many ways from food, to shelter, to conservation. Together with Ecojot we were so happy to give back and help a foundation and a cause which we love so passionately. I’m looking for more avenues like this to explore, for sure.

How has Instagram impacted your business? 

I think the biggest thing is exposure. [My] work is seen by thousands of people every day from all over the world and all walks of life. How in the world would they have ever found you if it weren’t for Instagram? I just don’t know. Blogs in comparison were so slow. Instagram is instant and vast and has the potential to carry you further than you can imagine. It amazes me constantly; I’m blown away by it.

Carolyn preparing to film one of her popular process videos for Instagram

How have your travels impacted your art? 

Mainly in the way I use color, but also with pattern and texture. I love exotic offbeat places and learn so much from these unique cultures and the way they use color, form, and pattern for decoration and also for communication. Old signs fascinate me and murals are so interesting. I love walking around and just trying to absorb where I’m at, like in India, cows, dogs, pigs, goats, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses, and people all together trying to get somewhere. It’s a visual feast and somehow that finds its way into my work and gets thrown back out. So I’ll never stop traveling as there are so many places still to go and find.

See more of Carolyn’s colorful prints here »

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