I recently discovered amazing, kick-ass lipstick brand Shanghai Suzy. Not only do they do two shades you MUST HAVE (hello Neon Guava and Amethyst!) but they have names and characters. The mad mistress behind those tattooed, punk rock princesses is Melbourne illustrator, Mel Macklin and she is feisty fun personified. Despite being crazily busy, she took time to answer all my questions.
How did the Shanghai collab start?
Hehe, it's kinda a nice story actually! It was April of this year, and I hadn't long moved to Melbourne from Darwin in the Northern Territory. It was my very first day sitting my market shop in my new hometown, and Jo was my neighbour at Rose Street Artist's market in Fitzroy! Jo was every bit as bubbly and and sweet as she looked, and kept me in very good company that first day. We never got to be market neighbours again, but I like to think the creative pixies had had a hand in our meeting that day!
We kept in touch on the social interwebs and Jo would often leave lovely comments about whatever new painting I was working on. Then one day, I got an email from her asking if I was interested in illustrating for her Spring/ Summer wardrobe launch, and I was like, 'Ummm, YES!'
We met for lunch a week later and that was that! Jo was a dream to work with: a girl who knows quite clearly and concisely what she wants, how to express herself, and, I think most admirably, how to encourage creativity with others. I think we both felt very strongly invested and personally attached to the characters that I illustrated; there's a little piece of us both in there. I feel very lucky to have worked with such a tremendous businesswoman like Jo.
Your lipstick shade of choice?
Hands-down, Miss Kitty Black Plum! (Hehe, I painted both Suzy Sisters wearing that shade for purely selfish reasons!). I love that it's super-elegant classy lady (ahem, I do try to be those things!), but it's also a bit grungy nineties.
Where did you draw the inspiration for your characters?
Hehe, how long is a piece of string?! Sometimes it's a word that repeats itself over and over in my head. Sometimes it's the snippet of a book, maybe even a misinterpretation of a song. Making art to me is like a jigsaw, with round holes and square pegs- the attraction and the challenge simultaneously is to make those incongruous elements work together so at first glance they look 'right' and fitting. (The trick is in the double-take your viewers will give the work if you've done your job right!)
I'm a visual person, so all of my characters are an amalgam of all the cool stuff I've ever seen in my life to date. Even as a small child, I would never sit in front of the telly just to be a couch potato- I would draw- the characters I loved best (Sarah from Labyrinth, Rainbow Brite, Sailor Moon, Lady Lovely Locks, everything Disney, ). I would draw them as they were, I would draw them in new outfits, in new contexts, and make whole new characters to sit alongside them too.
Anybody who grew up in the Harry Potter generation will know the particular torture of waiting a year or more to know the fate of characters who had become real to you, had become both your friend, and a part of you. Of never wanting their stories to be over, and the dull ache when, inevitably, the last page was read and there was no more. My reaction to dealing with that was to make art, to continue their stories as I would want them to be lived.
Going to my first Comic-Con this year, I realised that there were thousands of other dreamers out there who felt just the same way I did about their 2D heroes, and I felt like that community has opened it's superhero arms to me in a huge way!
A lot of my work though is of my own original characters. They are all a little part of me and the people I love best, real and imagined.
What other collabs have you done?
I am currently working with a bunch of fantastic illo buddies of mine for our collective showcase at next year's Melbourne Supergraph! We are called 'Wayward Journey'. We all make stuff that's a bit whimsical, fairytale-fancying, detailed and, of course, awesome! ;-)
Do you find Melbourne a good city to have a creative career in?
Melbourne is a place I feel in my bones. I'm originally from Gippsland, but my folks moved to Darwin in my teens. I spent the next 12 years making plans to move back to Melbourne, but life always got in the way.... My fiancée Dave and I lived and worked in inner-city London for two years, and spent a lot of time in Italy and Spain while we were there. It was amazing and terrifying and confronting and all my dreams come true, all at once! You realise there are parts of yourself, survival mechanisms you didn't know you had, living in a big city, especially one that's not in your native country.
I think it can be very confronting to live in any big city and try to make a name for yourself in the creative biz. I realised very quickly, living in London that there was no shortage of amazingly clever artsy people out there, searching, working for just the same lucky break that I was. And then I realised that it wasn't going to happen, this fantasy of 'being discovered'. It's a myth: it diminishes the thousands of hours of sheer hard work that is put in for such and such a person to become well-known, this idea that they were 'lucky' that someone well-connected introduced them to the world, or implicitly, took pity on them (actually, it's just sheer hard work and perseverance!). I am really grateful now to have experienced the sort of anonymity and the confrontation of being a drop in the ocean, before I seriously started my career. It keeps me humble and grounded; I am always trying to push closer to new personal bests and develop my skills. My biggest fear is complacency!
In a nutshell, I think it can be very easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of the Melbourne art scene- a good artist will let that fuel them to keep finding inspiration, unique ways to express themselves, to work hard, humbly and honestly to earn a place beside their art heroes.
How do you find customers and supporters?
Hehe, Pop Surrealism can be a tricksy movement to be a part of! People aren't always sure just what is, or what it's for. It's funny how uninhibited people can be when they meet you in a retail context (I sell my work at trade fairs like Comic-Con, Finders Keepers and a bunch of smaller markets around Melbourne), and I've heard all sorts of comments about my work! I think people find themselves in artwork- you know the old saying, they see it as they are, the good and the bad, and not always as it was intended.
My heart just explodes with joy when people walk up to my shop, and look at something like 'Salty Tears and Shipwrecks' and laugh. I think: a kindred spirit! I have an odd sense of humour, so it makes me happy that's there's peeps out there who know how to fly their freak flag with reckless abandon too!
My attitude to art has always been that, if it's not actually real, why not make something extraordinarily beautiful, to make impossible things possible- on a page, within a film, the covers of a book... I think the ability to suspend belief, to lose yourself within an artwork and accept the improbability of it, is a special thing. I couldn't care less that mermaids aren't real: I want to believe in them, and so they are real in all the ways that matter. If I can help just one person to feel that too, I feel like I've achieved something.
Favourite artistic medium?
I have a huge respect for painters. Oil painters especially. The thing is, I can't paint to save myself!
I puddled in it like a spoiled brat at uni; I decided the reason I made poo on the paper was because it wasn't quite for me, and I could get away with just, skipping a whole bunch of fundamental skills every good artist should know! (Actually, I just had zero patience and felt entitled to expect results too quickly, rather than earn them!)
So, about six years ago when I was toying with the idea of illustrating professionally, I bought myself a set of gorgeous watercolours and taught myself how to paint with them.... Later, I switched to acrylics, which is much more a plastic medium, much more predictable. But it never sat right with me! I always felt like I was pretending, there was something fluid I was seeking in my methods, but could never quite give myself over to, as ever, the look I wanted was highly detailed and controlled.
After a long stint with colour pencils, I have finally, and most unexpectedly, fallen head-over-heels
with digital painting! I use a method called on-screen mixing, which is basically a simulation of traditional oil-painting methods. It's just that you mix your colours on screen, rather than puddling in pigments, which I really suck at!
Hehe, this little Luddite would never have dreamed one day I'd say I absolutely LOVE digital painting! The scope of what's possible, and all the things I have yet to learn and get better at is huge. I know I have found my medium because I am excited and inspired by that thought, not defeated to be just a relative beginner.
Can't live without tools and equipment?
My Wacom (of course!). I've had it for five years now, so the wear and tear has polished it to perfection and my pen glides just right!
Tea and/or coffee, I'm not fussy which variety as long as it's strong and I can have it on intravenous drip. I am a caffeine whore, which is ridiculous because it has no effect on me. I can drink coffee late at night and be asleep in twenty minutes. True story.
All my beautiful books, full of the fairytales I loved as a child, and the ones I love now that keep me inspired and young at heart.
, where I catalogue absolutely every single thing other that inspires me!
Music to listen to while drawing?
Hehe, I am kinda OCD and can watch/ eat/ do the exact same stuff days in a row without getting tired of it, until suddenly I find a new obsession! My brother remembers that even as a child, I would watch 'Labyrinth' five times back to back every single day and still be fascinated! So, I have been listening to Jeff Buckley for about, oh, five months now!
I am also a sucker for audiobooks: Michael Ende's 'Neverending Story'; the Harry Potter series read by Stephen Fry; anything written or read by Neil Gaiman ('Neverwhere' and 'Coraline' are my faves). Also LOVE David Tennant's reading of the 'How to Train Your Dragon' books by Cressida Cowell. Listening to these stories is like chewing gum for my imagination- so, while half my brain makes very precise technical decisions, the other half is like:
''Woot, woot, party in Fantastica!''