Get to know the childlike portfolio of illustrator Cara Rooney, where nature, curiosity and play combine
Cara has a particular love of ants and the small creatures allow her to evoke empathy for the natural world in her viewers.
- Ruby Boddington
- 27 April 2021
Curiosity and play are at the core of Dundee-based illustrator Cara Rooney’s practice. Having graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design last year, she’s since built a practice that allows her to interact with others, spread happiness and encourage empathy for “all the creatures we share our little planet with”, executed through an intentionally naive, bright and multidisciplinary output.
The past year has seen Cara working on a few freelance gigs, honing her craft and running workshops for children. She also works part-time for Alzheimer Scotland and has been facilitating online painting groups through the charity. “It’s so nice to have had the opportunity to show the older people living with dementia how playing creatively can help counteract feelings of isolation and also give a sense of accomplishment,” she explains. This kind of work is indicative of Cara’s portfolio which is uninhibited and open-ended. “I like making things that surprise the viewer in some way and maybe encourage a bit of interaction as well,” she says. “I love projects that have a tactile element too, that you can touch or play with.”
These ideas stem from Cara’s introduction to the illustration world, which began with sketchbooking. “My mum had encouraged me to keep a diary since I was small but this slowly transitioned into me keeping a sketchbook,” she recalls. This, combined with a love of both English and art at school, saw illustration emerge as somewhat of a middle ground and an amalgamation of all of her interests. “I was fascinated by the translation of text to image and image to text and finding words that complement the illustration in a playful way,” she adds. What’s more, halfway through her university studies, her younger (surprise) twin siblings were born, providing a very important source of inspiration for her practice which includes children’s book illustration and making toys (or playthings, as Cara refers to them).
With encouraging play in others forming such a huge part of Cara’s output, it’s no surprise to hear that it extends to her approach too. “Playing with formats is an aspect of illustration I love, and not being restricted to a certain method of storytelling or process,” she tells us. “There’s no telling what the next project you work on might be, and I just really love the unpredictability that comes with that – it keeps things forever exciting and keeps you curious and playful too.” In the past, this has lead Cara to create clothing, pop-up books, myriad workshops, toys, activity sheets, Riso prints and everything in between.
What really stands out when looking at Cara’s portfolio is the strength of her visual language. Chunky, bold and lively, the way Cara wields her tools creates a distinctive style that embodies everything she wants others to feel when looking at her work. “Shape is a really important element for me,” she elaborates. “I like to simplify what I see into shapes, patterns and loose lines keeping things rough, so it’s not too refined and still has lots of life in it.”
To achieve this, she intentionally presses too hard on the paper with her drawing materials, creating heavy lines and, when finishing a piece, she adds “lots of black marks and shapes from paint, crayon and charcoal, and puts them together like a digital collage”. Lettering also plays a significant role, only furthering the “child-like, almost naive, tone of voice” of her work. “I like considering the placement of text while I’m making the illustrations and finding a few words that will add something more,” Cara explains. That being said, there’s intuitiveness to how Cara works too which sees her resisting overworking a piece, instead favouring the first drawings she makes. This often means words spill over lines and imperfections ring true.
In turn, her pieces are raw and organic, much like her subject matter – largely nature and animals. “I like to think that encouraging empathy for other lifeforms, through anthropomorphism and communicating their experiences, increases viewers’ fascination and appreciation of them too,” she says. “I really like ants especially, because they are such an accessible form of nature and it’s easy to feel connected to those tiny friends as they are everywhere, no matter if you live in the centre of the city or out in the countryside.”
When asked what lies ahead for her, Cara’s response is easy: “Lots more drawing and playing I hope!” In particular, she’s excited to continue expanding her outputs, looking to make socks, toys and children’s clothes. “I’ve been quite restricted with the materials I’ve been able to use recently (because I’ve been working from the dining room table!) and would love to make the most of being able to go back to the studio as normal again.” Having also recently been awarded funding by Creative Scotland for tutorials with Orange Beak Studio, she’s been hard at work on more character illustrations, “moving on towards more non-fiction and activity-based children’s illustration work. And finally, she has her sights set on a pop-up or activity book like those she cherished so much while growing up. “I really do love the imagination that children naturally have, so as much interaction or customisation my work can create, the better,” she concludes.
Cara Rooney: Tiny Rabbit (Copyright © Cara Rooney, 2020)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.