Using muted tones and cloudy colours, Ciara Quilty-Harper’s oil pastel scenes are utterly subversive

The Barcelona-based illustrator flits between printmaking, coloured pencils, oil pastels, gouache and sewing, altering her technique as she goes.

2 March 2021


“I’m never more excited about drawing than when I’m on a train, in a campsite, an unknown city or a dusty airbnb,” says Ciara Quilty-Harper, a Barcelona-based illustrator who summons a change of scenery in order to get her creativity going. Inspired by unexpected surroundings and new challenges, she likes to figure out what it is that attracts her to something, before then attempting to capture it on paper. “More than anything, travelling is for taking time to look,” she continues to tell It’s Nice that. “If I can preserve some of what I’ve seen, it’s like basking in the curiosity and hope that comes from being in a new place.”

Ciara takes us back to a time while she was living on the Isle of Wight, when her parents gave her some paper and pencils, instructing her to keep herself occupied by drawing the front of the house. What they guessed would take a couple of minutes soon turned into an hour, and Ciara sat there peacefully and quietly, drawing in silence. “I’ve always found space to draw or create,” she adds, “and in our house were were always making things from what was around.” In this sense, growing up with creative parents certainly had its benefits; her dad is an artist, and her mum sews and writes. Taught to sew from a young age, Ciara decided to study textiles at art school, before pursuing a foundation at London College of Fashion. A quick turn in deciding that womenswear wasn’t for her, she soon landed on a degree in printmaking and design at London College of Communication instead.

“It wasn’t until a few years ago while already living in Barcelona that I realised I’d never had studies focused completely on illustration,” she continues, resultantly finishing a two-year course last year at Escola Massana in illustration. “I’ve come away feeling much more confident and excited about my work.”


Copyright © Ciara Quilty-Harper, 2021

Presently, Ciara still resides in the Spanish city and finds herself characteristically drawn towards the pencil to create her works. Ranging from landscapes, figures to still lifes, you get a sense that her years of observing and travelling have paid off. This year, however, has posed a fair few challenges, restricting Ciara from being able to do her usual wandering antics and “looking elsewhere”. Instead, she’s turned her focus towards the history of cinema and reenacting scenes from the films that strike her, in turn channelling this subject matter into her illustrations. “From what I’ve watched so far, I have found that the slow cinema genre encapsulates a lot of what I want my work to do: I like that so much can be said with what seems like nothing. It’s pared down and as such gives the stage to ‘mundane’ details and occurrences.” One of Ciara’s most favoured watches is Frederick Wiseman’s three and a half-hour long documentary on the New York Public Library, which “sounds dull” when explained, but really it’s a treasure trove. “You have time to really get lost just watching the people and places.”

When making her delightful pieces, Ciara like to completely submerge herself in the process. When the “stars align”, she says, it’s a heightened and spontaneous outlet that will often see her accidentally skip lunch and work uninterruptedly until someone distracts her. The most enjoyable part, in her eyes, is the use of various media. In this sense, she flits between printmaking, coloured pencils, oil pastels, gouache and sewing, altering her technique with each cyclical phase.

The illustrator’s most recent phase is that of oil pastels. “I’ve been enjoying limiting myself to only the haziest details,” she says on her recent work. Opting for more muted and cloudy tones, it’s an unusual turn for the artist, but one that reasons with for it being a reflection of the general mood lately. “Or perhaps I”m just missing England’s overcast skies.” A couple of these works have been formulated from memory and from photographs taken over last summer, when the world was freer and the weather improved. Ciara was also able to see her parents and sister in the countryside in France. “My favourite is the dark one; it was drizzling and the gentle drip of the rain on the fire and metal roof was glorious. I can hear it when I look at this drawing.”

There’s an omnipresent sense of bliss that runs throughout Ciara’s entire portfolio. Perhaps a result of the rough details of the pastel, marked against a harsh and rocky surface; or maybe a result of the longing for freer times, galavanting around the French countryside once more. Either way, Ciara’s eye for illustration is utterly subversive, driven by her like for drawing a sense of a person or place, and thus letting the audience imagine the rest of the story.

GalleryCopyright © Ciara Quilty-Harper, 2021

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Copyright © Ciara Quilty-Harper, 2021

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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