Sarah Cliff uses wobbly lines and ice cream tones to bring surrealness to portraits and scenery

With its warped perspectives, big hands and feet, and block colours with delicate outlines, the illustrator’s work has a distinctive edge.

Date
8 October 2020
Reading Time
3 minute read

Illustrator Sarah Cliff manages to take an everyday scene and make it feel uncanny, in the best way. Take Daily Grind, her scene of a woman waiting for her coffee to brew, for example: the sharp perspective of the worktop, the precisely drawn objects whose stillness is only disturbed by the drips of coffee through a filter, the smiley oranges in the fruit bowl, the woman’s giant hands and wobbly leg, the crisp shadow of that lemon… it’s these details that make her style distinctive. “I would say my work can be playful and humorous but also complementary to more melancholic or emotional subjects,” she describes to It’s Nice That.

One defining feature of Sarah’s illustrations is the big feet and hands, something we loved about her portrait of graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook for our In Conversation feature. Sarah cites painters Beryl Cook and William Roberts as influences for their “chunky people and unusual perspectives,” as well as work by David Hockney, Paula Rego and Marcel Dzama. She uses enlarged features, strange perspective and wavey lines to draw attention to elements of the image, a figure or detail she wants to communicate. In this case, she says “the structure is secondary”. In this spirit of expressionism, Sarah also says she loves life drawing – “I’m not that patient for long poses, I prefer a ten minute one where I barely look at the paper. It's the confident but crap drawings where the feet are huge or something which are the most engaging to me.”

Another aspect of her work that stands out is the use of colour, warm tones of mustard, peach and lavender that contrast against black. “For colours at the moment I quite like 70s photos of food which are both gross and gorgeous. I especially like when ice creamy colours are combined with dark colours and when bright colours are combined in unusual ways.” She uses these in big blocks with delicate lines that balance each other out nicely. In one of her standout pieces, called Breakfast Lady, all her techniques come to the fore. In what could be a busy scene, the precision of the objects all standing in isolation, and the use of colour and linework, lends a surreal stillness. Conversely in Exercise, the stretched, overlapping bodies and spiky shadows convey movement and chaos.

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Sarah Cliff: Mini

Sarah grew up in Devon and Neath / Port Talbot in South Wales, with an early interest in creativity. “It’s a cliche but I was always drawing from a young age or making something,” she says. “When I used to visit my grandparents my Bampa had so many art books and we would make copies of the pictures together. My auntie is amazing at painting as well and used to encourage me and my younger brother, who’s a musician now, to make stuff. Besides that my upbringing was at times very chaotic and strange, so drawing was definitely a bit of an escape and something that gave me peace.”

With the support of an “amazing” art teacher at secondary school, Sarah explored the idea of a creative career. “I chose illustration because it seemed a balanced choice, I didn’t want to be a fine artist and I felt like I would get to do more drawing than if I chose to study design.” She went on to study illustration at Falmouth, and despite living in London for the past five years, says she “feels most happy in nature” and hopes to move to the coast again one day. Since graduation she’s worked on editorial commissions for Vice and Refinery 29, and developed her style through personal work, lots of which is shown below.

Sarah uses Illustrator mainly, though that’s a recently developed skill. “I love the crispness and definition you get, and the tools which speed up my process a lot. I used to use Photoshop and would have so many layers, it was very time consuming.” She’s developing this technique, however, to combine both to reintroduce some texture. “Whatever the software,” she adds, “I find firstly drawing on paper is really important to generate new ideas.”

GalleryAll images copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020

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Sarah Cliff: Synth (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: Ketamine Therapy Has Made Its Way On to Instagram for Vice (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: PMDD for Refinery 29 (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: The Environmental Impact of Weddings for Refinery 29(Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: Interior (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: Interior (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: Exercise (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: Evening Walk (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: Jonathan Brook for It's Nice That (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: Breakfast Lady (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: 2020 Vacation (Copyright © Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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Sarah Cliff: Daily Grind (© Sarah Cliff, 2020)

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny joined the editorial team as It’s Nice That’s first news editor in April 2016. Having studied 3D Design, she has spent the last ten years working in design journalism. Contact her with news stories relating to the creative industries on news@itsnicethat.com.

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