For Nottingham-based illustrator Zena Kay, food has always been a huge inspiration. “I can already see my friends laughing at this,” the Kingston graduate tells us as she introduces herself as a wholehearted foody. But the proof is in the pudding; food makes an appearance in pretty much all aspects of her detailed drawings. Bright red lobsters garnished with fresh lemon segments, succulent oranges ripe for squeezing, summer fruits laid out on bright tablecloths. All in all, if you’re looking for an illustrative taste of that hot summer feeling, indulge in Zena’s mouth-watering illustrations.
Her creative journey began long ago. The illustrator’s stepfather has always been an influence as an oil painter, encouraging Zena to experiment with the medium and weave stories into the canvas with composition and colour in tow. “The other inspiration in my life is my brother Ben,” she goes on. The co-owner and co-director of Riso printers Dizzy Ink, creativity certainly runs in the Kay family. To top it all off, Zena’s family have also run a small gallery for a number of years. So with that in mind, it’s no surprise that she found herself going down the path of illustration, inspiring her viewers to dream about their future travels and the food they might encounter there.
At university, she learnt to hone her craft. She figured out how to tap into the varying breadths of illustration, developing both the technical and conceptual aspects of her practice. Throughout these trials and errors, however, the subject of food remained constant. “I draw, cook, read and write about food,” she adds, “it’s the gift that keeps giving.” For a while she even thought about working in the catering industry – food is and was that important – but in time, she was able to express her love of all things food through the immersive art of illustration.
For Zena, this is the charm of the medium. Powerful visuals can allow the viewer to look at something in a different way. She adds: “Cookbooks (another passion) if well illustrated can inspire creativity in the reader, ultimately bringing people together over the table to eat what was once just an illustration.” Dipping between analogue and digital techniques (depending on how she’s feeling at the time) Zena lets the work flow out of her. “I try not to put too much pressure on myself when using technology to create work as I know that one day I might use the iPad whereas I might use paint or chalk or ink the next.”
Zena’s drawn to the aesthetic of 1920s and 30s food illustrations which were vibrantly colourful and full of detail. Combining intricate mark-making with a slightly naive perspective, in turn, Zena’s style is unique; both hyperreal and a little off-kilter in its depiction. When it comes to colour, on the other hand, she offers up: “I really think why the hell not use all the colours! People need some colour in their life, we are all far too serious at times.” Trusting her instinct in the moment when it comes to style, Zena is a firm believer that “if you’re a slave to a style, you’re not free to experiment and enjoy your own work.”
For the illustrator, taking pleasure in the process is fundamental to her creativity – “enjoying what you do always shows in the final work,” she says on the matter. And we’re in agreement, we’re not sure how many illustrators can say they pursued a career in the arts for financial gains for instance. In an exercise aimed at keeping this interest alive, recently, Zena teamed up with fellow It’s Nice That favourite Tess Smith Roberts (whom she studied with) to draw each other’s homes during lockdown. It was a way to keep in touch and keep the momentum going during a challenging time. And, it worked. “We LOVED it,” she adds on the matter and decided to set up an Instagram site to encourage others to start drawing still life and just draw for fun,” she goes on.
Titled Still Here Still Life, the project has blossomed into a weekly brief with a 45,000 strong following. It’s brought new collaborations to life, uniting illustrators with photographers, independent Riso printers and a myriad of other creatives in celebration of the still life. Garnering submissions from around the world, the platform “has helped many creatives through the lockdown period and inspired their creativity.” And as for the future, both Zena and Tess hope they can transform the platform through different entities as it develops. So stay tuned with the abundantly bursting platform each week to see what the talented duo does next.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.