River Cousin on the simple pleasure of returning to the visual cues of childhood

The illustrator shares how the process of “return” has been an all-encompassing one, influencing both their personal life and the way in which they approach projects.

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Stylistically, illustrator River Cousin tells us that their work is always evolving. But, if there is one thing they’ve been particularly connecting with recently, it’s the visuals they grew up with. While they recognise that their long-standing love of surrealist landscapes and non-sensical objects was likely subconsciously influenced by their obsession with TV shows like Tom & Jerry and Scooby Doo, River has now actively been returning to their youth. In turn, they've become “less serious and more true to myself.” River reminisces: “I’m trying to get that same feeling little River had laying in front of their neon green telly watching VHS tapes of Looney Tunes every night, or sitting on the carpet secretly admiring a particular Spider Man toy for its beautiful muscles.”

Focusing on life’s simplest pleasures and earlier memories as creative inspiration is part of an all-encompassing process of “return” for the illustrator. Having moved around a fair amount since our last catch up in 2020, River is now back in their Croydon hometown, spending more time with their family and feeling more at one with their identity. “I feel more comfortable in myself, my gender identity and sexuality, and I’m surrounding myself more with people who lift me up and give me a sense of wholeness,” River says.

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River Cousin: Flower Pot (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2022)

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River Cousin: Grace (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2022)

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River Cousin: Spring 22' (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2022)

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River Cousin: Spring 22' (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2022)

This personal growth has had a “beautiful impact” on their work and practice, which they now see as a “best friend”. With solitude playing a major role in River’s ability to function and recharge, when they sit down to draw, they often find themselves able to “deal with certain emotions, experiences and ideas which aren’t so easily expressed in other ways”. Other days, however, their work is simply “as trivial as providing a distraction from everything that’s going on”.

“Returning” is a process that River (quite literally) applies in their creative work. Love as the End of Sound is a piece that stands out in River’s portfolio; while still recognisable as one of theirs, it has more of naturalistic (albeit still surreal) composition. It was also a piece that River describes as “a constant struggle but worth staying with for some reason”. Setting themselves a high challenge of capturing the dark surreality of dreams and conveying a sense of the numinous in the divine, River ended up repeatedly abandoning the piece. It was only after having a “really special” dream and returning to work a year after it had last been touched that it finally clicked. “Finally tying it together was the best bit,” River explains.

GalleryRiver Cousin: Sunrise2 (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2022)

Another welcome development for River has been receiving commissions, in which they see their creative preferences and choices being valued as much as the clients. “I love being given free-range over a project, but trust is a big part of that,” River expands. One such project is their work with Chobani Probiotic, a favourite commission of the illustrator's, with directors Will Mac and John Vetter collaborating closely with River. Attempting to figure out a magical realist quality and dimension – all the while having the product sit comfortably in the scene – was no mean feat. River tells us that it came far from naturally. “To get these hyperreal crisp images, my instinct was always to throw in loads of layers and heavy shading for each element,” River details. “So the biggest challenge for me was unlearning that and taking on a ‘less is more’ approach, using only two or three layers for most elements.” The final designs, with gradient hues and delectable looking lemons is a probiotic treat for the eyes.

When we last spoke to River they discussed a personal project focussing on death and grief. Having finally taken the form of a riso book, it will be published this coming spring. They’re also currently co-directing a short film with their friend Iso Attrill, featuring animations from Rowena Lloyd. The film has pushed the illustrator to toy with the idea of pursuing creative direction, as “it’s been really fun having a more hands-on approach to the project as opposed to sitting behind the screen”. But, in the meantime, they're continuing to make art that brings them “comfort and joy” – “I'm trying not to think too far ahead."

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River Cousin: Chobani Probiotic (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2020)

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River Cousin: African Podcasters (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2022)

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River Cousin: By Pleasure (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2020)

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River Cousin: By Pleasure (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2020)

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River Cousin: Lava La Rue Hi-Fidelity (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2022)

River Cousin: Sorayama Butterfly (Copyright © River-Cousin, 2021)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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