From the sounds of it, Marguerite Sauvage had a pretty idyllic upbringing, near the little town of Coulommiers, east of Paris. "I grew up in French countryside," she recalls, "among fields, cows and cheese." The image conjures up an enduring and distinctly French idea of how life should be. Unsurprisingly, the theme pervades her illustration work for her many clients, ranging from fashion house Paul & Joe to mobile telephone giant Orange. Her delicately pencilled characters inhabit a world of cut-out colours that seems unendingly sophisticated. For her part, Sauvage just wants to make the world a happier place. "Happiness and anti-stress: I just want to make things prettier," she says.
The most winning aspect of any Sauvage image is the lightness of touch the artist brings to her renderings. This is true even for items of everyday familiarity, be it a desk or a computer. By introducing cut-out photography, Sauvage gives the compositions in which these drawings sit a cheeky sense of self-awareness.
Oddly, though, Sauvage herself didn't learn to draw at art school. "I've drawn since I was a child," she says. "And as a teenager I even drew comics inspired by Japanese animation and European comics, such as those by Moebius (Jean Giraud) or Jean-Claude Forest." But when it came to university, she strangely opted for a course with a scientific bent. "I learned law and information-communication," she says. So, despite a history of publishing fanzines dedicated to her favourite anime, Sauvage decided to accept that the world of creative endeavour was unlikely to welcome her quite so fondly as the courthouse.
But, thankfully for her, it was not to be. "I only decided I must try something to do with my drawing when I finally graduated from university in 2001," explains Sauvage. Thankfully, during her studies she had not allowed her love of drawing to slip away. "It was something I wanted to explore because I was thinking I would eternally regret it if I didn't at least make an attempt."
Unsurprisingly, qualifications in law and journalism did little for Sauvage's artistic career. "It didn't prepare me for an illustrator's life and the administrative processes of living as a freelancer," she says. The need for personal discipline and a willingness to roll your accounting sleeves up at the end of the month are things you need to learn for yourself.
So where did she get the energy, the inspiration to keep going? "The encouragement of my friends and my passion for illustration and applied art," she says. Around this time, too, Sauvage was attempting to get to grips with exactly what it meant to be an illustrator - with what she calls the "artist" label. Having a clear shot at her dream demanded being practical on a day-to-day basis: "Being an illustrator is also being a kind of little individual enterprise with a difficult administrative burden."
Given that Sauvage didn't have the benefit of several years at art school, it's surprising to see how well she's coping with the commercial world. Does this in some way suggest that a degree in art or illustration won't help you become a professional? Possibly. "The hardest lesson I had to learn," admits Sauvage, "is that none of your images are 'yours'." She's right - with the obvious exception of a few personal pieces, your creative outpourings are invariably going to be the property of another. "Nevertheless, you're responsible for, and personally involved with, everything that will be published." You have to stand behind your work 100 per cent while at the same time acknowledging compromise.
This task is harder than it sounds, particularly if your work has a personal feel to it. Trying not to let the behind-the-scenes battle of wills creep into your brush strokes or pencil lines is a challenge. "Your images will be a long compromise between your professional and sensible illustrative taste and the needs and requests of the clients'," adds Sauvage. "Most of the time there are big contradictions between these two aspects."
Sauvage also grappled with the underlying nature of her work. This is where several years of study came in handy: "I didn't know the direction I wanted to go in," she says, but she was drawn forwards by the sheer energy of the creative impulse: "It was stronger than me," she says.
And now, with a solid style and a steady hand, the artist can look back and smile at what she's achieved. "At the beginning, I was full of influences. My line and style was not personal and my drawing skills not as good as they are now." Improving her skills was just a matter of determination and hard graft. For drawing in particular, there was only one way to improve - by drawing!
And then the first jobs started to materialise. "They were quite nice and funny," recalls Sauvage. But the most important thing was the desire to succeed: "Above all, I had the enthusiasm of the beginner." But there's one more ingredient required: the big break. "When you begin in illustration, you find that some publishers or artistic directors are happy to give beginners a chance, even if you're not very good."
The chances don't just keep on coming, though. Show promise and you get thrown the ball again. Drop that ball and pretty soon you'll be empty-handed - indefinitely. Sauvage took up the challenge with gusto, rapidly developing her trademark mixed-media approach and quickly attracting the attention of the upmarket brands.
The lure of the luxury market suggests that it might be a cut-throat world, but Sauvage hasn't experienced this side of the business. "If we're talking about genuinely cool names, trademarks or press magazines, I can say that the people you work with and talk to are just like you. Working as a small part of a much bigger process, they're not the only decision-makers."
People are people. "They can be cool, clever, ultra-competent, professional, or not," continues Sauvage. "It's just a question of who that particular human being turns out to be." There are no general rules. But if, on the other hand, we're talking about the "genius of creativity", then the story is different: "I've worked with people who have huge professional experience and creativity. That's instructive and mind-opening."
Intuitive work process
Today, when a new commission arrives, Sauvage has the confidence to let her intuition guide her. Finding the solution, she says, "depends on the emotional charge I want to put in an image and on the familiarity I have with the subject." Beyond that, there's only a fairly straightforward practical process: "Generally, when I get the brief, I just start making sketches." It doesn't get much leaner than that. "And when I find the right ones, I shift over to the computer to pull the composition together." Once the setting looks right, it's time for the finishing touches, where the artist adds graphic elements and colours.
Sauvage only began using a computer in 2001. Before then, when she speaks of illustration, she means drawing in the traditional sense. "I'd never touched a computer before then," she explains, "so it was a total discovery for me." However, the important thing is that it has become an adjunct rather than a replacement for her skill with the line and pencil.
The question presented by every new piece is how to mix the photographic, drawn and purely digital elements, and in what proportion. "I don't even know myself," laughs Sauvage. "Maybe when I 'feel' it. I just keep looking at the composition throughout."
The one thing that can't be compromised, no matter what, is the drawn element in Sauvage's work. "I always try to put a majority of hand-drawn elements in new pieces," she explains. This not only keeps the work personal but also ensures that its composition retains a direct connection with the real world.
No snapping to grids or resolution limitations are tolerated. "I ferociously want to preserve this 'handmade' part in my illustrations," says Sauvage. She's right to be so particular about this. As long as those skilful renderings of slightly fey youths in stylish attire continue to offer her special type of insight, they'll remain a deeply desirable commodity for the style-conscious brand.
But she's not resting on her laurels. Sauvage also loves animation. Having spent the first few years of her professional life getting to grips with the computer and gradually incorporating it into her workflow, there's now a shining new challenge on the technical horizon. "I'm totally fascinated by it," she says.
There's an element of the divine in there, she argues: "It's somehow like giving life to a character or a universe." There's just one problem standing in the way of a full-on move to motion: her lack of skills in that area. Until the software becomes easier, she says it will remain a tough job that only animators can do.
The illustrator still has a role in the process, though, like the concept artist in a movie production. The mood and character of a piece are often set before the first onionskin has been applied. And watching a gifted animator at work is a real eye-opener, says the artist: "I love working with them. Most of them are so gifted in drawing and illustration, too!"
But with so many new things to try, and a constantly growing list of clients waiting to see the results, Sauvage has had to accept that time is a finite resource: "I have so many personal projects on the go that I have to accept some will never happen!"
It's a difficult moment, realising that you're not going to be able to do everything you want. The upshot is that you have to decide in advance which dream project is likely to bear fruit. For Sauvage, that sense of focus is clear: "I'd like to draw a comic and also to create more projects linked to animation," she says. Fortunately, there's another solution. "I'm developing a creative studio with friends, called M.A+," she enthuses. The studio specialises in motion design: "We offer services and presentations for graphics, artistic direction and videos" When it comes to fulfilling her ambitions, it seems, Sauvage understands that working with others can reap even more rewards.