Sitting in her home in Barcelona, Catalina Estrada admits: "I never thought I could make a living out of illustration." She is now doing just that. Casually discussing how brands such as Coca-Cola, Sony and Paul Smith are all after her vibrant, sweet and enchanting drawings, it's hard to imagine that the savvy Estrada was once a little girl growing up in the Colombian countryside.
So, how exactly did Catalina Estrada go from South American school kid, living miles from the nearest city of Medellín, to in-demand European-based illustrator and successful exhibiting artist? Well, through a rather contradictory mix of studying and travelling, grafting and resting, volunteering and promoting herself.
Like many design hopefuls, Estrada kick-started her creative adult life by studying graphic design at her local university, Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. "I enjoyed graphic design a lot," she says, "but I always really liked illustration. So, while studying, I was doing editorial illustrations for magazines - more than graphic design itself. I would split my time between working and studying." After graduating in the late-90s, Estrada continued her freelance illustration work and also launched into her career as a graphic designer. So far, so predictable.
But, after a year or so, Estrada took the unexpected decision to leave everything behind. "I was a little bit tired of graphic design and the clients. It's not as nice when you work for other people, especially in Colombia where there is almost never the budget that you wish for your project," she nonchalantly, yet sweetly, says.
"It was a difficult time; difficult to get clients and difficult to get people to value your projects." Her solution was, quite simply, to move to Paris and study French, "Because I was spending tons of hours in front of the computer and becoming like a machine instead of a person. I was working like crazy. So I decided just to disconnect a little bit."
Estrada's "disconnection" led her to move to Paris in 1998 where she took a six-month language course. Although the intention was to learn French - "and nothing else" - she soon found that her love of art could not be contained and started drawing again, "just for my own pleasure". Estrada's renewed interest encouraged her to move to Barcelona in 1999 so she could pursue a course in illustration that had been recommended to her.
"I was only planning to be in Barcelona for a couple of months before going back to Colombia," she recalls. Alongside the illustration course, the keen artist also found a "beautiful public art school for fine arts" (the Escola Llotja) and, pointing to her previous educational achievements, managed to join the third year of a five-year course, where she specialised in lithography. "I spent lots of time drawing. Although I hadn't planned to stay that long, I was feeling comfortable in the city, was doing what I liked and decided to keep on going."
It wasn't all boho-Barcelona, however. Even art students need some cash. And so, finding it a "big pressure" and "difficult to make a living out of art" - especially when the galleries at the time favoured abstract work over her more figurative creations - Estrada returned to her computer.
Once more hoisting her metaphorical free lance, the Colombian soon found work from a world completely alien to her rural roots. As seems to be the case with a lot of rising Spanish designers, she was warmly embraced by the Barcelona club scene.
"I was very lucky to start getting projects for club nights," says Estrada, in slight bewilderment. "I don't listen to DJs that frequently, but it was a graphic world that allowed me to create explosions of colours. It was great because it meant I could do illustration mixed with graphic design, which is what I really like."
It was at this time that the burgeoning artist also started to use her skills to do volunteer work. Developing the illustrations and graphic design for cards to be sold on behalf of a couple of charity projects in her homeland - one a foundation developing opportunities for kids in the Colombian countryside, the other a healthcare charity for children suffering from AIDS - allowed Estrada to put lots of emotion into doing exactly what she wanted.
"I think that work was the biggest step for me because I started creating my own graphic language," she adds. "When you work for a client, and your graphic language is not very developed, then you will always end up doing what the client wants. You never find out what you really want. In these projects, I could do what I wanted and it was great. I was doing art through illustration, through the computer, and that was it. I was very happy with the results."
So happy, in fact, that she started to send her charity illustrations to different blogs, websites and publishers, "which brought lots of good things", namely a number of requests from magazines, books and clients.
The turning point came when Estrada's work was accepted and printed in Grafik magazine and a book by Germany's Die Gestalten Verlag. "My life started changing after that," she emphasises. "The best advice I have is to try to get work published by good publishers. They've brought me lots of exposure and most of my best clients."
For "best clients" read - both past, present and future - illustrations for a limited edition range of Coca-Cola bottles in Australia; designs for a women's range of Salomon skis; album artwork for a Sony solo artist in Taiwan; greeting cards for 1973; a book cover for Oxford University Press; not to mention the recent spate of requests from fashion brands such as Custo in Spain, Anunciaao in Brazil and Paul Smith in the UK.
"Things keep coming from completely different areas," adds Estrada, happily. And, due to the diverse worlds she finds herself moving in, there's no set way to approach a project. "I really, really enjoy each new project that comes to me. I feel like I have the freedom to do what I want." The thing that ties it all together is everyone's desire for her colourful, dreamy fusion of Latin American folklore and nature, subtle European modernism and Japanese-inspired manga-esque stylings.
And while the latter of the three can be explained by Estrada's father working for Japanese companies for over 25 years, it's Estrada's formative experiences in the countryside that really make her tick. Sure, as she says: "Inspiration can come from anywhere, colour palettes, fabric or a vintage curtain," but her "number one is nature".
"I don't have that contact with nature that I had during my childhood," she explains. "I miss the trees and flowers. Every time I go back to Colombia, I go crazy looking at the gardens; everything is so green, so many different kinds of flowers, leaves, textures, everything. It's amazing."
With her love of beautiful scenery equally loved by her clients, it seems Estrada's illustrations have reached their natural conclusion. "It's come to a point where if a client approaches me, it's because they already know my graphic language. It's very comfortable. It's very enjoyable. And it gives me time to combine illustration with my personal art pieces."
Love of art
Yes, even now, Estrada is still enamoured with art. "It's something that I don't want to leave," she says. Having already chalked up five group exhibitions and four solo shows, she is in little danger of that. Being an artist is a tough gig but Estrada makes it sound easy.
"Art was something I really wanted to do from the beginning," she says, with passion. "Once I approached it in a different way and started doing it because I wanted to, not because I had to make a living, then I began to do everything and anything, no matter if it would sell or not. Only then did I get an exhibition." That first show gave Estrada the opportunity to demonstrate her unique style. For her, the place didn't matter. It was all about what she did with it. As well as displaying her work, she decorated the walls with paint, beautiful wallpaper and murals to stamp her identity on the space. "You may have beautiful pieces but sometimes people cannot picture your ideas," she explains. "It's very important you show them. You cannot tell them, they have to see with their eyes."
The ever-enterprising Estrada was then able to go to other galleries with photographs of her small show in hand and persuade them to showcase her work. This approach has resulted in exhibitions at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York, Iguapop in Barcelona (to be followed by inclusion in the city's SWAB - Barcelona International Contemporary Art Fair this May) and, this November, La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles.
So, ultimately, does Catalina Estrada consider herself an artist or an illustrator? "It's good for me to combine both things," comes the reply. "One could not exist without the other. My illustrations allow me to do my art without having to think about paying the rent. It gives me the freedom to do whatever I like. I would get bored if I focused on one or the other. Art is refreshing. Illustration is my source for living."