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meet cass urquhart, the artist behind the 2021 frankie diary

If you've been itching to leave 2020 behind, you've probably heard by now that the 2021 frankie diary and calendar are here (if not, have a peek inside over this-a-way). The creative whizz behind our new bird-themed diary is of course none other than artist Cass Urquhart, whose works have been featured in the pages of frankie throughout the years. To find out how Cass came up with a book full of glorious avian illustrations, we stopped by her lovely studio space for a chat and good ol' sticky beak.Hi Cass! First, a little about you – how long have you been working as an artist? I’m probably like many other creatives in that my artistic career path has not been very straightforward. I’ve been working on and off in visual arts since I was about 18-years-old. I’ve been through a lot of different phases of work, study and small business since then, including jewellery-making and kids art workshops, fine art, graphic design and textile design. I became an occupational therapist at one point and also tried the corporate life along the way, but something always keeps drawing me back to creative arts.

I discovered illustration around 2005 while studying printmaking and drawing at university. I used to love sitting in the library and looking through the American Illustration annuals, which were these big books filled with all the best illustration from around the world that year. I remember thinking that I didn’t have the skills or ability to be an actual illustrator, but I loved admiring other people’s work. Eventually I went on to study graphic design and began incorporating drawing into my design work. I started doing some small illustration jobs like band posters, t-shirt designs and stuff like that and gradually built skills from there. 

How would you describe your illustration style? I have a bit of an eclectic range of styles, which vary from super-realistic to playful and naïve. I think what ties it all together is a love of colour, texture and detail.

What initial references did you use when you began illustrating the 2021 frankie diary? When I first read that the brief was for a bird-watching journal, my inner geek was beyond thrilled! I immediately thought about the Australian Brownies and also Wes Anderson movies like Moonrise Kingdom. These two ideas heavily influenced the typography, illustration style, patterns and colour palette for the diary. I also made myself a soundtrack for the project to try and channel the psyche of an avid bird-watching enthusiast or diligent Brownie. Songs included ’70s acoustic classics, as well as some ’90s psychedelic indie tracks and twee songs from the naughties – all were bird-related or nature-inspired in some way.

Can you describe your workspace? All of the patterns and illustrations were created in my home studio space in Melbourne. I live in a small Federation cottage and my studio is in the spare bedroom. It’s a cosy little space with white walls, lots of natural light and a fireplace. There is usually a fair bit of mess and lots of unfinished painting, sewing or crochet projects on the floor. 

What do you do to take breaks when working on a large project like this? I love to get outside for exercise and fresh air whenever possible. During this project, I went for walks around the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Merri Creek Trail in Melbourne. I had fun foraging for twigs, feathers and leaves to take back to my studio and use as references for the pattern illustrations.

Which snacks are we most likely to find on your desk while you’re drawing? I try to eat healthy snacks to keep concentration up throughout the day. I usually have homemade protein balls or muffins, fruit and crackers. Obviously tea, coffee and biscuits are also essential.

Do you have a favourite bird from the diary? I have a soft spot for the budgies; I just love their kitschy, cute colouring.

Did you learn any surprising bird facts while illustrating? So many! I learnt that magpies can recognise human faces, tawny frogmouths are not owls, and that pretty much all birds are terrified of kookaburras (because they eat other birds). I’m still shocked on that last fact.

You also illustrated the cover of our 2021 calendar. Tell us about the inspiration behind that lovely image. I made that painting at the beginning of the year during an editorial illustration class. The word ‘optimism’ was given as a prompt for the first project and I began to contemplate what this concept really meant to me. I was coming out of a difficult experience at the time, which had left me feeling emotionally depleted, and I had lost my sense of self. Yet optimism is all about knowing who you are, trusting in life’s course and choosing to believe that something good might happen even when you know that things are actually very bad. After reflecting on all of these ideas, this image came out onto the page. I think it’s partly a self-portrait, but I hope it’s something others can relate to as well. It was painted pre-COVID so it’s a bit strange how it foreshadowed the challenging year of 2020 that was to come.

Five songs Cass enjoyed while making the 2021 diary:

  1. I’m A Cuckoo - Belle & Sebastian  
  2. (What A) Wonderful World - Sam Cooke
  3. Birdhouse in Your Soul - They Might Be Giants
  4. Push th’ Little Daisies - Ween
  5. Lady Bird - Jon Brion

To pick up the 2021 frankie diary and calendar, pop by the frankie shop or find a stockist near you.