Painter & Illustrator
Our September influencer, Katy Smail, really does it all. She writes, paints, illustrates, art directs and is a mom. Besides being extremely talented and Scottish, we also know she’s brave, because she confessed that she used to be on Myspace! Read about this amazing artist and tea lover and for a moment of sereniTEA, imagine yourself sitting with Katy enjoying a cuppa and the Scottish landscape. Ahhh.
Harney: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, educational background, where you live, family, etc.
Katy: I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and grew up in the countryside, just south of Edinburgh, with my parents and three younger brothers. After high school, I went to Edinburgh College of Art where I studied for my degree in Illustration. Once I graduated, I moved briefly to London and then to Brooklyn where I lived for 10 years before moving back to the UK in 2018. I am currently based in Scotland again where I make art and live with my husband and one-year-old son.
Harney: What did you love most about growing up in Scotland?
Katy: Looking back, we were so lucky to be surrounded by wild fields and forests where we could run around and play make-believe. I think that the moody, ragged beauty of the landscape has really influenced me and my art.
Harney: You started your career as a fashion writer and illustrator in London. Tell us about the beginning of your career.
Katy: I always loved magazines and fashion and, although I had studied illustration, I felt that the visual side of that industry was just another kind of storytelling. Writing was something I always enjoyed and felt like a natural companion to drawing, so I started to look into freelance writing for magazines and blogs, first in London and then in NYC. I loved helping to plan the shoots and reporting from fashion week. It all felt very exciting and creative and glamorous even though I was mainly broke, working in restaurants and writing for free.
Harney: What drew you (intentional illustrator joke) to New York City? What was your first job there? What do you love about New York?
Katy: Ha. I had studied for a semester at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) when I was 19 and would visit a friend who was living in NYC. I just fell deeply in love with the city and became obsessed with moving there! I was ambitious and restless and wanted to be right there, in the middle of all of that manic, magic energy. My first job was waiting tables at Five Leaves in Brooklyn where I met all of my NYC family. I was always drawing on the side, taking on small illustration jobs and collaborating with other artists and writers. I was 23 and just so happy to be there. It was such a happy time; making friends, going out, drawing, walking for miles around the city. I love the sense of community in New York, the feeling of support and magic and fun I found in the midst of what is an objectively hard place to live.
Harney: Why did you make the decision to return to London? What is your life like there now?
Katy: I was homesick and tired of being in a different time zone to my family. My husband and I wanted to have a baby, and we wanted to do that here in the UK, where I would have my mum for support and we could build a life for our new family. I had 10 happy years in New York and hope to always be back and forth visiting for work and friends, but I was ready for a change of pace. Life has been a bit upside down since we arrived in the UK – we had our baby and then the pandemic hit which changed everything, of course. When work opportunities in cities were put on hold, it made us reassess priorities and it no longer made sense for us to be scraping to pay expensive London rent. We recently moved up to Scotland to be closer to family and closer to the hills and trees. While the world feels uncertain, I wanted to slow down and concentrate on making art and being with my son.
Harney: It seems your artistic abilities are limitless. You’re an illustrator. A painter. You’ve been a writer. Where did your interest in art come from?
Katy: That’s very kind, thank you! To me, they all feel related, part of the same world. I enjoy the variety, and the way that different types of projects relate to each other but need different skills. My mum is very creative, and I always liked drawing but never felt particularly good at it when I was young. I was more focused on writing and academics at school, until I had a wonderful art teacher when I was around 15. She gave me confidence and helped to nurture a seed that was sitting in me. Something was switched on, and from then on I only wanted to be an artist. Teachers are so important! I’m very grateful for her.
Harney: You also do art direction. How did you branch into that form of creating art? What do you like about getting out from behind the canvas or paper?
Katy: From the beginning of my career I was working around the edges of fashion – the writing, working with fashion magazines and then I started collaborating with photographers who needed illustrators. My husband is a photographer, and we would collaborate on projects together. I was art directing for him before I realized what it was, it just felt really natural and I loved it. It felt exciting to be able to create in a completely different medium. Painting and drawing is so solitary, so it always feels so good to be on set, and part of a team. It’s a completely different energy, and I love the balance of both.
Harney: The list of the companies you’ve done work for is too long to list. Target. Macy’s. Saks Fifth Avenue. Harper Collins. Anthropologie. St. Regis Hotels. Barneys. Truly, the list goes on and on. Any favorite projects?
Katy: Thank you. Any project where I can paint flowers is usually my favorite! I loved doing the book cover for Harper Collins because I am such a bookworm. I have loved all of my art direction projects that have allowed me to collaborate with friends.
Harney: In addition to your beautiful paintings, which you offer on commission, you also create one-of-a-kind bespoke stationery-- as your website says, “thoughtful, hand-drawn designs which capture the magic of your beautiful day, personally tailored to tell your story.” What inspired you to create these personalized masterpiece keepsakes?
Katy: I was already taking on private painting commissions - florals, mainly, which I love - and had done a couple of wedding invitations for friends. It was nice to be able to be a part of their excitement and joy. I wanted to be able to offer that option to people, to have something personalized and special to keep forever. Also, I just love stationery!
Harney: You’ve also illustrated a book called (S)mythology, a YA novel written by Jeremy Tarr. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it “A magnificent synergy of art and writing.” Tell us about the book and how this partnership came about.
Katy: This is going to date me, but I actually met Jeremy through a mutual friend on Myspace. He is a wonderful writer, and I adored his universe immediately. We shared an aesthetic and started collaborating together, with me illustrating his short stories. I loved working on (S)mythology, it was such a gift to lose myself in that magical world for a while.
Harney: You draw and paint everything from abstract florals to animals to portraits. Where do you find your inspiration? Do you have a favorite médium?
Katy: I am inspired by the female body and the natural world; wild flowers and wild women. I am drawn to the relationship between women and botanicals, and the ways both exist in a world made for, and by, men. I am interested in the value that society places (or does not place) on feminine energy -- softness, beauty, feelings... I think female energy and the power of women can save the world.... Gouache paint is my favourite medium. I love the looseness of paint, and the vivid pigments of gouache in particular. Colour is so important to me for capturing energy. Sometimes I prefer to abandon form altogether and just work with impressions of colour and mood.
Harney: Any words of inspiration to aspiring artists? Tips on how to stick with it when the going is tough, or how to find and listen to your muse?
Katy: Keep drawing! Keep making art – for yourself, even when no one will pay you. It’s not always easy, and I worked in restaurants for years so don’t be disheartened if paid work doesn’t come along right away. It takes time. Find other things in your life that support your wellbeing when the going is tough. Collaborate and find a community of other artists. And know when to step away and take a break – I have found that sometimes I need to just go and be in the world for a while and then come back to the studio when I feel inspired again.
Harney: Let’s talk about tea! What role does tea play in your life? Do you have any rituals?
Katy: I love tea! Since I had my son, I need a strong cup of black tea with milk first thing in the morning – it’s the only way I can cope when he wants to start the day at 5am… I am a big fan of herbal medicine, and herbal infusions have helped me with so many things in my life. I blend my own medicinal loose-leaf teas throughout the day – different each day depending on what my body and mind need.
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea (or anything on your list to try?)
Katy: I love your ginger tea, so strong and warming! I miss my morning matcha from my favourite NYC spots, so I’m excited to try the Harney & Sons matcha at home. Also, of course I am interested in your Scottish blends!
Want to see more of Katy’s work? Visit her website and see her work on Instagram. We appreciate her offer to come visit her in Scotland anytime we’d like (well, she didn’t actually say that, but we’re sure she’d love to have us!) and her time spent sharing her life with us. All photography was provided by Katy.