V&A Dundee

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VADvent 2018: creating a Christmas mural

In 2017, our #VADvent Instagram project saw 24 designers tackle one door each. This time one person illustrated the whole thing. Artist Nicole Sangster explores her process, from where to begin to wanting it to end, and everything in between.

Continuing their #VADvent tradition, the team at V&A Dundee asked me to produce this year’s festive Instagram offering. Using an advent calendar as inspiration, the concept for this project was to post a different door each day on the museum’s Instagram page between 1 and 24 December, counting down to Christmas Day. While last year hid sneak peeks and progress highlights behind beautifully designed doors, with the museum now open there were so many directions in which to take this piece of work.

With the task set out in front of me, my imagination went into overdrive. The timescale was tight, so I went straight to Pinterest for some festive inspiration. The brief was open: encompass Christmas, Dundee and the museum and create a flowing mural made up of smaller scenes that would eventually reveal the overall picture piece by piece, day by day.

three images in a row: two on either end depict a colourful wintery scene outside and a house with its walls cutaway so you can the inside, featuring people having a festive time. The middle image is a simple sketch of Nicole's design for the VADvent calendar.
Nicole's sketch of the cutaway idea, with some Pinterest inspiration on either side

I wanted it to incorporate everything that comes to mind when you think of Christmas. With 24 separate squares to fill I knew I wouldn’t be tight for space. I began with a few rough sketches of different options for the overall piece, showing what it could look like and how each option would be divided up amongst the squares.

The digital team and I looked through them and considered which one worked best and which we preferred. We all agreed on going with the approach inspired by an illustration of a cut-away house with people milling about doing lots of festive things. With the reveal of the interior of the museum building having been such a high point in the museum’s opening in September, it felt like a great way to celebrate its unique design.

Idea sorted, I knew that making it a reality was going to be the hardest part of this whole project. I knew that the different visual perspectives portrayed in the drawing were going to be challenging; I was going to have to take a lot of creative liberties with some of my design to make it work.

A black and white line illustration of the finished the VADvent piece featuring V&A Dundee in a cutaway style with both inside and outside festive scenes. The image is very much higher than it is wide.
The finished, uncoloured outline of Nicole's final VADvent piece

I decided the picture would start with a snowy scene outside V&A Dundee with people playing in the snow and ice-skating on the pools. Moving up through the image, the scene would then move into the museum atrium bustling with people having festive fun. The top of the picture would show the night sky, featuring Santa and his reindeer.

The most time-consuming part of the sketching process was creating lots of different looking characters. It’s easy enough to draw a person but trying to make lots of people in the same picture look different to one another is a challenge: it’s hard not to repeat yourself. As I drew, and the picture started to come to life square by square, I surprised myself with how it was coming along. The best part of the sketching stage is coming up with ideas, trying them out and playing about with the composition. Coming up with different ways to incorporate the advent numbers into each square was fun, even though it was sometimes difficult to find a fitting place for them.

I started the advent calendar in the middle of November, giving me only two and a half weeks to have a good percentage of the advent calendar complete and ready for posting on Instagram. The time pressure meant I didn’t have as much time to experiment or play with alternative ideas. Once something had been drawn, it was more or less set in stone. This was a challenge but also meant there wasn’t time for me to second guess myself. I finished sketching the outlines a week later and, satisfied with the layout and completed design, it was time to add colour.

Colouring a picture is a whole different challenge. A sketch is just that: a sketch. It doesn’t have to define the final look. Adding colour completely changes the aesthetic of a piece, so sticking to a style that fits can be hard. I decided that by using the same brush in Photoshop for all of the outlines and painting it would bring the piece together, ensuring nothing looked out of place or out of style. The brush I used looked like bleeding ink; the lines and edges were imperfect and retained a sketchy look.

Screengrab of the VADvent illustration in progress, so some areas of the illustration are smple, clean black and white drawings while others are fully coloured and textured. In one of the areas, a groupe of different coloured patches show the palette Nicole chose to make the colouring work across the whole large image.
Screengrab of Nicole's VADvent piece in progress

A big thing to consider when colouring such a large piece is palette. To be sure that my colour choices harmonised, contrasted well with one another and didn’t clash, I created a colour palette before I began. My choices were inspired by Christmas presents under the tree: I wanted bold but deep colours that would stand out, the kind you see people wear in the winter or in festive shop displays. I chose jewel tones which were a nice contrast against the snowy scene outside.

Throughout this large piece of work, I came across many things that I hadn’t thought about painting before. Snow was a big challenge. For something that’s all white, illustrating distinct areas required small variations of colour to achieve light, shadows and depth. Similarly, I had never painted clouds in such detail before, so that required perseverance to get them looking right.

Finding colours that suited the interior of the building was difficult too. In reality, the walls of the museum are white and the floor is a shiny black limestone, not colours you want to use much of in a colourful illustration. I took a lot of creative liberty and went for neutral tones that complimented the rest of the picture but still brought out the warmth of the building and the festivities inside.

Screengrab of the VADvent illustration in progress, so some areas of the illustration are smple, clean black and white drawings while others are fully coloured and textured. In one of the areas, a groupe of different coloured patches show the palette Nicole chose to make the colouring work across the whole large image.
Screengrab of Nicole's VADvent piece in progress

Colouring was a much more time-consuming process than simply sketching things out, especially on this kind of scale. Once I was in the flow of repeatedly drawing over the same things, I was surprised that it became a little tedious. This is the biggest piece of work I’ve completed so far, and I began to understand why animation companies often have such a large workforce! By the time I was halfway through painting, my hand was sore from holding the pen every day, five days a week. As I neared the end of the project, it felt like I’d been working on it forever; I said more than once that I wouldn’t draw again for at least a month after finishing it.

With a piece of work like this, anxiety and the second guessing of the work you did in the beginning rears its head, as you feel your skill has already improved in that time. But because I was still working on the painting once it had already started to appear on Instagram, there was no going back. As the calendar started to be posted and more people started to see it, I was approached about turning it into a Christmas card for the museum too. Although a certain level of anxiety never goes away when creating work, it boosted my confidence at the perfect time. And it was great to bring the design to print as well; now it wasn’t a digital-only piece, but a physical one too.

This entire project was a huge learning experience for me: it allowed me to flex my skills and learn what I was capable of, especially when working on a design challenge with a range of constraints. I put my heart into making this #VADvent calendar the best it could be. It was important for me to make it inclusive and consider ideas from a range of people in the organization and to create it something I could be proud of. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to produce this work and share it with all of V&A Dundee’s followers at Christmas.

A fully coloured illustration of the finished the VADvent piece featuring V&A Dundee in a cutaway style with both inside and outside festive scenes. The image is very much higher than it is wide.
The finished coloured VADvent piece

Nicole Sangster is a Computer Arts graduate from Abertay University and joined V&A Dundee’s Digital team in September 2018. Following her internship, Nicole was commissioned to create the #VADvent piece.