06 Jan The Illustrated Life Of Alexandra Nea
Alexandra Nea is living proof that a childhood passion can turn into a full-time career. From showcasing her collections at MBFW and being stocked in Selfridges in London and Elizabeth Charles in New York, to having her illustrations published in a variety of Australian magazines such as Delicious, Harper’s BAZAAR, White and Bride to Be, Alex is living any artist’s dream.
CHILD Magazines, Jenna Templeton chats to Alexandra about being a full-time artist and mother, the challenges she faced starting her own business and her love for antiques and botanicals.
I’ve been illustrating since my mother put a pencil in my hand, at two or three years old. Growing up, I always had a sketchbook on the go and filled it with my musings. From primary school, I did after-school art classes and took as many units of art as I possibly could during high school. At college, I took fashion and life drawing classes and I’ve also done a botanical illustration course. However, I think my illustrating just comes from within. My style is constantly evolving – I look back at some of my past work and can see where I’ve matured in my style and fine tuned my eye for certain details and techniques.
I studied Fashion at East Sydney Technical College, graduating with an Advanced Diploma in Fashion Design. Straight out of college, I started my own label, Alexandra Nea, and did showings at Sydney and Melbourne fashion week, selling to boutiques and department stores from Sydney to Melbourne, London, New York, Singapore and Dubai. After three years working like a mad woman on my own, I was in danger of burning out and wasn’t even 23 years old. The opportunity came to move to London and I made the very hard decision to put my label on hold while I went to live abroad. While I was in London, I worked as a womenswear designer at Ted Baker. It was a massive shock to the system, being a small cog in a massive machine that churned out high street fashion.
Upon returning to Sydney a few years later, the fashion scene had changed. The GFC loomed, so restarting my little label was probably not the smartest move in that economic climate. Instead, I worked for the remainder of my twenties as a Senior Fashion Designer for Collette Dinnigan and then Little Joe Woman. Marriage, mortgages, fur babies and renovations followed! During this time I rediscovered my love of illustrating. Combining my passion for drawing, collecting vintage china and baking, I started up my blog, The Art of Afternoon Tea.
After Sam came along, I knew it was time for a change. The job I was in wasn’t challenging enough for me; I was feeling creatively stale and needed a significant sea change. The jolt that motherhood gave me was incredible! My inspirations starting flowing and I found myself excited about the prospects that lay ahead of me. I knew my future involved pencils and paper, but I’m still figuring out where exactly that’ll take me. So, no more 9 to 5 for me; I now work all sorts of crazy freelance hours around being a mother to Sam. I say yes to every opportunity that comes my way and try my best to fit it all in. I love every moment of the journey. Having left the fashion world behind and now starting from scratch in a brand new industry, I have to work from nothing to build my brand. It’s very competitive and all about who you know and when you’re just starting out that’s fairly challenging. However, I’d say being older with a little life experience behind me, I’m gutsier and not afraid to put myself out there to see what will come my way, something I don’t think I did very well in my twenties. I’m not afraid to take knocks and rejection anymore and have realised that if the path you want is not there, there’s nothing stopping you but yourself from forging it into existence.
My illustration style is whimsical and romantic, with attention paid to the finer details. I have a love of collecting antiques, be it furniture, crockery or textiles and fashion. I have a soft spot for that mystical bygone era where people sat down to afternoon tea and chatted away the hours over a steaming brew (without an iPhone in sight!). I’m drawn to objects that are original and have a story to tell.
My home is a mix of all the styles I love, from chinoiserie to Australian country antiques, as well as 1950s Scandinavian design. My personal style depends on what I’m doing that day. If I’m at home in the studio I have to be comfortable, in old jeans and sweaters. If I’m heading out, I dress to what the occasions calls for. I like to have fun with fashion.
I work from home. We’ve converted the front bedroom of our home into a studio and bike room for my husband. My work space is the front room of our home, with lovely natural light streaming through the window – perfect for creating. I have two desks piled high with everything within arms reach. My pencils, paper, art books and inspiration boards surround me. My favourite element of my studio is that I now have a place to display all my vintage tins, which house all my pencils and are stacked on display in an old wooden pigeon hole chest.
I love working from home and having everything at my fingertips. Working such odd hours, I need to be able to just open the doors and get straight into it when and where the opportunities allow me. For me, my most important tools and materials to work with are pencils and paper. To be more specific, I love using my Faber-Castell Polychromos coloured pencils, a traditional HB pencil, a PVC-free eraser and Arches Watercolour 300gsm Smooth paper.
When Samuel goes down for a nap, I switch to instant work mode. Evenings are often spent with a pencil and paper in hand. Sam also spends some time with his grandparents each week, giving me some much needed full days of productivity. He’s about to start daycare, so I’m sure I won’t know myself with several full days a week where I can get creative! A typical day for me involves answering email queries, sending quotes, drafting up concepts for clients, putting the finishing touches to commission works, photographing latest works and updating my website, and working on my own concepts for future projects.
What I love most about being an artist is the lifestyle it’s given me. I’m so lucky to be able to work my days around being a mother to Sam. I have to work crazy hours, but when the creative juices are flowing and you’re getting stuck into a project, it doesn’t matter what the clock says. It all comes down to what I can put in as to what I get out the other side; if I don’t make the effort, I won’t see the rewards.
What inspires me is seeing the beauty in objects, watching how the light bounces off things and imagining how I could break down that moment and capture it in illustration.
Intricate craftsmanship will never cease to inspire me, be it furniture, textiles, fashion or art. Frida Kahlo has always been a great inspiration. Her story is remarkable – such a strong, passionate woman who painted so beautifully. Every time I see the work of impressionist artist Claude Monet, I want to put aside my pencils and dust off my paints and brushes. I have aspirations that in retirement I’ll have a massive studio filled with natural light where I can while away the days painting large landscapes. That’ll be another stage of my career, still to come!
People often say parenthood changed them. Do you feel that’s true for you?
Definitely. You instantly start to put yourself second and you realise nothing else matters except the happiness of your little person, as absolutely trying as that can be sometimes. Nothing in my life to date has been as challenging and rewarding at the same time as parenthood. It can have you banging your head and screaming into a pillow with frustration, impatience, anger and tiredness. In the next moment, your little person smiles and the tears and tantrums are forgotten as they wrap their arms around your neck and you’re filled with love and the fiercest desire to protect your little one at all costs. Sam has opened my eyes to the world again; it’s such a thrill to watch him discovering it all for the first time.
We’re all about celebrating Australian motherhood and creativity at CHILD Magazines’ – what does it mean to you to be an Australian creative, who’s also a mother?
Coming home from stints overseas makes you realise how lucky we are to live in Australia. All around our country there are people making a success out of their talents. It’s very inspiring to see. For me, Sam came along at just the right time to kick-start a new career direction in my life. Having the lifestyle we have in Australia has allowed me the opportunities to explore my creative talents and push my boundaries, and to be able to constantly strive and seek for more as an artist.
Alexandra Nea, 34, is a Sydney based illustrator and is married to her high school sweetheart James. She’s mother to son Samuel, 2, and Maggie the crazy chocolate labbie. You can see more of Alexandra’s beautiful illustrations via her website and shop and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
Interview by Jenna Templeton / Images by Sophie O’Donnell