Meet the Illustrator – Thea Welsford

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This article first appeared in the May / June 2023 issue of Style of Wight magazine.

For many a year, we’ve seen the distinctive and playful designs of local illustrator and designer Thea Welsford springing up all over the place — from the stylish Ventnor Fringe programme to printed materials for London’s biggest independent beer maker: Forest Road Brewery. Working under the ‘pencil name’ of Ada May, whatever the topic, her sketchy style never fails to impress, with its vibrant colours and magical ability to make you feel more cheerful. Now a resident of the artistic and multicultural neighbourhood of St Pauls in Bristol, we thought it was high time to get better acquainted with this talented Island-born creative.

Photo Credit: Luke and Ash Nesbitt

“I grew up in Ventnor, the eldest of four siblings, actually in a house just opposite the Style of Wight office, with a breath-taking sea view from the windows! My dad’s mum was Swiss, the daughter of Swiss hoteliers. She met my grandfather in London before moving to the Island in the 60s when my dad was very young, and they ran The Hollies Tea Room in Godshill. Growing up, we always had a lot of beautiful Swiss homeware and knick-knacks like fondue pots and embroidered linens, which inspired one of my more personal illustrations.”

Leafing through Thea’s work, we soon find her Swiss-themed design, featuring Alpine cows, Swiss army knives, and the national flower of Switzerland: the edelweiss. Laid out in a satisfying repeat pattern, it’s no surprise this design ended up on a cushion. Asked about her motivation, Thea explains: “I created it for my parents, who both love the country, and I wanted to create a pattern that was typical of the kind of thing you’d see on their traditional linen, but with my own twist too.”

“I’ve always had a love for drawing and craft ever since I was very little, but I didn’t really think about it as a career path until later on in school. My high school art teacher Karen Sunderland was a big influence, taking us on trips to London galleries. I also had an early love for fashion, getting Vogue magazine and looking at the couture pieces as art. It inspired me to begin writing and illustrating the style pages for our school magazine, also sparking my interest in magazines and publishing.”

Following on from school, Thea’s journey to becoming an illustrator took a few twists and turns along the way. With a view to doing something fashion-focused, she enrolled for a foundation year at the University of the Creative Arts in Surrey, but soon realised that illustration and design were a bigger passion. That same year, she would also co-found the first-ever Ventnor Fringe festival (planning the event over pints at the Crab and Lobster Tap alongside Mhairi Macaulay and Jack Whitewood), giving her the opportunity to sharpen her pencils and design both the posters and the festival programme. “I applied to a few unis to do illustration but actually didn’t get into any of the ones I wanted, so I ended up applying to do a BA in Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Arts through clearing, getting offered a place based on the designs I’d made for Ventnor Fringe.”

“Camberwell was great, the course was very creative and not what you’d typically think of for a graphic design degree. It was rooted in fine art and creative thinking rather than overly commercial design. Living in South London was really exciting, and I loved being around all the different cultures and trying all sorts of foods.” After donning her mortar board and graduating from the course, Thea returned to the Isle of Wight in 2015, soon finding her first professional position as a commercial designer at creative agency Solent in Newport.

“I worked with Tim, Dave, and the team for five years, over time progressing to become Senior Designer. I learned so much there and being able to design both Wightlife Magazine and the Taste of the Wight food and drink guide definitely reignited my passion for publishing. Taste of the Wight was a particular favourite as I got to introduce my illustrations to the brand and even created my own handwritten typeface — ‘Tasty’. During the pandemic though, I decided to take the leap to freelance because I wanted to focus more on my illustration work.”

For Thea, starting a new illustration often starts with a quick sketch on pen and paper, which she digitises later, usually on an iPad using the Procreate app. Values are important to her, particularly the environment (see her illustration for “Don’t Drill the Wight”) as well as equality and feminism, and being a freelancer she can now ensure that every project and every client aligns with her own moral compass. “I also have ADHD which can be a blessing and a curse – as a result, I think I look at the world differently. For me, creating work around important issues like climate change, equality and human rights comes from wanting to make a difference and wanting to feel and create more hope”.

Now, designing and illustrating for a range of businesses (including a brewery and a circus company), Thea calls Bristol home, where you can often find her sipping speciality coffee at Full Court Press, or helping her partner Isaac with his new street food business. “The Island will always be home but I missed the multiculturalism and cosmopolitan aspects of city life. I didn’t fancy returning to London, and Bristol offered a little of both worlds.”