Back to the drawing board

After starting off in graphic design, Greek Australian artist Kareena Zerefos tells Neos Kosmos about picking up her pencil and going back to basics

When Sydney born artist Kareena Zerefos decided to pack up and move to London earlier this year, she realised the luxury of her career was in being able to travel light.

“You can do it anywhere in the world,” she says. “If I have pencils, paint, paper, scanner, computer, it’s all I need. I used to have quite a substantial studio in Sydney, then when I moved I brought a laptop, simplified set up and it’s amazing how easily I can move around now!” Zerefos started off her career studying design at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney, majoring in graphic design and environments.

“When I was at uni, I didn’t do any drawing or art at all. It was quite strange because I used to draw all the time as a kid and throughout high school, but then I got to COFA and because everyone was so talented there you kind of freak out. It’s really intimidating,” she tells.

Focusing away from drawing and leaning more towards photography, film and graphics, Zerefos graduated and began working as a graphic designer. It was then she started drawing for fun, reawakening the passion that she now makes her living from. “Initially it started with me playing around and doing stuff. I actually put a lot of it up online,” Zerefos says.

Her first professional client was skateboard brand Element. After being contacted by the Californian based office, Zerefos designed some t-shirts for the brand, whilst also working continually on her own designs and designing album covers for friends’ bands.

But it was being featured in Frankie magazine that really brought Zerefos into the limelight, she says.

Frankie ended up just publishing a whole lot of my artwork and it was the first little bit of press that I got, and it made me realise people were actually noticing that I was doing something, so that was really fun,” she says.

Now, based in the UK, Zerefos still works for a lot of her Australian clients, as well as clients in London. “I think moving to London is a kind of natural progression when you work in a creative field,” she says. “It’s just a bigger industry. It gets to a point in Sydney, or Australia, when you’re doing creative stuff, that you can only work for so many people. It opens up more opportunities over here because it’s just a bigger industry, bigger population.”

The freelance artist and illustrator, who has been self-employed for three years, packed up and moved to London two months ago, on just a few week’s notice. “It was always part of the plan that I’d move over to Europe and see what happens over here. London has a really good arts scene going on,” she says. “Australia has an amazing creative vibe, and it’s really nurturing and everyone encourages each other and pushes each other to do more, whereas over here it feels like everyone’s doing their thing and it’s not so much of a community.”

The young designer mostly works on fashion and music industry projects, though also does advertising campaigns and is open minded to new projects. “I recently did a collaborative for an app for an iPad. I really do all sorts of different areas, there’s quite a bit of variety, which I like; it keeps it challenging.” Zerefos describes her style as “delicate and detailed bittersweet illustration”.

“I have a bit of a nostalgic storybook sort of thing going on sometimes, but then a lot of the newer things are a bit more personal, and I’m trying to do portraits that really engage the viewer,” she says. Inspired by “all kinds of things”, Zerefos used to surround her work space with a collection of vintage china tea-sets, postcards and old photo albums, but since moving to London has been forced to become more of a minimalist.

“I couldn’t ship it all to London, but now I’m in London, and I’m pretty lucky here; there’s a natural history museum, and at the moment it’s spring and the colours are amazing, the flowers are just beautiful.” Taking the design from pen to paper to finished product isn’t as digitalised as one would expect in modern day design, Zerefos says.

“When I started out drawing commercially (because I did graphic design first) I kept everything very layered and it was all hand done but then put together digitally,” she says. “Now I kind of can’t get everything I want to do in a digital way, so I do more generated finished by hand first and then scan it all in.” Zerefos also starts off her pieces with collage. “People don’t know that. I’ll come up with an idea and instead of just sketching it out straight away, I might do a vague sketch but to get composition and proportions I will make a collage and then put that together and use that as an image to draw from. I’ll get an idea in my head, but I’m too much of a perfectionist to let myself make it up,” she says.

Talking about stationary, the artist is noticeably enthused. “I’m obsessed with really sharp 2B pencils,” she says, “I have an electric sharpener on my desk”. Zerefos also swears by Copec markers, which she says are good for soft, muted tones and blending, a lot of ink, Gouache and Letraset.

“And always on watercolour or print making paper,” she adds. In an era where more and more design seems to be taking place digitally, Zerefos believes there is a resurgence in hand-drawn designs. “I was working on computers and that’s why I started drawing, I would sit there with my sketchbook and I needed that escape and I think a lot of people are turning back to that crafty, organic, creative thing,” she says.

“It’s back to basics, a backlash to the technology era. People miss things being tangible, that’s what started me drawing. I missed the texture of paper, the actual feeling of drawing is very different to sitting there with a picture on the computer”.