Spotlight #15: Tea Cake on her illustrations and pyrography

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Have I mentioned lately that I love Instagram? Sure, there’s a dark side (artwork gets copied, altered and reproduced without credit for instance, and there are a lot of hate commenting going on) but I really enjoy spending time scrolling through the photos of people I follow. Every now and then I discover someone new, someone I get an immediate Instagram-crush on (is that a thing?) and cyber-stalk through their whole timeline. I recently did that with Tea Cake when I bumped into one of her drawings. I love how she alternates between illustration and pyrography, and asked her if she’d like some insights on her work and techniques with you today. Enjoy!

Bleaq: Can you introduce yourself and your work in a few sentences?
TC: My name is Tea Cake (besides Tea being a shortened version of my birth name, that is my actual real name!) and I am an illustrator and artist based in both London and Los Angeles. My work reflects my main interests in life; animals, science, the occult, symbolism, history and mythology. I spend most of my time holed up in my studio drawing or making something or reading. The only other thing I am likely to be doing is hunting for spiders in my garden and taking macro photographs of them!

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You have a degree in animal biology and ecology, and a history as a jewelry designer. How did you get into illustration and pyrography? Did you have a specific moment when you knew you wanted to pursue a career as an artist?
TC: Well, I have always been an artist first and foremost. I went through a few years of self-discovery during which I flitted between various media, trying to find that which suited me best. I worked with textiles, jewelry and leather, I sculpted, I painted, I drew, I photographed… anything that I could create something visually rich with. The degree in animal biology and ecology was purely out of interest in the natural world (the other lifelong passion of mine) and my desire to have a contingency in place should I need one. That in itself led me on to another creative outlet that I still use to this day for my own personal satisfaction and that is taxidermy and bone preparation. I trained under the tutelage of a museum taxidermist in the Welsh countryside years ago whilst I was still at university. It was the perfect way to mesh both my scientific and artistic backgrounds together.

Regarding a specific moment of realization regarding my career as an artist. Yes, you could say that. Fate took care of it for me really. I was still running my jewelry label and I sustained a minor injury to my right arm which made using my tools tricky. I made the decision to put the label on hiatus and concentrate on the other things I could do that didn’t involve saws and hammers in order to let my arm heal and not make it worse. It took off in a way I wasn’t expecting so I took the hint and decided to focus 100% of my efforts on my illustration and such and made the rather painful decision to permanently put my jewelry label to bed. Honestly, as hard as that was for me at the time, I haven’t looked back since.

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Your portfolio shows some lovely illustrations burned in wood. Can you tell something about this technique? For instance: you state that one piece often takes weeks to complete, what makes pyrography so time consuming?
TC: Thank you! Yes, it is very time consuming; or at least it, is for me! I guess the main reasons for this would be my technique, the scale of the pieces in question and my attention to detail. The sort of tool I use has a variable temperature setting so I get different effects by either turning it up or down. I use a fine wire tip to get all of the effects I create and do all of my shading and detail work much the same way as I do with a fine liner pen, for example. It’s all lines and stippling. If you look at the skate deck that I did, that thing is shaded entirely with individual dots, and because each dot is burned into the wood, it’s not just a case of quickly dotting all over the area like you would with a pen. A lot of time and attention goes into just the line-work too as I have to be careful and precise in order to get consistent line. I have to apply the same amount of pressure all over the board or I will end up with messy lines and parts that are charred or not burned enough. As you can imagine, there is very little room for error as I can’t erase a line once it’s burned in, and as I am quite heavy handed, my marks are deep, they are not just on the surface of the wood so I cannot just sand them away!

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There’s a lot of esoteric symbolism in your work. Can you tell a but about your fascination for this kind of symbolism? Where does that fascination come from?
TC: That goes back a long, long way! Without going into reams of detail, when I was about 13 or 14, I was on holiday in a tiny little seaside town in Dorset, England. I found a book about witches and the occult in a secondhand bookstore and bought it. Reading it felt like I had found ‘home’, so to speak. I learned a lot from that book and it led me on to other things that enabled me to find my identity and carve out a path for myself. The last 16 years or so have been spent learning, practicing and developing my skills in certain areas. Along with that has come a keen interest in symbology, its uses over the years, the various languages, codes and cyphers that have been used to keep things hidden from those who would persecute, the signs and symbols used to communicate secretly with fellow members of any given society in plain sight. It’s all fascinating to me and so visually exciting. I can’t help but use it in my work. It also means that a lot of my pieces carry messages of their own.

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Who are your favorite artists? How do they inspire your work?
TC: I am particularly fond of the work of Jessica Joslin, Caitlinn Hackett, Glenn Arthur and a whole host of extremely talented tattoo artists, many of whom I am lucky enough to call friends and have been tattooed by!

I take my inspiration from their dedication mostly. I am in awe of anyone who dedicates their entire being to something that they love and even more so when it comes across in the form of beautiful artwork. I have been inspired to try new techniques and experiment with different media and mostly, I have been inspired to dive in head first and give everything I have to my art.

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It’s probably like asking parents which of their kids they like best, but do you have a piece or pieces from your work that you like best? If so, why that one?
TC: That’s actually a pretty good way of describing that question! It’s very hard to pick a favorite piece. I suppose I should give special credit to the pieces that I have surprised myself with. By that I mean those pieces that have made me go “wow…” when I sit back and it hits me that I just spent 3 weeks on a painting and never realized how big it had gotten. Or those that have eased me back into doing something I had left alone for a long time… like large paintings. I painted a large Japanese themed tattoo design last year that was bigger than anything I had done in over 12 years. I was very happy with how that one came out…mainly because I started it absolutely terrified that I wouldn’t make a good job of it! Of course, my 3 headed cat will always be a favorite. The fact that it went crazy and amassed a total of over 100,000 notes on Tumblr without any credit on it whatsoever was both a blessing and a curse. I was humbled by the fact that that many people liked it enough to re-blog it, but it was upsetting to see it going around all over the place completely anonymously. Oh well, live and learn! Everything is either watermarked or signed before I photograph it now!

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With many social networking websites it’s almost hard to keep track of everything! How important is the internet for you as an artist?
TC: It’s crucial. I absolutely would not be able to do what I do now without it. The people who follow me and support my art online are very important to me and I am extremely grateful to each of them. It is because of the internet that I am able to put my art out there in the public eye in order for it to be seen by people everywhere in the world, and that has led to my being able to exhibit it in gallery shows and get it seen ‘in real life’ now too.

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Last but not least: can you recommend a book, movie or artist you’ve enjoyed lately?
TC: Well, I won’t shatter the illusion by recommending you a film because my taste ranks things like Beavis & Butt-head Do America, Baseketball, Airheads and Wayne’s World way up there amongst my favorites ever!

I can certainly recommend The Worst Street In London by Fiona Rule as a good, factual read though. It is all about Dorset Street, a now non-existent street in East London which was right in the heart of Jack the Ripper’s territory. Really interesting!

As for an artist, definitely check out the marker drawing by Ramon Maiden. He is a phenomenal talent! 

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Bleaq: That’s all for today! A big thanks goes out to Tea for being so kind to open up about her work and techniques, I really loved reading everything, so thank you! If you enjoy Tea’s work you can check out her website, Instagram feed or shop to buy prints and original pieces.

Once again: thanks for reading! Hope you all have a lovely weekend, and I hope to see you again on Monday.

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