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French-Australian designer Cat Berruer is the creative powerhouse behind Just Call Me Cat, a one-woman business creating fresh and playful illustrations inspired by femininity, pin-up culture and nostalgia for a bygone era. Working primarily in Procreate, Cat's flair for vintage, kitsch and retro-pop imagery is beautifully executed, but it's her personal brand of elegance, sass and humour that make her illustrations so delightful.
At the core of Cat's practise is her commitment to inspiring positive social change through her art and using her platform as an inclusive and welcoming space to celebrate diversity, equality and eco-friendly practises. Just like the bold, vibrant brushstrokes that form them, Cat's vivacious leading ladies are drawn living life authentically and unapologetically, aligning with Cat's desire to encourage her audience to step into their unique power.
With over ten years experience as a graphic designer, Cat offers not only custom illustration work but a full spectrum of design services ranging from carefully crafted bespoke logos, to entire brand identities.
Read on as we question the lovely Cat about her art practise and the ins and outs (and ups and downs!) of running a creative business during pandemic times.
Tell us a bit about your creative background. What made you decide to become a full-time illustrator?
My Mum used to say that I was born with a pencil in my hand, meaning that I have always drawn! It was clear very early on that my most favourite thing to do was to put pencil to paper. After finishing year 12, my path was clear: I was going to enter a specialist school in Belgium to become a graphic novel illustrator! Then, my Dad’s work took us out of France once again (he was a diplomat and we travelled a lot) and we moved to Port-Vila in Vanuatu when I was 16. In 1995, I left the nest and moved to Melbourne to learn English (French is my mother tongue). I ended up staying on to study graphic design and multimedia at R.M.I.T., and 26 years later I am still here and never made it to Belgium!
I entered the workforce as a graphic designer, user interface designer and animator (-ish), and completely moved away from a traditional artistic training, though still very much creating characters and digital worlds. It was only after having my son in 2011 and struggling to get back into the workforce that I decided I should try going solo with my work. And so I’m one of those people who have turned their hobby into their profession, out of necessity at first - but I’m sure glad I took the leap!
One of my first jobs as a fresh freelancer was to re-design the logo for the Australian Burlesque Festival, and from there my commissions took off, collaborating with other talented women in the performing and creative industry. And that’s how my retro pinup art grew and grew!
Your fresh and feminine artwork blends expressive brush strokes with vintage and retro-pop imagery, often carrying an uplifting, playful or supportive message. What has led you to develop your unique style?
From as long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawn to imagery that exudes femininity and vintage charm. As a little girl, I used to collect full page ads from my mum’s magazines – for fizzy drinks, perfumes or beauty products – anything rendered in that 50’s technicolour style completely transported me. Characters flashing their cheesy smiles at a diner, donning perfect makeup and pinup hair… It was the perfect blend of breezy fun and glamorous sophistication, and I wanted to live in these pictures! It probably explains why I entered the Burlesque scene in my 20’s, but that’s another story!
I was a very girly tween and I already fantasised over 40’s and 50’s dresses and the expressive lines of fashion sketches. More notably, the style of René Gruau who illustrated for major haute couture houses. His exquisite brush strokes and use of colour were a great source of inspiration as I developed my style.
At the same time, I was growing up on 80’s and 90’s cartoons and pop-culture. I was massively into Barbie, Jem and the Holograms, She-ra, and a bunch of French-Japanese manga with strong female leads and eye-catching outfits! And even though these were on a completely different spectrum of hyper-colour, these styles were also huge influences to me when it came to drawing my girls.
Cartoons, comics, fashion and film… this pool of visuals has inspired my own imagery. When I draw my characters, I swing between sweet glamour and cheeky low brow humour, depending on my mood… There’s always a bit of me in my cartoon ladies! I also very much enjoy good typography, so combining my handwriting and illustration is often my way of distilling a message or thought into one simple picture.
Behind your work is a passionate desire for inclusivity and to inspire positive social change. How do you hope to make a difference to these issues through your art? Are there any causes or past projects that are particularly close to your heart?
Yes, there is and I am so very glad you have noticed this about my work as I often wonder if it would come through without my accompanying blurbs on Instagram! There are so many causes that touch my heart, it’s quite overwhelming at times actually. I describe myself as an empathic introvert, I care a lot but I am too frightened of crowds or conflict to be an outspoken marching activist! Creating a picture is my way of channelling feelings when something weighs on me. Some people journal, but I will draw a scene.
As much as possible, I always try to convey a serious message with humour because I don’t want to scare or guilt anyone into action. Rather, I want to make people pause and reflect, and open conversations. I try to raise awareness to things that matter to me and hope that people will connect with both the visuals and the intention.
If you get to know me, you’ll find out that I am a passionate animal lover (and a certified cat lady!) They have so much to teach us. You’ll notice there is often an animal presence in my drawings. This way, I want to gently remind people of the very important role they play into our wellbeing on a psychological but also environmental level, we owe them a lot and they deserve our deepest attention. I think if I wasn’t drawing, I would definitely be involved in some kind of work with animals and conservation. Animal welfare, climate action, racial justice, women’s rights, inclusivity for all kinds of folks… these are recurring themes in my art or the content that I share. I want my art to be of service, it is the ‘voice’ that I can use best. If my art can elevate the cause you are fighting for, then please hire me! I’ll design all the tees and the stickers you need to get people involved!
What have been the main challenges you’ve faced running your own illustrative business? Is there anything you wish you had known when you first started?
This may sound strange but my main challenge is finding the time to do it! Time to draw more and experiment, to upskill myself and make more passion projects. And to do my admin! My son is still in primary school so it’s the tricky juggle between child-rearing and work that a lot of mums will relate to.
As a result, I often feel completely isolated from people in the industry, and I’m very much a tech-dummy! The way social media is evolving is something I really struggle to keep up with. I have never done an IGTV reel and barely know how to use most of the nifty tricks that would attract more followers… Oh well!
I don’t think I’m yet running my business to its full potential, but I do the best I can with the time I have, and I stick to the little that I know for now. I have a small but loyal audience who I am so thankful for. I’ve learnt a while ago not to attach my worth to numbers – though every now and then I fall into that trap, but I swiftly jump back out of it!
I don’t know if there is anything in particular I wish I’d known beforehand… Experience and resilience is learnt along the way, and there is no truer advice than ‘fake it ’til you make it’!
Talk us through your creative process when creating a new illustration or commission. Are you a digital girl all the way, or do you sometimes dabble with traditional mediums?
When I do a private commission for a client, I usually start by asking a lot of questions! The illustration is usually a gift to celebrate a special occasion, so I want to make sure I include personal and meaningful elements, and the more I know about the person I am drawing for the more I feel a connection to them which then allows me to tap into my intuition and visualise the piece. I want the artwork to feel like it has come out of an illustrated story about them, something which I hope would feel quite touching and magical.
I definitely start with pencil and paper when I sketch out a composition, it’s still what feels right to me. It gets very messy with layers of grey lead strokes as I ‘sculpt’ my idea. I often refer to my practice as ‘spaghetti sketching’– sometimes I don’t think anyone but me could really decipher what I’m doing through the tangled mess of lines! Once I have the overall composition on paper, I will take a snap of it with my iPad and bring it into Procreate. There, I try to make sense of my own mess (ha!), simplify the lines, refine the scale and start blocking out a colour palette. And many more rounds of refinements are made until my husband tells me to ‘stop, it’s perfect as it is, do not touch anything else!’ Perfectionist problem.
Even though I try to keep up a daily drawing practice with small pencil sketches, I am mostly a digital girl with Procreate and Illustrator being my main 2 methods of drawing.
How do you get back your creative spark when the drive to create is simply just not there?
Thankfully this isn’t something that happens very often, but when it does I know it’s time to step away from the blank page for a little while. I then make time for movies, podcasts or audio books, nature walks and rest. Without fail I will come across something that piques my interest, and soon enough my brain will start generating images. I often find that I will resolve compositions in my sleep. I will lay down for a nap, and when I wake up I know exactly what I need to draw! Neat!
I think doing what makes us feel good, even very small things, is the key to reigniting the spark. Everyone is creative in their own unique way and across a wide range of practices. Anyone who makes something is expressing creativity. It’s the theme that underlays my soon-to-be-launched t-shirt design ‘Stay Fierce’, as a lot of us may feel like our flame has been snuffed out by our very long lockdown here in Melbourne. So how do we tend to it?
What does a typical workday look like at Just Call Me Cat?
Ok, I’m going to pretend we are not in lockdown to answer this! The day starts with a school drop off and sometimes a morning coffee with a few school-momma friends, usually my only adult interaction until pick up time. I am at my desk around 9.30 and do an hour of admin before I get into the drawing that I need to do. I usually work with a podcast on and a cat keeping me company! My ginger cat Rocket makes sure to hassle me just enough so that I will regularly get off my chair and play with him! A couple of times a week I will make time for some yoga practice and I start winding up at about 3pm to collect my son from school. The days are short! If I can, I will try and squeeze another hour of work between 5 and 6pm. BUT we are in lockdown, I have been home schooling and most of this has gone out the window! ;)
The pandemic has forced many creatives to pivot and re-examine their business practices in order to survive. For some it’s been a blessing in disguise, enabling them to dedicate more time to their art. In what ways has the pandemic affected the way you create art or run your business?
The pandemic has taken a lot of time away from my business sadly. As I mentioned just above, most of my time is now spent managing the demands of homeschooling, home-making, prioritising my child’s wellbeing which means a lot of time spent outside, and much less in front of my screen. It has forced me to cut down the amount of new work that I can take on because as it stands, I’m still catching up on jobs booked ages ago!
Our home studio is currently occupied by my husband Chris, and since lockdown has brought our small family unit into a small living space, the iPad allows me to draw from anywhere I want – sitting in bed being my favourite place at the moment, away from the tv noise or other conversations that may be happening in the house. So while we function this way, I am prioritising work that can be done in Procreate, rather than Illustrator, as my current kitchen table / desk set-up is not the most comfortable. My ‘lockdown–productivity’ all comes down to the logistics around the space and my energy levels on any given day.
What have been your biggest creative inspirations? Are there any books, films or artists that have had a profound effect on the way you create art?
Yes, so many! On film, I remember being fascinated by the grandeur of Hollywood historical productions, such as ’Cleopatra’ (by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) starring Liz Taylor. Or productions by Cecil B. DeMille, and anything from the Hollywood Golden Age era (movie posters were so great back then!), the mesmerising musical choreographies of Busby Berkeley… The costumes, the décor, the showgirls!… I do love the theatrical! Closer to my home-country, the curvy bombshells of French and Italian cinema were already stirring up my interest in vintage pinup style.
Illustrators who inspire me are many and varied: René Gruau, 50’s pinup artists Arnold Armitage, Ben-Hur Baz, Art Frahm and Gil Elvgren. In a more cartoony and low-brow genre I love the art of Shawn Dickinson, Derek Yaniger and Mark Ryden. And last but not least the wonderful illustrations, designs and colours of Mary Blair who created some memorable art for Disney. I’m actually very fond of children’s illustration too, but I’d better stop here or it will be a never ending list of people I admire!
Do you find selling inkjet prints of your artwork is integral to the success of your business?
I strive to deliver the best possible quality with everything I make, so when it comes to selling my prints, or delivering a unique commissioned piece that will bring life-long memories, I’m definitely going to chose the best quality of fine art reproduction, it gives the image that ‘extra’ touch! Which is why I’ve been coming to you for years now! :)
What’s next for your creative practice? Do you have any new projects or goals you wish to achieve in the foreseeable future?
My commission bookings will reopen in 2022 so I hope to be a little more productive by then. I would love to work on a some commercial projects, maybe illustrate for a product or packaging. I’d love to be considered for editorial illustrations, I’m putting it out there! And I will continue to align my work with inspiring creators and change makers. I also have a list of personal passion projects to get to, this one keeps growing but there are some ideas from 3 or 4 years ago that I still want to bring to life! Watch this space!
- Jon F. -
I have received the scans and they really are fantastic. I appreciate the method you use in scanning to maintain as much detail as possible. I will have round two ready to send up in a couple of weeks.