Drawing Year Alumna: Pia Bramley's Pandemic Baby

Dec. 8, 2021

Pia Bramley is one of our Drawing Year 2014 alumni. Now a professional illustrator, she has just published a set of drawings documenting the experience of becoming a parent during the pandemic. Here she tells us how the book came to be...

Pia Bramley pandemic baby

When did you start documenting your day-to-day life with your newborn? 

I did take a sketchbook to hospital, which, in hindsight, was a bit optimistic. Those early days are a blur, each hour feels so long but the weeks seem to race by. It wasn’t until my son was a few months old that I had the brain space to make even the weediest little drawing. I had to sort of put the paper just out of vision and pretend not to really be doing it at all as I could barely muster up my confidence to draw after so long being away from a pen.  

My son is now two, and in the last year I’ve made many drawings of those early days, as memories suddenly emerge and I try to catch them before they vanish again. That’s really become my preferred way of working, just waiting until something useful flies out from the past.    

Have you always illustrated scenes of everyday life? 

My earliest childhood drawings are much like the work I’m making today, just bigger and better. A diary of ordinary events - being in bed, a washing line of clothes, a kitchen cupboard filled with jars and packets. I spent so long confused about what kind of work to make, how to put things into pictures. I should have just looked at some of those primary school drawings and could have saved myself years of worry.  

When did you come up with the idea of making the book? 

Fran was six months old when the Pandemic began. By that time I was back to drawing every day, so I started sharing some of the images on Instagram. Clare Bullock, the editor at Icon Books had her own baby during the Pandemic and developed the idea of a simple, illustrated book chronicling some of these strange, terrifying and hilarious experiences. She saw my drawings, gave me a call and I got to work that afternoon. There’s only a handful of drawings in the book which were made before we began the book, most were drawn especially for it. They’re rooted in my own experience but informed by conversations with other families, so they do feel quite different to ‘my own’ drawings.  

 Pia Bramley pandemic baby

How did you decide which illustrations to include in the book and which to discard? 

I usually have the luxury of endlessly redrawing and changing images, so having to come up with ‘final’ versions for the book was very tough. I kept making new drawings and hassling the editor with different ideas and sequence changes. They were patient but we really only had a few weeks to make all the drawings and writing, working to the deadline was pretty difficult but there was a real satisfaction in signing something off and moving on. 

If we hadn’t been in a Pandemic – do you think your art practice would now have a different focus?  

In a wild few months, I had a baby, the pandemic began, and I moved away from the city I’d lived in for a decade. All of those practical things certainly have had an impact on the work I’m making - the time and space I have for drawing, the content of the images, and my ambitions for my work. The pandemic limited options for paid work, which was nerve wracking but has worked out OK. I was working for Bow Arts education programme and for Action Space studios but now almost all my income just comes from drawing. That’s great, but I have to work hard to make sure it stays fun and exciting.   

How have you found juggling being an artist and a new mother? 

For all the time that vanishes when you have a baby (now toddler) to care for, I have been far more motivated and productive since he arrived. He’s entirely cured my procrastination. If I have a tiny window of time now, I just get straight to work. And the drawing, in turn, has helped me to become a parent, a comfort whilst navigating through the disorientation of becoming a mother. The drawings are a bridge between myself and the disorder and unpredictability in the world, they let me both confront and escape reality by framing and editing my experiences in the pictures.  

Will there be a toddler series of illustrations? 

I would really like to exhibit the baby drawings somewhere – it's been great sharing them online but the drawings themselves are all very small and on different types of paper so feel very different ‘in real life.’ A small exhibition would draw a line under this phase.    

The urge to draw him has slowed, it seems that when I sit down to draw now different things are coming out. I will certainly always draw my son as a personal record, but as he grows and becomes his own person it has become harder to make drawings that reflect him. A lot of my work is really a self-portrait- and now he’s no longer a clinging baby, so not a part of me in the same way.  

I also feel much more confident in myself and have a clearer sense of myself as a person and a parent- and don’t need to use drawing to help me come to terms with parenthood in the same way.  

Do you have any nuggets of wisdom for any artist soon-to-be mothers/ fathers? 

I found it so annoying receiving unsolicited advice when I was pregnant - and even now have to bite my tongue when strangers offer parenting tips to me. So I will tread carefully here - but I hope that any new parents reading this who feel they will NEVER get back to their work will take comfort in my experience - feeling all hope is lost and then bouncing back and feeling full of ideas and energy. I’ve spoken to other artist parents who have told me they felt the same- really focussed and ready to work after those first exhausting months. 

Pia Bramley headshot  

How did the Drawing Year help to influence your current practice? 

In my first life drawing session at the school Catherine Goodman stood behind me and watched me making a horrible drawing, before quietly asking ‘has anyone ever taught you to use a pencil?’ The answer was no - in fact no one had ever really taught me any drawing skills. Tutors on my illustration degree seemed to think that creativity just bubbled up from nowhere- that it should be easy. A lecturer once said that if you don’t sit at your desk each day feeling excited and inspired then illustration was not for you. Appalling advice! Education should give students the skills to sustain their creative life- strategies for getting started and keeping going. The Royal Drawing School definitely gave me plenty of those.  

One of the strengths of the School is that each class is taught by a dedicated artist, who teaches their way to work with complete conviction. I took as many classes as possible and absorbed countless varied and disparate truths. It was overwhelming and confusing, and certainly took time (years) to process all this information to work out which guidance would help me make my own work.  I think of things that I learned at the school every day, and often hear the lovely voice of Tim Hyman when I am drawing.   

The school gave me greater stamina and patience and, most importantly, an ability to move on swiftly and cheerfully from disastrous drawings. I was shown the work of artists whose work continues to inspire and sustain me today.  

In frantic moments of my life now, I find it impossible to imagine having a whole day to draw alone in front of a painting, and wonder did I really appreciate that gift enough at the time? The classes at the school shaped my knowledge and feelings about London, and I met so many original, skillful artists who were really fun to go to the pub with.  

How did you feel about leaving London to live elsewhere? 

I live in a village called Brockenhurst which is in the New Forest. It is very beautiful and a great place to run wild with a toddler. It’s also cheaper to rent a house here so we have a garden and a bit more space. But there’s always a trade-off - my brilliant friends are far away, I miss the galleries and museums terribly and often daydream about wandering around my favourite city streets or riding on a night bus in the rain. I used to make lots of drawings of events I’d witnessed in the city and don’t find the villagers here as exiting to draw!  

What’s your next project going to be? 

I’m currently working on some drawings for a (very) short story that I’ve written. I have some ideas for a children’s book, which I keep writing down on receipts and napkins that I lose immediately, so I don’t expect that will emerge anytime soon. I’ve just bought myself a die-cut machine that I’m attempting to adapt into a printing press to make drypoints and monotypes - so I’m on the hunt for a studio space where I can make some mess and work without interruption for at least a few hours a week.  

I’m also starting up an arts group at a local museum for neurodiverse adults who would like time, space and materials to make their own work. From January I’ll be working with the local primary school to help them embed drawing in their curriculum. I’ve just begun talking to the teachers, trying to identify practical ways that they can use drawing more regularly in the classroom within a demanding schedule and narrow curriculum.  

Pandemic Baby is now available to buy online and in book shops. Pia also has many prints from the book available to buy via her Instagram. If you’d like a chance to win a copy of the book, enter our Instagram competition.