Sarah Leask Studio

Sarah Leask is a Scottish illustrator & designer from The Shetland Isles. Established in 2017, Sarah Leask Studio grew from her love of colour, pattern and watercolour. She is known for her signature rainbow coloured watercolour maps, which feature many of the Scottish isles. Being an islander herself, there is a strong island theme found in her designs, highlighting some of Scotland’s harder to reach treasures.

We caught up with Sarah to discover more about her and her brand. Read the interview below to find out more…

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How did it all start?

The business started kind of by accident when I painted my first watercolour map of my home, The Shetland Isles. I went on to paint several more colourways before selling these as prints – to friends first, then friends of friends and finally through local gift shops in Lerwick, Shetland.

Since then, I have created a full range of watercolour map prints which have now been developed into a home and gift product range which you can shop via my online shop as well as at local events around Scotland such as the County Living Christmas Fair!

The story behind the name…

There isn’t really one! Choosing a name didn’t really go through my head at the time as I hadn’t realised how much the business could grow. It made sense to use my own name in the name as the subject matter – all the different coloured Shetland maps – felt very much like an extension of me. Although I live on the mainland, my home island is a very important part of who I am. Leask is an unusual name here but there are many, many Leasks in Orkney & Shetland! Often, I worry that I should have made the business name easier to pronounce/spell but it doesn’t feel right to change it now!

Where are you based?

I’m based in Aberdeen and currently I’m working out of my home studio (spare room). This was once just a desk space that has now grown arms & legs is crammed with stock.

What inspires you?

My surroundings. I’m hugely inspired by where I am from and the sense of community and place that being from an island has. It’s hard to explain. With the watercolour map artwork I create, whilst I know it has huge tourist appeal and attraction, I also really wanted to create something which could be treasured by locals as well. Lots of people from Shetland are really proud of their island heritage and it means a lot to them. I soon realised that this mentality could be found in many of the other islands around Scotland too.

I’m also really inspired by colour. I’ve been making colourful art unintentionally long before I set up Sarah Leask Studio. If you look back through my degree show, my portfolio to get into art school and even my school work there is one very clear theme: colour. I can’t really say any more on it other than I love it! I love experimenting with colour and using it to enhance my artwork.

What is your creation process?

I often have ideas swimming around my head for ages before I get the chance to try them out on paper. As a business owner doing mostly everything myself, I am now really struggling to find time to create new art work! I do absolutely love the business side of running Sarah Leask Studio but I’d really like to work on having some more time to create again.

My process is pretty straight to the point I’d say. I make my art relatively quickly, using either only watercolour or pen drawing first then watercolour washed over the top. For some things I like to roughly sketch out in pencil first – animals, buildings, map artwork etc – as these all require greater attention to detail. For floral artwork and landscapes, I love to get straight in there with the watercolour paint. As you can be much more fluid with how you paint nature.

The next step is scanning my work into the computer. I have a relatively basic A4 printer and scanner. Once I have the artwork scanned, I pull it into Photoshop to clean up and prepare for print. If I’m making it into a pattern then I will create that in Photoshop as well.

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What makes your brand or products unique?

This always seems to be quite a tricky question to answer but in truth it’s probably me! My products are not necessarily unique, many brands offer the same or similar products to myself. But my artwork is unique! In a world with so many talented artists and designers it can be hard to stand out. I’ve always made a conscious effort to find gaps in the market and to create work that is different to what is already available. I do believe my combination of Scottish themed work with my use of colour to be unique. For example, I love animals and wildlife and really wanted to create an animal range but I knew that this was a very common focus in the Scottish gift world. So instead of painting the animals in a traditional manner I pulled the colours from them out in watercolour dashes to create a design which had a more contemporary feel to it.

What are your plans for the next 12 months?

Sarah Leask Studio is currently part time. For a very long time now, I have been hoping to make it full time. This hasn’t been possible for a multitude of reasons and I am sure that I could find more to stop me from taking that plunge. However, after all my Christmas events last year I really did start to realise just how much more I could do with the business if it was a full-time job… so I am currently working behind the scenes to make that dream a reality.

What is your next project?

My heather bee range! I’d like to get samples of this in place for my next trade show. And dare I say it, a Christmas range! Yet to be designed, but I’d really love to have a Christmas range with a Scottish twist as it would be a lovely addition to my current offering.

What is your biggest achievement?

I’m not sure! But I am quite proud of building my business to the level I have whilst working full time initially and part time the last couple of years. I’ve now supplied over 80 gift shops with around 80% of them still being current stockists of my work, some of them are still current from their first orders in 2017! I’m pretty proud of that. Most of these have been based in Scotland but with Faire (an online wholesale marketplace) I’ve now had a few orders in England & the US as well.

What is your best-selling product?

In the summer it has to be the wildflowers collection. The rest of the time I’d say the Scottish Gin & Whisky designs. Then my Scottish Isles collection sells very well through my stockists on each of the islands. These three are probably my best-selling collections!

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What are you looking forward to most about exhibiting at the Christmas Fair?

My first Country Living fair was in 2019 – I was exhibiting in Glasgow. I absolutely loved it! Hence, I booked back in for the following year. We didn’t make it that year because of you know what but it was incredible to be back in 2021, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.  The first year I did it I am pretty sure my partner helped me to set up but then had to go back to Aberdeen for work. So, I worked the whole show myself. It was hard going but I was blown away by the feedback from the customers I met there. It would have been the first retail show I had done outside of Aberdeen (and my comfort zone!).

There is a real buzz about the show. Everyone there is there to enjoy themselves – to enjoy the food, the alcohol samples (!) and to shop. Which is ideal! Even as an exhibitor it’s a really great day out! Me and Dougy have done quite a lot of our own Christmas shopping whilst there previous years as there are a lot of lovely things to see. I always get compliments on my ‘different’ gifts from friends & family. Last year, we had so much fun working the stand. Dougy is a great salesperson and makes the job of selling to the customers there seem easy! Country Living is definitely a highlight of the Christmas events calendar and not to be missed.

Your three top tips for crafters and makers…

  1. Make what you love! It always turns out better if you have a genuine interest in making it.
  2. Check your figures. If you want to have a sustainable business you need to make sure that you are making enough money on your products. There can be some pressure to sell things for less than is sensible for you – don’t do it! Know your worth and make your money.
  3. Work life balance. Something I’m still working on all of the time! But it is very important to be aware of and make sure that you are doing what you can to not burn yourself out. I get work guilt if I’m doing something other than sitting in the studio on days that should be studio days. But I forget that I also work quite a lot of evenings and weekends, particularly in the lead up to Christmas when most people are on nights out and enjoying Christmas markets!

Any advice for fledgling businesses…

Don’t be scared to go for it. I started my business with next to no money and I have very slowly built it up myself. You don’t need big investments or backing, you can make it work yourself as long as you jump at the opportunities that come your way and/or are there and available for you to take 🙂

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