The art of people watching: Nay Groves, illustrator

Nay Groves illustrator

I met Nay because a magazine caught my eye through a café window. If you read my blog about the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol you’ll know I’ve got a particular liking for photo books. That also extends to beautifully produced culture & art magazines like Cereal (edited in Bristol), Aesthetica, or any other publication that prints great photography for that matter. The Arnolfini bookshop has a great selection and I soon discovered, Society Café does too, and there you’ve got the added bonus of comfy seats and a well-crafted coffee.

society cafe bristol

In fact, when I walked into Society Café, I finally got what it meant when people say they had a favourite place to have coffee: fantastic photography hangs pride of place on the walls, plants are dotted around each room, and structural details are coolly drawn attention to by Nordic style design by Bristol based Shape Studio. The staff are dead friendly too. The owner, Adrian, I was told, is a big fan of photography and making the most of local talent. Job well done in my humble opinion.

nay groves illustrator

But the best bit that day? Bumping into art in the making! Nay was starting off her mural on one of the long walls, and it really brought the room to life. I like photography because it can pluck out parts of a scene, set up a picture in front of the lens, and mess around with the results in a real or digital darkroom. But it’s really inspirational to see other forms of 2 dimensional art and how those artists use their ideas, techniques, and tools to conjure up a picture out of what is essentially just a bunch of marks, dots and lines.

Nay was no exception and I think her responses to my 5 questions show her enthusiasm, sense of humour and talent. You might see her behind the coffee counter at Society Café, but when she’s not there, she’s working on commissions or busy putting the ideas in her head onto paper - and now ipad!

To see the mural in situ and have a great coffee head to Pero’s Bridge and stop in at Society Café:

Follow Nay on instagram: @naygroves

For commissions email:

1. A commission must be great to get, but is there greater reward or challenge in a tight brief for a commission?

There is definitely a greater challenge in tight briefs, however I'm always very conscious of whether the commission is right for me. The mural I'm currently working on is rewarding because I'm working with completely alien mediums, emulsion and a wall. But that's what makes it fun, it doesn't move as easily as what I'm used to on paper so I'm having to think about my weight of line a little bit more than usual. The most rewarding part would be just being able to self indulge. I always like to include plenty of spontaneity in marks and texture and I'm always looking to add a bit of humour, but that's what really drives me to make some of my best work and hopefully it shows.

N.B. Those fantastic black and white portraits in the background are of Veterans photographed each Remembrance Sunday over a ten year period by Brian David Stevens, a London based photographer (Instagram: @bds1970, website: For further information on his work and this incredible series see here.

2. What's the biggest challenge in planning your design?

I brainstorm the main idea for a commission, just with spider diagrams and go from there. I always find the initial sketch to be a fairly simple process. My roughs are exactly that, rough, but as long as I've got the idea out of my head, I'm happy. I often have characters which I pluck out of my sketchbooks that I'm desperate to use. They help the image evolve into something less lifeless. My biggest obstacle is colour. I don't know why but my relationship with colour is near non existent, it's a love/hate relationship for sure. It might be that I am so used to working solely in black ink in my sketchbooks. I try and limit my palette for finished images to two or three colours so I don't drive myself insane.

3. What do you find most rewarding or challenging about painting a mural as opposed to your illustration work?

The most rewarding part to this mural is the size! I love being able to add detail I wouldn't have otherwise in a sketch. I'm also a people watcher, most of my sketchbooks are filled with people I see whilst I am sitting around in coffee shops (give or take a little exaggerated) so this commission was particularly perfect for me!

4. Whose work inspires you?

I have so many inspirations it would be hard to choose just one. I have a lot of Asian influences like Edo period Japanese painters. The characters and faces are always stuck in my mind. But I'm in limbo between that and comic book artists like 'Seth' (aka gregory gallant) and printmakers like Jon McNaught, the moodiness in their compositions and ability to tell a story is always something I'm in awe of. My colour palette for this mural is particularly inspired by them.

5. What would be a dream commission to get?

I've never thought about what my dream commission would be. I love what I'm doing now! But I suppose my dream would be to self publish a load of short stories and to make people laugh with them. But a regular editorial spot in The New York Times wouldn't go amiss either.

#meetamaker #NayGroves #illustration

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