“There’s loads of links with acne and depression, so my job as a designer is to try and empower those people”

Iben McMillan | Illustrator & Artist | @ibenmcmillanart

I have a flashbulb memory of my dad collecting me at primary school the day Iben was born. I pulled him along, half-skipping, half-running and jumping around with excitement to get home. Iben probably wouldn’t believe that now – how excited I was to meet her. I don’t actually remember anything else from that day, just that I was excited and happy to meet my little sister. 

I do remember some other key stages though, like when she was learning to walk. I liked to give her little sharp nudges and cry with laughter as she propelled forward, belly-first, her little arms flailing around to keep her balance – only when mum wasn’t watching (sorry, mum).

Photo by Mark Messer – @mxrkmssr

Iben is all grown up now and is sitting at her desk when I call. She lives in Aberdeen and studies Communication Design at Gray’s School of Art. I can see a lot of design posters and pictures tacked to the wall behind her, next to a boho mandala tapestry with fairy lights – it all looks very homely and artsy, but she later explains she wants to take the mandala down because it’s too ‘Oh, I’m at uni’ for her liking, and she hates being the art-student stereotype.

She jokingly chants “Who are ya! Who are ya!” when I suggest doing an introduction but is happy to give me a quick rundown of her art for anyone who isn’t familiar with it already. “My artwork is basically faces, and faces, and faces… abstract… bit of painting… I prefer to paint on canvas with acrylics and I like to make them look as funky as possible, with nice colours!”. You might be surprised to know that Iben actually has a very nice singing voice and probably has perfect tone, but as we’re close, I get treated to an array of difference accents and characters, so the majority of our conversation was conducted in a voice I can only describe as a cross between an eccentric Glaswegian thespian, and Shrek – our childhood hero. 

“I Miss Parties” – @ibenmcmillanart

Iben’s artwork is instantly recognisable and very distinct. When I ask how she would describe it herself, she’s deliberates trying to find the best words that aren’t cliché. “Bold” – a confident start, followed by careful consideration, “…I don’t want to use the word ‘funky’ (because I hate that word), but it fits… I don’t want to say ‘cool’ (even though it is)… don’t want to use the word ‘modern’, don’t want to use the word ‘abstract’… Lively? Colourful? I don’t really know what else to say about it”. It’s all that and more!

Her ever growing collection of faces is very popular with buyers, and has become her signature style but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the original inspiration came from. One artist that Iben does mention is Maggi McDonald – an Australian artist who also enjoys bright colours and statement pieces. Iben holds up some pictures of McDonald’s work that had a huge influence on her when she was creating her college portfolio and sketchbooks, during her studies in Edinburgh. Iben’s style of painting developed from there and she gradually started adding the iconic faces to the striped backdrops. She shows me some pictures of earlier canvases, where she first started experimenting with the faces and there’s a clear difference compared to where she is now. She winces slightly looking back at her early works, “yeah…development – that’s the key word”. 

A more recent painting, “Guy Next Door” – @ibenmcmillanart

The biggest challenge for Iben right now is doing her uni work on top of her own artwork. Her course consists of graphic design, illustration and photography. “People always think ‘it’s just an art course, you just have to draw things’, we’re not just drawing things – we’ve literally had guest speakers who have said ‘if you’re not Graphic Design until you die, then it’s not worth doing’”. There’s a lot of pressure.

In her final year of studies, there’s a lot of work to be done, including several self-managed projects and a lengthy dissertation (the latter was submitted earlier this year). It can take hours, if not days, to finish a commissioned canvas, and Iben feels this time should be going towards her university work instead. How do you balance uni projects and your other artwork? “There’s a guilt – when I’m doing canvases or the tote bags, I feel guilty because I’m not doing uni work”. 

@ibenmcmillanart

The theme of her main uni project is a campaign to normalise acne. Her mission? “Don’t let your acne stop you from being seen”, she says pointedly, creating a banner in mid-air with her hands. “There’s loads of links with acne and anxiety and depression, so my job as a designer is to try and empower those people”. Iben wants to deconstruct the stigma that spots are unhygienic or ‘un’-anything. Your skin shouldn’t limit your opportunities. She wants people to stop feeling paranoid, and be confident in their skin. She also wants others to be more accepting and understanding, especially in job interviews, or at social gatherings (remember them?), where the first impression is so important. “For now we’re going in a punk direction”, and just as I make the link about reb- “rebelling against beauty standards, yes”, she says rolling her eyes, having discussed it several times with all her tutors and classmates.

To help get the message out there, Iben is looking to contact charities and small businesses to collaborate with them, so if you’re interested – get in touch! This will also be part of her portfolio, which would normally be on display at her university’s art degree show but due to Covid, this will likely be online, which is disheartening.

The current punk idea for Iben’s campaign – @ibenmcmillanart

The last day of uni is fast approaching, which is a nerve-wracking thought for most students but it doesn’t seem to phase Iben. She’s not stressed about what to do with her degree, what kind of job she might like or any of the usual questions fired at graduates-to-be. “I’ve got no idea what’s happening there. I’m just doing my thing”. Very calm and collected. 

Iben doesn’t want to make any solid plans during covid, but she does have a lot of ideas for the future of her artwork and wants to focus more on her own interests. “I want to do some more life drawing because I miss that”. She’s also considering other courses, such as pottery and painting. Job-wise, she has a very practical and level-headed approach, knowing that your first job is rarely the one you stick at. “I don’t think I’ll jump straight into… whatever it is I’m doing”.

Being an artist, the 9-5 office life doesn’t really suit Iben and ideally she would like to follow more of a freelance path. “With more experience, I’m hoping to find more links and make bigger connections”. She’d love to go abroad and do something that involves art – maybe teaching or some voluntary work to get more experience. We talk about the possibilities for a while before she quietly announces that she’s also toying with the idea of a Masters. “Mainly because it’s a secure option, I don’t want to jump into a job just yet”. It’s a tempting idea, especially in the aftermath of a pandemic – maybe another year of study and honing the skills wouldn’t be a bad idea, but it’s a lot of work.

One of Iben’s earlier life drawings, “The Pink Lady” – @ibenmcmillanart

We have a brief intermission as she roots around for her charger. As she disappears from her desk, I spot a tin of Hawick Balls in the background – peppermint flavoured sweets from our hometown. I also have one on the shelves behind me in Berlin, little souvenirs from our parents.

When she returns I ask about her art’s values, and what her paintings mean to her. She cringes at this nightmare question and thinks for a while before eventually shrugging, defeated. “I don’t really have values. If you’re painting, you’re not really painting for others. I pick colours for aesthetic – I don’t really have a plan for them, I just do it… but I definitely like pinks and blues”. 

The new, sell-out tote bags – @ibenmcmillanart

The pink squiggles on her new, now sold-out, tote bags are a twist on her usual designs. They started off as a background idea, but then Iben started adding elements of the faces to them and kept re-working them until she settled on her final design, “so again, it’s just about development” she says in her chirpy, thespian voice.

It’s only March and Iben has already accomplished a lot this year, but it’s not always easy to keep the motivation, and every now and then Iben will get struck by an artist’s block. “l’ll go through phases where I think my creativity has ran out, I can’t do anymore… but then there’s loads to do, you just have to keep doing it. I suppose something comes up when you’re not looking for it, even just a tiny idea”. Usually when Iben is just about to fall asleep, an idea hits her: “something pops in my head and I think ‘I’ll remember this in the morning’, but now I’m like [I have to write this down]”, she says, demonstrating her dishevelled, half-asleep face scribbling down her midnight ideas in bed. 

Our family home, and now many other homes across the world, are filled with Iben’s artwork. She printed her designs on facemasks during the pandemic, she’s collaborated with other creators to feature in art magazines, and she’s just sold her biggest commission to date. So what’s your biggest achievement so far? It’s a tough question. “I am chuffed with my artwork, but I don’t really have a… hmm, I don’t really take a step back I guess, I’m very picky and critical – there’s always one little bit”. 

Standing outside with her biggest commissioned piece to date – @ibenmcmillanart

Her etsy page is in the middle of getting a makeover – lots of new prints and product ideas will be appearing. She has new stickers and is looking into more eco-friendly packaging. She rummages around her desk looking for a large A3 envelope with some secret, new prints and treats me to a sneak peak of the all new, high quality prints and I can tell she’s excited to launch these on her website. Even though I’m her sister (or especially because I’m her sister), I don’t get privileges and she won’t give me any more hints, “just say I’ve got new items coming soon”. 

Any last words? What else do you care about? “Not Tories”.

We leave the interview there but carry on talking. I say ‘talking’ but we actually spent a long time just sitting in silence in our respective rooms, reading or scrolling through our phones with our laptops propped up so we could still see each other. It was almost like being back home, sitting together on the sofa, comfortable in each other’s company.

Obviously I’m very proud of Iben and I know she’s more than capable of taking her next steps by herself, but as her big sister I’ll be here, nudging her along and propelling her forward – hopefully with less arm-flailing and more at her own pace this time (again, sorry mum). 

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Please follow Iben’s instagram page @ibenmcmillanart for all the latest updates – there’s going to be a lot happening in the next few months!

You can also visit her etsy page – there are still some items left in her shop and she’s happy to answer any questions. You can favourite the shop with the little ‘heart’ symbol at the top of the page to show your support and make it easier to find when her new works are released.

Cover photo of Iben taken by Mark Messer – @mxrkmssr.

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