Melbourne's Mural Master
05.03.20 Words by Hannah Valentine

Melbourne's Mural Master

Carla McRae finds simplicity works best when it comes to creating large-scale murals – and always aims to keep a sense of fun and joy in her work.
05.03.20 Words by Hannah Valentine

Carla McRae is an illustrator and artist whose vibrant murals for clients including SONOS and Hound & Bone printers adorn the walls of Melbourne, the city she calls home. Having grown up in a coastal Queensland town, she moved there after graduating in graphic design and communication, and was immediately struck by the city’s fresh outlook, finding inspiration for her creations in its sense of community. She says, “When you find a place full of like-minded people and opportunities to grow, you feel very lucky and want to protect it. There is this sense of motion and productivity around that’s infectious and inspiring.” This has led her to work on a number of collaborations with local clients including iconic Melbourne boutique Monk House Design, student housing provider Scape Student Living, and the Royal Children’s Hospital, with whom she developed an illustrated book, Shapes Have Feelings Too.

Carla has always been creative; as a child she’d paint portraits of the dog, make comics and magazines, and draw everything around her, even pausing videos to sketch out the scenes portrayed. She explains, “Having the time and freedom to indulge in worlds, real or imaginary, definitely shaped the creation of my own inner universe.” With parents who greatly supported her creative habits, Carla would craft toys out of paper, spend hours doodling on MS Paint, and summer holidays playing with plaster of Paris.

“Why do adults have to be so serious? Allowing yourself to indulge in a bit of playfulness can be very joyful.”

The joy of creation has continued into her adult work, and this delight shows. Her work is playful and easy to enjoy with its strong lines, bold shapes and sunny colours – her style consistent across the various fields she works in, from editorial and publishing commissions, to apparel and branding design, as well as her giant mural projects. She relishes the opportunity for playfulness that her work offers, but is determined that this doesn’t render her work childish, saying “I think bright colours and simple, satisfying shapes can be enjoyed by everyone. Why do adults have to be so serious? Allowing yourself to indulge in a bit of playfulness can be very joyful.”

This attitude isn’t the only thing Carla has pulled from her childhood. She says of her style, “Maybe it’s got something to do with growing up in the ‘90s – all those primary colours and simple cartoons with strong, black key-lines.” It’s a style that lends itself easily to her larger-than-life eye-catching murals, but she hasn’t always worked on such grand scales. Moving on from smaller creations, Carla practised by painting on a friend’s wall, experimenting and letting herself make mistakes while she learned how to apply her skills to the new process. She sees parallels in the different creative processes, saying, “When you paint a wall, you have to simplify in every way – limiting colours and simplifying forms, because paint is expensive and you don’t want to design something that will take weeks to complete. I actually really enjoy these restraints and it feels quite natural as I have always imposed similar boundaries on myself, using pre-mixed paint or pencils, markers and pastels in standard colours in my drawings.”

Now a seasoned mural designer and painter, Carla has had the opportunity to work with her partner and fellow designer David Booth on projects such as Scape Student Village, as well as all manor of collaborative projects, creating murals for all sorts of settings from shopping centres and women’s health initiatives, to galleries, schools and people’s homes. One of her favourites was a series of murals for the large industrial fridge walls at Remedy Kombucha’s brewery headquarters in Melbourne. The largest paintings she has worked on so far, the work took a week and half to create, and the soaring heights of the site meant she first had to get a licence in operating a scissor lift. “It was a really amazing challenge! The scale of the paintings pushed me to explore new kinds of forms and abstractions which pushed my practice into a new space.”

Carla attributes the growing popularity of giant wall murals to the rise of street art, which meant that outdoor paintings began to be commercially recognised alongside more high-end artworks. She also sees Instagram as having had a positive effect, making outdoor works easier to share and promote. “Social media has also broken down barriers for sharing knowledge – people message me all the time asking for tips to paint walls, and I am always happy to share. It has created new ways to make work, and opportunities for paid work.”

She cites a wide range of influences, but bodies and nature are a frequent inspiration in her work. “Nature is beautiful and perfect,” Carla says, exploring her botanical themes. “I could trace the forms of a leaf or a flower with my eyes for ages, and so naturally the pencil follows.” This love of nature and the great outdoors influences her dreams for the future. Asked about her plans, she tells us, “I would love the opportunity to paint a really big mural on the ground — something bright and colourful that can be smiled down at from the sky.”

“I just want people to feel good and positive,” she says, considering people’s reactions to her work. “There is so much rottenness in the world right now — if I can create a space that is a refuge for the eyes and the mind, that is meaningful and valuable to me.”