How old were you when you knew you wanted to become an artist?
I always loved drawing - as far back as I can remember! I loved telling stories to myself with my pictures, which is something I still do today when creating a new illustration, whether it's for a job or a personal piece! I was always quite stubborn about going to Art School although I was quite vague about what I wanted to specialise in. Many people told me I should study something else and that Art school would be a waste of time as it would be difficult to "make a proper living" after I left. My parents were always very supportive though.
What books or programmes did you love as a child? Have they influenced your work in any way?
I have a handful of books that I have kept from my childhood, all quite well worn now! I think my favourite has to be "Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls" (1963), a book of poems by William Cole which is brilliantly illustrated by the mighty Tomi Ungerer. I love it because the poems are quite violent and the black and white illustrations are spiky and edgy too. There's even one of a boy being eaten by a lion!
And who didn't love The Clangers? I'm not sure if they influenced my work or not, all I know is I still enjoy them today.
What was the most important lesson you learned at Art School?
Drawing! Drawing and looking, specifically. I went to life drawing classes and also went out and about with my sketchbook recording things I was interested in.
My drawing improved hugely and I learned that by really looking you find amazing things to draw and that in turn feeds your illustration work.
I'm still really passionate about drawing AND looking and it's still the absolute backbone of my work and how I communicate my ideas.
How did you persuade an art director to take on an unknown illustrator after you first left art college in 1992?
Mmm, I don't think it was a case of me persuading them. I just made appointments with various art directors, especially at magazines and newspapers and then showed them my folio and hoped someone would commission me! Not very strategic, I know but it worked eventually!
Luckily, I think I had a style that was a bit flexible (without being too jack of all trades) so art directors liked that and one day one of them gave me a chance. It got my foot in the door and once I had that in my portfolio, other art directors and designers followed suit!
How long do you think it took you to become established in illustration?
Good question. I really worked at going to see designers here in Scotland, establishing relationships that still stand me in good stead today (over 25 years later!). I also entered competitions like the AOI's Images and such.
Overall it took me about a year and a bit to get known in Scotland. UK-wise it wasn't until 1997, because I started to get editorial commissions from The Guardian, The Telegraph etc and that really got my work seen.
I also got a UK agent in 1997 too and that made a bit of a difference for exposure.
What do you think makes the difference between success and failure when trying to establish yourself as an illustrator?
Be passionate and be true to yourself and your ideas. You have to be determined to succeed (whatever your version of success is) and be aware that being a freelance illustrator can be a very rollercoaster career and accept that to some extent. You soon get used to the insecurity of it but I love the flexibility of being freelance and being my own boss too. You will make mistakes (like pricing a job too low, or missing a deadline) but learn from them, apologise (or kick yourself!) and move on!
Be prepared to get out there and meet people face to face and network online and in person. Sometimes...sometimes you have to be prepared to do some less creative or inspiring work to get bread and butter money (and remember that the designer commissioning you is probably feeling the same way, but you might get a juicy job from them the next time round!)
I also think that you have to FORGET your degree mark - first or fail - and just start afresh. Nobody but nobody asks you what degree you got - if they like it and can use your work in an ad campaign or picture book, then that is all that matters to them.
Finally, keep developing your craft - drawing, research, reading, learning new software… your skillset is unique, so keep it honed!
How do you structure your day working from home? Describe your ideal day at work.
No day is the same but on an *ideal* day I get up very early and deal with all the domestic things that can get in the way of me being creative. These things (you know, shopping, laundry, hoovering) can be very distracting when working from home - especially if I am procrastinating about a deadline! I need a clear head to then deal with admin and emails that come in overnight (from my USA clients). I prefer to do this at my kitchen table, away from the studio. I then go out with my dogs for a good walk. If I am in my studio by 9.00am I am delighted! If deadlines are looming, I get up super early and just bolt downstairs in my pyjamas and put in a couple of hours before doing all the above. Cups of strong tea do help a lot! I find the more I have on, the more efficient I am with my time and I try to set myself mini deadlines throughout the day to get tasks done, so 30 minutes of drawing for one job, 15 minutes of scanning, 1 hour of ideas bashing, stuff like that. Of course, I have days when I faff about endlessly too! Overall, I do make a conscious effort to not sit at my computer for long stretches of time and so have planned my studio around that - my drawing desk (which I stand rather than sit at) is at the back of the studio and I have to get up from my desk to answer the phone too. I like to have lunch and tea breaks out of the studio too and head into the garden if the weather’s nice. The best days are deadline days, when the adrenalin is high and all the drawings and planning and sketching come together and the final piece emerges!
What mediums do you create your work in?
INK! I love the fluidity and various permutations of it...and its unpredictable messiness. I draw with ink in many ways - from a very traditional dip pen and ink dropper to Chinese calligraphy brushes, Japanese brush pens, vintage calligraphy pens and some quirky home-made tools too. I also create texture sheets with crayons, paint, pastels and colour pencils and now have a library of these that I adapt digitally and use when I build and create my illustrations and lettering in Photoshop. I try to make my work a seamless blend of traditional and digital elements and really enjoy combining the two together in different ways.
Would you say your illustration style has changed over time?
Of course it has, though the core drawing aesthetic has always been there, even from my childhood. I think when you are at a more impressionable stage, such as starting out at art college (when you are learning so much and seeing so many things for the first time), your style can change dramatically - mine did! However, when you eventually filter out all the unwanted and untrue influences, you come back to a more honest and personal way of drawing and observing the world around you, which I believe is very like your fingerprint - unique.
Do you like to listen to music while you are working in your studio? If so, who is on your playlist?
Every so often but I do tend to work in silence. If I have a tight deadline to meet there is nothing like a bit of old school electronic dance music to quicken the drawing pace :-)
However, I have recently discovered the joy of podcasts - years after everyone else, I know. I subscribe to BBC programmes like Radio 4's Women's Hour and Desert Island Discs. Also The Guilty Feminist is excellent listening too along with illustrator Andy J. Miller’s Creative Pep Talk
How do you get inspiration when doing commercial or corporate work?
I like the problem solving aspect that comes with any job, whether it's personal or for a corporate client. I really like working with a designer, answering their brief, often questioning the brief and creating beautiful artwork which also solves a particular creative problem - be it conceptual or just by hitting the right note for the product or service you are illustrating. I love the pressure of working to deadline and having certain restrictions to work to, such as dimensions or colour palette. It’s more challenging and fun working that way (though I do tear my hair out sometimes!) Inspiration for a particularly "dry" subject matter can come from surprising sources - it’s my job to find them and then make that subject matter more interesting! I am inspired by reallife situations and juxtapositions, so keep a constant eye or ear out for things like that and see if they can be adapted to that particular job. Observation of the world around me is a key part of my work.
Any other interviews with you we can check out?
YES! As mentioned, I get asked to do a few of these, but here is a recent interview with Fay Troote over on Central Illustration Agency's LinkedIn page - she asked some very searching questions! This was a mid lockdown interview and so I am in reflective mood as 2020 came to an end...
Why is bookbinding so appealing to you?
I make books as an antidote to (and also to compliment) the creative work I make digitally. I’m an illustrator and although my work starts out as drawings and marks on paper, the large part of it comes together on a computer, layer by layer, which is a magical process in its own right.
However, it's hugely satisfying to take a large sheet of paper, any paper and then fold and cut it, mark it and sew it in to magical little book. Often just simply folding paper into a simple book is pleasing enough.
How do you decide what to make a handmade book about?
When I physically make a book (as opposed to illustrating a book) I tend to go at it with a VERY open mind. I look around my studio and find bits of paper, old drawings or texture sheets, decorative paper, envelopes etc and any other materials that look like they need a bit of attention and start to make a book. For content, very often it's the place I’m in that inspires me. I recently made a little exposed stitched spine book on one of Rachel Hazell's workshops in Shetland. The day before the workshop started I walked around Lerwick, Shetland's biggest town, and noticed that in the little bay right beside the very big Tesco supermarket were four seals just basking on rocks. This was a wonderful, unexpected juxtaposition to see and so I turned it into a little illustrated narrative, using a haiku I had written in the Shetland dialect. The whole book came together very intuitively in a day - I never manage to work that quickly digitally!
Do you have a personal mantra?
There are a couple of things I adhere to: If an illustration isn't working, walk away from it completely and do something else for a while. Sleep on it if it’s particularly tricky. That normally gives you enough of a fresh perspective to weed out what is wrong and correct it...or start again!
Secondly, if it feels right, no matter how messy, inky and scribbly the artwork is, then go with it...don't be tempted to tinker and overwork it just to satisfy someone else's expectations!
Learn to listen to your gut feeling.