Are there things you used to love doing as a child but then for some reason, you stopped?
For me it was drawing. I loved to draw and later to paint. I’d forget to eat, I’d spend hours on one picture, I loved building an idea, one line at a time.
When I was seven I came second in an art competition with this:
The judges said the leaves on the drawing were too good for a child of my age and I’d obviously had help. That’s why I wasn’t getting first place. I did the picture in school so my teacher, Mrs Richardson was furious. She hadn’t helped with the leaves. She said that second and an accusation of cheating was a compliment – I should be proud.
Be Careful What You Draw
When I was nine my picture won the Ambergate carnival programme competition. It was printed on the programme cover and on posters all over the village and I was given a T-shirt with my picture on it. I remember drawing the zebra crossing and a few houses out of my head, quickly so it wasn’t very good – it had wobbly lines and I was a little ashamed when it won but I couldn’t say that because it would sound ungrateful and everyone kept congratulating me.
Bananas on the Wall
When I was 14 my art teacher Mr Young put my work up all over the art room and in the corridor at school. I remember feeling embarrassed – a WHOLE WALL of my stuff. And a corridor too. A sort of Emily exhibition. I didn’t know he was going to do it. The rest of the work was the fifth year’s because their work was really good.
I had a banana thing going on at the time. This is a depressed banana in prison in pastel (imagine a person sitting hugging their folded knees) and it was huge, 80cm across:
And this was Van Gogh’s bedroom with a depressed banana slumped on the chair:
And bananas in bed:
So my bananas (there were many more) and four self portraits (we had to do them!) were up all over the school.
When I was 16, Mr Young tried to find an A-Level to enter my GCSE work into – two years early. He was an A-Level moderator for the county, he said my work was good enough. But all the courses needed an art theory element to A-Level standard. Something I didn’t have. I did do A-Level art the following two years at college. And maths and physics.
Everyone has an Opinion
When I applied for University I had to choose between art and science. People told me science was ‘useful’. That artists are poor. That even the good ones are only appreciated when dead. That art is hugely competitive – it’s unlikely I’d make it. That it’s much easier to do art in your spare time (picture a science shed blowing up in the back garden!). They said science would get me a job. Science was safe.
The creative industries bring in more money to the UK then any other industry
If you’re an artist, you’ll need to create art. Otherwise a part of who you are just won’t exist and you’ll never be fully you or fully happy.
So I chose science. Geophysics – physics for people who like going outside. And I stopped drawing. No I lie, we had to draw rocks in geology and I got told off. The tutor wrote “too artistic’ in red pen on my beautiful diagrams. But apart from that, I didn’t draw.
Fast Forward Fourteen Years:
Last summer I was pitching my second picture book ‘The Grouse and the Mouse’ to my editor. She explained they wouldn’t be working with the illustrator from my last book ‘Can’t-Dance-Cameron: A Scottish Capercaillie Story’. And something strange happened. A still small voice in my head whispered:
You should do it
I internally replied by thinking ‘Don’t be ridiculous! I’m not an illustrator. As if I could do it!’ And that was that.
But ‘You should do it’ was still there. Like a gentle knocking on a door I was refusing to open.
My parents had asked in the past “why aren’t you illustrating your own books?” and I had replied “because I’m not an illustrator. I don’t have an illustration degree. It’s not like it’s easy” and so on. I’d never realistically considered it.
Maybe I could learn?
The ‘you should do it’ thought wouldn’t go away so I started to think maybe I should do a course in illustration. It would be fun. No pressure to be good – just a chance to learn. To ‘do it’ as a hobby.
I looked for short courses at Edinburgh College of Art and at Leith School of Art and on the Council adult education programme. There were NO short courses in illustration.
Ask an Illustrator
I went along to the Edinburgh Literary Salon and found an author-illustrator friend of mine, John Fardell. I explained my background in fine art and that I was looking for courses – was he teaching any, did he know of any? He said:
You don’t need to do a course, just draw
But I don’t have a style (I said). He replied with:
You don’t need a style. Just work and your style is there. It’s how you draw. It’s you.
He also told me about a workshop he was running that weekend at the National Library of Scotland. It was for children over 8. I’m over 8 so I decided to sign up.
Make a Commitment
I kept thinking about what John said. The next day I spoke to a good friend and former writing mentor of mine Elspeth Murray. She does lots of sketching so I suggested we have a sketching date. I told her I’d decided I would start drawing… sometime in the next month. She said:
Emily, why not today?
I made some excuses and hung up. The truth was I was scared. Scared I’d be rubbish. Even more scared I’d become the slightly crazy person I was as a teenager – drawing giant bananas and forgetting to eat. Singing with paint in my hair.
Why Not Today?
And then I realised Elspeth was right. No one need know. There’s a draw under my bed full of art stuff, I never use it but it’s all there – water colours, acrylics, gouach, pastels, paper, pencils. I chose a pencil and a rubber and a pack of pastels. I decided to try drawing a character from my new book – The Grouse and the Mouse. I drew Squeaker the wood mouse:
It was my first drawing in 14 years and there he was, suddenly alive. I wanted to stroke his little wood mouse head and I felt so happy. I emailed him to friends, to Elspeth and to John and a few others. Like a kid who wants to show everyone their picture. It was a wonderful feeling. And after that I started to draw every day. I drew in bed instead of reading – so I could fit it in.
The course with John Fardell
That weekend I went to the course with John Fardell and the 8 year olds. It was AMAZING. John talked through his process from roughs all the way to finished artwork. He showed us examples at each stage. He talked about how to tell stories through pictures across the page. I learned so much.
Afterwards we all started drawing – the 8 year olds and me. I had a question for John – how do you make a grouse smile when it has a downward beak? I’d tried making the beak turn up instead but it didn’t look right – I mean it didn’t look like a grouse. John explained that Disney bird beaks start the right shape and then turn up at the end – that’s how to give them expression – think Donald Duck. So I tried that and suddenly I had anatomically correct expressive grouse:
One night soon after that I tried three new ways of drawing Squeaker the wood mouse. I was trying to find my character. I tried realistic, cute and cartoon:
Something unexpected happened. I got out of bed and did a little dance. I can’t remember when I last did anything like that. A part of me was back. I felt like a child again. A little bit unhinged but I liked it. Maybe that was me?
I emailed my mouse drawings to John and he told me specifically what was working and what wasn’t (e.g. the first one has a rather long monkey like arm – and he’s too stiff). He was brilliant at balancing praise and encouragement with useful constructive feedback.
Use the Mistakes
I read James Campbell’s Guardian article on how to be an illustrator. Tip nine suggests drawing straight in pen and if you make a mistake just keep going – the mistake becomes part of the picture (rather like life). I tried it and these are the mice I drew:
No pencil, no rubber. I was getting more confident. I emailed them to John, he especially liked the round one above – he said it was my best yet!
I’d heard about an Edinburgh based illustration conference and a mentoring scheme called Picture Hooks. I decided to start working on a submission, the prize was an illustration mentor – I really wanted that. I’d told John I was entering and he’d said he would be happy to advise me on my submission.
I also asked my publishers if I could submit my competition entry to them – would they consider me as an illustrator for The Grouse and the Mouse? They said it was highly unlikely but I could have a go. Mainly because I explained how much I was enjoying doing it and that I wanted the best for the book so if my pictures weren’t good enough I’d be totally happy for them not to use them.
I noticed I was improving every time I drew so I decided to do my picture hooks submission work as last minute as possible. That might sound like a bad plan but I wanted to get as good as I could before I did it.
The deadline was Sunday midnight and I spent all of Saturday on a double page spread. Here’s half way through the day, my messy desk, sketch book and page plan!
Here’s the spread almost finished – it’s A3:
John advised adding more background so I did that next and added some text.
On the Sunday I started a three page character sequence. I decided to try water colours because that’s what John uses. I spent two hours on one mouse and it was a total disaster:
It looked like a hunchback. At this point I very nearly gave up. I’d wasted so much time and still had three pages to go. What was I thinking trying a totally new technique? More to the point what was I thinking trying to be an illustrator?
But then I thought of John and that he’d taken the time to feedback on my first double page spread, despite being a busy man so I decided I couldn’t just give up because he believed I could be an illustrator, even if I didn’t.
I planned out a new page:
And started to pastel each bit:
I got it finished but by then it was around 11pm and I needed to submit at midnight. I did my final page as a quick rough A3 pencil sketch, I drew it in ten minutes:
I submitted and sent it all to John too. I told him about the disastrous water colour mouse and that I’d considered gin and tonic at that point but that I’d finally got it all done. He said people love to see roughs and that my rough sketch was really good so it had actually strengthened my application. I sent my work to Floris too. Then I waited.
No and No
I got a no from Picture Hooks. It went like this:
We met recently to consider the entries and it was a tough process as the standard was so high. I am sorry to be writing to inform you that we were unable to include you on the shortlist, even though we enjoyed looking at your work very much.
Emily, we hope that you will understand our thinking. Everyone admired your work and we all felt it had great commercial potential. However, after much discussion, we decided that you didn’t really require the close attention of an illustrator as a mentor for the year. I hope you won’t be disappointed because actually this is an endorsement from us about how good your work already is.You have your own distinctive style and a great track record – have confidence as you are well on your way.
I sent it on to John and asked if he thought it was softening the blow? He said he’d had many rejections in his time but this wasn’t one of them. And that I should take it as a compliment.
Soon after I got a No from Floris too. They wanted to use a professional illustrator. I was expecting them to say no so it was okay – I wanted the best for the book and was really happy they were publishing my words for a second time, even if they didn’t want my pictures.
But where did I go now? I was too commercial to need a mentor and not professional enough to get published. I felt stuck.
A Yes and a Yes
But then a lovely thing happened. John said he’d be happy to keep feeding back on my work. So I had a mentor after all. And one who’s already helped me improve so much – someone I respect and love working with.
At the end of last year, I wrote a nonfiction book for Harper Collins and as a result I’m now working with a brilliant literary agent, Lindsey Fraser. She’s one half of Fraser Ross Associates – a children’s specialist literary agents. They work with authors AND illustrators. So now I had an agent too, primarily for my words but if my illustrations get good enough in the future I’d have help to pitch them to publishers.
I took some of my drawings to her for a new book I’ve written about squirrels:
She gave me some brilliant advice – my writing has humour in it but my illustrations tend to be a picture of the thing – I’m not bringing me or my humour into them. I realised she was right – I was playing it safe by sticking relatively close to a picture of a real animal. Not changing it much. Not daring to use my own imagination. So that’s my next challenge. And I’ve got John and Lindsey to help.
Just now I’m looking at renting out my flat and moving to the country to help me to reduce living costs. That way I can spend more time writing and drawing. And as for illustration, I’m hoping one day I might get there. One day I might illustrate my own books.
The thing is, even if I don’t, I can still enjoy the process of drawing. I will do little dances of joy because the artist in me has been allowed to come out and play.
My second picture book ‘The Grouse and The Mouse’ comes out later this year, it’s illustrated by the brilliant Kirsteen Harris-Jones.