Rowena Aitken – Q&A

Rowena Aitken
Rowena Aitken
Rowena is a prolific artist who has worked on a wide variety of projects since she became a freelance illustrator 14 years ago. This includes The Wee Book o’ Scottish Mindfooness – A small illustrated book on mindfulness packed with Scottish colloquialisms, Our Big Box – A reminiscence tool for those with dementia and their families and The Hoots – A monthly comic following the musical adventures of The Brainiacs in Brilliant Brainz magazine.

In her spare time, she writes tutorials for other artists keen to learn digital art skills whatever their age.

Rowena has illustrated two popular children’s books: Ruan The Little Red Squirrel (2016) and The Kilted Coo (2017) before collaborating with Elisa Peacock on The Bum That Barked (2020). Her current projects involve educational illustrations primarily in the Irish language specialism and creating the artwork for Ren Cummins’ debut children’s book Princess Peanut, Be Polite (Coming 2023).

Rowena is represented by D’avila Illustration Agency & António Adrião Artist Representative

Rowena can be found at:
Twitter/X: @rowenaaitken
Instagram: @rowena.aitken.illustration

When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?

I’ll start off with the stereotypical answer that I have always drawn. I was a nuisance when I was wee & I think drawing was the only thing that made me sit down for 5 minutes. My parents encouraged me & were always my biggest champions. I was forever lavished with pens, pencils, paper and paint.

I always wanted to become an artist but never realised I could become an illustrator – careers advisors at high school were generally stumped if you wanted to go down a non-standard career path. After graduating with a degree in Animation I drew for pleasure & posted on deviantART (now deleted account) until a perfect life storm came along & I thought “Why not try being a professional illustrator? Worst case I need to get a real job!”. That was 14 years ago.

It’s not easy & always a work in progress; developing, learning & evolving. I don’t think I can see myself doing anything else.

How long does it typically take to make a page or cover for a book?

Blimey! How long is a piece of string?

My answer is it takes as long as it needs to be right or good enough for the deadline. Is everything I send off perfect? Of course not. Perfection is a fool’s errand.

What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?

Definitely my Wacom 27QHD Cintiq – It changed the way I work. I was using a Wacom Intuos 4 XL tablet for about 10 years (still got it, still works) but then I started getting wrist issues. A friend of mine sold me their small Cintiq & although the drawing area was smaller than what I was used to, it was a game changer. It turned out the wrist issues were carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists (which I had surgery for – great success!) so I invested in The Big Wacom that a Twitter pal was selling at the start of the pandemic. My posture & workflow has never been better!

Creatives – look after your body!

Do you have a favourite colour scheme, if so what and why?

I tend towards cooler colours; teal, purple, lime green but also a bit of shocking pink.

Who were your inspirations when starting out?

I’m not sure! I think it was pure pigheaded determination to prove I could do it.

Pixel the Cat
Pixel the Cat

Do you have another job beside being an illustrator, if so what?

On call servant to Pixel the cat.

What do you do to overcome a creative block?

Creative block is very easy to overcome if you have a deadline. It’s also easy to solve if you can bounce ideas around & chat about a problem with someone. My other half Andrew is fantastic for this.

Creative block on personal projects is an entirely different animal. I feel giving yourself constraints helps – if you can draw anything then you invariably end up drawing nothing. A short brief is usually all I need.

Do you have a favourite piece in your portfolio, if so could you share it and talk about it?

Yes it’s the Space Dinosaurs! I don’t recall why I thought “yes, dinosaurs in space” but I’m glad I acted on that whim.

Space Age Dinosaur
Space Age Dinosaur

What was your first book related project?

My first children’s book was Ruan The Little Red Squirrel which came out in 2016. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book – the day I got the contract for this book I found out my Dad had cancer. Sadly he passed away before I could show him the finished printed result but I shared updates with him during the process. I’m incredibly proud of the book – I feel though it’s not my best work but given the circumstances it’s testament to how I can produce something even in the toughest of life’s situations.

Ruan, The Little Red Squirrel
Ruan, The Little Red Squirrel

My second book The Kilted Coo (written by Rachel McGaw & published by Forth Books) was dedicated to my late Dad. I felt I did this one justice & he’d be proud.

The Kilted Coo
The Kilted Coo

What type of media do you prefer to work in and why?

These days I work 100% digital – I use Photoshop & a Wacom 27QHD Cintiq. I do enjoy working with pencils however I don’t have the space at the moment.

Do you have a playlist you like working to? If so do you want to share it?

It really depends on what I’m working on – if it’s the sketch/planning stage it’s ambient music. Right now it’s the Death Stranding soundtrack, Aphex Twin, Leftfield, Radiohead, Hans Zimmer soundtracks. If it’s the refining & rendering stage I listen to audiobooks, Metallica, Prodigy, Chemical Brothers.

Do you have any rituals when working?

I try & use the Pomodoro technique where I work in 45min blocks then get up, go to the little illustrators’ room, make a coffee/get a drink/snack & have a bit of a stretch.

I also have either a mug of strong black coffee &/or a pint of ice cold water.

Did the books you read as a child influence your work?

I suppose they must have, however my love was cartoons. So much that I ended up studying Animation at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee.

I love Chuck Jones’ work – the expressions & dynamic poses are incredible & I try to pay homage to those factors in my work.

Has your illustration/art style changed over time?

Absolutely! I started off working in tabletop RPG art (despite the fact I have never played it in my life). The art was predominantly black & white because it was cheaper for publishers who tended to be self-pubs & paying out of their own pocket. I was more rigid back then – probably because I was starting off with digital art as a job. I had been using a tiny Wacom Graphire 4 A5 for a couple of years but I hadn’t loosened up yet. My “real” art was the opposite; very loose, flowing, scribbly. Now my digital art is fluid as heck. It’s now cute, round, soft, gently textured with popping colours.

How closely do you work with the author on developing the illustrations for a book?

For all my books I’ve worked very closely – my current project Princess Peanut, Be Polite I speak with Ren (Cummins) every couple of weeks. I have been known to randomly message him with an idea. I love that way of working because I can really get inside the author’s mind (plus we get to add in little details/inside jokes/fun references).

If you can please tell us about your latest project and if not your last project

I’ve been working with the fab & lovely Ren Cummins on his debut children’s book Princess Peanut, Be Polite. This is the story of a fussy princess who is implored by her governess to try new food. The artwork is almost complete & we hope to have the book out in Q4 of this year!

Princess Peanut, Be Polite
Princess Peanut, Be Polite

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