Maria Oliver – Q&A

Once Upon a Time, You...

Once Upon a Time, You…

Maria Oliver is a Hertfordshire based yoga teacher and member of the British Wheel of Yoga. She started teaching yoga in 2015, much to her children’s disgust, and spent the next few years trying to work out how to interest them in what she did. This changed when she started her children’s yoga teacher training with Calm for Kids, and she learnt how to spark children’s imaginations through yoga.

Maria has written three collections of relaxation scripts for lively children, and one yoga adventure book which has been translated into French and Ukrainian.

Maria is married with two children and two cats.

Maria can be found here:
Website: www.boxmooryoga.co.uk
Twitter: @boxmooryoga
Instagram: @boxmooryoga
Facebook: @boxmooryoga

When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?

I’ve always loved drawing, but as I didn’t study art and design I thought I’d shut off that part of my brain and any future opportunity to work in this area.

In 2021 I had the idea of writing a children’s yoga book and approached an illustrator called Lizzie Martell. She didn’t have the time to take the book on. However, when I shyly suggested that perhaps she could support me in illustrating the book myself, she was very encouraging and enthusiastic. She gave me tips on the best art materials to buy and helped by scanning in the pictures and ensuring that the digital files were of print quality.

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

AGES. I draw in pencil, go over in ink and then paint with watercolours. As I draw children in yoga poses, I have to make sure that the way they are positioned is accurate so that children can copy correctly and safely. There is energy in each yoga pose, and I have to be sure that the energy comes across in the illustration. Alignment of body parts is important too! Lizzie then scans the illustrations in and we work together to make sure that the final digital file is just right.

What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?

I love my watercolour paints, even though I can best be described as ‘an enthusiastic amateur’. I paint a bit like a child has got hold of the paintbox and I have a bit of an untidy style. I think that’s why children like my illustrations.

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

Purple and green. I love those two colours together. Green relates to harmony and love, purple relates to inner wisdom and intuition. Both are associated with calm.

Who were your inspirations when starting out?

Lizzie Martell was very inspirational. She illustrates greetings cards and was a winner of Theo Paphitis’ Small Business Sunday and has met him several times. She is not formally trained either, and made me believe I could illustrate my own book.

I love Axel Scheffler’s illustrations. I think we have the same cartoonish drawing style, even though he has more command of his paints! But reading his books to my children when they were small made me think ‘I could draw that too.’

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

I am a yoga teacher! I teach children, adults, pregnant women and new mums. I’ve always loved drawing and creative writing, but being a yoga teacher has also given me an excuse to write my yoga and relaxation books for children. The two inform each other – I have created resources that I can use in my classes and share with other yoga teachers, school teachers and parents, and the books themselves are inspired by yoga philosophy, teaching yoga, and my class members.

What do you do to overcome a creative block?

I don’t tend to get them! I have to juggle teaching my classes and organising my home and children. I find that ideas come to me and then I have to make time to carry them out. It’s very rare that I sit down to draw and write and find that I’m lacking in ideas. Normally when I finally get the opportunity to sit down, the ideas have all stacked up and are bursting to be let out.

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

It is hard to choose, but I think it has to be the flying horse and the flying foal. It is entirely about unconditional love and forgiveness.

Firstly, I wanted my books to be inclusive. The genders of the flying horse and foal are never given, and neither is their relationship. The horse could be a parent, step parent, foster parent, grandparent, teacher, aunt or uncle. They might be the sole caregiver, or there may be another caregiver in the background. I didn’t want to depict a mother or father as caregiver. Any child could look at that relationship and think ‘that’s about me’.

The foal has learnt to fly, and has flown off. The horse needs your help (as the reader) to catch them. When the foal is caught, they say they are sorry and they are instantly forgiven. In the illustration, the foal looks a little like they feel they do not deserve this unconditional love.

They know they have misbehaved and caused a lot of trouble. All children are worthy of unconditional love, no matter how much trouble they cause.

What was your first book related project?

I wrote a collection of relaxation scripts for children during Lockdown in 2020. I had to quickly adapt to teaching yoga online. I used Zoom and I also recorded YouTube videos. I learnt that I could not record myself reading someone else’s book without permission from the publisher.

Unfortunately, yoga teachers love books! We use readings at the end of yoga classes, we quote from old texts… so I wrote my own relaxation scripts and collected them together into a children’s book, ‘Red Kites, Apples and Blood Cells’, working with illustrators Ben and Steph Grandis.

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

Now I have discovered watercolours I love them, although I know I have a lot to learn.

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

I am so fussy about music, that I could spend hours choosing what I listen to, so I prefer not to. I have very limited time to work and need to just sit down and get on with it.

Do you have any rituals when working?

I like to have a cup of tea. I have to be very careful not to dip my paintbrush into it.

Do you have a favourite artist outside of the world of books, if so who and why?

I love the Impressionists and have always been entranced by Monet’s Waterlily paintings. I could stand and stare and become immersed for hours. I studied English and French studies at University, and learnt a lot about Impressionism as part of my French course.

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

In terms of story, I used to love Choose Your Own Adventure Books, and Asterix Adventure Game books, although I’d always make wrong choices and end up meeting a sticky end. In my yoga books, there are no wrong choices and they all end with a guided relaxation, like every yoga class should.

In terms of illustrators, because I loved Roald Dahl, I owned lots of books containing Quentin Blake illustrations. As a child, I really wanted to tidy up his wobbly lines, but I could also appreciate that his pictures were very skillful! I liked his detailed pictures of The Twits when their home is turned completely upside down, and The BFG when he has breakfast at Buckingham Palace, on a table using Grandfather Clocks as legs.

Has your illustration/art style changed over time?

I very much draw the way I did as a child! But I’ve moved on from colouring pencils to watercolours.

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

As I am the author, very closely indeed! I have a very clear idea about how I want the books to be laid out and how the text and images fit together. Being self-published means I have total control over the book.

If you could illustrate any classic book which would it be and why?

Oh my goodness. I don’t think I could possibly. I can only imagine the illustrations matching the text as they are already.

Which illustrated books in the last year have you loved?

Blobfish by Olaf Falafel. I buy picture books to use in children’s yoga classes and I thought this book was brilliant. It’s about loneliness and friendship, ocean conservation, littering and bad jokes. When I use it in children’s yoga classes, they all love it and laugh all the way through. The illustrations are great fun as well. And best of all, I can fit yoga poses into the story! I use revolved half moon pose for ‘litter picking pose’ if you’re interested!

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

The first book I illustrated was ‘Once Upon a Time, You… a Yoga Adventure where you choose what happens!’ It came out in 2021, and last year I had it translated into Ukrainian and crowdfunded so that 200 copies could be printed and distributed to schools and host families around the UK.

I am now working on the sequel, called ‘Not so long ago, You…’ and now I’ve illustrated one book, I know exactly how much hard work this one will be! Both books are adventure picture books where you can choose who you fly with and where you fly. There are objects to find on each page, decisions to make, and of course lots of yoga poses!

do you have any events on in the near future?

I don’t have anything concrete planned yet, but if you go to www.boxmooryoga.co.uk I share all my news there.


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Keith Robinson – Q&A

Keith Robinson

Keith Robinson

My work is informed by a love of nature, myth and history, all of which can be found in abundance where I live, on the Devon-Dorset border. The beautiful landscape of the West Country, the stunning scenery of the Jurassic Coast and the wilds of nearby Dartmoor provide a constant source of inspiration.

I’ve been a freelance illustrator since 2001, but I came to it the long way round. After graduating in graphics and illustration in 1992, I worked as an animator on some of the earliest digital media productions for clients around the world. In 1995 I joined the BBC and was part of the R&D team that developed the Corporation’s first website. I later founded Codename, an award winning media production company, before I finally returned to my first love and picked up my pencils in earnest again.

I live with my wife and two children, near the pretty seaside town of Lyme Regis, on the south coast of England. When I’m not working I enjoy hiking, camping, fossil-hunting, playing the guitar and rummaging through second-hand book shops.

Keith can be found here:
Website: keithrobinson.co.uk
Twitter: @RobinsonKH
Instagram: @keithrobinson_illustration

When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?

I’ve always loved drawing, but I started taking it seriously when I was about 15. My art teacher arranged for me to do work experience at a graphic design studio and it dawned on me that I might actually be able to make a living out of art. I went to art college to study graphic design initially, but I soon realised illustration, especially children’s illustration, was what I was really interested in, so I switched to an illustration degree.

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

It can vary a lot, depending on the brief.

I’ll start by producing roughs – which for a cover might take a day or so. These will then go to the publishing team for approval and there will usually be one or two rounds of revisions before everyone is happy to go to final art.

Then a cover might take anything from a couple of days to a week or more, depending on how complex the illustration is. Interior illustrations tend to be black and white. (I work in middle grade and young adult publishing rather than for picture books) so they are usually much quicker – half a day or a day. But again, they will have been through a round of roughs and revisions first.

What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?

A few years ago I finally invested in a Wacom Cintiq pen display, which changed my life! (It’s like a big screen that you can draw directly on with a pressure sensitive pen.)

I do love a good-old dip pen, brush and a pot of ink, though.

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

Not one in particular. I’ll choose a colour scheme that’s appropriate for the project and helps evoke the atmosphere and feeling I’m trying to convey. Sometimes it’s an intuitive process and sometimes I’ll plan it all out – but usually a mixture of both. I’ve noticed I often tend to use analogous colours (which are close to each other on the colour wheel) combined with contrasting accent colours.

Who were your inspirations when starting out?

As a kid I loved classic sci-fi and fantasy art. There was one image in particular, Jade Sea by Roger Dean, which I had as a poster in my bedroom. I’d really loose myself in it and it made me think, I want to learn how to do that!

At art college my eyes were opened to a whole world of art and artists – too many to mention. But it was around that time that I discovered the work of Dave McKean, who remains a constant source of inspiration.

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

I teach illustration to foundation-year art students, one day a week.

What do you do to overcome a creative block?

I’m not sure I believe in creative block as such. I prefer to think of it like anything else – you have good days and bad days. There are definitely days when I seem to have lost the ability to draw! The thing is, you just have to turn up and put in the hours, regardless. I think it was Picasso who said, inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

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

Northern Lights

Northern Lights

I don’t really have a favourite piece. There are things I like about all of them and things I wish I’d done differently. (There’s also plenty of bad work that isn’t in the portfolio!)

An important piece for me was this mocked-up cover for Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. This was personal work – I loved the book and wanted to set myself a project to try out a new way of working that combined traditional and digital techniques. It ended up being something of a turning point as I’d been struggling to make work that I was happy with up until then. This piece has also been good to me, as it’s led to quite a few commissions.

What was your first book related project?

Ha! That would have been at primary school. I remember there was a competition to write and illustrate our own ‘books’. I worked really hard on mine, and was sure I’d win, but my best friend came first! I was pretty jealous of him at the time, but I must have got over it because were still best mates. And besides, his book was better than mine.

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

These days I mostly paint digitally using Photoshop, which has freed up my work no end. The ‘undo’ button means I can work in a much looser way – if I make a mark and it goes wrong, I can always try it again. But I often combine it with elements and textures painted traditionally, which I scan-in and incorporate into the digital painting. I love ink, watercolour and gouache. There’s always that random element in the way they behave – the way ink will run into water for example – that can’t really be replicated digitally. So combining the two gives the work a more organic feel.

There’s also a very practical reason for working digitally, in that it’s much easier to make changes if the client requests it!

I have all sorts of playlists, depending on how I feel when I’m working. Sometimes I need something ambient that will sit in the background and help me concentrate, but other times I might need an energy boost from a few banging tunes! I find that quite often a project will take on its own ‘soundtrack’ that somehow suits the mood of the illustration.

Do you have any rituals when working?

Apart from a large mug of coffee and a period of procrastination in the morning, not as such. I have a process though (which I’ve decided the procrastination is part of.) I start by doodling loose thumbnail sketches, which are largely unintelligible to anyone but me, until I’ve formed a clear idea of what I’m after. Then I’ll gradually refine these sketches through several iterations, gathering reference materials as I go, to help me draw specific details. Once I have a finished sketch that I’m happy with, I’ll use it as a basis for a grayscale rough to work out the tonal values, and a colour rough to work out the palette. I’ll then continue to work into this colour version to arrive at the final artwork.

I’m usually quite excited about a piece I’ve started working on, but if you could plot it on a graph, it would be a U-shaped curve that starts with ‘this is going to be the best thing I’ve ever done!’ quickly sloping down to ‘this is actually quite hard’, bottoming out at ‘this is rubbish’ and then climbing back up to ‘Oh that’ll have to do’!

Do you have a favourite artist outside of the world of books, if so who and why?

It’s hard to single anyone out, there are so many. Van Gogh is high on the list though. His work speaks for itself, he was a truly great painter and an astonishing colourist, but I love his letters as well. They reveal the real person behind the clichéd tortured artist image. He was a deeply humane and sensitive person (albeit a difficult one as well) who struggled to overcome debilitating and often frightening mental health problems. The popular image is of Van Gogh painting in some sort of crazed frenzy, and while there might be an element of truth in that, he created so much beauty in spite of his illness, not because of it. I think his life is heroic for that.

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

They definitely stirred my imagination and made me want to visualise the fictional worlds I loved so much. In that regard, books like Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, The Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin, Watership Down by Richard Adams, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame were all hugely formative.

I loved the illustrations as well. Pauline Baynes’ Narnia illustrations and her covers for Tolkien’s books, and E.H. Shepard’s illustrations for Wind in the Willows made a big impression on me. I didn’t really know who they were at the time, I just loved the pictures, but they remain among my favourite illustrators and have been a big influence over the years.

Has your illustration/art style changed over time?

Yes, massively – as it should do of course. Drawing is a lifelong learning process, and it took a long time for me to arrive at something I was happy with. I’m far more comfortable with my process now, but hopefully my work is still evolving, as there’s always something new to discover.

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

It’s actually quite unusual to have direct contact with an author while working on a book. This is something that tends to be mediated by the publishing team. I do love building relationships with authors though. This often happens after the book is published, but if it’s a book series it’s nice to have that ongoing relationship when illustrating subsequent titles.

It’s also lovely to collaborate with authors on personal projects. I’m currently working with a brilliant writer on something very exciting, which I really hope will see the light of day eventually.

Jade Sea by Roger Dean

Jade Sea by Roger Dean

If you could illustrate any classic book which would it be and why?

I’ve adored The Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin since I was a child and would love to illustrate them. The renowned illustrator Charles Vess beat me to it though, with the most gorgeous fully illustrated anthology, published in 2018.

Which illustrated books in the last year have you loved?

Oh, there are lots. It feels like such a golden age for illustrated books. A few I’ve loved have been; Tyger by S.F. Said, illustrated by Dave McKean, The Worlds We Leave Behind by A.F. Harold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold, Crushing by Sophie Burrows, Raptor by Dave McKean, The Circles in the Sky by Karl James Mountford, and The Hideaway by Pam Smy.

I’ve just ordered Shuna’s Journey by Hayao Miyazaki (of Studio Ghibli fame) which has just been published in English for the first time, which I can’t wait to read.

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

I’m just finishing illustrations for a book called Jodie by Hilary McKay, which should be coming out in May, published by Barrington Stoke. It’s a wonderful ghost story. Eerily atmospheric, with a great twist, but tender, kind, and funny as well.


If you want to help and support this blog and my other projects (Indie Publishers and Big Bearded Bookseller) you could become a Patreon which would help pay for my hosting, domain names, streaming services, and the occasional bag of popcorn to eat while watching films.

If you can’t support with a monthly subscription a tip at my Ko-Fi is always appreciated, as is buying things from my Ko-Fi Shop.

You can always email me on contact@bigbeardedbookseller.com with any suggestions.

Karin Celestine – Q&A

Karin Celestine

Karin Celestine

Karin Celestine lives in a small house in Monmouth, Wales. In their garden there is a shed and in that shed is another world. The world of Celestine and the Hare. Karin taught children about art, chemistry, numbers, crafts and magic, but they are always drawn back to the Shed, where they bring to life creatures of all kinds using only wool, observation and the power of imagination.

Karin can be found at:
Website: www.celestineandthehare.com/
Twitter: @andtheHare
Instagram: @andthehare
Facebook: @celestineandthehare

When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?

I never really did! I kind of fell into it by accident though I do have a story written in infants school saying I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I started selling my sculptures but instead of just saying here is a badger for sale, I would make up a story about them, saying they made great coffee, which is why they are up all night. The stories to go with the pictures turned into books and the illustration came about.

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

For me it is quite a long process. I first of all have to make the animals which can take anything from a few hours to a week or two to make. I then have to make any accessories for them and then photograph them in situ. The location has to be found, which can take some time too and then wait for the right weather, or season even and set up the animals and accessories and take the pictures. I take a lot of pictures and hope that one of them is good enough. Sometimes I have to get inventive such as taking a picture in the freezer. I try to plan my books around the seasons they are illustrated in now, but that makes the schedule quite slow sometimes. My next book can’t be out till 2024 because I need to take the photos in the summer this year.

What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?

I love my wooden felting needle holder. I have had it so long now that it has worn and has a beautiful patina on it that feels lovely to hold.

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

My colour scheme is one of nature, and that is always my favourite. I have a huge soft spot for blues which often are seen as too dark for children’s books but I do push for them sometimes.

Who were your inspirations when starting out?

My inspirations come from books I read as a child, I am half Swedish and I was surrounded by stories of trolls, woods and nature. John Bauer graced my walls and I loved his world so much. The Moomins, Firmin and Postgate are a huge influence, E H Shepherd, Arthur Rackham, Kay Neilson. All those stories of animals who could talk and had lives alongside ours. That was the world I inhabited and one I felt I should be living in. That is where my work comes from, that liminal world between real and fantasy. The middle, not one or the other is where I am most comfortable and where my inspiration comes from

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

I am also an artist and author. Most of my work is making the animals that feature in my illustration. I sell those and then write the stories for them too.

what do you do to overcome a creative block?

The best thing is to have a rest, go for a walk, take some time away. That is always my way of overcoming the block. It is usually because I am tired and not giving myself time and space to get some inspiration. I have a couple of artist friends who are great at bouncing ideas and sparking new thoughts if I walk or chat with them. Otherwise sometimes if you need to push through, I make something I already know how to make, something mundane and simple and that can get me going.

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

Badger

Badger

My favourites change all the time but my current favourite is Grandmother Badger who will feature in my next book. She is made of a place. I walk in some woods near where I live called Buckholt woods. I love those woods and found an old badger sett there. I wanted to make every part of her from the woods, it became a bit of an obsession and labour of love. I picked nettles, processed them into fibre and made her a shawl from them. She is spinning nettle fibre on a seed head picked from the woods. Her basket is woven from brambles collected there, her necklace dandelion stems from the entrance. Her shawl is decorated with copper castings of acorns, leaves, fir cones etc all collected in the woods and then moulds and casts taken. She is of her place.

Panda in his boat is another favourite, because it was the first book I illustrated and the sea and sunset were perfect and there’s such hope, gentleness and sense of adventure.

What was your first book related project?

My first was my first book. I was given a contract for 3 books but the first book I wrote and illustrated was paper boat for panda which is number 2 in the series. I had to put Small Finds a Home as number one as small is found in that one and he appears in the second book.

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

The Wish Gatherers

The Wish Gatherers

I work in photography and sculpture because that is what I do and I can’t think of any other way to work! I’d love to be able to draw as some of my ideas would be so much easier to draw than try to make and photograph but that’s how it is! I wanted to illustrate lots of baby water voles playing in the river, with armbands, rubber rings etc, but I just can’t do that when I am photographing felted animals in a real river! I have to change to the illustration sometimes to fit was is possible. In the Wish Gatherers, I asked Tamsin Rosewell to paint the skies and backdrops for the story which were then blended by Graffeg with my photos as I just could not photograph a mouse looking up at shooting star!

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

I’m afraid I don’t. I like to work in quiet, or if doing really mundane building up bodies etc then I listen to podcasts. I am a fan of Ologies.

Do you have any rituals when working?

Not really, I find it hard to settle in the morning when I arrive at my shed so I have a routine of lighting the wood burner, putting the kettle on it, and making a flask of tea for the day. (I got fed up drinking cold tea) By the time the kettle is boiled, I have stopped faffing and can sit and work.

Do you have a favourite artist outside of the world of books, if so who and why?

Oh I have so many. I studied history of art and could tell you one from each era of history.
My aunt took me to see an exhibition of Emil Nolde and he has stayed with me as one I return to and one I have on my wall (print only sadly). His passion for painting even when banned, that he switched from oils to watercolours so they couldn’t be detected in his basement, that he used watercolour like oil, his sense and boldness of colour.

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

Hugely! I’m half expecting cease and desists from the grave! Apart from the ones mentioned above, Pippi Longstocking and Astrid Lindgren were a big influence and books such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, where things aren’t what they seem, that magical moment when the clock strikes 13 and you find that other world.

Has your illustration/art style changed over time?

It has changed in that I have got better at making the animals and photography over the years. My love of folklore has developed more and I prefer to make more of the magical folklore type creatures than the funny ones, though I still do both.

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

Very closely as it is me! I have only ever illustrated for myself so far, except for a stop motion I did for someone once.

If you could illustrate any classic book which would it be and why?

Wind in the Willows because of the animals in it, though I’m not sure I’d be able to get away from the illustrations I know so well.

Which illustrated books in the last year have you loved?

Jackie Morris and James Mayhew’s Mrs Noah series is just wonderful. Harry Woodgate’s grandad’s camper,

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

My latest is number 3 in the Tales of the Turning year series. The Lightbringers, and Wish Gatherers being one and two.

This one is set in summer and I am making the animals for it now, ready to photograph in the summer. I also have to finish writing the story too! It has the biggest cast of animals so far, so a lot of work to do but I am excited for how it will turn out.

Do you have any events on in the near future?

I am a bit of an introvert creature, like a woody in the Moomins, so I tend to hide away in my little shed. Also living in Wales means I’m not near a lot of places. So, non planned for the near future.

A Gallery of Karin’s Work


If you want to help and support this blog and my other projects (Indie Publishers and Big Bearded Bookseller) you could become a Patreon which would help pay for my hosting, domain names, streaming services, and the occasional bag of popcorn to eat while watching films.

If you can’t support with a monthly subscription a tip at my Ko-Fi is always appreciated, as is buying things from my Ko-Fi Shop.

You can always email me on contact@bigbeardedbookseller.com with any suggestions.

James Mayhew – Q&A

James Mayhew

James Mayhew

Award-winning author & illustrator James Mayhew is the creator of the best-selling KATIE series, ELLA BELLA books and ONCE UPON A TUNE. He is also the illustrator of MRS NOAH’S POCKETS (by Jackie Morris), the MOUSE & MOLE series (by Joyce Dunbar), Polari Prize-winner NEN AND THE LONELY FISHERMAN (by Ian Eagleton) and GASPARD THE FOX by Zeb Soanes.

James is also a presenter of family classical concerts, and takes part in many unique events at music festivals all over the country. His collaborators include the London Mozart Players, BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

James can be found at:
Website: www.jamesmayhew.co.uk
Twitter: @mrjamesmayhew
Instagram: @mrjamesmayhew

When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?

I always drew as a kid, but the decision to be an illustrator came much later. After school I took a foundation course in Art & Design at Lowestoft College. Initially I wanted to go on to study Fine Art, or Set Design. It took a while until I accepted the obvious choice – my work was always very much about drawing and narrative, so Illustration was an almost inevitable choice in the end. Even so, it was only when my first book was published (“Katie’s Picture Show”, 1989) that I really thought I’d found my vocation.

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

The most time consuming part is often the preliminary sketches, and any research required – looking at periods of architecture or costume for example. This is when most of the decisions are made, and it can take a long time, days or even weeks. The final art would usually take a day or two.

What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?

A pair of embroidery scissors that I use when cutting papers for collage.

Scissors and collage

Scissors and collage

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

I am very drawn to blues and turquoise, and I don’t really know why. I could say its because I grew up in Suffolk near the sea, and with big skies – or because of their melancholy vibe… but I don’t really think that’s true. I just like them!

Who were your inspirations when starting out?

Book illustrators! Especially the ones I grew up with: Edward Ardizzone, Tove Jansson, Brian Wildsmith, Quentin Blake, John Burningham, Maurice Sendak – a golden age!

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

Well, I’m a writer too, but of course that’s completely intertwined with being an illustrator.

What do you do to overcome a creative block?

I walk away – and do something different. I might walk the dog, bake a cake or do something unrelated but still creative. Maybe sketching or painting for something other than a book. Sometimes it helps to talk through problems with my husband Toto. Ultimately, most things just need time to resolve.

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

I’m hyper-critical of everything I do, but I have a great fondness for an image in Mrs Noah’s Song (story by Jackie Morris, published by Otter-Barry books). I love creating images in collage, and this was a really favourite. I depicts the dawn chorus, as the Noah family awake in a hammock. Once, as a child, I spent the night in a hammock and really was awakened by the dawn chorus – I’ve never forgotten it! So there is a lot memory and meaning in this image.

What was your first book related project?

My first ever commission was from Virago Press to illustrate the front cover of “Up The Junction” by Nell Dunn – about as far away from a children’s book as you can get. But it’s only my first by a few hours as the SAME DAY I got offered a contract for “Katie’s Picture Show”! The stars were clearly aligned that day in 1987!

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

For many years I used dip pen and ink, tools I still love and respond to. But latterly I’ve been exploring print-making and collage and I feel it’s brought an element of play and experiment into my work which I find very exciting.

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

Nothing fixed – I might listen to ABBA one day and a tragic opera the next! I’m often drawn to music by specific performers. I love the voice of the Spanish singer Victoria de los Angeles, so I’ll happily listen to anything she recorded. Rossini overtures are great for meeting a deadline, they keep me going. I love the sound world of Sibelius. And if life gets too much, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is my “reset” music.

Do you have any rituals when working?

No, I don’t think I do. I believe every book is unique and different. A ritual might suggest a formula.

Do you have a favourite artist outside of the world of books, if so who and why?

I’ve explored many artists in the “Katie” series, but one artist who I love, and who was never featured in a “Katie” book, is Samuel Palmer. I love the rhapsodic nature of his work.

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

Absolutely. In both conscious and unconscious ways. The illustrators I mentioned before were all experts with drawing in ink, and their line work was a huge inspiration. But I also find echoes of stories I loved creeping into my work, especially folk tales and myths. I firmly believe our childhood experiences, including books, words and pictures, never leave us.

Has your illustration/art style changed over time?

Yes. I don’t believe in being a “brand” and sticking with one “style”. I prefer to change, grow, evolve as I learn more and become more experienced. One of the problems of working on a long running series like “Katie” or “Mouse and Mole” is the need to be consistent, but increasingly I am moving away from drawing in ink and towards collage and print-making. I find I surprise myself and create images I didn’t necessarily expect to make. I like that thrill. It keeps it all fresh for me and challenges me.

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

Traditionally publishers acted as a go-between and you almost never spoke with an author. Nowadays it’s so much easier to be in touch, and it makes books much better I think, truly collaborative. Certainly with “Gaspard the Fox” by Zeb Soanes, a real friendship has grown and Zeb often provides reference images for the illustrations. Likewise, Ian Eagleton was a lovely collaborator with our Polari Prize winning book “Nen And The Lonely Fisherman”.

If you could illustrate any classic book which would it be and why?

So many favourites have already been brilliantly done, it’s hard to choose, but I keep coming back to “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen, which has haunted me since childhood. I think that’s something I’d love to dive into and interpret my way!

Which illustrated books in the last year have you loved?

I loved “Dadaji’s Paintbrush” by Rashmi Sirdeshpande, Illustrated by Ruchi Mhasane (an ex-student of mine from India!).

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

My latest project is a collaboration with my husband, the Spanish artist Toto Martinez. Uniquely, we both co-wrote it and co-illustrated it. It’s a fresh new version of “The Frog Prince”. In our version, it’s the frog who is on a quest for happiness, but his “happy ever after” is a bit different to what he expected. We are really excited about this inclusive fairy tale – it’s guaranteed to make your heart skip a beat! It’s published by Scholastic on May 11th.

The Frog’s Kiss

The Frog’s Kiss

Do you have any events on in the near future?

In the Spring I’ll be touring Scotland with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a series of schools concerts based on my book “Once Upon A Tune”, which is really exciting. I’ll be presenting the concerts and painting live illustrations during the performances! I’ll also be leading a week long retreat, for picture-book creators, in Spain in May.


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