Robyn Wilson-Owen – Q&A

I am an illustrator and author based near Cambridge. I create bright, engaging, and expressive images using dip pens and ink washes.

I studied children’s book illustration at Cambridge School of Art and graduated with a MA with distinction. As well as creating my own stories I illustrate books for other people, including Joseph Coelho and Anne Booth. Before I started making books I designed sets, costumes and puppets for theatre, a job which took me on many adventures.

My most recent book – Hedge Lion – was a finalist for the 2023 Bologna illustrators exhibition.

My books have been selected as The Sunday Times children’s book of the week and among The Guardian best books of the summer 2020, long listed for the UKLA book awards and the Spark book awards, and selected to be part of the Empathy Lab ‘read for empathy’ list. I was shortlisted for the Batsford Prize 2018 and the Searle Award for Creativity 2019 and I am represented by Elizabeth Roy Literary Agency.

Robyn can be found at:
Twitter: @robynwilsonowen
Instagram: @robynwilsonowen

When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?

I came to illustration rather late, after a long love affair with theatre. I trained as a theatre designer and worked in wardrobe and design for many years creating sets, costumes and puppets. I always loved to draw and wanted to draw, but I never felt I was good enough. Eventually I got old enough to stop caring and just got on and did it! Theatre design and illustration are very similar in many ways, just now I don’t have to worry about the practicalities of how to make the background stand up, or whether the actors will agree to wearing the costumes!

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

Making the final artwork for a spread takes a day or two, but that is only a very small part of creating the image. Before the final artwork there are hundreds of pencil sketches and colour experiments. When I come to make the final artwork everything is already very carefully planned out.

What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?

My dip pen and collection of vintage nibs.

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

I have quite a specific range of colours I like to use, which vary slightly with each book. I try to use colour very deliberately to convey meaning and guide the eye. I tend to use specific red, blue and yellow inks to mix all the colours I use. I supplement those with an occasional pop of magenta and paynes grey for shadows, alongside sepia ink for my line work. I like sepia for my line as it feels just a touch softer than black line and I feel it sits more comfortably with my colours.

Who were your inspirations when starting out?

I grew up on a diet of AA Milne, Shirley Hughes, Brambly Hedge, and the Albergs, I just love line and detail and stories about the small every day parts of life which I think that comes from those very earliest of influences. My favourite book, which had to be read over and over as a small child, was called “Plucky Pufftail’ by Willy Schermelé. It is very old fashioned and has lots of black and white line drawings, which have clearly permeated my subconscious and influence everything I do.

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

I teach non creatives how to think creatively for Cambridge Uni, I teach drawing in evening and weekend classes, and I work as publishing assistant for Boxer Books. I have in the past also been a school librarian and a bookseller.

What do you do to overcome a creative block?

I draw. I don’t really believe in creative blocks though, I’m a craftsperson who just gets on with their craft every day. If one story isn’t working I move on to another. If a drawing isn’t working I go and find something to draw from life that will inform it. Creative blocks are just a fear of failure/perfectionism I think, once you get used to the idea that everyone makes bad work sometimes you can just get on with it.

What was your first book related project?

The first picture book I illustrated was ‘No Longer Alone’ by Joseph Coelho. Joseph’s writing is amazing, and I was very lucky to have such wonderful words to work with for my first professional project. Joseph is now the children’s laureate, so I’m incredibly lucky to have been in the right place at the right time and got to work with him.

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

I work in ink line, I like the permanence, that you have to accept mistakes and incorporate them. I also use waterproof ink for my colours and again I like the permanence, and that I can work in layers. I feel like I am a printmaker who paints.

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

I am a Beatles obsessive and at the moment I always put the the ‘Get Back’ documentary on when I work so I can pretend John, Paul, George and Ringo are my studio mates bickering in the background!

Has your illustration/art style changed over time?

I have massively refined the way I work over the past few years. I have learnt a lot about nibs and ink and paper and spent a lot of time looking at how other artists approach line work. I have always found colour really difficult and I have worked hard at developing full colour illustrations, at the beginning my colour was very limited. I still love extremely limited colour but to move forward I had to expand my range.

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

Not closely at all! I am generally given a text and left to interpret it as I see fit. I then produce pencil roughs and respond to feedback on them. That feedback has always come via the publisher, so I’m rarely aware whether it’s something the author thinks or a designer/editor etc. I didn’t directly interact with Joseph until long after ‘No Longer Alone’ was finished, and I have never met Anne Booth who wrote ‘Bloom’ in person.

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

I’d love to have a go at the Wind in Willows. All that gorgeous nature and potential for delicious details…

Which illustrated books in the last year have you loved?

the Worry Jar illustrated by Jenny Bloomfield, Don’t be Silly by Padmacandra and The After Christmas tree by Bethan Welby.

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

Hedge Lion was published on February 2nd in the UK and March 7th in the US. It’s an incredibly special book for me, one I have been working on for 6 years and is based on a place where I lived for 14 years. The main (human!) character is my youngest daughter, Ida. In the book she sees Hedge Lion every day on her walk around town. Hedge Lion wants everyone to think he’s a hedge, not a lion, because nobody is scared of hedges. But Ida is brave, she notices things that other people don’t, and she’s not fooled. She knows Hedge Lion is a lion, she just needs to help him find his roar…

Do you have any events on in the near future?

I am doing a variety of school and bookshop events over the next few months, all the details can be found on my website I love running events so if you know a school or bookshop who would like to have me then get in touch!

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