Advice about illustration.

This morning on checking my emails before starting work, while waiting for a valiant knight to arrive to rescue me from the chaos and disorder of the Filth Troll that inhabits my home I found an email from a young student in Pennsylvania, USA asking for advice about illustration. A lovely email. Mostly it asked for tips and advice. As I get more and more emails asking about this I have decided to reply in a blog post:

“Thanks for your email. You too have inspired me to get on with my work. I am almost at the end of a book now and that is a hard place to be but it’s nearly there.

Well, hmm…..advice.

Very important to draw as much as you can. Doesn’t matter what it looks like just draw, all the time, every day, where ever you are. Drawing is only about looking and seeing at the end of the day. So, first advice is get a sketch book and carry it everywhere and doodle and look and draw.

You can work anywhere. This is a lesson I learnt from looking at the work of Kathy Kollwitz. She drew the most beautiful pictures whilst being interned in a concentration camp. So often I hear people say that they will work when they have a studio space made. I have worked in the corners of rooms, a caravan in the garden and now I am lucky and have a studio that is all mine! And I am also very fortunate to have lived when and where I do. But it’s not the space outside that matters its the space inside your head. This is where creativity happens.

The half of my studio where the painting happensthe half of my studio where the thinking and computing happens( hmmmm… someone needs to tidy up. Please note, studio dog- Floss is not very well and has decided that she has to follow me everywhere).

Make the most of any and all opportunities that come your way. Be open hearted, but not to the point where people take advantage of you. Value yourself, your unique voice and your work.

The time to start worrying is when you look at your work and think ‘wow, that’s brilliant’. Part of what will keep you going is a constant striving towards perfection, but probably you will never get there, because with every new thing that you learn, every new way of looking and seeing you will open up the opportunity for new knowledge, new paths to walk, new learning.

Try to look at things in different ways, always question.

Don’t expect to make a fortune, especially if you are thinking of working in books. If you want fortune and glory you will find that very few people attain it this way, but if you love what you do ( the doing of it, not necessarily the finished project) you will have a life that is rich in so many more interesting ways.

But mainly, back to the beginning. Draw. Every day. Doodle, scribble, meander a pen over paper, make marks. This is a lesson I need to relearn as i am too much tangled up in expecting things to ‘look good’ and I don’t do enough drawing just for the sake of the practice itself. So thank you, for making me think about what I do.

Hope this helps.

Can others please add advice in comments, things that have most helped you.


About Jackie

I am an artist and writer. I live in a small house by the sea in Wales where I write, paint, walk and watch and dream of bears and whales. I love to read, have a wish for wings and prefer the company of animals to that of humans, though at times I can be quite friendly. I am learning how to work with wood engraving tools and hoping to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
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11 Responses to Advice about illustration.

  1. Not to worry about tidying everything until you get to the end of a project. Before that it saps creative energy – where does this actually go? After the project is done…Then it helps with changing gears. It looks like it works for you!
    you do have to tidy a bit if looking for things takes too much time or if it means the finished parts are endangered. For me working with textiles, I can deal with the piles, it is the floor covered with strings that I have to deal with before the end.

    Sorry about Floss being unwell. Give her a big hug from me. Pepper followed me everywhere near the end, too.
    Sandy in Bracknell

  2. I think this is super advice Jackie. It really doesn’t matter where you work, I’ve illustrated ten books without a studio, I’m currently working from a small table in the corner of my living room which is an upgrade from a smaller table in the corner of my bedroom.

    I also think your point about enjoying the process of being an illustrator and not just the final product is a good one… Everybody would love to hold their own book but the months and months of drawing, re-drawing and screwing up texts that ‘aren’t quite right’ are often what it’s all about. By the time you seen the finished piece you are usually already engrossed in the next project which has become your new baby/obsession.

    Draw as you possibly can, draw, doodle, sketch and scribble every day. Look at what other people have been drawing too – I find this hugely inspiring and it often encourages me to get on with my own work.

    Don’t be put off if others are not so keen on your illustrations. If you submit a piece of work to a publisher and you get knocked back politely ask them if they could give you a tiny bit of feedback, then try to take their advice on board and then submit to somebody else… and… keep on drawing!

    Practice is the key, and if putting pencil to paper makes you happy then I think you are already half way there!

    Good luck!

  3. Elli says:

    A lovely post. I’m a writer rather than an illustrator, but your advice (if the word ‘draw’ was replaced with ‘write’) can equally apply to writers too. Now back to my writing…

  4. Brilliant!.. this all sounds very familiar and everything that I tell illustrators / students etc. when they ask me at colleges or email etc. I’ve been an illustrator for 15 years and it’s only now that I feel that I have my own voice ( by writing my own stories, (in progress) and going back to college to do an MA) I’ve felt a bit like a fraud until a couple of years ago, by illustrating other peoples ideas and working to tight briefs etc, but by noticing and realising my daily habits, I have embraced them and made them my own. I always came in at 9am and stayed til 6 and in earlier if on deadline. I saw it as a job , not a vocation. It is only now I start at 10 and run with my dog in the morning and have breakfast etc, stay til 6, but I set two days aside for my own work now. I finally realise that my own work and habits are part of who I am and therefore a successful practice. YOU have to tick, to make the cogs turn. It is only with this more relaxed and intrinsic approach that I feel more comfortable in my own skin on a daily basis, and being creative is a huge part of that. With my iphone and my portable sketchbook I am mobile, and can log all those little vignettes of life that prick my attention wherever I am.

    I have a lovely big studio, and share with a friend and fellow illustrator, but sometimes it is the moment when you’re out and you have to use a blunt pencil or a scrap of paper, because you’re away from your gear, when actually those are the moments that whole projects can spin around, or on. If you have the honest drive you can create wherever, however, with whatever. There’s no excuse for not creating…and failure is something we all have to embrace. I still get scared with every project i do, but without risk there is no element of success….love it and could speak about it all day, thanks for the repost Catherine and thanks Jackie for the original… good luck to us all! xxx

  5. Fabulous and generous advice. You, by way of your books and blog, school visits and gallery days, offer the door to anyone who might have ambitions to write, draw, sculpt and make. The additional advice in the replies is equally generous.

    Can I add one other thing, share your drawings if asked. I draw at work, when I can, and the children I teach are fascinated. Each of them would tell you they can’t draw, but are learning that actually they both can and do. We keep a folio and sketchbook to take with them year by year. If you are not confident with a pencil, try a pen, a brush, a felt tip or even you finger in paint. You will find your medium and then your metier.
    What I love is when someone realises that they can’t fail when they draw as there is no wrong. Not if it is for practice and for you.

  6. Sandy Sandy says:

    Great advice. The more you draw, the easier it gets. If you get into the habit of drawing, you’ll never be bored. ~ Best Wishes, Sandy Sandy

    • Jackie says:

      Sometimes I find that the more I draw the harder it gets, but that is what I like. More challenge. ( Can I confess to also getting bored by what I do, and more so by myself? Times when that happens I look around even more and am inspired by the work of others.)

  7. Yay!!!!!

    I have just found you Again, having seen your work in Wales a few years ago, I did not take note of your name for your work. A friend just today sent me a link to your blog today and I am utterly delighted. I adored your winter scenes, and they have played in my mind quite literally ever since. I am an artist living in Ireland.
    Having been a sculptor my work has taken a turn and focused very much on drawing, and is becoming quite illustrative.
    I am interested particularly in the topic of this post, I have written a lot lately about what it means to draw, and am so amazed by the marvel of it. Your advice, to keep drawing is gold. I teach workshops here in drawing creatively. Usually at the beginning of the day, after a long and silent walk, participants are asked to just draw anything, to hold the pencil and feel it move, with eyes open then shut, to feel the sounds and movement. to make efforts to take the head out of the action and just be in the action of the drawing itself. It always amazing how anxious one can be with pencil in hand with a piece of blank paper in front of you. Its a great opener to the day. I also use some other techniques to loosen up the hand and head, and bring in the heart. I think my best drawings have come entirely through me without planning. I consciously make efforts not to expect a particular outcome, but tend to do that in a more interested manner then as a control.
    I am so interested in creative energy and inspiration. And practice a number of things that seem to heighten both for me. Walking first, time outdoors, and my table clear, my paints and pencils always ready and available. I also have a bag to bring out, with notebook and paint set hanging on the door. I am also a mom and a single parent, so I have learned to make use of my time.
    Keep drawing and enjoying, remembering the magic of it!!!!!
    Thats my advice.
    Again so glad to be here, and will follow this blog and see more of your work.
    Wishing wonderful drawing days to all.
    xx Elizabeth Carrington

  8. Anne says:

    This is all so helpful. Thanks all.

    It was such an eyeopener for me to find out that even someone like Quentin Blake still thinks after every book ‘what if that one was my last book and I’ll never draw something I like again?’
    I always thought I was the only one who had such thoughts 😉

  9. Brenda says:

    This was marvelous to read – both your post Jackie, and the comments and advice of your readers.
    I have been an avid childrens’ book reader; working in daycare for 26 years…and finding your site, as well as some others by book illustrators is like a wish come true, to learn more about the joys and challenges of drawing and writing picture books.

    Like many book readers I have a small wish to try to illustrate a book, and have been working on a project off and on for 20 years.

    I like all the advice, and it rings true…and applies to many kinds of creative work, I believe.

    I have saved this post to my blog…and would like to share it some day. Would this be okay with you? I think the people who read over at my blog, and are creative people as well, would love this post of yours.

  10. Jennifer Elliott says:

    Thank you to Catherine for telling me about Jackie’s blog it has helped a lot I now realise it is not just me that struggles with achieving our own personal standards when during, I am never satisfied with my work. I have published one children’s book so far and I created it on my old laptop whilst sitting on the sofa with my children running riot around me lol!
    I feel inspired to continue my work as a small venture whilst being a stay at home mum.

    many thanks


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