This month's Featured Artist is Amanda Hall, an award-winning illustrator in Cambridge, well known for her work for the children’s trade and educational publishing markets on both sides of the Atlantic. See the full range of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.
This image comes from my book The Stolen Sun - published by Frances Lincoln. I also wrote the text for this book.
Illustration and one woman's struggle for salvation
In the long run, I was always going to become a book illustrator. However, I left the Cambridge School of Art graphics & illustration course (where I was taught by Colin McNaughton, Glynn Boyd Harte and John Holder among others) utterly unprepared and clueless as to the detail of how to make that happen. I moved to London with my folio full of student projects (customised by me to satisfy my darkly personal tastes), a pack of cards published by Dinosaur, an aptitude for working in coloured pencil and - I now realise - a steely core of determination.
In London, I located some kindly graphic designers and worked as a paste-up artist when studios still smelt of cow gum. I cut my teeth on the odd illustration job that came my way, and I also got a couple of books to illustrate early on. One was called The Gossipy Wife and sold in six different countries - hurrah! I found it recently on the interweb in e-book form – hmmm...Penguin are currently looking into this!
All was going swimmingly until I got diverted into a co-operative lifestyle and found I could no longer square acts of personal creativity with the need for collective political action. The personal (portfolio) just didn't feel political enough, and I'm talking East End co-ops while Ken Livingstone was on the throne at the GLC.
So instead I got pretty good at plumbing and largely neglected my career as an illustratrice. Just the odd book cover for the Women's Press or Virago grace my CV during those years. For me, it all came to a head with a big trip to Africa to clear my head – which it did!
The steely determination returned, big time! I moved back to Cambridge in the mid 80's, found a studio, closed the door on the old life and got to work - and that's what I've been doing ever since. I would say it took me eight years to get a fairly constant flow of work. I turned a corner when I illustrated my first title for Barefoot Books. The Barefoot Book of Animal Tales is still in print and has been paying royalties since 1996 – hurrah and harumble!!
Fifty or so books later, I still work like crazy, but I love it. The books I get my hands on these days have become more and more enjoyable to illustrate and the subjects covered closer to my heart. The most enjoyable commission to date came when I was sent a fabulous text for children by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers in the US. It was written by Michelle Markel and concerned the life of Henri Rousseau. I have always felt an affinity with Rousseau's paintings and was moved by Michelle's writing. I am very proud of the way that book turned out. I loved working on such interesting subject matter and got very involved in researching the fascinating world Rousseau moved in. The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau has picked up 11 awards and inclusions to date and some of the artwork was shown in New York at the Society of Illustrators annual show The Original Art. That was a real thrill.
I am an illustrator and my mind primarily conjures up images rather than words. As an illustrator, though, I respond to text – that is, to good text. Recently I have begun some collaborations with writers, which is an exciting development. Picture books should be a marriage between text and image, so getting involved earlier on - while not getting in the writer's way - is therefore a particularly engaging way of working on a book for me personally, as the two elements can be woven together through the communication between writer and artist. I am also now selling my original illustrations at the wonderful Chris Beetles Gallery in St James's, London, where they have been included in his shows: THE ILLUSTRATORS. THE BRITISH ART OF ILLUSTRATION. I enjoy making images that will work on a wall as well as on the pages of a book.
When not sitting illustrating in my shed The Shadowhouse, I may be out performing as a cabaret singer with accordionist Dawn Loombe in the Little Black Dress duo, where I get the chance to glam up in diamante and become Sally Bowles for the night! The combination of shed dwelling by day and bright lights by night suits me very well. Life could be a lot worse…!
Artistic influences So very hard to make a list, but many pictures from books loved in childhood. Henri Rousseau, of course, Marc Chagall, Stanley Spencer, Mervyn Peake, Edward Gorey, some images from the Weirdo Noir movement…and many, many more.
I had a phase of loving working in cross hatching at college, but then got into using water colour. I wanted a smoother, cleaner finish than I could achieve with water colour paint alone, so I began working into the dried paint with pencil crayons mostly Caran d'Ache (used without water). I still go back to that combination, although I now use watercolour inks rather than the solid paint form, as I love the purity and range of the liquid colours - and the tiny bottles last for years!
Over the past few years I have produced some books in those same inks combined with gouache, or acrylic. Crayon, which I used for The Stolen Sun, is a very relaxing method - as you know you aren't going to spill anything. The effect is soft and subtle, and I build it up slowly in layers. However, paints have the advantage of stronger, more vivid colours and a punchier presence. I used acrylics for The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau to get closer to his style of working, and I turned to gouache for Tales from India because, again, it seemed appropriate for the subject matter. I added digital layers to some of the illustrations in my latest book The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales, which was another first. Which media I use really depends on the nature of the commission, so I enjoy having a choice.
Dogged determination helps.
Also, realizing that you will probably be sitting working long hours in a shed somewhere, possibly miles from a living soul - you need to ask yourself if that's the life for you.
Other than that, I have an FAQs section on my website for illustrators where there are 14 web pages full of helpful tips in the form of Q&As on different aspects of being a freelance illustrator.
Amanda's full portfolio is in the Featured Illustrator gallery
Her official website is here. Contact Amanda via email at: