This month's Featured Illustrator is Olivia Palmer. A versatile artist based in South London, Olivia is the fifth winner of SCBWI's 2014 Undiscovered Voices anthology. Check the Featured Illustrator Gallery to see the full range of Olivia's work.
The first art materials I can remember using were chunky wax crayons my dad bought me. My parents always encouraged me to draw, and my mum did lots of art and craft activities with me. I moved on to pencil crayons, and between the ages of four and seven, my top things to draw were princesses (with very long hair) and my favourite band, Abba. Sometimes I was pleased with my drawings, but other times I’d be a bit disappointed by them. I’d have an idea of what I wanted the picture to look like, but the finished result wasn’t quite as I’d hoped. That didn’t put me off though and drawing was definitely my favourite activity!
In the next few years, felt tip pens became my favourite art medium. I thought they made my pictures look much more professional! I was a big fan of comics such as Bunty and Tammy, and I used to make my own comics and school stories. I liked the strong line of comic art, and used a heavy outline on my own pictures at this time.
When I was ten, I was given proper Winsor and Newton watercolours, in tubes! I loved using them and painted endless pictures of cats, usually on a background wash of pastel colours. I used to enjoy going to paint pictures with my granddad. He introduced me to gouache paints. Art was my favourite subject at school and I studied it for O and A level.
After school, I did art foundation at what was then Nottingham Polytechnic. At that time I loved sketching out in the city. My final pieces of work on the course were acrylic paintings based on my sketching trips, mostly of the railway station.
After art college, I didn’t do much painting. When my children were born, I took up my watercolours again and painted their portraits. Becoming a mother reintroduced me to picture books, and made me think it would be lovely to be an illustrator. I had no idea about how to become one and certainly wasn’t ready. I did get as far as buying big envelopes and photocopying some of my paintings to send to publishers. I never got around to posting them and forgot all about it for a while.
When my children became teenagers, I started to think about illustration again. I read a few books on the subject and then found that Putney School of Art ran a book illustration class. Wonderful! I joined and soon found out that there was so much more to illustration than I had ever known. The tutors were encouraging and I found the weekly feedback from them and fellow students was great. I had three ideas for picture books during this time.
I attended classes for a year, then decided to get on with some work on my own for a while. Although I did plenty of drawing at this time, I felt a bit lost without the classes. Fortunately, I found out about SCBWI! A friend had joined and recommended it. I went to one of their portfolio reviews and found it very helpful, and also to their wonderful Picture Book Retreat and met many lovely people and received great advice. I then entered Undiscovered Voices 2014 and was amazed to be one of the winning illustrators!
Undiscovered Voices gave me the encouragement to carry on and really work at my illustration. I re-enrolled at the Putney class, which has again been brilliant. I have worked on another picture book, and have produced many new pieces for my portfolio.
One of the main challenges with my illustration is to keep the spontaneity of my sketchbook work when doing final pieces. It is very difficult! As a result, often my favourite work is in my sketchbook. Sketching is something I really enjoy, especially buildings and the landscape. It was lovely to have so much time to sketch at the SCBWI picture book retreat, especially as Holland House was such a beautiful building!
When working on a picture book, I like to make dummy books from very early on. I think it really helps to see how the book is working, remembering that it will usually change quite a lot over the following weeks. It is interesting to look back at older versions to see how the ideas have progressed. I also use my sketchbooks for layout and character development.
My work has changed over the years. I think I can just about see something in my work from my felt tip pen comic book style, my wishy washy watercolour cat pictures, and my art college days of sketching. I’ll keep on drawing, and hopefully I shall keep improving. Thanks to SCBWI and my illustration tutors, and many other helpful people, I am getting together a portfolio which is much closer to being ready to show to publishers and agents.
Many works of art have inspired me over the years – paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Impressionists, Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairy pictures, the classic Ladybird fairy tale books I used to love when I was little, illustrations from comics such as Bunty, and the works of many illustrators. These days I am amazed by the wealth of talent and variety of styles in children’s book illustration. It’s wonderful to see these new artists alongside old favourites.
I don’t feel qualified to give illustration tips, but I would say keep a sketchbook, and keep drawing. Also, it’s useful and fun to meet up with other illustrators for mutual encouragement and learning.
See more of Olivia's work in her Featured Illustrator Gallery.
Contact Olivia by email here. Her blog is oliviaartbox.wordpress.com