Featured Illustrator: Portia Rosenberg

This month Featured Illustrator welcomes Portia Rosenberg to Words & Pictures. Through imaginative pencil drawings, Portia has developed an expressive narrative style reminiscent of classic illustrators. See more of Portia's art works in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

I was born in North Manchester, in 1962, into a large Jewish community.  More specifically, into the dining room of the house where we lived until I was 11.

My interest in narrative drawing began with drawing faces.  That started when I was very little.  My family were at my wonderfully loving aunty's house, no doubt having just eaten her regular generous offering of 'it-makes-me-burst-with-pleasure-just-to-cook-it-for-you' egg and chips.  Someone - my Dad, I think - showed me how to draw a profile by writing the numbers 1 to 4, one below another.  The bottom of each touches the top of the next and the 3 is reversed.  I was a little bit wowed by how the linked numbers seemed to spell out reality: the 3, especially, said 'curved lips' just so satisfyingly that I think it looked like magic to me.

Recent personal work.  The exaggeration of the eyebrows 
and the tiny ears seemed to be just what I was aiming for.
I use this image for my business card.

Drawing in school followed on from there – trying to make marks add up to something real; mostly, as now, working from imagination or memory.  But I was only able to do tentative drawings of people, or just faces, and I had little or no ability to describe space or form.

I certainly feel as if my 'career path' has happened by accident, with generous dollops of doubt along the way. (Whereas now, I do aim to be more deliberate and think about effective strategies).

I first studied for a degree in English Literature, roughly a million years ago, at Anglia Ruskin University (then known as Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology). I had varied low-skilled jobs for many years, and then, when a friend encouraged me to take seriously how much I enjoyed life-drawing classes, I did an Art Foundation.

Cinderella sketch, drawn around 1995.
Showing the difficulty in relating figures to each other in the space, 
but also showing the kind of over-the-top caricature that I often like.

At the end of the Foundation year, most people were applying to do degrees – and interestingly, (or weirdly, depending on your perspective) I ended up doing the same, even though I already had one.  Even more interestingly or weirdly, I went back to ARU, as it was known to be good for drawing.  

The teaching there helped me to progress, particularly with that struggle to explain space and form, which meant that I could more confidently place figures in simple environments, around a table, maybe.  I do still find this a challenge.

Gradually, we were given more open projects, and illustrator friends helped me choose book illustration and Dickens as my text.  Some of us would go together for strikingly useful extra private tuition - a whole day-class of life drawing.  After our first class, I was really keyed up and stayed up late, drawing a scene from Oliver Twist. 
It was the first time that I had managed to put several people together in a space and yet had drawn them enthusiastically, with my own approach. 
It wasn't the best drawing but it was full of me.  It's interesting how that seems elusive to achieve.

Produced at college, around 1993.  
'Oliver Twist' sketch, by Charles Dickens.

I like noticing the extent of that progress, which took some years; to me, it demonstrates how skill is not inherent but is learnable, given the teaching, resource and encouragement.

Produced at college, around 1993.
'Mr Bumble', sketch from 'Oliver Twist', by Charles Dickens.

Shortly after the Illustration degree, in 1996, I exhibited artwork as part of Cambridge Open Studios and one of the visitors was Susanna Clarke.  It was not until some years later, that she asked me to do some speculative drawings to accompany her submission to publishers of the manuscript for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.  We weren't sure whether the publishers would agree to the book being illustrated, but, amazingly, this was my first commission. 

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, 
published by Bloomsbury in 2004.

Some years later, after one of many long periods doing other work, I was more able to decide to actively seek further commissions.  I found the Association of Illustrators events to be helpful – particularly one where we got to show work in small groups, to people from different areas of the industry - which is how I was commissioned to illustrate The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, for the Folio Society.

The Black Tulip, by Alexandre Dumas, 
published by the Folio Society in 2011.

Immediately after completing that commission, I began a job at Addenbrookes Hospital, where I worked for a few years.  I certainly have struggles with working alone, and effectively, whereas, at the hospital, I loved being part of such a teeming place of work with such a clearly essential purpose.  These are definitely the kind of issues I still think about.

I couldn't have predicted that showing drawings for Open Studios would lead to work, years later.  I see now what an important strategy it is for our artwork to be visible in as many ways as we can figure out. However, the current reality is one of a harsh economic climate which offers vastly reduced work opportunities and so maybe it would be naive to think that all it takes to get work is determined self-promotion.

Recent personal work.  
Moose character for my story-poem, clearly not too 
concerned about the current harsh economic climate.

If I can manage to dig into myself for the drive necessary for a drawing to be 'full of me' – which in itself requires some level of determination – then that drive is for exaggerated character, drama, light and atmosphere.  

In the last year, I started Improvisation classes as I adore that kind of comedy – and it seems like a 3-D medium for the same drive, using my own body and facial expression.
I am inspired especially by Honore Daumier, Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

Recent personal work.  'I'm sorry Sir, we're fully booked'.

I love the physical process of drawing - the sensitivity of soft pencil as it melts onto the page, making marks which seem to communicate more than a literal depiction.  I'm a sucker for a specific feel of pencil and paper – the smoothest surface, and a 5b Faber-Castell pencil, to be precise – and use erasers a lot – spending quite a while changing things till I get closer to the pose or character that I want.  I also love the lushness of oil painting and would love to get comfortable with using it.

Check Portia's page in the Featured Illustrator Gallery to see more of her illustration work. Her personal website is here
email: portia@portiarosenberg.com


  1. Your work has a real sense of atmosphere and mood Portia, love it!

    1. Thanks, John! It's something that seems tricky to always achieve - I find I often get caught up in the details of each character, at the expense of grasping the whole scene and the whole feeling.

  2. What beautiful work, very unusual and a very distinctive style.

  3. Your fully booked image is great fun and I love the relaxed pose of your moose. Thanks for sharing the development of your work, your pencil work is amazing!

    1. Thanks Anna! It's funny how it feels risky to expose early attempts at drawing that were less confident - but it always seems useful to acknowledge that confidence can be built up, I guess.

  4. Portia, your characters are wonderful - I felt my smile growing as I clicked through your gallery .... until the wolf who is super creepy. Fantastically alive faces! Thank you so much for being our featured illustrator.

    1. Thanks Jan! It's helpful to have someone else say that about the faces, as it kind of validates that, for me, as a choice of interest...

  5. What lovely work and wonderful characters. I love your moose.

  6. There's a lovely sense of craft about your drawings Portia. I remember your work standing out in the portfolio exhibition at Winchester a couple of years ago. Nice to see more of it.

  7. Amazing work, Portia. I am someone who can't even master a simple stick figure, so you have my utter admiration!

  8. Exquisite 'Black Tulip' illustrations, Portia and I adore your rich colour Words And Pictures header too


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