Featured Illustrator: Bee Willey

This month's Featured Illustrator is Suffolk based Bee Willey. Having grown up in France and travelled widely across the world, Bee's work includes several distinguished books with a distinctly international sensibility. See more of her finely textured illustrations  in the Featured Illustrator Gallery

I was born in central London, went to school at the French Lycée, and later moved to France where I spent the rest of my childhood. I am half French.

Me in Athens
For a few months, I lived in Athens.

I have included a picture of me at the Acropolis, which was just opposite our flat there and my daily playground during that time. I travelled around the world at the age of six, with my parents, on the way to Australia.

We stopped off to draw even then at Easter Island, Machu Pichu, the Taj Mahal and Tahiti. The flights were long, and I drew things from the places we visited in a special sketchbook which I still have.
Drawing did not feature at all in the curriculum in France, especially as I was working towards a scientific baccalaureate.

I loved illustrated books and cartoons. I was brought up with my great cousin’s Fred Emett’s illustrations in the house, and loved the brilliant storybooks my mother always got, especially Seasons, by John Burningham (which opened out into lavish posters inside the book), and  illustrations by Brian Wildsmith. These sparked my children's book collection, accumulated over the years.

John Burningham’s Seasons, inside spread (© Jonathan Cape Ltd 1969)
Brian Wildsmith, interior spread
I went to Paris to see a Chagall exhibition and decided I wanted to be an illustrator.
Most people in my class wanted to do something related to medicine and they all thought I was mad, having lessons with a wonderful teacher called Lucette, who had grown up in Marrakech and Casablanca.

Our lessons went on till midnight, drinking exotic teas and looking at art books, while also doing the preparation work for a portfolio, in order to apply to go and do an illustration degree. Illustration was not a recognised profession in France at the time; it was an extension of ‘graphic artist.’

Thanks to Lucette, I was able to make a portfolio and apply in the UK to do a degree. I returned to the UK to study Visual Communication in Corsham, Wiltshire, then moved back to London, working on commissions for Decca, EMI, Royal Mail, the South Bank Centre and many magazines.

I am also very grateful to the visionary Judith Elliott at Orion, who offered me the first of four anthologies of World Myths: The Golden Hoard, by Geraldine MacCaughrean. It was short listed for the Maschler prize.

We went on to do several more over a period of about five years; it was fantastic working together. I was taken on by my former agent Gina Pollinger, who believed I could tackle children's books. She gave me a few important nudges. Her wise words still ring in my ears and I am ever grateful to her. I love stories in all their forms and have been lucky to work with wonderful texts and authors.
I have illustrated many fiction covers and also picture books for children.

I was thrilled that my proposal to tackle Edward Lear’s Nonsense Rhymes (Orion), was accepted, as Nonsense Songs was one of my favourites when I was a child - my earliest illustration is of a Jumblie, from when I was 3.

Another highlight for me was The Wooden Dragon, Joan Aiken's last picture book (Jonathan Cape). Below is one of my layout pages, gauging how to fit the text onto the spreads. It was unusually long for a picture book and we went through several stages.

Essential to the process, in tandem with ‘drawing’ in its widest sense, is the research and collation of material that feeds into the work. This not only informs but challenges and feeds it, and widens the scope of solutions one can offer to the particular situations.

One part I really love in the process of illustrating books, with sequences of images and underlying or parallel narrative, is the to-ing and fro-ing between the editor, designer and art director, until there is a spark and it all miraculously gels.

Wooden dragon roughs

I enclose below the initial drawing by Joan Aiken that came with the manuscript. She was a talented painter and artist and I was really thrilled to go to her beautiful house to discuss aspects of the book. On her desk was the real Wooden Dragon, which held a lot of memories she told me about over lunch, in her kitchen.

Here's a snap taken of him on Joan’s desk, on a temperamental camera (in the days before digital technology.)

The real wooden dragon

I have fond memories of that visit. She was so happy with the work and I was really honoured as she had been a childhood author for me.
Images from The Wooden Dragon
Joan Aiken’s drawing of the Dragon

The Wooden Dragon a/w

The Wooden Dragon storyboard rough

Window and Handle, Wooden Dragon characters

I was shortlisted for the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award for my illustrations for the wonderful text Bob Robber and Dancing Jane by Andrew Matthews (Jonathan Cape). It was an amazing event to be part of. The best thing was that so many boys from participating schools had loved the story and came for signings (feature).

This was my first foray into digital illustration, due to RSI colouring in large sheets of paper in mixed media and the need to use noxious fixative. It offers more flexibility accommodating changes etc. in the making of the illustrations which are nevertheless labour intensive and time consuming.

Images of the process for elaborating the illustrations for Bob Robber were used in a chapter on digital illustration and processes, in an interview for Illustrating Children's Books by Martin Salisbury. Here are some pencil roughs for the Bob Robber storyboard stages.

Bob Robber a/w
Bob Robber and Dancing Jane a/w

Bob Robber
was picked by director Clare Prenton, to be turned into a musical theatre piece, Shadowthief: here is a link to the opera/play which was planned to be staged in Edinburgh, before being cancelled due to lack of funding.

Media image for the Shadowthief show

My forthcoming book, to be published in early Autumn 2016, is Dreamer by Brian Moses, based on a beautiful poem about our world and how we can look after it (Otter Barry Books).

Dreamer a/w
I draw, paint and use mixed media and collage in my process. This helps to build up atmosphere around the characters.

I am interested in drawing, thinking and education, sometimes via Arts Council Funding or on specific projects. I have just run a shadow puppet /storymaking workshop for an organisation in Aldeburgh, Wonderful Beast.  See Storm of Stories. I will be part of Hull’s City of Culture events, producing exciting ‘storytelling’ outcomes, piloting in September 2016, culminating in the real thing in Autumn 2017.

I teach on the Illustration Degree course in Norwich University of the Arts.


See more of Bee's work in her Featured Illustrator Gallery. Her personal website is here, alternatively Email.
Her agent is Frances McKay
Or for line work, Lipstick of London


  1. Thank you for sharing the wonderful illustrations and your very informative creative journey. Susmita

  2. Great story, photos, and illustrations. Pleasure to read, thank you :-)

  3. Bob Robber is one of my favourite PB's from the past fews years. Really interested to read about your other stunning work Bee. Look forward to maybe meeting at some future SCBWI event.

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