Featured Illustrator: Pam Smy

This month's Featured Illustrator is Pam Smy. Senior Lecturer of the Illustration Course for the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University, Pam is an amazingly evocative illustrator in her own right, and as a writer is about to release her first novel. Tomorrow (11th March) she's running the SCBWI Masterclass workshop Building Words for Your Character at The House of Illustration near King's Cross in London. 

For more of her work, check her Featured Illustrator Gallery.

As a child we moved around a lot, and from the age of 10 onwards I lived mostly in rural areas, so much of my time was spent outside. I loved building dens in the garden or nature-spotting with my Usborne Spotter's Guide in hand. My early years were in a mostly book-less house. I had an adored bind-up of Frances Hodgson Burnett novels - The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Little Princess. I read them over and over. I believed in being nice, that everything would turn out okay and that robins were good.  In my teen years this evolved into wandering aimlessly down country lanes trying to look hopeful and melancholy at the same time, or exploring overgrown byways on my bicycle.

I was out of place at the local youth club. I joined the local watercolour evening class (I was the only non-retired member) instead of hanging out with the cool kids at the village bus stop.

My step-dad was a greetings card sales rep. He brought home portfolios of Christmas or Mother’s Day cards, pastoral scenes at sunrise and depictions of Victorian streets in fog. In those black glossy books cards by Babette Cole, Nick Butterworth and Anthony Browne nudged up alongside traditional painting. It was an introduction to a rich and varied diet of imagery neatly organised in shiny cellophane-protected presentation pages. It was a gallery in my home, and the show evolved season by season.

I dropped out of my A levels, and went to study a BTEC at Suffolk College in Ipswich instead. My realisation of what drawing was, and how much I loved it began there. And, at the end of the 80's, if you loved drawing you became an illustrator, not a fine artist. So I applied to the BA Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. It was my only choice. I got in.

Observational drawing became my obsession and I spent most of my three years drawing in Working Men's clubs, in pubs, at ballroom dance classes and in WI meetings. I loved it. But I graduated with a portfolio that was so based in the fact of what I had seen/could see that I had no skill in developing an imaginative voice. To explore the various ways that observation can feed into imaginative work has been my quest over the last twenty years.

Since graduating I had published work in educational texts, folk and fairy tale compendiums, and the odd chapter book, but was unsatisfied with the look and feel of my work. I felt I could do better. The MA in Children's Book Illustration was established back at Cambridge School of Art in 2001. I applied. I got in. And it changed my life.

Meeting a group of people that were similarly obsessed made my quest feel like home. Children's books being your 'specialist subject' was okay - more than okay - it was cool. I had found the equivalent to the village bus stop in a purpose built Victorian red brick art school in Cambridge. I could talk about colour, pen nibs, brands of ink, long dead illustrators and new emerging illustration talent with a bunch of hard-working enthusiasts. After working alone in my bedsit having feedback on my work and my ideas challenged was a welcome breath of fresh air.

My work has continued to evolve since I completed the course in 2004, and I have been lucky to have had steady commissions alongside teaching on the MA since I graduated. But for me, the breakthrough in discovering my 'niche' was when I was contacted in 2008 by designer, Ness Wood, who had seen my graduation show four years previously.

Ness had recalled projects I have developed where my love of nature was a key part, and put me forward to illustrate Lob by Linda Newbery. What a dream job! This story about a child who discovers friendship and understanding through being outdoors swept me right back to The Secret Garden, and to those teenage meanderings in the countryside. With one commission separate jigsaw pieces of my life began to drop in place and fit together in a way that made the future clearer.

I was clear that I loved working in response to chapter book texts or novels. I wanted to work on books that involved close relationships between characters and their environment. If that environment was a natural environment, all the better.

I have been working with Ness on projects for David Fickling Books over the last eight years, and feel very at home with their nurturing, collaborative approach to making books. I have worked on books by Linda Newbery, Siobhan Dowd, Penelope Lively and now, my own novel, due later this year.

Each of these books, including the forthcoming Thornhill, are set in places that are crucial to the story - gardens, haunted cottages, alpine landscapes, pagan islands and abandoned houses. I love using my sketchbooks to construct what these spaces and places look and feel like, and working out how the characters relate to those spaces.

Sketchbooks are crucial to how I work. I use them as ‘safe places’ to draw out ideas and roughs repeatedly, often then scanning my favourite to use as final artwork. I rarely work in colour, preferring to work with a dip pen and ink, and layers of tone with ink washes, emulsion paint or, and in the case of the banner art above, soft pencil. I collect antique dip pen nibs whenever I find them, and am always surprised and excited by the differences between one type of nib and another.

I split my time between teaching and illustrating. For me talking about and working with illustration is a way of life rather than a job - and I feel blessed that it has worked out this way.

For more of Pam's work, see her Featured Illustrator Gallery.
You can follow Pam Smy on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @PamSmyIllustrator
Pam is represented by the Elizabeth Roy Literary Agency


  1. I'm a writer and know nothing about the illustrating world. interesting to hear about your journey Pam, your passion shows through this article. I wish I could draw!

  2. Thanks, Natalie. I feel very lucky to be able to work in something I love. I hope you feel the same way about your writing.

  3. I love your work, Pam - so much atmosphere. If you graduated without an 'imaginative voice' you've done an amazing job since graduating! Your drawings desperately make me want to read their stories (and have the prints on my wall so I can stare into them!)

  4. Pam your empathy for your subjects shines through with every stroke. I love your work so much. X

  5. Wonderfully expressive marks and a strong sense of composition, love the work Pam.


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