This month's guest illustrator is south coast-based Holly Swain. A children's illustrator since graduation, Holly is well known for her picture book work featuring fun characters and vibrant colour.  See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

When I was small I had a huge roll of newsprint I used to be keep under my bed. I loved drawing, and my favourite place to draw was under my dining room table. I was lucky enough to have a childhood where creativity was encouraged - there were always things to draw with, and that massive roll of paper to draw on. Characters and their worlds were the things I loved to draw, where they lived and what their homes were like. These days I tend to work on top of a table and use watercolour paper, though the odd bit of newsprint works its way in sometimes!

After completing an Art foundation course and realising that illustration was what I loved, I did a degree course at UWE Bristol. I was just beginning to feel like I was getting somewhere when it finished, so I did an MA in Narrative Illustration and Editorial design at Brighton University. Whilst on my MA I had my first commissions, some educational books. I got more educational book commissions after my MA, but I found them a little restrictive to work on.

I changed agent, and illustrated my first picture book Wanted! Have you seen this Alligator? by Richard Waring. I learnt a lot working on that book. I enjoyed it immensely and the thrill of being able to hold a finished copy in my hand is something I will never forget. Since then I have illustrated quite a few picture books, and I have been lucky enough to work with a variety of authors from Cressida Cowell to Michael Morpurgo.

After having a bit of a break whilst I had children, I have recently been working on a series of young chapter books, The New Adventures of Mr Toad by Tom Moorhouse. These four books have been a steep learning curve, approximately seventy illustrations per book and a limited colour palette, but they were enormous fun. The characters were great to draw, and as each book was in a different setting, each felt like a new book.

My influences are wide and varied. I grew up on Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s animations, and I am reminded of how magical they were to me whenever I see them, particularly Bagpuss and The Clangers. I am often influenced by animation. Mark Baker’s The Hill Farm is a short film I have watched so often, and I love the delicacy and textures of his work. Recently I have enjoyed the animation by Tomm Moore, Song of the Sea, again such beautiful textures and colours. I am a big fan of puppetry and theatre and for a while, before I discovered illustration, I thought my work would go in this direction. I am a huge fan of The Muppets, and I think Jim Henson was a big influence on a young me.

Moving on to influential illustrators, the list is ongoing and growing! The Stinky Cheeseman and other fairly stupid tales, by Jon Scieszka with illustrations by Lane Smith, has greatly inspired me. It is the perfect mix of witty writing, stunning illustrations and great design, all working together. My current list of influences range from David Roberts and Jon Klassen, to Edward Gorey and Christine Roussey.

When I work on a project, commissioned or personal, I usually start the same way, with a sketchbook and pencil. Ideas will be jotted down, usually in quite a rough way. Characters will be worked out and drawn and redrawn. Usually it then becomes obvious what I need to research, and this takes the form of google images, books or drawing from observation. Using this I then start to work on thumbnail drawings of compositions, very roughly, working out angles, where any text would go. Once I am happy with this stage, I draw out the rough. As I use watercolour, I try to make my roughs as clear and as like the final piece as I can, so this is usually in the form of a line drawing.

I then play with how I will paint it, experimenting with marks and techniques. Finally, I paint the picture. It doesn’t always turn out how I imagine, but that is part of what I love about using paint and allowing the happy accidents to happen.

I am currently working on some personal work, experimenting with using some printmaking techniques and collage with my painting. I have also started drawing a #characteraday on my Instagram account as a way of getting out of a drawing slump (it worked!) As always, the dream is one day to write my own story and illustrate it, but right now I just count myself as very lucky to be able to draw all day.


See more of Holly's Work in her Featured Illustrator Gallery

Her personal website is here, and is represented by Paul at Bell-Lomax.
She's on Twitter  @HollySwainUK, and on Instagram  @swain_holly

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