In search of inspiration, Caroline Deacon invites established writers and illustrators to tell us about their creative space. This month features illustrator Kate Leiper. 

Tell us about your creative space. 

I'm based in Edinburgh and have a studio at Summerhall, which used to be the old Royal Dick Vet School. It's certainly a quirky place with lots of elements that bring to mind its past life, though for me it also has a creative buzz in the atmosphere which reminds me of art school. My studio is a small room which I think used to be a library. One wall is mostly a south facing window, which means that I get a lot of light and at times it is too strong. I then have to use the blinds, which I always think is a bit of a shame.

Why does this place work for you?

I used to work from home in my sitting room. I'm not great at disconnecting from work so everything in my life was beginning to fuse together, and I found it hard to get away from whichever project I was working on. I think that visitors also found it all a bit overwhelming, with tons of sketches and ideas blue-tacked to every available surface. Eventually, I found myself working towards an exhibition which required me to do a number of very large pieces. This was the big shove I needed to get out there and find a studio. Summerhall is brilliant for me in many ways. It is only a minute walk from my flat, so the commute is always straight forward. I feel very grateful to belong to such an artistic community and to be surrounded by so many creative people, working so many diverse practices. Although I work alone in my studio, I only have to open the door and go to the cafe, or knock on someone else's studio door, if I need to seek out company. And best of all, Summerhall is dog-friendly, so people bring their mutts to work. I don't have my own dog but I am a big dog lover. There is always a happy hound who will willingly accompany me on a head-clearing walk.

Do you need particular prompts to get started?

I can't listen to music while I work as it makes me too excited. When I hear music, I want to move and dance, which is not conducive to doing detailed drawing. I listen to a lot of radio, mostly Radio 4, and I'm gradually discovering the vast world of podcasts.

Your creative tools – what are they? 

On my desk, I have an old wooden kitchen drawer in which I keep all my pastels. I have pastels in both stick and pencil form. The sticks are great for filling in big areas whereas the pencils can be sharpened to a very fine point, allowing me to work in more detail. I also sometimes use inks and fabric dyes to stain paper, and acrylic paint to add gold or silver touches. I always work on paper, sometimes stretching it if I'm using a lot of inks or dyes. Oh, and there's also the can of cheap hairspray – a great alternative to fixative and at a fraction of the cost!

Kate and her working tools 

What is the best creative advice you’ve been given? 

When I hit a block, my dad often reminds me that the word "recreation" (as in a hobby or pastime) can be understood as "re-creation", meaning that sometimes you need to have a complete break in order for the fresh inspiration to come through. There is no point sitting at a blank piece of paper when your mind is a complete blank too. I struggle to trust in this as it can seem so counter-intuitive, especially when feeling the pressure of a deadline, but when I succeed in heeding it, it's never failed me yet.

What advice would you like to give to writers/illustrators who are trying to get established?

I think that one of the biggest challenges I've had in working as an artist/illustrator has been dealing with finances, or the lack of them. Up until very recently, I've always had regular part-time work to supplement my art income. My advice would be to try and educate yourself in a bit of basic personal and business finance. I have a feeling that many people working in the arts are not great at dealing with money and negotiating fees and prices, etc. and it is an area that I wish I felt more confident in.

What was your favourite book as a child? 

Winnie the Pooh, illustrated by E H Shepard, The Butterfly Ball and The Peacock's Party, illustrated by Alan Aldridge, and The Tailor of Gloucester, by Beatrix Potter.

Does walking or exercise help the creative process? 

Definitely! For me, walking and yoga really help block out the background chatter that can build up in my head, and stop those little monkey voices that cause doubt, negativity and anxiety from creeping in. An awareness and control of breathing keeps me calm in the mind and focussed. Working as an artist and being self-employed can be very precarious and isolating, so it's important to find strategies which help protect your mental health. Even if I'm not feeling stressed, walking and yoga are also what my dad would call "re-creation" activities, perfectly designed to rest the mind yet not switch off completely.

What must you have at hand in order to be able to create? Coffee, biscuits, chocolate .... 

It's not a requirement, but I'd never turn down a coffee and an almond croissant ....

What image are you dying to use, but haven’t yet found room for? 

Something invisible – not sure what character it would be or how I'd do it yet. When I visit schools I often ask kids how they would draw an invisible dragon. I've heard lots of good ideas which I may well pinch!

What inspired you to first start writing/illustrating? 

When I was at art school I became very interested in depicting narrative in pictorial form, and was initially inspired by all those Italian masters who painted frescoes, mostly depicting stories from the Bible. I started to try and tell stories in my own artwork and I suppose that this naturally led to illustration.

Why children?

I've never thought of myself illustrating specifically for children. I think that illustrations are, and should be, enjoyed and appreciated by everyone. It's a shame that we seem to be forced to "grow out of" books with "pictures" in them at such a young age. For me, the relationship and tension between words and images, especially in picture books for very young children, is absolutely fascinating and far more complex than first meets the eye.

What’s the best question you’ve been asked about your work? 

It was from a girl, probably about 6 years old, who asked me why the pictures I drew weren't like the ones she had in her head. Deep!!!

What’s your least favourite question? 

Do you like doing your hobby as a job?

Photos courtesy of Kate Leiper
Illustrations by Kate Leiper

Kate Leiper's work has been published in a number of books including An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, which was long-listed for the Kate Greenaway award in 2012. Her most recent books are A Wee Bird Was Watching, written by Karine Polwart and The Book of the Howlat, written by James Robertson and published in both English and Scots versions.

You can find Kate on her website:

Caroline Deacon lives in Edinburgh and is the author of several childcare books. She now writes MG and YA and is agented by Lindsay Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates, Edinburgh. Find her on Twitter @writingdilemmas and at

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