This month's Featured Illustrator is Vanya Nastanlieva. Originally from Bulgaria, Vanya is a graduate of the Anglia Ruskin MA illustration course, since then she's made Cambridge her home. Find more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

I grew up in a rural environment, up in the Rhodope (Rodopi) mountains in Bulgaria, where I was encouraged by my teacher and parents to observe the world around me and to read a lot.

The combination of being close to nature, having the freedom to explore wildlife, playing outside and observing very closely animals, along with a home filled with books, any kind of books and a cosy village library with more books fed my imagination and my natural bond with nature, my love of animals, reading, drawing, making stories and creating things.

Some of my childhood influences were Beatrix Potter's characters, Hans Christian Andersen's and Grimm's' Fairy Tales and many others.

Bulgarian tales and stories.
Barbapapa books by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor, and African Tales with illustrations by Libico Maraja.
In my childhood my favourite comic magazine was Rainbow - Stories in Pictures. It is a well-known Bulgarian children's magazine, made up entirely of comics. The magazine consisted of comic series of some of the greatest Bulgarian children's writers and illustrators, and animators as well. It was one of my first inspirations how to draw in sequence, how to tell a story in pictorial form, how to use visual symbols.

Over the years I have worked in different fields such as animation studios, editorial for children's magazines and newspapers, greeting card companies, undertaking projects in patchwork, woven rugs, crafts, painting and working in fine and applied industries. After graduation with a BA, I was taken on as a storyboard and concept artist by the American company World Wide FX Studio-Nu Image, before moving to England. Since my MA graduation I have been working as freelance artist, illustrator and author.

My work is versatile, mainly focused on characters and traditional art. Nature and animals are my main inspiration and they appear constantly in my illustrations. I am inspired by different artists, illustrators, writers and designers.

Also my memories and the landscape of my childhood, especially forests and mountains, everyday life, observing people and animals, drawing on folk tales and legends, textiles, photography, music, film, art and heavy rain or snow. My inspiration can come from anything and anywhere, but it always starts from an emotion. I connect with my own experiences, memories and ideas, I am very image-led in the way I work. More observation and more drawing follows till I find the right direction and the sense of the story. Seeing a new world or a simple character with its own hopes and fears emerge on a blank sheet of paper is magical.

Observed sketching

After high school I had a solo exhibition in my home town. A writer viewing it liked my drawings of animals and asked me to illustrate his book. Emil Spiridonv’s book Stories for Wild Animals was published in 2000, in Bulgaria, that was my starting point. While studying for my degree I took on various part-time jobs using my skills as an artist, and had illustrations published in the children’s magazine The Small Bee, newspapers and greetings cards.

I also love creating something with my hands, such as characters or animals from clay, Plasticine or other organic things.

The breakthrough really occurred after I got my Cambridge MA and went to the Bologna Book Fair in Italy for a second time, better prepared, and made valuable contacts. I kept in touch with them and was offered my very first picture book, Frank Kauffmann's Waschbär feiert Geburtstag (Raccoon Celebrates his Birthday), published by Atlantis Im Orell Füssli in 2012.

Understanding how the publishing world works was not easy and I found myself challenged and lonely at times. I worked by myself for several years and managed to get five books published before meeting my agent, learning all the time. Most of these publishers I found in Bologna, some like Floris books contacted me five years after seeing my work at my graduation show in London.

Another interesting thing is that the writer Caroline Nastro contacted me to illustrate her story The Bear Who Couldn't Sleep. We worked with agreement between us for almost a year till she met with Northsud in America, showing my drawing, and early sketches, they fell in love with them and offered her a contract to publish the book.


I do not have a specific or unique process or style. Generally, the idea drives my work. I always try to experiment with a variety of new techniques and materials. With my pencil I start sketching, doodling, storyboarding and putting notes in a notebook, to which I can later refer. 

Sometimes it really depends on the project I am working on and what I need to achieve in my illustrations.

I find it very natural and easy to focus on developing and getting to know my characters, the setting, the composition, when I use my black pencil. Once the rough sketches are to my satisfaction and the publisher's, as well I do the more detailed drawings. And next I add the colours to the black and white drawing. Sometimes the colours can be on a different paper, sometimes I can add the colours on one piece of paper. I use a more limited colour palette, probably because of my textile background.

The computer comes in when I need to scan the illustrations and the different layers. I scan it, clean it if needed in Photoshop and then connect the layers all together, the black and white drawing with the colour ones. There could be some finishing touches, adjustments or arranging but generally my work is all hand-rendered.

Cover of I Am Goose, written by Dorothia Rohmer, to be published in 2020
by Clarion Books (Houghton Miffin Harcourt), USA.

A Few Proud Moments

One of my final MA projects, Mo and Beau, was highly commended in the Macmillan Prize for Children’s Book Illustration 2011.

Mo and Beau, later published by Simply Read Books, Canada

My illustrations were short-listed in the top 20 of the House of Illustration and Folio Society’s competition to illustrate The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter (2012)

I was honoured to have my work selected for the first ever SCBWI Biennial Illustration Exhibition 2017 Pictures at Play in London.

Publishing Tips

Do not loose your heart and feeling,  I feel only in that way, I can keep my voice true to myself...be inspired by many and different artists, illustrators and so on, but do not loose yourself, your view and your focus. Use every sense to express, to create something with emotions there, it could be a joy, but it could be a pain, but something that is filled with a feeling, sense, life. 
My self-Authored and illustrated picture book Mo and Beau 2 is to be published in 2019-2020 by Simply Read Books, Canada.


See more of Vanya's work in her Featured Illustrator Gallery.
Her personal site is here.
Vanya is represented by Frances McKay

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