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

Tell us about your creative space.

When I first moved to Sydney, I shared a studio in an old flour mill with a photographer and a graphic designer, and that was a lot of fun, but I prefer to work from home. I’ve just moved house and set up a brand new studio with floor to ceiling windows looking out on to the garden, which is full of palm trees and gorgeous big green plants. I also have bush turkeys and cockatoos that visit. I’m dreading the day a snake slithers past the windows though! At the moment I am illustrating a book with a lot of trees so I’m very lucky to be working in such an inspiring, natural environment.

Why does this place work for you?

I find working from home more relaxing, mostly because I don’t have to worry about the commute in rush-hour traffic and can concentrate on my work. I also need a lot of equipment (iMac, Wacom, inks, lots of paper) and carrying it all around with me is not really an option. In my new house, I’m at the top of a hill away from noise and distraction so it’s very peaceful. A lovely working environment. And I can make a cup of tea whenever I like.

Do you need particular prompts to get started?

I do like to play music while I work, but I’m never really sure what I need to listen to until I sit down at my desk. I find loud, fast, noisy music helps me to colour-in quicker, but sometimes I prefer a less energetic atmosphere. I do tend to sing a lot so it’s maybe good that I work on my own.

Your creative tools – what are they?

I always begin my artwork with a drawn line. I use pencil, ink, charcoal, whatever feels right for that image. Then I scan everything and Photoshop takes over. My first degree was in printmaking so I love to build my work up in layers of texture as well as colour. I tend not to use flat colour very much. To do this I scan old etching plates, socks, fabrics, and anything I think will add an interesting texture to my work.

Do you have a routine?

Since I became a full-time illustrator, I’ve always started every day with a 2.5km swim. This makes me very hungry but ready for the day. Even if I spend the next eight hours drawing and not speaking to anyone, I know that I’ve interacted with other humans and also done my exercise for the day and can relax into my work. I work when I need to but I’ve never been keen on working in the evening or at weekends. I tend to work really fast, so I can take time for myself. I also love naps and need to factor that into my day.

What was your favourite book as a child?

My favourite picture book was Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins. This might explain the way I draw landscapes and my flat perspectives. Foxes are one of my favourite animals to draw.

Does walking or exercise help the creative process?

Yes, yes, yes! I cannot stress how important exercise is for the creative process, and for so many more reasons. My mental health is at its best when I am training a lot. Swimming gives me time in the morning to think through problems, creative or otherwise, and gives me a real boost. Being underwater takes away most visual stimuli and makes me use my creative brain to get me through what can be a quite boring 50 minutes! Yoga gives me time to focus entirely on nothing, and I also love combat classes, which get rid of any bad feelings towards whoever has annoyed me by email that day, or help shake off bad drawing days.

What must you have at hand in order to be able to create?

Coffee, biscuits, chocolate... decaffeinated green tea. In bucket loads.

Planner, pantser, or a mixture of both?

Planning isn’t for me. I like to wade straight in and scribble all my thoughts onto paper. I was asked recently if I prefer longer for roughs or for final artwork, and my answer was that I usually draw my roughs in a couple of hours. When I receive a manuscript I see images in my head as soon as I start reading, so I need to draw immediately before I forget them.

What inspired you to first start illustrating?

I've never stopped drawing ever since I first held a pencil and I always knew I would be an artist, so I can’t imagine doing anything else. I consider myself very lucky to be able to make a living from doing something that I absolutely love.
Why children?

At art college my work was always very large-scale and abstract, so I never imagined I would end up illustrating for children, but for my masters degree show I made a series of ten books, one of which was a picture book. It was my favourite one and it led me on this adventure that I’ve been enjoying ever since. My mum was a primary school teacher and that part of my DNA also led me into teaching kids to draw two afternoons a week at an art school in North Sydney, so despite thinking I would be a conceptual artist I spend most of my time thinking like a child, which to be honest isn’t all that difficult since I’m a big kid myself.

What question do you most like being asked about your work? 

“Did you draw all the pictures in that book?”

Photo credits: Cate James

Cate James, who emigrated to Sydney four years ago, having lived in Edinburgh for 23 years, has illustrated for Walker Books, Hachette, Penguin, and Barrington Stoke. She has just won the Penguin Random House Illustrators’ Showcase at the SCWBI Australia conference. Her next book “By the Billabong” will appear in March 2020.

You can find Cate on the following platforms:


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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