This month's Featured Illustrator is Sarah J Coleman. A skilled practitioner in pen and ink, Sarah has worked across the creative illustration market, including a wide range of book projects in this country and overseas.  See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery

Me drawing as a child

As a child I was morbidly gripped by the Victor Ambrus illustrations in my Shakespeare collection; violent, inky and blood-soaked, the book was bought for me by a rogue Auntie and gently frowned upon by my parents. But the career path was set! I was a voracious reader with a reading age beyond my years, and soon the likes of Mockingbird, the Brontës and Dickens were swirling around with the SE Hintons and Judy Blumes - I’ve certainly covered the literary classics in my career, but it’s no surprise I ended up working mainly in the US and on tons of YA books!

Victor Ambrus’ Hamlet
My path was basic. A brief flirtation with joining an orchestra was abandoned, then I threatened my parents with doing Russian and Economics instead of art - but I did a foundation course followed by a degree in Visual Communication, specialising in Illustration with an award for innovative typography. I got going straight out the gate, chasing down freelance jobs anywhere I could as soon as I’d graduated, and registered my business a week and a half after leaving college. There was no other option - I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I did some teaching, becoming an HND course leader on part-time hours at 26, and it felt like the right time to do that - what I lacked in experience I made up for with bags of shareable energy, and worked long into the night on the freelance stuff, my students buying me coffees and toffee muffins next morning when they checked out my exhausted face; I was living proof that you really could ‘do both’. What I love about teaching at so young an age is that some of those students have gone on to become art directors and commission me later in life. One in particular I swear was getting his belated revenge on me, deadline-wise!

I became known as 'The Lettering Girl' in the nineties and noughties for the hand-lettering and hand-drawn type I was doing, developing styles and approaches now ubiquitous in the creative industries, my work is shot through with an inky thread of conversational energy, detail and movement, whether or not words are part of the image. I still use mainly pen and ink on paper, but the iPad and Apple Pencil are also indispensable tools in the holster now.

Witch Pens

I’m often asked about a ‘big break’, or a job that flung me into the limelight. Honestly - I don’t think there was one. Rather, there was a series of small jobs, lots and lots them, which slowly fleshed out a folio of increasing versatility and diversity. A handful of big-name authors had my work on their covers. A few widely-seen ad campaigns brought the use of ‘hand-lettering as illustration’ to the fore, and I made the most of any jobs which seemed a little further above the radar - a famous author, a well-known product, and so on, by promoting my work often and with gusto - making plenty of weird and wonderful promotional items to send out by post to my growing client list. I also held exhibitions, entirely self-funded and organised, which propelled my work into different areas and countries - and which drew the attention of my stateside agent.

 As well as ad campaigns and editorial work, I’ve worked on hundreds of books, producing illustrations for both the insides and outsides! My latest book, Out To Get You, published by Holiday House Books, is by Josh Allen, whose 13 creepy stories I’ve illustrated in pen, pencil, charcoal and ink. I love the hi-adrenaline world of advertising, and the panicky speed of editorial work, but books are where I’ve ended up feeling most comfortable - the perfect blend of having to read a manuscript, interpret characters and create expressive covers which summarise a whole book - or delve into specific portion of a story for an internal illustration. It feels like coming home, the purest version of who I am, creatively.

And when I'm not doing all that, you can find me throwing iron around in the gym, greedily taking in ghost stories or playing with our fleet of unusual Japanese vehicles!

What I’ve realised along the way is that talent alone won’t get you where you need to go. I know now that I began with quite a modest range of skills, and a frankly bizarre portfolio, but my big mouth, lack of fear when it comes to approaching people and grabbing opportunities, and dogged determination were all key to building a life-long career in illustration - this year marks 26 years in the trade. I think those qualities are still needed now, irrespective of the magic wand of social media (which I’m also a big fan of!) You also can’t be too proud - saying yes to jobs you’re not 100% sure about can be an important learning curve.

Treating the job like a serious, full time job is crucial, too. The admin, the taxes and business side must be taken care of, along with your health. It’s fine to stay up all night at 27. It’s sometimes even fun now - as a one-off. But I won’t be a martyr to the all-nighter; it’s very easy to work and worry yourself ill in this business!


See more of Sarah's work in her Featured Illustrator Gallery
Her personal website is here, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter

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