Our Featured Illustrator for this month is Somerset-based Sara Rhys, a former silversmith turned illustrator, now making her mark as a creator of delicately rendered picture books. See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

I’ve always been creative. Art was a big outlet for me as a child when I had a lot of ill health that lasted into young adulthood. Creating and learning new processes kept me sane (ish) and gave me some control when other aspects of life were less than ideal. When I was well enough, I went to university and did a degree in Contemporary Applied Arts that further broadened my spectrum of skills and for a while afterwards I was a metalsmith, until I came to realise the thing that gave me most satisfaction was drawing.

I think my experience with working alone and teaching myself was really helpful when I decided to focus on illustration as a future career. I was pretty nerdy in the way I went about it - analysing styles I liked, studying picture books and trying new materials. I spent a lot of time working alone, being very single-minded, and whilst it certainly helped speed things up (I found my first agent within 18 months) it wasn’t great for my mental health or relationships, so I wouldn’t necessarily advise others down that path. I think it’s probably wiser to take things slowly and allow yourself to have fun.

When I started illustrating, I had next to no knowledge of digital media, and although I can now do what I need to in Photoshop, I have always needed physical contact with my art. One of my earliest influences artistically was Elena Odriozola’s quite minimal, stylised illustrations. It’s not so apparent in my work now, but I was particularly drawn to her use of colour and pattern, as well as her figures. I initially started with watercolours (which I had no idea how to use; it’s been a steep learning curve). Over the years I’ve added in coloured pencils, gouache, markers and pastels and am always keen to experiment with the next thing. I edit in Photoshop, and occasionally move things around, but I try to keep it to a minimum as I find my work loses heart the more it’s processed digitally.

I’m not influenced by very specific things, it tends to be more about emotions, colours and textures, which can be found everywhere. I often get ideas when I’m not trying too hard, like when I’m out walking or doing yoga. My style is always evolving, and so are my influences; it depends what I’ve been doing recently – I'm very absorbent! I draw a lot of animals - lots of birds recently – and the natural world features a lot in my work, though I do love drawing buildings too. I consider myself an illustrator first, but I have pages of picture book ideas and drafts because I often have ideas popping into my head. I’m hoping some of those ideas will get out into the world soon.

My journey so far has been wiggly. My first published book came out last year with Simon & Schuster (Pony Poems for Little Pony Lovers written by Cari Meister) and I was given that job after they rejected the dummy book my agent had sent them. Since then I’ve worked with a number of clients, big and small, the most recent being Dove (the soap company). I switched agencies to join the lovely Plum Pudding last Autumn, and I’m hoping things will continue to grow steadily this year.

My main bit of advice, if someone is hoping to make illustration their career, is to make sure you’re enjoying the journey. If your goal is to get an agent, become published, sell your work, etc. then certainly work towards that, but I’ve found the most important thing to make work for yourself. And know that even when you get that agent or book contract, that’s just the beginning, so I think your heart really has to be in it for it to develop into a career. I spent two years making my first picture book – if I didn’t love it I think I’d have chucked my pencils out the window several times! I hope that doesn’t sound discouraging, I just know that if I hadn’t loved making art so much, I probably would have given up along the way, and it’s only my need to create that meant that was never an option.

My other bit of advice is to treat yourself like a business, for your own sake and that of others in the industry. Brush up on pricing, art licensing and contracts because we all need to take this stuff seriously if we’re going to attract appropriate respect and fees from clients. It’s in all our interests to make illustration, and children’s publishing, a sustainable career option.


See more of Sara's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery. Her personal website is here. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Sara is repped by Plum Pudding Agency.

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