This month our Featured Illustrator is Liverpudlian Maxine Lee-Mackie. A gifted digital artist and teacher, attracting a wide spectrum of interest in publishing, she recently completed an MA in Illustration. See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

At the very start, all I knew was that I wanted to be creative. I studied art and drama at school. I drew, acted, and sang in a band in my spare time. I doodled on my more academic exam papers when I didn’t know very specific answers about Philippe of Anjou.

My folder from infant school – I drew on everything

At that time, I thought I was edgy and liked drawing demons, moody women and Jim Morrison. Then I left school without applying to university and took a job in an office, you know, a ‘gap’ year. As it turned out, my gap year turned into my life and I ended up dropping art for a little while and settling down with a stable job. I didn’t pick my pencils back up again until I was on maternity leave with my eldest son about 6 years later. I remember buying picture books and just being in complete awe of them. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten how magical they were (I should point out at this point, that my mum always made sure that we had a good supply of picture books). The more I read, the more I wanted to be a part of that world. I signed up for my first Adobe course (we used Photoshop V4), and I’ve never looked back. I went on from there to an HND in Multimedia Arts, then I did a BA in Digital Arts, and just recently, I completed my MA in Illustration. The moral of my personal path is: IT IS NEVER TOO LATE.

In between the BA and MA, I made another tiny human. I was teaching Graphics and Online Media at a local college and doing some freelance jobs. This is where I learned about that wonderful thing that everyone wanted to give me: exposure. What I really wanted them to give me was money, but a few convinced me that exposure was better. It wasn’t. Exposure just made me feel that my work wasn’t good enough to be worth actual payment. This time, I used my maternity leave to plan my freelance career going forward. I made some tough decisions. Stepping away from lecturing was one of them. I loved it, and I loved my students, but I found it creatively draining. I used my small amounts of spare time to build a portfolio and take some art courses. In 2011, I scribbled out a story on a scrap of paper because I was so frustrated trying to find a unique story to illustrate. They’d all been done to death. I wrote a 100 word story called Pi-Rat! That story went on to be my debut picture book with Caterpillar Books, and the book that got me representation from my agency, Bright Group. 

My second book, Sorry, Dad! followed a year later, closely followed by my third, Big Whoop! which was released in the US. Since then, I’ve illustrated lots of picture books, and written/illustrated for the educational market.

A selection of books I've illustrated or written and illustrated


Although I enjoy working with analogue tools, I usually create my professional work digitally. Over the years I’ve collected and tweaked digital brushes that I’ve become very attached to. I’m set up with a PC and 22HD Wacom Cintiq. My go to program is still Photoshop, but I do use Rebelle occasionally too. My process when a new project lands on my desk varies, but I usually draw initial sketches before I start my research. These are loose, compositional or character drawings.

Sketchbook and tools

I don’t like to be overly influenced by previous versions, so if I’m commissioned to create a version of Red Riding Hood, I record my initial responses as a starting point. Although these initial sketches are often lost or replaced after research, I find it grounds me; it disrupts the blank space. I make good use of Adobe Libraries to collect reference material into my ‘sketchbook’ file. That’s the file where I draw the turnarounds of characters, foliage, furniture, floor plans – basically, anything I need to refer to for each illustration. I also keep a digital flat plan so I can see how all of the spreads work together as I go – this helps me to track the pacing and contrast of the illustrations too. I don’t like to work from A to B, I’m more of an AGZAXZ to F type of worker, so the flat plan is great for keeping track of where I’m up to.

Character development work – digital

Digital Flat Plan for workflow

After completing my MA recently, I became a lot more interested in what children’s books are actually saying about the binaries that we promote to our children through literature. I also explored graphic novels and for my final project I wrote, illustrated and published my first one: The Ghost In The Window. It was a mammoth task, but something I very much enjoyed. I intend to release a follow up next year.

Ghost in the Window - my first Graphic Novel


You can probably see from looking at my work that I don’t conform to just one style. There was a lot of emphasis put on ‘style’ when I was starting out, and it was stressful. I went my own way and I work in a range of styles, and it’s never been a hindrance. As a matter of fact, I think it’s helped me to stay busy. You do you – if you want to work with oils one day, then on iPad the next, that’s fine. Don’t stress about it, go with it.

To anyone just starting out, keep at it, keep experimenting and don’t be afraid of success or failure. Show your work often, look at others’ work often, keep listening, learning and evolving. Ask questions, answer questions. Above all, don’t be fooled by the exposure trap. People die of exposure.

spread from The Burp That Saved The World by Mark Griffiths, illustrated by me


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

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.