This month's Featured Illustrator is Natelle Quek. Malaysian-born Natelle has lived in New Zealand and the US before settling in London, instilling a particularly broad international appeal to her decorative children's book illustrations. See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

Like most illustrators, I drew a lot as a kid. Drawing was an activity that gave me a lot of joy (that, and digging around in the dirt), and it was easy for me to get lost in it. But drawing had always remained a hobby, and I ended up getting a degree in biology and spent the first several years of my 'adult career' flitting between lab jobs. Everything changed in 2015 when my husband and I relocated to Florida. I was so used to moving by now, having split my formative years between Malaysia, the country in which I was born, and New Zealand, which became my home from my teenage years  onwards. But it was this particular move when I really became disillusioned with everything. I didn’t want to go back into the lab, so I turned to drawing, and it was exactly what I needed. I started my own small business, filed for self-employment and opened an Instagram account.
Starting sketch of a festive platypus (above), and the final product as an enamel pin (below). Before I learned how to design products using Adobe Illustrator, I would draw by hand on paper, scan it to my laptop, and use Photoshop to finalise the file.

I had to learn quickly, not only about the ins and outs of running a business as a sole trader, but also in terms of up-skilling how I drew, and using editors like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I ran Natelle Draws Stuff (my very imaginative business name) for three years, and in that time, I began offering my illustration services, taking on commissions and collaborations with a variety of organisations. These freelance projects allowed me to explore and grow as an illustrator.

A couple of example commissions completed, prior to children’s illustrations. A custom-designed enamel pin for the Permian Monsters exhibit at Florida Museum of Natural History (left), and a poster celebrating the 20th anniversary of Gunung Palung Orangutan Project (right).

We moved yet again in 2018, this time to London, and it was a chance for me to really find focus in illustration. I decided to take a leap into an online short course that provided me with insight into how a picture book works. It was a real struggle, and I found myself redoing assignments multiple times; while I was comfortable illustrating wildlife and creating seamless patterns, drawing faces and putting them in an environment was completely new (and terrifying). It was a landslide of information in a very short amount of time, but I was hooked. I started amassing picture books, and they fitted in perfectly among all my other art books that I had collected over the years. I’m still learning so much every day about picture books, about illustrating and about myself.

Looking back on it, a lot of what I love now was shaped by my sister. Even though I don’t remember reading a lot of picture books when I was a kid (apart from a small handful of Roald Dahl titles), many of the illustrated books we did have were character-driven and/or had some kind of narrative. My sister would fill our house with the likes of Charles Burns, Art Speigelman, and Istvan Banyai. I think that a lot of these influences all fell into place when I rediscovered picture book illustration.

A small selection of some of my favourite illustrated books right now.
Top row from left to right: Aesop’s The Lion And The Mouse illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, Wings of Paradise by John Cody.
Bottom row from left to right: Home by Carson Ellis, Rise and Fall by Micah Lidberg, Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Rébecca Dautremer, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Artforms in Nature, a collection of Ernst Haeckel’s works.

I joined SCBWI in late 2019, determined to find a direction and a community. This is going to sound super-cheesy, but it really was one of the most life-changing decisions I made. Everything started snowballing after I sent in artwork for two different SCBWI-related events: 1) the 'Beginning, Middle and End' illustrator competition at the 2019 Winchester conference, and 2) the Women’s IPOC Scholarship. Through those submissions, I won a portfolio review with an art director and was one of three recipients awarded the scholarship that included a paid trip to the 2020 NYC conference.

At the end of 2019, I signed with Alice Williams Literary Agency (who had seen my submission at the Winchester conference). I love my agent, and I’m excited to find my place in children’s illustration.

My current little corner workspace

My workflow and processes are not dissimilar to how I found my illustration path; a little haphazard and sometimes I stumble into things. I primarily work digitally, but I LOVE discovering new techniques and tools. My favourite traditional media are graphite, charcoal, coloured pencils, watercolour, and gouache. I’m definitely stronger as a digital illustrator, but I also enjoy that I have less control over paints. Depending on the subject, I’ll either do a lot of prior research (a nonfiction piece for example), or just dive right in and befriend the 'undo' button (especially with fantasy pieces).

A work in progress piece for my portfolio. I take precautions to reduce RSI and that includes ergonomic grips and multiple microbreaks during the day to exercise my hand, wrist, and arm.

In between digital work, I make an effort to sketch and play. I also love going on 'art dates' with other illustrator friends around London city. On a good day, we would park ourselves somewhere in the sun and sketch everything we see for hours on end.
I used to draw only the natural world, and that is still a major inspiration for me, but as I kept on going, I became more unabashed about weaving my own life experiences and culture into my illustrations. I’m also a firm believer of style growth; I would like to be able to look back on my work several years from now and see how the pieces I make evolve alongside new experiences and inspiration.

If you’re worried that you didn’t take a traditional education route to be an illustrator, please don’t give up. Practise every day (draw as much as you can; USE IT, OR LOSE IT!), absorb and learn as much as possible, reach out and find your community, get your work out there. Most importantly, be open to change.


See more of Natelle's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.
Her website is here. Follow Natelle on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Her agent is here.

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