FEATURED ILLUSTRATOR Bethany Christou

Our first Featured Illustrator for 2021 is Bethany Christou. In addition to course work, social media illustration challenges played an important role sharpening Bethany's amazing talent, helping her on the way to publication!  See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

 

I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t surrounded by books, or when I wasn’t drawing or writing stories. Art has always been a huge part of my identity.
 

Where it all started…

 

After sixth form, I joined the BA (Hons) Fine Art course at Cambridge School of Art, but it became evident that Fine Art was not for me. I officially moved over to the Illustration course half-way through first-year. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

While the Illustration course and tutors were brilliant, I did have a difficult period in my second year with my mental health. My self-esteem was very low. I felt lost. I couldn’t connect with the briefs and struggled to like my own work. It was towards the end of second-year that we had a ‘book’ brief, and that’s when something clicked for me.

I wrote and illustrated a picturebook retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, which I entered into the Macmillan Prize. It wasn’t successful, but that didn’t matter. What mattered most was that I was feeling excited about my work. It became clear to me that creating picturebooks was what I wanted to do.

One of the spreads I submitted to the Macmillan Prize in my second year of university


In the summer holidays before third-year, I joined Twitter and Instagram and immersed myself in the children’s illustration community. I began building an online following by participating in weekly art challenges. I joined these as often as I could alongside my university work. My favourite of these challenges was Colour Collective on Twitter, created by Penny Neville-Lee.

A compilation of the Colour Collective illustrations I made in 2016

I was particularly inspired by the work that was coming out of the MA Children’s Book Illustration course at my university. I followed a lot of the students and alumni on social media, such as Becky Cameron, Simona Ciraolo and Marta Altés. I adored their work and aspired to be on the same level as them. I did actually have a couple of people mistake me for being on the MA course after seeing my work on Instagram. That was the biggest compliment.

The first half of third-year was spent working on portfolio pieces based on set briefs. I experimented with mixing traditional painting (acrylic, gouache) with digital painting

For my final major project I decided to have another go at making a picturebook. I came up with two different story ideas, but I wasn’t excited enough about either of them. Bizarrely, the final idea came to me thanks to an online art challenge. I was scrolling through Twitter and seeing lots of sloth illustrations that were posted the previous day. They were all created for the weekly Animal Alphabets challenge. I felt sad that I’d missed out and hadn’t created anything for it. But then I had this thought: “I could still paint a sloth – he could just be late to the party”.  My mind ran with the concept – of a sloth who is always late to his friends’ parties. I grabbed my notebook and scribbled a very messy first draft of what would become Slow Samson. This time, on entering the Macmillan Prize, I was ‘highly commended’!

On the left is the cover I submitted to the Macmillan Prize and for my degree (2016). On the right is the published cover (2019, Templar Publishing)

At the end of my course, I had the opportunity to showcase my work at New Designers in London, along with the rest of my class. With Slow Samson on display, I was shortlisted for New Designer of the Year. I also met a designer from Templar Publishing there. Following our conversation, I was invited to bring my book and portfolio to Templar’s office. That led to being offered a two-book deal. The second story didn’t yet exist, but would be based on a crocodile Templar had liked from my portfolio.
 

I referred to this character in my portfolio as ‘Nervous Nigel’, and the name stuck. He was painted between my degree hand-in and New Designers

Because Slow Samson was fully illustrated when Templar acquired it, I perhaps didn’t have a typical first publishing experience. It was only later that I realised that publishers normally see submissions in the form of dummy books – and those are mostly sketches, with only a few spreads in colour. My editor and designer had brilliant ideas to push the story even further, but to do that it meant scrapping spreads I’d spent hours painting to make room for new scenes. And when it was time for me to paint the new spreads, the remaining original spreads were a year old. I became very anxious about consistency. Even though my publisher was happy with the old artwork, I wasn’t, so I made the decision to go back and repaint some of it.

Probably the spread I updated the most was this one. You can see the improvement I’d made a year later, and why I was worried about consistency
 

Around this time, I had a mental breakdown; a culmination of struggling with imposter syndrome, perfectionism, anxiety and depression. I’d bottled all my worries and had been too afraid to ask questions or ask for help in case it exposed me for the inexperienced and unprepared person I felt I was. Because of this, and needing months of therapy to get back on my feet, Slow Samson’s release date was delayed a year.

My second book, Nervous Nigel, was a much smoother process. But perhaps it was still unusual in that it began with just a character design and a title, rather than a story. It was a completely different experience to Slow Samson, where the concept had come to me suddenly. I spent a long time working through the various things Nigel could be nervous about. When I finally imagined him coming from a long line of champion swimmers, and the pressure that would cause, I knew I was onto something interesting.

The final cover for Nervous Nigel, and some of the many thumbnail sketches. It was published in 2020, four years after my very first paintings of Nigel

I created the artwork using a mix of gouache, coloured pencil and digital manipulation. All the various parts that made up the illustrations (facial features, limbs, foliage etc.) were made separately on paper, and then scanned into Photoshop and arranged and edited. At times it felt like a bit of a puzzle, looking at pages and pages of painted green limbs and tails. But I liked having the flexibility of being able to easily move every little detail in Photoshop.

The painted artwork for this one book filled 37 sheets of A4 paper

I feel a little uneasy giving advice, because it gives the impression that I actually know what I’m doing. I have no idea what I’m doing – I’m just guessing and making it up as I go along. But what seemed to work well for me, early on, was engaging with the online community. Art challenges were a great way of connecting with other illustrators and creating new portfolio pieces. It was thanks to Colour Collective that my work caught the eye of my agent, who found me through Twitter.

I’ve learnt the hard way how important it is to ask for help when you need it. The publishing process seems mysterious and the long periods of waiting involved can feel fairly torturous, but it’s good to remember we’re all in this together. It can be a good idea to reach out to fellow illustrators for a bit of advice or reassurance when you’re struggling. Working from home can be isolating, so it’s important to find ways to connect and open up about our worries rather than bottling them.

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See more of Bethany's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery

Her website is here, follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


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