In search of inspiration, Caroline Deacon invites established writers and illustrators to tell us about their creative space. This month features Jill Calder, an award-winning illustrator based in Fife. 

Jill's books include Robert the Bruce, King of Scots by James Robertson (Birlinn Books) What is Poetry? The Essential Guide to Reading and Writing Poems by Michael Rosen (Walker Books), The Picture Atlas by Simon Holland, and most recently The Sea by Miranda Krestovnikoff (Bloomsbury). Jill is now attempting to write as well as illustrate her own picture books which is both terrifying and exciting in equal measures!


Tell us about your creative space

My studio is tucked away at the side of the house. It’s cluttered, often a bit chilly, dog-less (they prefer the warm kitchen), full of books and one window less than ideal. But I have a space for messy work downstairs, and upstairs have a desk for clean work and digital stuff plus a comfy sofa for reading and musing. I can even look out the window and see a graveyard! There’s also a ukulele. I can’t play but it’s good for procrastinating.



Why does this place work for you? 

I moved to this house nearly three years ago and to be honest, it’s taken me a long while to bond with my current studio. However during lockdown I had to take stock of my working space and I’ve worked hard to make it into a place where I can be as creative as possible, surrounded by books and art materials…and decent wifi!


Do you need particular prompts to get started? 

When I go to bed I write a schedule with quite specific timings for the next day. I find that helps me focus on what needs to be done. I heat up my studio before I get in there and put on the radio, so it’s a welcoming space as soon as I come through the door. Then I like to do a ‘warm up’ drawing. This can be of anything, using any materials and is done quickly without any planning or over thinking. Once that’s out of the way, I’m in the zone and I get on with the work in hand.


Your creative tools - what are they? 

Pen, ink, paint sticks, crayons, colour pencils, Photoshop, scanner, Wacom tablet (not a fancy one!) and a seven-year-old iMac.




Do you have a routine?

I’ve always struggled a bit with routine, procrastination and self discipline, but I’ve never missed a deadline! Not two days are the same for me but I try for a good morning's work and then maybe again in the evening. If I’m really busy, I get up early, make some tea and go straight to the studio in my PJs and set the timer for a ‘Power Hour’ of intense work. It’s amazing what you can get done in the time! The nearer a deadline the more focused I become but I’m trying to develop a more even routine that includes taking breaks for exercise, headspace and proper food.


What is the best creative advice you’ve been given? 

Begin. And if you are absorbed enough to keep doing it after two minutes then keep going. Break tricky or difficult tasks into 25-minute sections, then have a small break, then another 25-minute session and so on. It’s called the Pomodoro method and I learned about on a fantastic SCBWI workshop in Edinburgh with author P. M. Freestone.


What advice would you like to give to illustrators who are trying to get established? 

I’ve been a commercial illustrator since 1992 but it’s really only in the least five or six years that I’ve started doing children’s book illustration, so that was a learning curve. In turn that has made me want to write and illustrate my own picture books. So I’ve gone back to the beginning to learn as much as I can about this business, and writing in particular. I attend courses, workshops, webinars and online lectures, I joined SCBWI and continue to learn so much from my fellow SCBWI members. I try and talk to other authors and illustrators about their experience and I read, read, read children’s books, especially picture books. Then you just have to put your work out there and not be afraid of rejection (or silence) and just persevere, learning from mistakes.


What was your favourite book as a child? 

Ghastly Girls and Beastly Boys illustrated by Tomi Ungerer. It’s a poetry collection from the early 1960s, and belonged to my big sister, but I loved the funny, often quite violent poems and limericks combined with Ungerer’s scratchy, malevolent artwork. Still a favourite but of its time. I’m not sure anything similar would be published today!

Favourite ‘how to’ book about writing and/or illustrating? 

Currently reading Writing for Children and YA by Linda Strachan. It’s fantastic and is helping me focus on some real problem areas in my picture book texts.

Does exercise help the creative process? 

YES! Walking is essential. I have dogs, and walk them, but I also like to walk out in the countryside on my own and the act of walking somehow helps me think more clearly about my ideas. I’ve even taken to reciting my story ideas out loud as I walk and recording them on my phone - story arcs unfold more naturally this way as compared to my trying to scribble them down on paper and getting frustrated as I can’t write quickly enough!


What must you have at hand in order to be able to create? 

Dark chocolate ginger biscuits and a mug of strong Yorkshire decaf tea please! A proper lunch break too: sit down to soup and salad, or omelette or leftovers even more delicious the next day. I had a dressed crab from our local fish van the other day and did some very nice drawings after that!


What image are you dying to use, but haven’t yet found room for? 

Just prior to lockdown I was lucky enough to visit Sri Lanka with The British Council as part of ‘Drawing Words', an exhibition of ten British children’s book illustrators curated by Lauren Child. I took some time out afterwards to explore the south of the island and came back with a packed sketchbook. Inspired by a ruddy mongoose I saw patrolling the guest-house garden every day, I’m working on a new illustration I hope will spawn a whole picture book idea! 

'Drawing my garden.'

You can find more of Jill's work at


Caroline Deacon lives in Edinburgh and is the author of several childcare books. She now writes MG and YA and is agented by Lindsay Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates, Edinburgh. Find her on Twitter and at

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