From indie grunge front man to children's book writer-illustrator, the creativity of Francis Martin, our featured artist this month, has explored diverse directions. See more of his work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery

I am a very lucky artist, the people around me have encouraged me to find my own voice and supported me when I have not been sure of myself. If I have tried to do work that would just fit in or please the market they have let me know.  I have had a few careers as you will see but I am now set on a course that should see me through to the end. 


I was born in Islington before it was hipster central. 

Grange School Ikeja.

 I was brought up in Nigeria in the 1960’s during the civil war. Imports were limited and that included  children’s literature, all I can remember were a Topsy and Tim book and a book about marine dinosaurs. Occasionally we got UK comics which I adored. Though I wasn’t aware of it I was introduced to the work of Leo Baxendale creator of Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids.  I came back to the UK in time for the 1970's via an extended stay on a farm in Ireland. To my surprise I found out that I was bottom of the class in almost everything except for a bit of creative writing. I would like to say that I shone at art but I was pretty average (some people might say what’s changed?), but I did enjoy the art room and the people and teachers who hung out there. 


In 1978 I went to The Hayward Gallery’s ‘Dada and Surrealism  Reviewed’ exhibition, at that point I decided to go to art school and was accepted at Liverpool Polytechnic to do sculpture. It turned out that this was not my forte. Like a lot of students I just couldn’t make sense of the so-called highbrow art scene. It was meant to be radical and world-changing but I had a sneaking suspicion that it was trapped in a conversation with itself. There just wasn’t anything within the academic art world circa 1980’s that I could connect to, so I did what any self-respecting art student would do and started a rock band. This took most of my focus for the next ten years. I did continue with some artwork - I designed record covers and made comics. 

I designed the cover of the first Half Man Half Biscuit record.

I was in two bands, The Mel-O-Tones and the Walkingseeds.


The Paradiso, Amsterdam

I did five John Peel sessions on BBC Radio One, toured around Europe a few times and went to New York to record two albums. We were briefly The Fall’s favourite band and were accused of inventing ‘grunge'!!!

In 1989 our German tour reached Berlin the day the wall came down and a band called Nirvana was shoehorned onto the bill. Eventually we got very tired and I went off to get a job with a regular pay check. I kept up the art, getting some cartoons in Private Eye and The Guardian and doing comics. When I became a dad I was introduced by my wife to children’s picture books which I think I enjoyed more than my daughter. The Madeleine Stories (Ludwig Bemelmans), Where The Wild Things Are  (Maurice Sendak), The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle) and The Tiger who came to Tea (Judith Kerr) were highlights. A seed was planted, so after a decade plus of working in adult mental health I jumped ship when I heard about the MA in Children’s Book Illustration Course at Cambridge. I put together a portfolio and got accepted. 

Back to School

I think that if I had realised how far off I was from being an illustrator I might not have jumped in so vigorously. I was already into my fifties and I was going to have to completely overhaul my approach to drawing. The first module of the MA involved intensive observational drawing sessions, there was no more hiding behind gimmicks. Initially my artwork looked worse than it had done when I started but I did feel that I was on a creative journey and I felt ok about stepping back in order to achieve work which in the long run was more satisfying. I was introduced to new (to me) amazing artists, André Francois, John Minton, Beatrice Alemagna  and my favourite, John Burningham.  

Being surrounded by young talented artists and receiving insightful criticism from the tutors wasn’t always easy but it stopped me getting complacent. After college I had a picture book text Daddy Hair-Do published by Simon and Schuster that was illustrated by the very talented Claire Powell. In 2017 I was  awarded the SCBWI conference scholarship, which paid for me to attend the conference and meet publishers and agents, the feedback and encouragement helped me keep going. I was still putting together  stories and concepts that ranged from the terrible to the amazing. My artwork was developing and I felt like I was getting my own voice and understanding what I would like to do. In 2018 I was accepted on to the Picture Hooks mentoring scheme in Edinburgh with five other artists.


The team  involved were really adventurous and pushed the participants to take chances in order to  produce imaginative artwork for children. I was paired with Chris Mould, a successful and original illustrator whose support and advice pushed my work to another level.  He noticed that I was doing quite a lot of text which I used as a guide for my artwork, Chris suggested I keep this in. At the end of the scheme all the Picture Hooks participants and their mentors had their work exhibited at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. 

Scottish National Gallery

I must confess that having my work in such a prestigious venue meant so much to me. This lead onto me getting a lot of publisher interest, and an illustration in the Sunday Times illustrating a short story by Candy Gourlay. 

Sunday Times

 I was recently commissioned to illustrate a book by the independent publisher Little Doors Books called Pinkie and Boo written by Chae Strathie.  The process was really positive, we were able to work together and push the story and get the text and the images working together. The book is out now and whatever happens I feel like a I have piece of work that I am really proud under my belt.  


See more of Francis' work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery

Follow Francis on Instagram and Twitter.

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