Maxine Lee-Mackie shows how drawing on the past can help to create a unique portfolio of work



An illustrator who doesn’t have a desire to bring something new to their practice is a rare find. It’s natural to want to see progress in your own work. Think of European chefs who spend time in India and then incorporate new spices, herbs and methods into their dishes. We can’t always stay the same if we want our work to be emotionally rewarding and a true reflection of our artistic voice. The tricky part is how to evolve when you’re feeling uninspired. One response to that could be to look behind you.


Who do you come from?

It might not come to you straight away, but ask yourself:


Does your family have a legend, a mystery, an heirloom or strange object that’s been passed down? Even something simple like this butter knife that’s been in my husband’s family for years.


THE butter knife

Maybe you have an ancestor who emigrated to New Zealand around 1860 during the gold rush? 

Have you heard of a relative that ‘ended up in the workhouse’?

Were your ancestors asylum seekers or refugees?

Is there an ancestor who suffered because of their colour, beliefs or sexuality?

Do you have an unexplored heritage?

These are your seeds. You can plant any one of them and help it grow by doing some research and using your imagination. Revisit old letters, photographs and postcards if you have them, and talk to the people around you. If you have elderly relatives, give them a call for a chat about the olden days. Once you’ve gathered a few facts you can start to plan a body of work around those seeds of your unique history.


It could be that you draw Aunty Brenda in her hey-day using that butter knife – maybe she’s sat alone at a table, or maybe she’s surrounded by family? Maybe it’s the only thing she could grab before having to suddenly leave her home? 

You could illustrate Uncle Ronnie panning for gold in New Zealand. It’s okay to use a bit of creative licence from a time when photographs were rare. A quick internet search will reveal if facial hair was in fashion at the time, the style of clothing, tools, transport, living conditions and what the environment was like.


Or you could be more literal about the whole thing, jump in with both feet and go for a full-on illustrated family tree like Norman Rockwell’s illustration. Love him or hate him, this is pretty spectacular. 

Here’s a link for more information at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Family Tree illustration by Norman Rockwell


Drawing on the past to give your work an edge

Imagine a publisher asks you to pitch for a project about a dog and a girl who are the best of friends. If you have ancestors from Norway, or Wales or Nigeria, think about setting your story there. Research architecture, environment, dog breeds, fashions and colours. If you have photographs and memories, use them. When you draw on your past, you can bring the element of individuality and personality to your work that nobody else can. You give it depth because of who you are. You make it diverse by being representative of, and sensitive to, who your readers are (hopefully all children).


I often look back at my own childhood for inspiration – I find it therapeutic to reflect in this way. Curtain Day was featured in the SCBWI Pictures at Play exhibition in 2019-20. It’s an image from the first of three zines that look back on my past. As a child, I spent a lot of time in my own head because there were a lot of things going on around me that I was too young to understand. It’s hard to express in words how much I loved it when my nan took the curtains down to wash them; I would wrap myself up and pretend to be all sorts of characters until she took them away and shoved them into the twin-tub. Creating these books and zines really helped me to reflect on how I interacted with myself as a child.

Curtain Day illustration by Maxine Lee-Mackie from Red, Black, Blue zine trilogy (personal work)


Family traits

One of the quirks of my mum’s family is that they are armed with a cautionary rhyme for every situation. If she ever heard me whistling, my nan would say:

A whistling woman, a crying hen, wakes the devil from his den. 

Scary stuff when you’re five years old. 

Last week, I told my great uncle I get up really early, he simply replied:

Early to bed, early to rise, 
keeps you healthy, wealthy and wise. 

If only that were true…sigh.

It’s definitely a family trait and these little sayings have plenty of mileage for creative exploration. This side of my family, like my paternal grandmother, is mainly Scandinavian/German, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. Maybe you have some family traditions like this to draw upon? I know that I could make a body of work from all of the rhymes and stories of torpedoes and sharks I remember growing up. But… 


What if you have an unclear heritage?

All I know about my paternal grandfather is that he was tri-racial: African (mainly Nigerian), Native American, and European. This gives me a number of dilemmas which all relate to my own heritage which forces the question: Can I draw upon that side of me when I wasn’t brought up in those cultures? Well, no one can give or deny permission so I have no definitive answer, but I can share my thought process.


If I’m drawing on my unclear heritage, I try and learn something new as I go. If I’m illustrating an African folk tale, I do my best to make sure it’s authentic by looking at the origins of the story. If I’m going to draw African people as part of that, I look at photographs, old and new from the country in Africa the folktale originates from. What I don’t do is look at old illustrations. Retro illustrations are great for style ideas, but very often, the non-white figures conform to stereotypes and can be offensive and hurtful and that has no place in children’s publishing. If you’re going to draw upon your little-known, unlived heritage, treat it with the respect it deserves. There are people living in every culture who are struggling to be seen, heard and understood – give them a hand, not a kick in the teeth.


What if you know even less about your heritage, like, nothing at all?

In this situation, you can think about the people you encountered growing up – a teacher who cared about you, a school friend, the area you grew up in, the ways you entertained yourself, did you collect anything, what was the area like that you lived in? An example I could give you here would be from my working class roots. Some of my earliest memories involve playing in building sand that was dumped in the middle of the close where we lived, ready to build new houses opposite. Or investigating the old empty flats that were being demolished to make way for those new houses. I was too scared to go in, but I remember seeing a ripped-out toilet cistern that looked like it had a face. It’s a small snippet of how life was, but it’s an opportunity to connect with children today who could have been my friends back then.


Illustration from The Ghost in the Window by Maxine Lee-Mackie (self-published graphic novel)

My advice when using this method of drawing on the past is to be authentic. If your inspiration comes from your own experiences, then that’s exactly where you’re coming from – that’s a primary source. If you’re drawing from before your time, you’re drawing on your understanding of something – your point of view – that’s a secondary source. As long as your view is informed and sensitive to real life, then you have an authentic reason why you made the work, and I would suggest sharing that reason along with the work when you show it. An example of something inauthentic would be an illustration of a Thai market scene without having done any research to see what kind of items would be sold, and what kind of outfits they would wear in the locality.


Finally, try and remember that not everyone has the same experiences of childhood. Some children can’t relate to picnics in the park and bedtime stories, but that doesn’t mean those stories can’t or shouldn’t be told. That makes them more important. Kate Milner does this so well in her books and if you want to see a true representation of childhood adversity combined with a loving upbringing, seek her out. If you’re worried about adverse stories not attracting the clients you want, you can make a section in your online portfolio called Personal Work or Personal Reflection.

A link to a sample of Kate Milner’s It’s a No Money Day


Remember, there’s no right or wrong answer to how you approach this – I’ve outlined my own process, but these are your stories to tell through illustration and nobody else can tell them for you. You have all the seeds you need to evolve and turn your personal history into a source of inspiration.


Header Image: The Sleep Watchers Illustration by Maxine Lee-Mackie from Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls From Around The World (Usborne)




Maxine Lee-Mackie has been working internationally as a freelance children’s illustrator since 2012. 

She recently illustrated Little People, Big Dreams: Hans Christian Andersen, published by Frances Lincoln.
Instagram:  @maxineleemackie   Twitter : @maxillustration


  1. Hi Maxine, thank you for sharing some of your processes and experiences. The past is always with us, whether we are aware of it or not. I am increasingly aware of that as I get older. I haven't consciously sought to draw upon the past for inspiration, but as an ethnic minority in the UK (being Welsh), my identity has been shaped by the landscape, culture(s), history and spirituality of Wales in its different regions. However, it can get somewhat lost in the mix of being 'British', or even 'European'. Thank you for the encouragement to look within and back across time to find new meaning and inspiration. Gwen

    1. I'm really glad it resonated, Gwen. I completely agree about the past always being with us in the background. Small things you heard about as a child can become huge sources of reflection later on. Whenever I see your work, I see a Welsh-ness - the essence of Gwen.


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