ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Larger Than Life: Moving Away from the Printed Page


What happens when illustrators of the printed page take on a new scale? Martha Lightfoot leads us along the Kingfisher Trail.

When the box containing an enormous fibreglass kingfisher was delivered to my front door, it took two of us just to get it into the house…

The Commission

I was one of 22 artists taking part in the Cotswolds Kingfisher Trail, which aimed to get people out in nature after lockdown.


The 3ft kingfisher as it arrived

With this project I could do anything I wanted, with none of the restrictions of the printed page. As picture book illustrators, we can sometimes find ourselves stuck working in the same style or on very similar projects, maybe wanting to try something new but not quite ready to convince others of it yet! Having a side project with no expectations that you’ll work in a particular way can be liberating, a time to experiment and be playful.

The Challenge

When we are used to illustrating pages in a book, it can be quite daunting to be faced with a 3D object to paint! I had to find a unique and eye-catching way of decorating it and the possibilities seemed endless. Should I try and tell a story? Include written words? Introduce some characters? I decided to start with a palette of glowing oranges, blues and greens. But what to paint?

Fishing for Ideas - the Inspiration

I thought about where the sculpture might end up, by the River Severn or the River Thames, and pictured it surrounded by trees and wild flowers. In my mind’s eye the kingfisher was also covered with leaves and flowers, and when I let go of the need for a narrative I began to think about it as a decorative object.
As I wondered how to begin I remembered an old test sheet of colour inks - I loved the carefree jumble of overlapping colours so much I’d kept it on my wall for years. That was what I wanted to capture on my kingfisher.


Inky inspiration

The Experiment

I’ve never started a picture book with so little idea of what I was doing! Carefree painting is not as easy as it sounds…


The scribbly stage

After building up inky-looking layers with diluted acrylic paints, I used white paint to create breathing space around the marks. I took inspiration from the colourful brushstrokes - looking intently but not overthinking the design.

Detail from back of kingfisher

By this stage other artists were posting photos of their kingfishers on social media and it was inspiring to see their process.

The End

I named my piece 'Wonderfisher,' imagining kids exploring her painted surface and trying to find all the birds and insects. The Kingfisher Trail was launched in May, and the 'Wonderfisher' went to the lovely Newark Park NT, where she looks perfectly at home.



At the end of the trail, in October, the kingfishers will be auctioned to help young people take part in rural skills experiences across the Cotswolds National Landscape, and she’ll start a new story somewhere else.

The Wonderfisher at Newark Park NT

Working in an unfamiliar media can be challenging as well as exciting, but exploring something new can yield unexpected results, whether playing in a sketchbook or working on a commission. After working in this way I’m trying out looser brushstrokes on my next book project.

The dance between painting intuitively and painting carefully made me ponder the age-old problem of keeping an element of playfulness in finished illustrations (I’d love to hear any thoughts on this)!

The Bigger Picture

Books with maps are always popular, and following the Trail map to track down some kingfishers might inspire your child readers! Maybe they’ll tell themselves stories suggested by a detail on a decorated kingfisher.

You can download the Kingfisher Trail App or see them on the website and Instagram.

Amongst the wonderful artists are several illustrators, including Hannah Dyson, whose ‘All Hail the Kingfisher’ reflects her fascination with strange creatures and folklore;

@hannahjdyson - photo by Russel Sach

Imogen Harvey-Lewis, whose strong graphic style is instantly recognisable on her ‘Lockdown Love Bird’;

@plimpsole_girl – photo by Russel Sach

and Tracy Spiers, whose colourful and clever ‘Wait A Minnow’ moves to a new location every two weeks.

@tracyspiersillustration – photo by Russel Sach



Martha Lightfoot has been illustrating picture books since 2005 and is currently working on bringing her own stories to life. (photo: MLbwphoto)
Instagram: @martha__lightfoot
Twitter: @Flightiofoot

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