This month's Featured Illustrator is Sian James, whose children's illustration career blossomed after discovery on social media. See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery

Growing up in Hong Kong, my parents, brother and I shared a little flat. Some of my earliest memories were lying in bed at night time, completely captivated by stories that my parents were telling. Sometimes, it was Mum reading from an untranslated picture book imported from Britain or the US. Mum, who speaks only a little English, would skip the text altogether and make up her own stories based on the illustrations alone. Whenever I pointed out that random ladybird or that random background character in the illustration, Mum would incorporate it into her story. The story would always be a little different at every retelling, and always led by the illustrations.

Other times, it was Dad improvising stories as he told them: his own version of a fable, a tale he heard somewhere long ago, or his ‘never-ending stories’ which are essentially Zeno’s paradoxes. I asked him why he was so good at telling stories, and he said it was because he had a PhD in Storytelling. I told him that I wanted a PhD in Storytelling too.


Dad, me, and my brother in our little flat, with Mum as the photographer.

Nevertheless, the story of how I became a visual storyteller, a.k.a. children’s book illustrator, is a strange and convoluted one. Drawing has always been a part of my life. All through school and even in university, I spent more time illustrating my study notes than actually studying. My brother is both very arty and tech-savvy, and with his influence (and help installing Photoshop), I began exploring digital painting when I was 16.


An illustrated guide to archaeology, by Sian, Age 11.

Despite my love for art, I never considered it to be a career option. Instead, I pursued my other passion: the study of the human past. This led me to study Anthropology and Archaeology in university, after which I continued to study for an MPhil and eventually a PhD in Archaeology. Nonetheless, art remained an important part of my studies and postgraduate research. In my PhD on burial practices in early medieval England, I created reconstruction drawings of over 2,000 burials from the sixth to eighth centuries. The centrality of art in my thesis is perhaps best exemplified by a conference paper I wrote in 2015 notably titled ‘Art as data: studying corpses by drawing them’.


A small selection of drawings from my doctoral thesis.


The year after the PhD was a time of unsuccessful job-hunting and frustration. Whilst unemployed, I reignited my passion for art, and started building my portfolio. With that, I discovered lots of free online resources shared generously by other illustrators, and I researched into children’s book illustration, the intricacies of freelancing, and how to break into the industry. I created a website and started posting my work on social media, and I also began submitting to publishers and illustration agencies. Some of them got back with the answer ‘no’, while others never replied to me at all.


One of my favourite illustrations that I created for my portfolio when I was preparing submissions to illustration agencies (2019).

One day, I was clearing my email inbox when, in the spam folder, I found an email from a talent-scouting company querying on behalf of Advocate Art agency. They discovered my work on social media, and they were interested in offering me representation! I eventually signed with them in Autumn 2019, and I landed my first picture book contract (There’s No Dream Too Tall by Amie Dean, published in the US by National Center for Youth Issues) almost immediately after. I have been working on one book project after the next ever since, having now published five books to date, with three more coming out this year and a few more in the works!

My first ever picture book, There’s No Dream Too Tall (2020).

To me, a picture book is a window into characters, worlds, and stories which transcends languages and cultures. When I work on a book project, I begin by exploring the characters and scenes with sketches. These are normally done in my sketchbook or sometimes on my iPad. I then create the cover and interior roughs on Photoshop to send to the publisher for approval, before moving onto colours. The final illustrations are all created entirely digitally, utilising many layers which make editing a lot easier.

Some cover ideas and character sketches for A Vote for Susanna (coming October 2021).

Rough and final illustration, from Dragon in the Jam (2020).

Some of my favourite Photoshop brushes are ones created by Kyle T. Webster exclusively for Adobe, particularly his gouache and concept brush sets. I also like to create my own texture/pattern brushes, such as for foliage or brickwork. Maddy Bellwoar and Devin Elle Kurtz make wonderful brushes for painting backgrounds. As for Procreate brushes, I highly recommend Max Ulichney’s MaxPacks.

Tips for aspiring children’s book illustrators:


1. Art style isn’t something to be ‘found’, but it’s an emergent property of your artistic growth. Therefore, experiment lots, do studies, and have fun! Your art will always be you, and it will grow and evolve as you do!

2. Maintain a social media presence, have a website, and make it extremely easy for potential clients to contact you. It honestly doesn’t need to be huge or fancy. I had under 2k followers on Instagram when I was discovered by my agent and offered representation.

3. Be strategic about putting together your portfolio. Showcase your best and recent work. Always quality over quantity. And if you don’t want to illustrate a book about spaceships? Best leave that lovely illustration of a spaceship out then!

My next picture book is coming out next month. A Vote for Susanna: First Woman Mayor is written by Karen M. Greenwald and published in the US by Albert Whitman & Company on 1st October.

* All images and photographs courtesy of Sian James

See more of Sian's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery. Her personal website is here. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter (@sianjart)

Sian is represented by Advocate Art

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