This month's Featured Illustrator is Joanna Boyle, whose training both as illustrator and animator has helped to fill her characters and stories with life. See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery.

My journey to illustration is, I think, probably quite a standard one. I have loved stories and storytelling since I was little and grew up on a diet of Diana Wynne Jones, Brian Jacques and Jill Murphy. I also loved to draw. I used to play at making books - this involved taking two pages of printer paper, folding and stapling them together and then drawing a cover. Sometimes I might even write a little bit on the inside pages, but the most important thing (then and now) was a title, and a beautiful illustration!


I don’t know how old I am here, but I already had a powerful love of ice cream which continues to this day.


After I finished school I went to University College Falmouth to do an Art Foundation. It was a fantastic year of trying out every kind of art from textiles to printmaking, I loved it! But even with so many options on the table, it became very clear that I most enjoyed doodling stories and characters in my sketchbook. 

My tutor recommended I apply for the illustration degree. I started the BA for Illustration in Falmouth and fell in love with it straight away. The tutors taught us to always look and think like illustrators. We were encouraged to take our sketchbooks out into the town and record as much as we could - people we saw on the street, conversations we heard in shops, all of it was ripe for drawing. 

It was so inspiring at the time and I think it is the habit of sketch-booking that has kept the joy of drawing alive for me, even when I am doing it as a full-time job. A sketchbook is a safe place to play and enjoy being creative. You are creating drawings that aren’t going to be seen and that gives you the space to try new things, make mistakes and be messy, in the knowledge that everything you learn here will make you a stronger, fitter artist.


My sketch booking/travelling art supplies

Many happy hours spent sketching in cafés


During the three years I was on the course, we worked on many different projects. But my absolute favourite was the one where we made our own picture book (and also bound it - which I was shocked to find, after all my early bookmaking adventures, was actually really difficult). The project itself was challenging, fun and stressful and at the end I was left with a perfect (to me) book and the bug to make children’s books.

I graduated from Falmouth and went about trying to get a job, which turned out to be very, very difficult. It took two years to get my first picture book deal. I called publishers and agents, sent emails and went to The London Book Fair, all in the hope of getting my portfolio in front of someone who might like it. Meanwhile I worked in a very pretty Children’s Book Shop in Lewes called 'Bags of Books’ and read as much as I could. 

Eventually, I got my first book deal with Pavilion Children’s in London. It was a dream come true! Working on the book The Tip Tap Dancing Cat was a humongous learning curve. I was hugely ambitious, but I didn’t work very smartly. It makes me shiver now, but I was drawing in Photoshop without a tablet and using my mouse to cut out hundreds and hundreds of layers. By the time I finished the book I was completely burnt out and had managed to really strain my shoulder and wrist. I realised I needed to come up with a better way of working. I also decided I needed another way of making money. I loved making books, but it was clear that if I wanted to stay solvent, I needed another job between contracts. 

I decided to do an MA in Animation at Central St Martins, in the hope of being able to get regular work as a designer. It was the best decision I ever made! 


Getting the contract for The Tip tap Dancing Cat 


I moved to London and started my animation course. It was amazing to learn an entirely different skill, but one which relied on the same love of drawing and storytelling that is needed for illustration. In that time my drawing improved, as did my understanding of how to work efficiently. After graduating I was able to get regular freelance work, first as a cleanup artist and then as a designer for animation. I also got an illustration agent and a new publisher (Templar publishing) for my next two picture books, which were called Oh No! Where did Walter Go? And Norbert

By this time I had a tablet and knew enough not to put myself through the same pain that I did with my first book. However, there were still some pretty painful lessons to learn about time management and perfectionism (my two Achilles heels). I had a strange idea that I needed to be creating my very best work right from the start. But looking back now, it is wonderful to see how I improved with each book, learning lessons from the previous one. I got better at colour. I decided that I loved busy and detailed pages full of things to spot. I developed a style and a sense of humour in my work.  


Figuring out the storyboards in my sketchbooks

My books

Between working on each picture book I have been lucky to be able to throw myself into a job which allows me to be creative every day, but without the pressure of it being MY project. I love that my job has these sides to it - the challenge and satisfaction of making my own work and then the community and joy of being able to work on someone else’s.


Since finishing Norbert I have taken a little time to start working on something new. This is a bit of a departure for me, as it is a Middle Grade book rather than a picture book. I have always been fascinated by the tension between text and illustration in picture books. In picture books the illustrations and text have to balance perfectly to create the story. It takes so much skill to create a full, rich and original plot with so few words. Now that I am writing Middle Grade, it feels really extravagant to be able to write as many words as I like! Of course, I am missing the illustrations and have made up for this lack, by doodling twirly chapter titles and sketching my characters in the margins of print outs. 


 Advice for illustrators 

- Take breaks. Remember to look up from the screen, go for walks, eat your lunch and don't work all night! It might work for a few projects, but you will eventually burn out and not enjoy it any more and what is the point of that? 

 - Draw for fun. Keep a sketchbook and play with different mediums. Try to keep things fresh for yourself.

- Take care with social media. I love Twitter and Instagram, in fact I can be on them far too often! Social media can be absolutely great for self promotion and connecting with the illustration/writing community, but it doesn’t work for everyone and if you start to feel like its getting you down, then you really don’t have to be on there! 

 - Read lots and lots of books! 


 So many inspiring books to read and get excited about!


See more of Joanna's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery. Her website is here. Follow Joanna on Twitter and Instagram.



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