Our final Featured Artist of the year is Simona Ciraolo, whose vibrant stories and art have developed from her wide experience as an illustrator and her upbringing in Sardinia. See more of her work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery. 

I grew up in a small town in Sardinia, land of sea, sun, megaliths and prickly pears. There wasn’t much formal entertainment, but it was beautiful.

Sardinia, prickly pears and the sea

As is probably the case with most people in my line of work, I’ve nurtured a fondness for writing and drawing ever since I could hold a pencil. All of my early influences came from popular culture. As a child I was given very few illustrated books, but these became great treasures: Richard Scarry was the most cherished, accompanied by Bruno Munari in his unique interpretation of Gianni Rodari. I also remember Arthur Rackham, Gordon Laite and those exquisitely romantic Russian Artists whose names I never knew but who still fed the landscape of my imagination. Animated pictures were the bread and butter of those days. I loved Japanese anime for their storylines, which unfolded over the course of each series, and the Disney classics for their dazzling atmospheres.

As a teenager I became an avid reader of fiction, including the classics. I was also captivated by Japanese comic books and, undoubtedly, it is the hours that I spent poring over them that bred and fed the sense for visual narrative which has been the driving force behind my career choice. Around that time, I also became interested in figurative art and collected books on the well known European painters of the early 20th century: Seurat, Klimt, and Degas were my favourite. The beauty of those images was addictive and fuelled my desire to pursue a course of studies in visual arts, but I didn’t know how this wish was going to take shape until, aged eighteen, I got a place at the National Film School to study animation.


Life drawing

Those were wonderful years of exploration. For the first time I met people who, each in their own way, shared the same proclivity for visual narrative that had led me there. I practised life drawing for the first time and began to understand the human figure. On lazy Saturday afternoons in the city, I happened upon picture books. The breadth and variety of the work on display amazed me. I had no idea that such an exquisite and sophisticated means to tell stories was available: a complex artwork with a clear and distinctive voice accompanied and shaped the storyline. I had never experienced anything else which spoke to me quite as clearly as that art form.

In hindsight, traditional animation, which is a notoriously labour-intensive discipline, was an invaluable training ground in patience and self motivation. On an artistic level, I came to understand pacing, continuity and how characters move in a tridimensional space. On a practical level, it gave me a work ethic and my first career. At the end of my studies, London became my home. For some years I worked in advertising, television and feature films, but I longed to tell stories and felt the need to try.

The opportunity to take a decisive step in that direction presented itself when I met Professor Martin Salisbury. I was offered a place to study for a Master's degree in illustration at the Cambridge School of Art and so I grabbed it with both hands.

Sketchbooks from my student days

Studying with Martin and with Pam Smy has been a tremendous privilege and I owe them so much. Those years were tough, the workload was intense and demanding and the bar was set high. I had to deal with the weak points in my drawing, which I can succinctly describe as ‘anything which wasn’t a character’. I embarked on a mission to beef-up my artistic arsenal through the observation of reality, a goal I never stopped pursuing. Through the support of my tutors and fellow students I overcame much of my most paralysing self-doubts and managed to put together a small body of work.

A panel for Heffers Book Shop in Cambridge

My collaboration with Flying Eye Books started before I completed my degree. Sam Arthur, Managing Director at Nobrow, held a lecture on campus and he agreed to look at some of the students’ dummy books. I greatly admired their work and thought that the titles published under both the Nobrow and the Flying Eye imprints were not just stunning, but also pioneered a daring and contemporary new approach to picture book making in the UK. I could hardly believe my good fortune when they offered to publish two of my stories: Whatever Happened to my Sister? and Hug Me.

Hug Me was the first to be released. Its birth was straightforward and was deemed good to go without much 'fiddling' and came out only a few months after I graduated, in 2014.

Dummy book next to the published edition of Whatever Happened to My Sister

Whatever Happened to my Sister? was released the following year. The illustrations were based on the ones in my dummy book and we worked together on a new cover. To this day, I am very grateful that Flying Eye have published this story, which is one I am very fond of.

Last year we released our latest book, Shy Ones, my response to a long-term desire to make a picture book about the joys of being introverted. Shy Ones was selected for The Original Art 2020.

Hug Me, 2014 and Shy Ones, 2020

In 2015 I also began to collaborate with Walker Books. Our relationship had started the previous year when, upon graduation, I was given the Sebastian Walker Award for new illustration. Together we worked on the illustrations for a story titled Can’t Catch Me!, by Timothy Knapman. Then, last year, Walker published my own book: If Winter Comes, Tell It I Am Not Here. Working with Walker books has been enriching, they have a huge amount of passion and experience and I learnt many valuable things from our collaboration. This book also delivered a welcome surprise when it appeared among the finalists in the Bologna Ragazzi Award 2021.

Wrap-around cover

With each book I’ve learnt a good deal and, chiefly, that I still have a lot to master, but I always enjoy the process.

If I had to give any words of advice from all I have learned so far, I would say: be professional, deliver on time, be reliable, treat your work with respect and do not work for free. Read and understand your contracts, learn about copyright law, respect the work of others and be fair.

My books



See More of Simona's work in the Featured Illustrator Gallery

Her personal website is here, follow Simona on Instagram.

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