This month's Featured Illustrator is Margarita Surnaite. Based in Cambridge, Margarita has a master's degree in Children's Book Illustration from Cambridge School of Art. Her debut author-illustrated picture book, The Lost Book, was published by Andersen Press in 2019, and her second one was published this year. See more of her work here

I was born and raised in Lithuania. My twin sister and I had a carefree childhood and spent a lot of time outdoors playing with neighbourhood children. I started drawing from the time I could hold a pen. Drawing was another form of play for me, I enjoyed creating characters and worlds on paper.

My childhood drawing

My earliest art influences were children’s books and animation. Some of my most loved childhood books were What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry and children's books illustrated by Tony Wolf and Lithuanian illustrator Taida Balciuniene. I also loved Herluf Bidstrup’s book, a collection of one-page wordless comics. I found Bidstrup's witty depiction of everyday life really entertaining.

During my teenage years I became fascinated by the digital art that I saw on the internet. I bought Photoshop and a Wacom tablet and taught myself how to draw digitally. I became interested in Japanese animation and comics and tried to imitate that style in my drawings. Later, I started creating dreamlike and surreal digital art and got inspired by pop surrealism. I never considered becoming an artist until I was in high school. I thought I would become a biologist or a vet. However, my mum saw how much I enjoyed drawing and suggested I study art. 

I moved to the United States and studied Painting for two years. However, I got homesick, so I came back to Lithuania and started studying Graphic Arts at Vilnius Academy of Arts. While I was gaining valuable knowledge about art fundamentals and techniques, I felt lost and didn’t know what direction I wanted to take with my art.

My work on display at Vilnius Academy of Arts

During my third year of studies, I went to Norwich University of the Arts to study Illustration as an exchange student for a few months. I was mesmerised by the wealth of books in the libraries and bookshops. That’s when I discovered picture books. I soon learned about children's book illustrators like Shaun Tan, Alexis Deacon, Maurice Sendak, and Isabelle Arsenault, and my fascination with children’s book illustration kept growing. 

That same year I attended the Children's Book Illustration Summer School at Cambridge School of Art. I felt a sense of belonging for the first time in my life, so I applied for the MA in Children’s Book Illustration course there. It was an intense and really rewarding course that emphasised the importance of observing and drawing from life to feed your imagination. I’m grateful to the tutors for all the generous advice and knowledge they shared with me.

Children's Book Illustration Summer School (Cambridge School of Art)

Meditate with Me Published by Dial Books, 2017

I got my first book deal in 2016. An editor from Dial Books for Young Readers saw my poster on The Illustrators Wall at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. She contacted me and offered me a job to illustrate a picture book, Meditate with Me: A Step-By-Step Mindfulness Journey, written by Mariam Gates. I couldn't have asked for a better team to collaborate with on my first book project.

 The Lost Book Andersen Press 2019

My debut author-illustrated picture book, The Lost Book, was published by Andersen Press in 2019. During my MA studies, I made a sketch of a rabbit sitting with a book next to people looking at their phones on a tube. It developed into my graduation project. At the time, I really questioned my relationship with technology and noticed how distracted and disconnected people have become due to digital devices. I included this observation in my story. Publishers showed interest in The Lost Book but I didn’t get a book offer. A year later, I reworked both the story and the illustrations, took the dummy book to the Bologna Children's Book Fair, and an editor from Andersen Press became interested in publishing it.

Spreads from The Lost Book published by Andersen Press in 2019

My second picture book that I wrote and illustrated is called Mia and the Miffkins and was published by Andersen Press in February this year. It’s a sibling story featuring Mia who is annoyed by her little brother Jim because he never leaves her alone. When Mia and Jim fall out, three mischievous creatures called the Miffkins appear. As Mia and Jim care for the Miffkins together, they discover their love for each other again. This story is loosely based on my own childhood experiences as the oldest sibling.

Mia and the Miffkins, Andersen Press 2022

I've been creating art digitally for over a decade now. I feel comfortable working this way and appreciate the ease of editing and changing illustrations, especially during the dummy book stage. In recent years, however, I’ve become drawn to traditional media. Lately, I've been drawing my illustrations with pencil first and adding colour digitally. I hope to become confident enough to create fully traditional illustrations one day. With each picture book I tend to change my technique based on what the story requires.

When I develop my picture book stories, I start by sketching my characters first to get to know their personalities and desires, and then build the world around them. I use an intuitive approach to come up with stories and start by drawing first rather than writing. One of my biggest inspirations, director and animator Hayao Miyazaki, uses this approach to create his animated films.

Storyboards for The Lost Book

Tips and advice for illustrators:

Keep a sketchbook – A sketchbook is a place where you can have most creative freedom. You can mindlessly doodle, test and experiment with different tools and mediums and you don't have to show it to anyone. It’s there for you to explore and develop your own visual language, practice, make mistakes and come up with ideas.

Read lots of books – If you plan to write and/or illustrate children's books in order to get published, you need to familiarise yourself with the books that are already out there, including classic and contemporary books. I like to visit my local bookshops to browse recently published books. 

Don't neglect your physical and mental health – At the start of your career, you can feel pressured to hustle and overwork yourself in order to succeed. However, your illustration career is not a sprint but a marathon. Take regular breaks, rest, exercise and eat a healthy diet to prevent burnout and repetitive work injuries. Don’t sacrifice your social life. Have other interests and hobbies outside of illustration or writing.

Have a plan B – Even if illustrating is your passion and your ultimate career goal, it is wise to plan for an alternative career path early on in case you can’t make a living from illustration alone.

* All images: Margarita Surnaite


See more of Margarita's work here. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

See previous Featured Illustrators on our Showcase Gallery.

Tita Berredo is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. 

Find her work at www.titaberredo.com Follow her on Instagram and Twitter

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