FROM THE STUDIO OF Sarah J Coleman aka Inkymole


             The fine art of lettering and illustration go hand in hand for Sarah J Coleman, aka Inkymole. Alison Padley-Woods dips into her inky world.

“I have always and will always love black ink - I swear if you cut me that’s what you’d be mopping up!” says Sarah J Coleman. Looking at her work, this lifelong love of drawing and ink is clear to see. And with a background in pirate radio – her regular contributions to BBC Radio – it's perhaps no surprise that words play such a crucial role in her design. As a lettering and illustration artist, she has brought her unique and energetic creations into a long list of children’s middle grade and young adult books. Here, she tells us about her Inkymole world.

Illustration by Sarah J Coleman, 
Only if you Dare, written by Josh Allen,
published by Holiday House, 2021

Alison: How did you get into illustration and lettering? And how would you describe your style?

Sarah: I would describe the way I work as organic, idiosyncratic, autographic, spontaneous and busy.  I guess it’s quite a conversational style, and not just because it often contains or uses words! I’m always telling a story, even when not in the literal sense; I used to have business cards (and a stationery range) which said, ‘Write me a picture / paint me a story’. 

Dream Big, written by Abigail Harrison,
illustrated by Sarah J Coleman,
published by Penguin Young Readers, 2021

I wanted to be something creative from when I was very little, as I drew as soon as I could and didn’t stop. I followed a fairly traditional trajectory of O levels, A levels then Foundation Course and a degree in Visual Communication, specialising, eventually, in illustration with a side-hustle in typography; I won the graduate’s annual award for typography as an illustrator, much to the chagrin of the designers there! 

Illustration by Sarah J Coleman,
Dream Big, written by Abigail Harrison,
published by Penguin Young Readers, 2021

Alison: Can you describe your studio space?

Sarah: We removed one side and the back of the ground floor of the house to extend out and make a larger studio, and it’s built from almost entirely reclaimed materials; we re-used bricks, bought an old parquet floor, pulled RSJs from a factory that was being demolished locally, and repurposed things like door handles, a massive Printer’s cupboard, and three huge floor joists for a desk that runs the entire length of the studio. And we have an 8ft glass ceiling in a green roof! So, I can look up and see snow, sun, flowers waving etc. 

For a tour of Sarah's studio, see her video
on her website.

Above and below,
detail from Sarah's studio

Alison: What are your favourite tools of the trade?

Sarah: Depends what mood I’m in! Often, I’ll pick up a cheap ballpoint pen – someone else’s, or one left in a hotel room maybe – and think ‘my god, this pen is fabulous’ and work with it for the next few weeks.

I love my Apple Pencil. It just feels so perfect in the hand; it’s like the magic, electronic pen I dreamed about, growing up. Who would have imagined the things we can create with them, even just twenty years ago.

Above and below,
favourite tools

I have always and will always love black ink – I swear if you cut me that’s what you’d be mopping up!


Inkymole Tools

Mole's ink stash

Finally, I do have a serious fondness for my little printing machines; my Japanese Gocco printers, gnarly to work with as they are, and my Adana letterpress. Both require total focus and a lot of patience, but the outcomes are worth it. Oh, and tea.

Alison: Is there a particular artist/illustrator who has inspired you?

Sarah: Other people’s work is constantly urging me forward, but I think the question of inspiration is a moot point, as ‘inspiration’ is not handed out to us from the ether, nor have I ever looked at other people’s work to be inspired – as joyful an experience as looking can be. It's a process of osmosis wherein everything you see and absorb is ‘food’ for the mind, whether you know it or not, and some of that will find its way through the problem-solving system and emerge as new work. This is why I feel there are essentially no ’new ideas’ – just the same core ones, done in new and original and ever-better ways!

Illustration by Sarah J Coleman,
Only if you Dare, written by Josh Allen
published by Holiday House, 2021

Alison: Do you have a favourite children’s book and what draws you to it?

Sarah: Not one specially, there are loads and loads, but I do love Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. It opened my mind to the way a page can be used for illustration, and the story’s great – the frustration the reader experiences is tangible, yet Sam and Dave remain blissfully unaware of why! Also, I recently re-read My Brother’s Ghost by Allan Ahlberg, and cried my eyes out all over again. So poignant and exquisitely told, with only a handful of black and white illustrations needed.

The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt is a belter. I mean come on – who hasn’t imagined their pens and pencils coming alive??

Favourite Books

Alison: You’ve worked on many middle grade and young adult books – is there a project you have particularly enjoyed working on and why?

Sarah: In Middle Grade, to date that’d be the books I’ve worked on with Josh Allen. Holiday House took a risk on an unpublished author and matched an established illustrator with them, in what I still think is the perfect pairing! But those books could not have spoken more to my own personal interests and highest excitement: the unexplained, the paranormal and the utterly creepy … lots of black ink!

Illustrations by Sarah J Coleman,
Only If You Dare, written by Josh Allen
published by Holiday House, 2021

And yes I have done a LOT of young adult books; I love the genre. The one I feel most fortunate to have been asked to do is the best-selling Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, which went on to become an unexpectedly iconic book in the canon of LGBTQ – and YA generally – writing. The artwork was a joy to do but, for me, quite simple and very much ‘within my portfolio range’, but it’s being associated with the book’s ongoing legacy and fan base that has been most rewarding. I’ve just worked on the film adaptation of the book, which comes out later this year with some big names attached, so I’m really looking forward to seeing audiences respond to that.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,
written by Benjamin Alire Sàenz,
illustrated by Sarah J Coleman,
published by Simon and Schuster, 2012
Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World,
written by Benjamin Alire Sàenz, 
illustrated by Sarah J Coleman,
published by Simon and Schuster, 2021

Alison: Have you got any tips for when you get stuck on a project? 

Sarah: I don’t tend to get stuck so much as get tired! I’ve worked like a 24/7 illustration machine for almost thirty years, and I’ve started to notice I can’t work in the continuous way I did; I need more spaces and air between jobs. But it’s been a gradual process and taken a couple of years to notice this. I would just keep going at a brief if I got stuck, and not give in; now I swap to a different job – for example, when stuck on ideas for a book cover, I’ll switch to an editorial brief or some advertising, and so on. Different types of work use different parts of my brain.

I’ve been lifting weights since I was 23 and still do that when I need to break away for a bit. Nothing focuses/clears the mind like trying to lift your own bodyweight on the end of a cold steel bar.

Alison: Can you describe your process getting from a manuscript to finished artwork?

Sarah: Always lots and lots of words to start. I read the MS, make notes, pick out key characters and characteristics, events and things that are visually interesting or significant. From there I do really REALLY rough thumbnails, which likely make no sense to anyone but me, turning them into more ‘readable’ sketches as I determine which ones I like. These will go to the art director (if working to commission) and then worked up into final ink or digital art, sometimes a combination of both, pending their input. 

Above and below, the creation of On These Magic Shores,
written by Yamile Saied Méndez, 
illustrated by Sarah J Coleman,
published by Tu Books, 2020

Alison: What tips do you have for artists who are starting out and interested in focussing on lettering?

Sarah: Lettering … it’s an interesting question, because ‘lettering' wasn’t even a thing with its own name when I started doing it, quite organically, as part of my work in the very early 90s. I would say don’t put yourself in a lettering pigeonhole; if drawing words is your thing, integrate that, but don’t stress about giving it a name or having a separate folio. 

There are probably thousands of letterers out in the world now, so it’s a tough landscape to navigate, and thus competitive. It might sound like a cliché, but ‘You Do You’ feels more important than ever; never ever try to emulate (the exception being in a school/college context, when this can be an important part of learning). If you do what you like doing and don’t look too hard at what everyone else is doing, you’ll be on the right track! 

Alison: What's next for you? Anything exciting you’d like to share?

Sarah: That adaptation of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is coming to cinemas this year, so I’m keen to see how my work comes together with the rest of the team’s work on the big screen. I’m working on a graphic novel adaptation of a middle grade book too, and I’ve got a big-ish new project coming into the shop soon also, as well as some wall-based stuff! And as usual, the 6ft whiteboard is full of ideas.

How exciting! Many thanks, Sarah for giving SCBWI members a glimpse into your world, for sharing your wonderful work with SCBWI and for such an inspiring interview. It's been a privilege. Ink it seems really does run through your veins. 

Header picture: Mole nibbling


Above, Sarah at work. Find her at: Inkymole  Facebook  Twitter Instagram TikTok

Dip into her tutorials here

Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures Deputy Illustration Feature's Editor. Find her on Twitter

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