Alison Padley-Woods invites illustrator Helen Cann to tell us about her studio space and to give us an insight into her creative process.

A map is an adventure waiting to happen. Many a great children's story begins with a map, and so often they signal the start of something, conjuring up new worlds and exciting places.

Helen Cann has a rich tapestry of experience illustrating for children’s books, magazines, films and museums. She also specialises in hand drawn maps. Here I ask her about her creative space and invite her to share with us her exciting world of maps and illustration. 

How did you get into illustration? And how would you describe your style? 

I had always wanted to be an illustrator from childhood, so once I finished school I went to University and completed an art degree. I picked up an agent shortly afterwards and started out initially working for children's books.  My practice has now become wider and includes creating maps, drawings and lettering.  These days my illustrations are used for signs, brochures, logos, murals and props for TV and film as well as books. 

I have a variety of styles. My illustrations for children's books tend to be a mix of media: watercolour, collage, and coloured pencil. Maps and drawing can be painted in watercolour or drawn in pen and ink, occasionally with a digitally coloured background.

For Every Little Thing,
illustrated by Helen Cann,
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Can you describe your studio space?

I share a studio in Brighton (a creative city on the UK's south coast) with three others — another illustrator, a performance artist and a musician. It's a fun, colourful space, and my studio mates are always friendly and supportive. I've had studios in many places in the past ranging from an old warehouse, converted stables and above a milkshake shop. This one is in an old 60s tower block — it's perhaps more functional than the others but in terms of warmth and large windows, it beats them hands down.

Helen's creative space

What are your favourite art materials?

I use a variety of materials but my stalwarts are a good 5B pencil, a cheap pencil sharpener and a hard putty rubber. My current crush in terms of paint is Dr Ph. Martin's Radiant Concentrated Water Colour in olive green.

Helen's desk in her studio

When it comes to maps, where do you begin – can you tell us a bit about the process of drawing a map – and what part does going out and observational drawing play in the process? 

Starting to draw a map, of course, depends whether I'm mapping a real place or an imagined one. For an imagined place, then the author's text is always king. My illustration needs to support the writing.

Mapping a real place involves lots of research.  Ideally, I visit the location if I can — taking notes, sketches, photographs and chatting with locals to get a feel for it. These maps tend to be richer and more informed in general. Sometimes a visit isn't always possible though and I rely on online exploration instead.  

A map of Honey Pitt House,
by Helen Cann

As a base, I use other maps as reference, always using multiple sources because you can never be totally sure how accurate each is. I generally cross-reference them with satellite views online.

I'll start each map by drawing the major features and thoroughfares. I sometimes grid the page up beforehand if the area is particularly complicated: it's a technique that involves drawing a grid over the source map and breaking the detail down into smaller squares which helps with transferring that detail onto the new map canvas.  

Depending on the client's needs, I'll fill in further details at this point. Sometimes it will be visual icons, sometimes it will be stories in text and sometimes I just fill the negative space with pattern. 

In children’s books, maps flesh out the universe of the narrative and do exactly what good illustrations should do. They support the reader in understanding the text, describe complex locations and indicate distance.


When illustrating for an author can you describe your process from getting a manuscript to finished artwork?

I use sketchbooks to play with ideas initially: what does the character look like?; how does the narrative flow throughout the book, the high-points and low-points, and how can the illustrations reflect that?; what parts of the story particularly jump out at me and how could they look on a page?

I then draw a thumbnail storyboard which acts as a conversation starting point for me and the author or editor. We tweak the thumbnails till everyone's happy; creating picture books is definitely a team game. 

Next, I draw out full-size pencil versions. My drawing is fairly accurate and takes some time. I check back on any research I've done at this point too, so I get the details right.

Once approved, I start painting.

Collage follows, cutting out the necessary shapes from my collection of patterned papers and sticking them in the relevant places on the image. I enjoy how collage can add an unexpected surface to an otherwise traditional-looking watercolour.

And finally, I tidy up edges and add some depth with coloured pencils, uniting the distinct watercolour and collage media as a whole.

And how much do story boards, and dummy books feature in your process?

I use thumbnail storyboards to inform my process. They are a vital tool for discussion and decision-making.

Ziggy's Potato, by Sharon Sorokin,
illustrated by Helen Cann,
publishing 2023 by Bikabow Books

Is there a particular children’s book you have enjoyed working on the most?

That's a hard one to answer as there have been many. 

One of the most recent children's books I've worked on has been Ziggy's Potato, the story of a Jewish boy imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Ziggy finds hope and comfort in a small potato he finds in a bowl of watery soup — a luxury in hungry times. He saves it and when WW2 ends and Ziggy is released, he emigrates, with his potato, to the US. It's inspired by a true story and I'm proud to have been involved in it as a project — it feels an important tale to tell right now. It will be published in 2023 by Bikabow Books. 

Do you have a favourite children’s book from childhood and what drew you to it?

I loved the beautiful paintings in Masquerade, by Kit Williams, and fantasised about solving the puzzles and finding the golden hare.

Masquerade, by Kit Williams,
published by Jonathan Cape

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

Keep working on it — sometimes you have to just push through the wall however uncomfortable it makes you feel.

I try to think laterally about inspiration — not looking at other illustrator's work at all. There's such incredible visual data out there online that it's just as easy to find inspiration from the pattern of a butterfly's wing to the elegant shape of an ancient vase or the winding course of a river.

Prayers around the World,
illustrated by Helen Cann,
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

I see you offer map drawing workshops. Can you tell us about those?

These are usually run in conjunction with galleries or museums in response to an exhibition. However, during the pandemic lockdowns, I ran several online short sessions.

In person, I enjoy taking students on a short walk around the area they are mapping. I encourage them to take notes and photograph what interests them. They go back to the studio and, using the process I described above, create their own maps, adding decorative title panels and compass roses. It's always amazing to see the same piece of land mapped in so many different, personal ways.

My online sessions are slightly different and have focussed on mapping imaginary places. I show students how to create a personal vocabulary of marks, distinguishing land, water and topographical features.  Students use these to fill their map with details. 

What is next for you? Anything exciting you’d like to share?

I have just finished a large project mapping an area of restored peat-land above the Lake District in Cumbria. The map, which will eventually be used as an interpretation board by Natural England, shows the bog's flora and fauna, it's heritage of peat-cutting and the scientific processes used to restore it. Bolton Fell Moss will open as a UK National Nature Reserve in 2023 and become a major carbon sink in the future.

A map of Bolton Fell, 
by Helen Cann

What a fascinating map! Many thanks, Helen for giving SCBWI members a glimpse into your world, for sharing your wonderful work with us and for such an inspiring interview.

*Header image: Hand Drawn Maps a Guide for Creatives
by Helen Cann, published by Thames and Hudson


Helen Cann is an illustrator, specialising in hand drawn maps. Find her on Twitter and Instagram, or visit her website.


Alison Padley-Woods is the Deputy Illustration Features Editor at Words & Pictures. Find her on Twitter.



  1. Amazing read!! Really love these articles!

  2. I like your all post. You have done really good work. Thank you for the information you provide, it helped me a lot. I hope to have many more entries or so from you.
    Very interesting blog.


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