EVENTS Creating a sustainable career in illustration


Jill Calder reports on the "Sustainable Career in Illustration with Alice Melvin" event organised by SCBWI Scotland.


Alice Melvin
informs us she is an “awful businesswoman” but she has a career that’s spanned 18 years creating artist books, illustrating and writing children’s books, merchandise and selling her original artwork, all without the help and guidance of an agent - her choice, by the way. That’s pretty impressive!

 Degree Show Edinburgh - Alice Melvin 2004

Book fairs and printing - Alice Melvin

So what’s her secret? Alice presented her work and thoughts to us about her career as an illustrator in an incredibly insightful and honest way, not shying away from the times when she may have “lost her mojo”. She was clear that running her self-employed business combined with motherhood, and maintaining a passion for creativity was often a juggling act. But, nevertheless, she persisted.


I first met Alice when she was a student at Edinburgh College of Art and I was one of her tutors! She graduated in 2004 and I still remember her immaculate Degree Show, filled with beautiful hand-made books and paper structures. Alice said, “I love artist books - I like being in control of all aspects of creating the format.”

A-Z Treasure Hunt - a handmade book by Alice

  A-Z Treasure Hunt-Tate Books-2007

On leaving art school, Alice concentrated on her love of printmaking and books, participating in book fairs and engaging directly with the public, which she enjoyed. However, she quickly realised that making a living this way was not viable in the long term. So, Alice began her “stubborn” search for “the right publisher”, wangling meetings and sending emails. Roger Thorp at Tate Publishing took note and Alice soon signed her first book contract for A-Z Treasure Hunt, published in 2007.


 Her relationship with Tate Publishing (extending to Thames & Hudson when Roger Thorp moved there) has been long and productive. All along, Alice says she has felt very supported and respected by them and that they were happy to “roll with the changes” of her developing creativity and artistic style. Subsequent books came out - Counting Birds, The High Street and then Grandma’s House in 2015.



(Left) Alice drawing in the woods, (Right) Drawing nature, by Alice Melvin

At this point, Alice had started a family but was struggling to find that balance between work and parenting. She decided to take a break and re-assess her relationship with making art. She went back to sketchbooks and started to experiment with collage, finding joy in that technique. This eventually led to a series of four board books with Tate, including Me and You and All of Us published by 2019.


However, after being knocked sideways by a traumatic bereavement in 2019, Alice felt her work as an illustrator was irrelevant and battled with her mental health. Thankfully, she found her way back to creativity through drawing from life and often spent three hours sketching just to get herself through the day. She immersed herself in nature which she found “so grounding and helpful”. With the help and support of her publisher, this work turned into a book idea, culminating in Mouses Wood (2022, Thames & Hudson). This beautiful book was a “healing project” for Alice, who is very proud of it as it had come out of an incredibly difficult time in her life.

(Left) Sketchbook 2019 by Alice Melvin, (Right) Sketchbook and collage by Alice Melvin

Reflecting on her career to date, Alice says, “At the time you feel like you are going through the jungle but in hindsight that journey makes sense! But all along there’s been an inner strength of self belief.” So, the secret to a sustainable career in illustration is that there is no secret - just determination, hard work and, through drawing, navigating the highs and lows of life such as motherhood, grief and creative burn-out.


This was an excellent, informative and candid online event organised by Caroline Deacon and Onie Tibbett at SCBWI Scotland and chaired by Tita Berredo.

*All images supplied by Jill Calder



Based in Fife, Jill Calder is an award-winning illustrator with a love of drawing, colour, ink, books, biscuits and deadlines. Her books and picture books include Robert the Bruce, King of Scots by James Robertson (Birlinn Books), What is Poetry? by Michael Rosen (Walker Books), The Picture Atlas by Simon Holland, and most recently The Sea by Miranda Krestovnikoff (Bloomsbury). Jill’s first retrospective exhibition, ‘A Blink of Ink…the Creative World of Jill Calder’ was held at Callendar House over the summer of 2022, celebrating her 30 year illustration career. Find out more at

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