FROM THE STUDIO OF… Yasmeen Ismail

Françoise Price invites illustrator Yasmeen Ismail to tell us about her studio space and to give us an insight into her creative process.

Yasmeen Ismail at work in her studio

Welcome to Words & Pictures Yasmeen! Tell us how you got into illustration? How would you describe your style? 


In 2010 I had shut shop on an animation production company that I ran with my business partner. It was a sad time, personally and professionally. What was I going to do next? I felt lost. I had only ever met one illustrator before. They seemed like such a rare breed. At the time it didn’t even cross my mind that it was a real job. When I found out that my animator friend was illustrating a book I was delighted at the concept. It stayed with me, and at that crossroads in 2010 I decided to look into it more. I was decisive from the get go. “That’s what I want to do,” I thought. So I did. I had nothing to lose. 


I gave myself a strategy. I would educate myself about the industry, learn to illustrate, enter competitions, build a portfolio and talk to anyone I could in publishing, and get an agent. I enrolled at City Lit in London for the Children’s Book Illustration Course. I built up my portfolio and within a year I got an agent. 

A final proof of Would You Like a Banana? by Yasmeen Ismail (Walker Books) 

My style was inconsistent. At first it was scruffy and full of energy. Nowadays I am trying new things and it’s looking neater. I try to keep evolving my style. I always try to improve.


I also use a lot of bright colours.


Describe your studio space

View of garden from Yasmeen's studio

My studio is at home. It has high ceilings and a big sash window. My desk looks out onto the garden. My husband plants flowers directly in front of my window so that I can enjoy them.

(Top and above) Desk and wall in Yasmeen's studio

My studio is a mess. It contains all the bike stuff, kids' clothes, coats, shoes, piles of books, old forgotten and unneeded items, nonsense and crap. My (tidy) niece saw it and audibly gasped.


When it is tidy, there is a big desk covered in art materials and a large bookcase on the wall. A Keith Haring print hangs above the chest of drawers. My computer is beside the big scanner, and meticulously labelled and filed documents sit under the low shelves. Normally my cat, Betty, would be there too but since my husband started WFH, she has defected to his study.


A Keith Haring print above the chest of drawers

Et tu, Brute.


However, I have recently been ejected from my home studio. We are having work done in the basement and the builders need to move through my office to get into it. I am now in a shared “studio”. There’s not enough space for my nonsense and crap.


What are your favourite art materials? 


I use ultra-fine Sharpies, watercolours, Conté, pencils, pastels, thick paper and Gouache. Recently I’ve discovered this stuff called Graf Art. Which is graphite, but you paint with it. It gives a glorious texture and now I am a convert and want to use it on everything.

Cover artwork for Would You Like a Banana? by Yasmeen Ismail (Walker Books)

When illustrating for an author, what’s your process from getting a manuscript to finished artwork?


It’s lovely to illustrate for another author, particularly if I can get an immediate feel for text treatment. Usually I break the text down into spreads (unless the designer has already done this), giving me an idea of the flow, where the page turns are, where the obvious spreads can go.


Then I can start filling in the blanks and planning what each spread should look like; thinking about the characters, the style and get an idea of how I would like to illustrate.


Then I can get the roughs down. I plan for how each spread looks with a sketch. These used to be very rough, but then I started neatening them up and getting lots more detail in. It saves time in the long run to understand what I want to achieve.


Once roughs are signed off, I start the art.


How much do story boards and dummy books feature?


I don’t really make a dummy book — I don’t get the pages and stick them together and flip through the plan. Although now I'm thinking about it, maybe I should.

Storyboard section of Would You Like a Banana? by Yasmeen Ismail
(Walker Books)


I have to plan and storyboard. The publishers need to know how it will look. Storyboarding is the skeleton of the book. Without that planning and freedom to change things about, the art would be difficult to achieve.


Is there a particular book you have enjoyed working on?

Collage for Would You Like a Banana? by Yasmeen Ismail (Walker Books)

I loved working on Would You Like a Banana? with Walker Books — really proud of what I wrote and enjoyed trying something new with my illustration. There was more collage and background colour than I normally would use. The payoff is doing events. I can read it out to kids with the grumpy voices and see their instant reaction. 

Favourite children’s book from childhood and what drew you to it?


Love Burglar Bill by Janet and Allen Ahlberg. I was little when I first read it. Decades went by until I saw the book again — it was such a Proustian moment. All these memories came flooding back. It was the colours and the detail in the art that really stuck with me. Especially the baby’s little rainbow onesie. I remembered being a little kid and staring at those pictures for a very long time.


Any tips for when stuck on a project?


If I’m stuck, I’ll try for a while, but then move on to something else. It really helps to look at other art: visit a gallery or read other books, go for a walk, or work on a different task, and let my mind wander. I have faith that the answer will come to me eventually and the problem will be solved. If I don’t have a real belief that the solution will come to me, I will panic and stress myself out. So, chill out. How’s that for advice?


Proofs and sketches for Would You Like a Banana? by Yasmeen Ismail
(Walker Books)

What’s next? Anything exciting to share?


Currently I’m illustrating a book with so many characters and spreads that I have to talk myself down every day and remind myself that if I keep chipping away at it, it will get completed.


I also have some big projects rumbling in the background and events that I need to plan for. Further into the future I have more books.


For your forthcoming book My Brother is an Avocado, written by Tracy Darnton, what did the research process entail? 


I worked on this book when I was pregnant and already had a young kid, so not much research was required! As the baby in the book got bigger in the womb, so did mine.

Cover for My Brother is an Avocado, by Tracy Darnton and Yasmeen Ismail
(publishing 11th May, 2023, Simon & Schuster)

Has being an animator influenced your illustration style? 


Being an animator has definitely influenced my work. For 10 years I drew endlessly. This process gave me a very confident line. I learned how to show energy in a drawing and how the body looks when it moves. I became tenacious with ideas and learned to keep going until something is right. I learned to experiment. Without training as an animator I would not have been able to achieve the energy and movement in my art.

*Header shows some shelves in Yasmeen Ismail's studio, with Betty the cat. 

All images courtesy of Yasmeen Ismail.


Irish-born, Bristol-based Yasmeen Ismail is an award-winning author and illustrator. She studied at art school in Dublin, Ireland. Later she worked in animation, in London, until she made the move to children's publishing. Her illustrations are bright, fluid, and full of energy. Yasmeen has now illustrated over 15 books and has written 12 of them. She loves to make kids laugh, but loves it even more when they make her laugh.

Follow her on Twitter
and Instagram


Françoise Price is deputy editor of Words & Pictures weekly online magazine. Contact Follow her on Twitter


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