This month's Featured Illustrator is Jeske Balmakers. She worked as an art director in London, for advertising agencies.

She currently lives in Tilberg and is pursuing her passion for children's books

My name is Jeske. I have now returned to my native town of Tilburg, in the south of the Netherlands, after living in the UK for about 10 years. I worked as an art director for various advertising agencies in London, but my passion for illustration and especially children's books has always been there.

When I was asked to be a featured illustrator I felt honoured, but also a little bit worried. What is there for me to tell? I haven't had any books published yet and I am just at the start of my illustration career. What can people learn or get out of me? I was specifically asked to discuss the path that I've walked as an illustrator, which for me is a difficult topic. My path is not straightforward. Talking about it is very personal and puts me in a vulnerable place. It even crossed my mind not to tell this story. But I feel I have to because the difficult experiences that I have had have influenced my illustrations and my own evolution as an illustrator.

Jeske Balmakers (top)

In 2019, I participated in the Pictures at Play exhibition. It felt like the start of something quite exciting. But just a couple of weeks later I decided I had to quit illustration, or at least put it on hold for a while. It was a painful but necessary decision. I was already severely mentally ill at the time of the exhibition. In all honesty, surviving this illness was my main priority. Little did I know that illustration would be the key to recovery for me.

After that decision, I stopped working on my portfolio, taking on briefs or even thinking of new ideas. Social media was a no-go area for most of this time. I also no longer took part in industry events and stopped going into libraries and bookstores to look at children's books. It simply hurt too much.

It took me a while to realise that drawing is a part of me, and something I can’t just cut off. I was even convinced that I was the worst illustrator on earth and didn’t deserve to hold a pencil. But my yearning to draw was stronger than my loss of confidence. I decided that I would only draw things I wasn't good at. This way, I couldn't really fail, I could only learn. I also decided to only draw when I was physically and mentally able to do so. There was no pressure, no deadlines. Just drawing and learning. I put my mind to portrait drawing, which was completely out of my comfort zone and also something that I was really bad at. It may sound strange, but for me, this helped to take away all pressure, and I started to enjoy drawing again. This experience also helped my development, as I started to better understand human faces. Looking back, I see a growth in my characters that I wasn't expecting.

I started to carry a sketchbook with me everywhere I went. I would draw in between my therapy sessions, as I had multiple a day. For some people, a walk in the forest, a trip to the beach, or a blanket on the sofa is their safe space. For me, my sketchbook became just that. My own portable safe space. To this day, it is still always with me.

Jeske's sketchbook accompanies her everywhere

During this time, which lasted over 2 years, I was not creating any full-blown illustrations like the ones I used to make. Most of the time I'd just be working in my sketchbooks. Practicing portraits, or simply doodling. But those drawings were truly for me, and 100% Jeske. There was no teacher or boss to give me an assignment, it was just me. With the absence of pressure, you can learn a lot. Like listening to your own creative voice, and finding freedom in your illustration style. Some pieces from that time ended up in my portfolio. It wasn't until January 2022 that illustration really got back into my life, in a more serious and unexpected way.

During my therapy sessions, I found myself unable to really talk or explain what was going on within myself. During group therapy, I'd remain quiet, and the one-on-one sessions with my therapist were stagnating. My health was getting worse. I felt little to no hope at that time. I'm not sure what made me do it, but at some point at the end of yet another unproductive therapy session, I asked if I could bring something with me the week after. That was the moment storytelling via illustrations entered my life again. If I couldn't find the words to tell my story, I would have to tell it in pictures. It was the only way.

And so I brought my first illustration with me into my therapy session. It explained exactly what I was experiencing at the time. By doing so, I found my voice again. I started opening up. From then on every time I felt something really intense, or something I missed the words for, I'd do a quick couple of thumbnails. Then when I had time, I would make a full illustration depicting those feelings and bring it into my next session.

Jeske began to use illustration in her therapy sessions

It helped me to process what was going on with me. It helped the people close to me understand what I was going through. It helped to explain how I felt at the most difficult moments and got me talking to my therapist, which finally allowed me to make steps toward my recovery.

In a way, illustration saved my life.

Of course, I was lucky to have a therapist who jumped on the idea of working with me in this manner. He encouraged me to keep going. Now, more than a year later, I have had enough of these illustrations to see a story of recovery. A story I now want to share with others. I have put all these illustrations together to create a book, which I am trying to get published. My hope is that it can help others to open up about the things that they are missing the words for.

Jeske hopes that sharing her illustrations will help others to keep going

What will come next for me? My treatment is coming to an end, I am pretty much therapy free. I feel like myself again. I feel healthy again. As healthy as any of us, anyway. Like many starting artists, I work part-time as a waitress to pay the bills. Hopefully, at some point, I will be able to live off my illustrations. Most of all I am excited to find out what the future has in store for me. For someone who has been where I have been, this is a wonderful thing.  

I hope that by telling my story and by sharing the work that I have made during the hard times, I will be able to inspire others to keep going.

*All images: Jaske Balmakers


See more of Jeske's work here. Follow her on Instagram and on Facebook.


Ell Rose (formerly Shannon Ell) is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. Find their work at www.shannonillustrates.com. Follow them on Instagram and Twitter. Contact them at illustrators@britishscbwi.org

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing such an honest moving story - so glad the SCBWI PIctures at Play show was a seed - lovely to see your work growing!


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