Attention to detail and a love of traditional illustration makes the work of author-illustrator Katherine O'Shea stand out in an increasingly digital world. She invited Françoise Price into her studio space to talk about her art — and illustrating a child's first festival.

Katherine O'Shea

Katherine O'Shea is a traditional illustrator based in Somerset, UK. She is a great lover of details, and has illustrated three picturebooks for children — her first book The Lion of St Andrews was published in 2012 and she completed a second book, The Sailing Bear of the East Neuk, in 2014. Her latest book Molly's First Festival, is the first children's book about the family festival experience, and was crowdfunded with great success in November 2022.

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

As someone who loved to draw, I always wanted to get into illustration – right from my school days. I went to university to study an art foundation course, and then Visual Communication, where I experimented with lots of different styles and mediums. But I always came back to drawing. My tutor encouraged me to play to my strengths, and that's how I ended up being a traditional illustrator, with a focus on drawing and detail. It's quite an old-fashioned style, but like a speaking voice or handwriting, it's just what comes out of me naturally!


'I always came back to drawing'. (Top) A springtime illustration in progress; 
(above) sketch from the journal Catherine kept detailing her daughter's first two years

Because I have such a focus on detail, I like to draw real places and people, and the three children's books I have illustrated all do exactly that. It's great to see the excitement that children get from seeing familiar faces and places in their books.


Can you describe your studio space?

My space is quite small – I have a little office room in my house, but when I need a lot of space and light (which, as any picturebook illustrator will tell you, is a lot of the time) I do end up spreading my work out across the dining table, to the annoyance of my husband. I have to keep it well away from the hands of my toddler too, which is a struggle.

Katherine at work

What are your favourite tools of the trade?

For most of my illustrations, including the first two books I did, I use technical pencils (the kind with very thin leads that you click up) and Photoshop for colours. I also have a very specific cheap pencil with a sheep on the end, which makes just the right barely-there lines for an underdrawing. I get quite stressed whenever I lose it.


However, with my latest book, Molly's First Festival, I decided to go all-out traditional and used coloured pencils and watercolours. After seeing the influx of AI art that has come since I started it, I feel rather happy with this decision, and it has been an altogether more pleasurable experience than staring at a screen. I have to use a drawing board to save my hand, and the watercolours are the lovely bright kind that come in a tube.

Artwork from Molly's First Festival

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

I have done both illustrating for another author, and illustrating my own text. The process is not so different for my own manuscript as it has been for someone else's – except that I can be a lot less organised with myself and change my mind about the words as I go through!


For the first two books, I would produce thumbnails, a dummy book, pencil roughs, and finished coloured artwork.

 Molly's First Festival - the finished product!

For the book I wrote the manuscript for, I still went through these stages – a dummy book was particularly helpful to understand the flow. I would really recommend making one, even for your own self-published project.


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

Yes – many. I am in awe of Alexis Deacon's work. I've had the pleasure of meeting him on several occasions, and he is an excellent teacher as well as draughtsman, and brings a great intelligence to the work he produces. I also love all the traditional children's book illustrators I remember from my 90s childhood eg. John Vernon Lord, Jane Hissey, Maurice Sendak. The detail and beautiful drawing style these artists bring to their work has been a great inspiration.


On the complete opposite side of the coin, since having my first child and watching a lot of CBeebies, I'm also amazed by the absolute simplicity of the Hey Duggee! show. I find that kind of work so admirable, in that I know I couldn't possibly express such wonderful characters so simply.


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

My favourite at the moment is probably Goodnight Moon. I have a very different relationship with children's books now that I am a mum, and there's something about the sheer strangeness of the text and spooky 60s colour choices that I find very soporific. It's a great relaxing bedtime story.


Is there a project you have particularly enjoyed working on and why? 

My latest project, Molly's First Festival, has been amazing, I think because it feels like a business enterprise as well as an art project. Self-publishing is very exciting but exhausting as you have to wear so many hats at once. But crowdfunding the book has meant that I have a really engaged online audience cheering me on the whole way – and I was delighted to be able to reward them by drawing them and their kids into the book as background characters.

Portraits of crowdfunders were included in Molly's First Festival

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

Yes – personally, I find the best course of action is to completely start again. It may seem like a huge waste of time but if a drawing is really not working, I think it wastes less time to start from scratch than to continually go over something that you don't like.


What tips do you have for artists who are starting out and interested in focusing on picturebooks?

I honestly don't think I am a great person to give advice, as my career path in illustration has been very winding with lot of stops, starts and detours along the way. I think the best piece of advice I can give is that you may find it's a job that you have to dip in-and-out of many times, and compliment it with other things, depending on where your life is at. If you can maintain a creative practice during even your most busy and challenging times, even if it's just for yourself, that's enough.


Also maintaining a supportive network of other illustrators around you is probably more important than you think.


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

Lots of exciting things in the pipeline – Molly's First Festival is now out in the world. Because I've crowdfunded and self-published this one, it is a massive labour of love. I'm excited to put it out there and see what comes back.


 *Header images by Ell Rose & Tita Berredo;


Further info about Katherine O'Shea

Instagram: @katherine.oshea / @mollysfirstfestival

Twitter: @mollyfest


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact


Ell Rose (formerly Shannon Ell) is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact them at

Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI British Isles and Art Director of Words & Pictures.

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