Portrait of the Artist as a Grizzly Bear

This started off as a quick scribble I posted on Instagram. I've had way more rejection than I've ever had actual work and somehow I'm still here, sitting at my desk with gluey hands and bits of paper stuck to my slippers. So hip-hip-hooray for a giddy optimism, I think it's probably the main ingredient in being a freelance illustrator.

Shrew Love

I posted bits of my latest RSPB illustrations on social media as I worked and had such a lovely response I thought I'd blog about the whole process. The RSPB are my longest running clients and there's nothing I love better than a Wild Times commission popping up in my inbox! Even better, the latest tale starred a shrew! Shrews are absolutely my new favourite, which frankly means I'm going to have to work really hard to resist the urge to create a new range of shrew homeware. Sadly, I don't think Not on the High Street will ever include any rodents in their trend forecasts and, unlike with the orangutans, I probably shouldn't risk it...

Anyway, I've started experimenting a bit lately, and for this story I tried a slightly more mixed-media approach, using paint and charcoal to create some of the background before assembling it all in Photoshop.

Not so long ago I was such a collage-purist that even using a pen to dot the eyes of my characters felt like cheating! But slowly, over the last couple of years, I've been straying from my roots as a scissors-and-glue evangelist to branch out ever so slightly.

The great thing about illustrating the RSPB stories is that I can adapt my technique to suit the tale. I don't usually decide exactly what kind of collage I'll make until the roughs have been approved. This is how one of the shrew illustrations turned out (you can see the following page, along with more of my RSPB work, here), and below are two previous commissions in different styles. For the harvest mouse I created both illustrations as whole, flat collages, only scanning them in when they were completely assembled. For the other story, about a boy's bedtime adventure with his toy animals, I worked in a really three-dimensional way to create a series of spot illustrations, quite similar to the way made the sets for The Birthday Crown book.

I'm really lucky to have a client who allows me to experiment a bit, and I'd definitely like to carry on down the mixed media route for other projects.

Confessions of a Collage...er

I'd almost stopped drawing. I mean, I still took my sketchpad out to work on roughs or to plan patterns, but I didn't really draw if it wasn't the beginning of a collage. And the less I drew, the less confidence I had and the worse I felt about it, like I was only pretending to be an illustrator and, sooner or later, someone would find out. Everyone would say, "Well, she might be able to collage a fine gazelle, but did you know all her sketchbooks are actually full of lists?"

Last week I heard Eddie Mair interview artist Claire Parrish, about how she'd begun drawing again after years (it's a great story, you can listen here on PM, about 40 minutes in) and something made me stop worrying about all the other things I should be doing instead and pick up my pencil.

After that tiny beginning (and proving that Gladys is always the answer) I didn't really want to stop. I can't describe just how perfect a weekend I've had, sitting in the sunshine, in the garden or at the top of my studio steps, drawing trees and things. Not brilliantly well, it has to be said, but that is beside the point.

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I think this must be what people are talking about when they enthuse about the benefits of mindfulness; feeling there is nowhere else in the world, and no-one else in the world, you'd rather be. It's quite a revelation, as though my mind is gently rewiring itself and I'm settling back into my skin.

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If I needed another reason to fall back in love with the humble coloured pencil, it would be that they're so portable! Even if I attempt to take all my collage things outside, it takes only the lightest breeze, or a mere wag of Gladys's tail, to send everything floating off into the grass. This whole pencil and paper thing is revolutionary. And Gladys can sit as close as she likes.

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You can see more work in progress photos over on Instagram. And just in case this post is lacking collage, here are the aforementioned gazelles: