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Q&A - Illustrating a text by another author

How do authors approach you about the possibility of illustrating a text they have written?

Mostly this takes place via my agent - and the agent of the author. Occasionally I am approached directly or every now and again it may be a chance conversation that leads to a joint project. 

How often does this happen? 

I am very lucky in that I am approached frequently to illustrate texts - and the reality is that I do say no to most of them. This is just due to the constraints on my diary - meeting all my book artwork deadlines, plus my exhibition work, plus design work for new projects just means there are not enough weeks in the year to take on very many projects outside of my own books. 

So how do you decide which projects to take on?

Occasionally I am sent a book that just stands out. It may be a really strong text that I love, it may be something completely different that I would never do myself or it may just be that on reading it, it sparks some inspiration around how I would illustrate it and then I find it very hard to say no. I have been known to say yes to things that aren't very realistic in terms of  fitting around my existing commitments but I am so set on saying yes that I somehow make it work. This is a very stressful approach and one I am trying to learn to avoid! I am currently working on a book (that I can't reveal anything about just yet!) but it was just very unusual and I could see the opportunity to create some really dramatic artwork so I accepted.

What was it about 'What It's Like to Be a Bird' that captured your interest?

It was partly that Tim's passion and incredible knowledge came through so strongly in the text - it is genuinely fascinating! In addition, I do really love drawing birds! The enormous variety across all bird species makes them hugely interesting to draw....and capturing their character is a nice challenge.

How much say does the author have on the design and illustration of their words?

At the beginning it is really all down to me. I have a genuine blank page to do what I like. I do, however, receive any particular character notes from the author if they know exactly how a character needs to look. In Tim's case, the design was entirely my call but I did of course have to do lots of research into each bird to ensure every detail was correct. With non-fiction there is less room for the odd creative flourish!

When does the author get to see your plans for the illustrations?

Once I have developed a layout, I create it in pencil drawings in black and white. If the publisher wants any changes at this stage I will tweak things until we are agreed. I then go on to create 'colour roughs' based on the agreed layout. At this stage, the author is sent a copy to look at and they give any feedback to the publisher who feeds back to me. It sometimes seems quite a long way of doing it as we don't really ever speak directly, but that way no-one takes anything personally and we can both be really honest about what we think. This leads to the best possible book! 

What is the hardest part of the process?

To be honest, this is different with every book. The process of making each book can be quite different depending on the publisher etc. With 'What It's Like to be a Bird', I think the cover was the biggest challenge. I did so many different versions that I lost count! Sometimes this is because I am just not sure what I want it to look like but with the one I think the problem was that I had too many ideas! There were so many striking designs that I had in my head and it was very hard to settle on the one that suited the book best. We got there in the end and I was very happy with it - it is a beautiful book and if you read it I hope you find it as fascinating as I did! 


Order a signed (by Catherine) copy of What it's Like to be a Bird. Click here.


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