5 Questions for Claire Powell
While she was considering swapping her graphic design career for one in animation, Claire stumbled upon an exhibition at the British Library that celebrated the work of children’s book illustrators. It opened her eyes to a world in which drawing could be a job and she immediately signed up for a children’s book illustration course with Claire Alexander. Three years later, her debut picture book Have you seen my giraffe? (written by Michelle Robison) was published. Claire has since illustrated books for the likes of Kes Gray, Claire Freedman, Peter Bently and Simon Farnaby.
1. You used to be a design director working in TV brand identity for channels such as the BBC. I suppose that means you were part of a larger team and worked in an office environment. Being an illustrator on the other hand is a rather solitary profession. How have you dealt with that switch and do you have any suggestions for people who are working on their own?
It’s been harder than I care to admit, though I guess I just did! When I worked in branding, teams ranged from a few people right up to twenty or more, depending on the size of the project, that meant there was always someone to delegate to or worst case, we’d hire more freelancers to help.
I didn’t consider what it would be like to work alone before I left - I was too excited to start illustrating. Accepting that there’s only me who can do the work and learning a whole new craft/industry has been tough at times. This is my fifth year of making books and I’m finally starting to feel more confident with the process. I’m learning to recognise when I’m starting to feel overwhelmed and what my triggers are and slowly getting better at managing that, though it takes practice.
My suggestion would be to get a good support system around you and commit to taking breaks. That’s something I didn’t do in the beginning - when I was overwhelmed I thought the answer was to work harder and longer hours but that came and bit me in the bum. It’s not sustainable and it created a lot of unnecessary stress for me. I’m slowly learning to change that mindset - it’s not more time you need, it’s more focus. I try to keep a better balance now and no matter how busy I am I take walks most days, exercise and do other things that bring me joy. We live in a society that promotes and glamorises being busy. I aspired to that for a while but I’m slowly moving away from it to a more nurturing, easy way of life. It’s important to make time for inspiration and creativity to find you, I learned that the hard way.
2. In what ways do you think your experience of being a self-taught children’s book illustrator who entered the profession in her 30s is different than it would have been, had you not listened to that career advisor and taken a more direct route.
I think either route would have had its problems and challenges. It isn’t easy to get started on a creative career at any age but coming to it later, I did have the advantage of age and the experience of working for fifteen years. My previous job taught me so many transferrable skills - layout, composition, narrative sequencing as well as how to deliver jobs and speak in front of an audience. Obviously, I have no idea what my experience would have been like if I had gone straight into illustration at uni - that’s a parallel universe - but I don’t think it would have been easier, just different.
3. What do you like most about being a children’s book illustrator.
Everything but the deadlines! No matter how much I try and plan my time I always end up working like a lunatic to deliver them on time and I’m yet to meet a kid lit illustrator who doesn’t do the same!
I love every part of the process though the colour work does get quite fatiguing. Sometimes that bit feels endless. My favourite part is probably coming up with the ideas for the roughs. That’s where you’re doing a lot of the fun thinking - I get to be character designer, fashion designer, interior designer, set designer - it’s great fun. I love the research too, that’s fascinating and when I can I like to visit places that might help. For the book I’m working on now I went to Gloucester cathedral and for another, I bought lots of Edwardian fashion books off eBay. Each book is essentially creating a whole new world and to think, every book starts as a blank sheet of A3 layout paper, in my case anyway! They are an incredible amount of work, that much I didn’t realise when I started, but there aren’t many bits I don’t enjoy now that I think of it.
4. A couple of years ago you created the hashtag #letsmakeartforfun. Why was it important for you to encourage people to create for joy? And what was your biggest takeaway from your own 40 odd days of fun-fuelled creation during the first lockdown?
Honestly, I started that for me! I was locked in a state of comparison and it was sucking all the joy out of my work. I started the hashtag to try and encourage me to let go and enjoy myself, to stop taking everything so seriously. It really got going at the start of lockdown though when I did an activity every morning for about 6 weeks. I wanted to help teachers and parents and just generally bring some joy, even if just for a few minutes a day to people’s lives. I got some wonderful comments saying my videos had done exactly that. The most memorable was from a doctor on the frontline in a hospital - that was lovely and very touching.
My biggest take away was that there is only one way out of the comparison trap and that’s to create more for yourself. Make art every day. Doesn't matter how awful it is or how many mistakes you make just keep showing up and creating art. As soon as I started to do that I grew in confidence because I was choosing myself, rather than abandoning myself in favour of other people. I had got into the habit of looking at everyone else's art but not making enough of my own, as soon as you do that you lose a sense of who you are because there’s too much outside noise.
I took a break from social media for a couple of months and drew every day and that’s when I started to see and truly believe in my own ability because I could see with each drawing that I was learning and evolving and it was encouraging, so I keep wanting to show up for myself. I even started to like the mistakes - a big step for a perfectionist! - I can laugh at them now and I share them, so other people can see being an illustrator doesn’t mean everything you draw is ‘good’.
I try to make time to draw every day now, though there are of course weeks when I don’t manage it. I started taking life drawing classes and I have a few online breakfast drawing clubs that I can go to where we draw from photographs and I draw from life, out and about. I think I can say that I’m free from the comparison trap now - it was a necessary part of my evolution and I wouldn't change it but I hope if anyone else is in the thick of it they read these words and know what to do! Stop looking at other people’s work and choose to make your own. That has been a very important and healing process for me.
A few tips from Claire for those who find themselves in the comparison trap –
5. Imagine yourself 5 years into the future. What advice would Claire from 2026 give today’s Claire?
Remember to have fun, it doesn’t have to be as serious as you think, and trust the timing of your life, always.
Sometimes I forget to enjoy myself and sometimes I forget that what’s meant for you will never pass you by… I’m sure this will still be the case in 5 years!
Lastly, what is your spirit animal and why did you choose it?
I took a quiz and apparently it’s a turtle, which is interesting as I’ve been trying to slow down more! The more I read about turtle as a spirit animal the more it feels right for me - I have a tendency to push too hard and can sometimes get too caught up in the details and forget to trust in my own path, the turtle encourages me to take a break, to rest and to look within myself for stability and a grounded perspective. That’s all something I’ve been actively doing recently so the turtle seems a good fit for me… plus I’m getting old and wrinkly ;)
5 Questions for ... is a blog series featuring creative self-starters, artistic late bloomers and those who have created a thriving career by following their passion.
Is there someone you know or who inspires you that fits that description?
Do tell me about them!
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Hi, I'm Chantal Valerie. I'm a writer and self-taught illustrator. I am inspired by late bloomers and creative self-starters (I only started drawing at the age of 34) and since I believe they deserve more visibility, I started my blog series ‘5 Questions for …’.