While the design elements of her job had always somewhat fulfilled her need for artistic expression, she eventually realised that something was missing and began spending her lunch breaks drawing with a group of other creatives at work. With her artistic spark reignited, she took part in a daily drawing project for 100 days and started dipping into Orange Beak Studio’s picture book workshops and tutorials. Having filled countless sketchbooks over the course of a few years, she took the leap in 2019 and quit her job to do an MA in children’s book illustration which she will complete at the end of this year. Happy to have found her way back to art, Ella loves to inspire others to get creative which she does via her Patreon, creative mentoring sessions and Happy Sun Art workshops.
1. You are currently doing an MA in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. Why was it important to you to do this course instead of just trying to strike out on your own? After all, you already have twenty years of experience in the children’s publishing industry.
Ahh, this is a good question! Well, firstly, I felt like I really wanted the time to immerse myself in art for a while, without working commercially, as I knew I would be if I launched straight in. So it was a chance to indulge myself really! Secondly, although it may seem that 20 years in the biz, and with a Fine Art degree, I would feel qualified, but I still felt I needed help putting it all together. Although I have all the background knowledge of children’s books, which has been really helpful on the MA, and I also have a love of drawing from life, I still didn’t feel confident in putting these together and in creating illustrations from my imagination. This is still something I am working on now. I think 99% of it is confidence and self-belief, and I do feel like I am beginning to feel braver to do it. Watch this space!
Finally, I have to mention the School itself – Cambridge School of Art has an amazing reputation among publishers, and the designers and editors that work there. Plus, I could see all the amazing illustrators that were graduating from there. People such as Eva Eland, Beth Waters, Jess Meserve, and Maisie Paradise Shearring, among many many others that I was watching graduate and admired from afar! I wanted to have a taste for myself, and was hoping a bit of that magic might rub off on me!
2. As part of your course, you have to complete several picture books. What strategies have you learned and would recommend people use to see a project through to completion, and not get disheartened when the ideas (temporarily) run dry or the going gets tough?
Ooh, now you’re asking! I gave a little talk to the new first years at the beginning of this academic year, and here are some of the tips I gave:
• Look back as well as forwards. It's easy to keep moving onwards, but remember to stop and take stock periodically, and reflect on what you have done. I also find this useful to do when I am doing a drawing. Stop, put it down and look at what you're doing, assess what you think is working, and what isn't. Set some intentions, and then keep going.
• Just do it! When you feel stuck and have creative block, my best tip is to just Make. A. Start. Do anything. Once you start your fear will dissolve a little bit, and you'll find you can carry on. This works really well for me. I often find I go into slight zombie mode before I start, the main thing is to just make yourself pick up something and begin. I find setting a timer for an hour is often enough to get me going.
• Your "bad" drawings, are generally "bad" because you are stretching yourself. This is good. Next time you do a drawing you are unhappy with, remind yourself it is probably because you are growing and learning!
• Draw "blind" and do continuous line drawing to help loosen you up and remind you to look.
• Don't let fear hold you back. I have started each week/module/year thinking "I can't do it". But I can tell you, with a year to look back on, you will surprise yourself, and you can do it! (this is quite specific to the course, but I think it is true of any creative journey too!)
• If you get stuck, do something different. Take a side step. If you're stuck on a screen print, do a monoprint. If you're stuck on a watercolour, do something in gouache. I find that moving away from something and then coming back to it, gives you the perspective you need, and sometimes you make a discovery using a different but similar medium.
3. You’ve described yourself as an intuitive artist and both your illustration work and your paintings are very loose and joyful. I’d say what comes through in your work is that you are having fun. Do you have any tips for creatives who have been making art commercially for some time and feel like the joy has gone out of creating?
Thank you, that’s very kind! For me, it is doing what I enjoy doing, rather than what I feel I should be doing, and making art for ME, not for everyone else. I know that sounds like a ridiculously simple answer, but I think it’s really easy to get caught up in the shoulds, rights and wrongs of making art. That’s why I sometimes take a mad side step, which I have alluded to above, and start knitting or sewing or madly monoprinting. It is allowing my brain to stay engaged and interested, and I feel like all the synapses do eventually connect. For example, I started sewing felt creatures with my lovely MA friend Cathy Eliot who, as well as being an illustration student, also teaches embroidery, and I made a creature that has kind of become the main character in the story I am making now for this term. Recently, I have started trying to let go of making “good” art, and instead, thinking about what interests me about what I am doing. That might be colour, negative space, emotion, etc… And I think that helps me let go as well.
4. One of the things that inspired you to make the change from art director to artist was the book Your Dream Life Starts Here. Do you recall an exercise from the book that you would recommend people do to get one step closer to their dream life?
I read soooo many visualisation books when I was contemplating leaving work, and I liked that book in particular, as it has lots and lots of exercises that helped me really think through what I wanted to do. Because it had so many, it really helped me get specific. I realised I had a vision of myself being both an artist and an illustrator. I saw myself standing in a big studio, with a dirty apron on, wiping my hands on a rag, in the middle of an exciting creative project, and with some illustration work on the desk. I really hope that this comes true, and it definitely helps keep me focused if I ever feel doubt and fear creeping in (which I do all the time by the way!).
5. What are the three greatest lessons you have learned in the past ten years?
1. I am going to cheat, and share my top three aphorisms/songs first:
3. Meditation! Discovering mindfulness about 10 years ago transformed my life! I started off doing this book with the CD (Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world) and I think starting with a proper course, albeit with a book and CD, really did help me get it embedded in my mind. I have meditated regularly on and off since then. Sometimes I do it every day, and sometimes it falls by the wayside, but that concept of being mindful of your thoughts, but not being right in them has been hugely helpful to me every day. I suffer from quite bad anxiety (which I know doesn’t come across on Instagram at all) and meditation and mindfulness helps me manage it. It literally changed my life. Now, even when I am feeling very anxious, somewhere in the back of my mind are all the things I have learned from mindfulness, and it is very helpful. I love the analogy of mindfulness being like the difference of standing in the rain, and standing indoors looking at the rain through a window.
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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 …’.