Cara Ord Create

Interview with Freya Blackwood | Inspiring illustrators

Inspiring IllustratorsCara Ord
illustration by Freya Blackwood

illustration by Freya Blackwood

Hello Freya, It is a pleasure to have you joining us today. I have followed your work for a few years now and a particular favourite of mine is ‘Maudie and Bear’. Being a published illustrator since 2003 I am sure you have a lot of experiences you could share with us.

You transitioned from effects design to illustration, how did this come about? did your design background and education influence your illustration in anyway?

I studied Visual Communications at UTS, focusing on filmmaking, and then went on to work in the film effects industry. I was making foamed latex prosthetics, but was just blown away by the work the designers did, and really, rather desperately, wanted to draw too. My work would never work for film design but I found a place for myself in children’s book illustration. I think both my basic study in graphic design, and interest in filmmaking has influenced my illustration choices. I love designing my books, both from a graphic design point of view and also as a production designer, creating a look like you might do for a film. I also enjoy deciding how to view a scene and reveal the characters and action. 

Freya, you have a beautiful style using water colours and pencil to create a dream like quality to your images. How did you settle on this style and medium for your work?

I haven’t done much formal illustration training, one semester of editorial illustration at uni, and the odd life drawing class. I’ve instead gathered basic skills and knowledge since childhood, brought up by a painter and art teacher mother. I actually came to use watercolour and a specific paper when an illustrator I approached for advice suggested watercolour might be worth trying. I enjoyed the experience and have gradually taught myself to use it in different ways. I do use other mediums too though, depending on the story and the feeling I’m trying to convey. 

Your characters are very emotive and very distinct in personality, how do you achieve this?

My characters are often based on people in my life - my daughter, friends, neighbours or family. Portraying characters is one of my favourite aspects of illustration, and they end up feeling quite real to me. I wasn’t conscious of my interest in exploring emotions until people pointed it out, but I’ve since noticed that I spend a lot of time trying to get a character’s posture and facial expression looking right. 

I see you now have quite a few books under your belt as well as other illustrated collateral shared in your Etsy store. How many new products to you bring out per year, how do you plan out your production schedule for your creative work?

I have been illustrating about two books a year now since 2003. The only real plan in place is that two books a year is all I can manage! Anything more than that tends to push me over the edge. I take on the odd extra project if it takes my fancy, but the books are my main interest. 

You have done several collaborations with different authors, how do you find working on some one else’s vision? Could you run us briefly through the process of working with authors and publishers in the creation of a picture book?

I love the various collaborations I’ve had with authors. More often than not I feel as though the story actually becomes my own – that I am an equal author in the creation of the book. Ordinarily I work directly with the publisher, rarely getting any direction from the author, so the visuals I create are based on my interpretation of their text, not their vision. 

Different publishers work in different ways. Sometimes I work directly with the publisher, sometimes an editor, sometimes an art director. Occasionally an author is involved at each stage, but often the author doesn’t feel the need to be overly involved. Libby Gleeson tells me she likes handing her stories over to me and seeing what I come up with, and I’m thrilled to be trusted in this way. Normally I meet up and chat with the editor or publisher (or more often than not this takes place over the phone or via email because I live in Orange) about the direction we think the illustrations might take. The author must get to see the book as it is developing, but this always happens through the publisher, and any feedback from them travels via the publisher. I also enjoy working closely with a book’s designer. There have been times when I’ve struggled to solve problematic parts of a book, and know the designer I often work with will be able to look through the book and instantly help me solve issues. 

Working as an illustrator from home, how to you manage to keep up with the demand of your work as well as family commitments? Does your daughter participate in your work practice and enjoy the stories you create?

For the past 11 years I’ve really only worked part time and then during school hours. I only take on as much work as I can manage in that time. My studio is out in the backyard and I rarely return to it after the afternoon extra curricular activities and dinner making duties. As my daughter gets older, I sometimes work longer into the afternoons, or the odd panicked weekend, but honestly, I like school hours and I like being able to take her to her violin lessons, or go swimming together. 

As a younger child, Ivy always enjoyed somewhat louder and more dramatic books than mine, usually containing a dinosaur! However, much of her childhood is recorded in my books, through the characters, their expressions, funny antics and toys.

If you had one key piece of advice that you would give an illustrator beginning their professional journey, what might it be?

I think my illustrations are better when they haven’t been perfected, when I’ve stepped away at just the right moment. In this same way, sometimes the best drawings are those that aren’t necessarily perfect but are fresh and free and have been enjoyed, rather than laboured over. I guess I’d recommend enjoying the process, feeling your way, possibly even embracing the imperfections along the way so the end result is unique rather than stiff and forced. 

What is some of the inspiration behind your work?

My daughter has definitely been my greatest inspiration, but I think our life in general, and what we choose to do with our time has also inspired my work. 

Out of your published works which is your favourite and why?

I don’t have an absolute favourite book - there are aspect of each book that I really love. But there are a few books that I feel really work as a whole. These are: Amy & Louis, written by Libby Gleeson, Banjo & Ruby Red, also written by Libby, and The Runaway Hug, written by Nick Bland. Amy & Louis is such a special story to me, and I worked very hard to get it feeling as close to perfect as possible. I love reading Banjo & Ruby Red out to kids, and witnessing the quiet when Ruby Red is found sick and the relief when she gets better. And The Runaway Hug is such a fun and unique story and I found the illustrations just kind of happened, without too much of an ordeal. 

Cover for Banjo and Ruby Red Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Cover for Banjo and Ruby Red Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

When you began as an illustrator how did you get your voice heard among the crowd? did you approach publishers, authors or agents, or were you approached to produce a project?

When I first started thinking about picture book illustration, I was living in New Zealand. I built up a portfolio doing single illustrations and spreads for an educational publisher called Learning Media. Eventually I sent out a small portfolio (printed in those days) to publishers in New Zealand, Australia, the US and UK, and there was some minor interest. But I also approached a family friend who worked on occasion as an author and illustrator, and I was very lucky to get a helping hand from him. He sent my work directly to a publisher and she found a text for me to illustrate, which was Two Summers. Several years later I was approached by an agent and I’ve been with her ever since. 

Finally, what is your dream project?

I think my current dream project might be a fairytale-style story told in a modern setting. But I would also love to see my characters animated.

Last Hug Print illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Last Hug Print illustrated by Freya Blackwood