Hello Melissa, I am honoured to be able to chat with you. I have followed your work for quite a while now and I am so thrilled to see you are have just released a new book which you have not only illustrated but written as well, this is such an exciting step in an already well established career. Can you tell us a bit about the book?
Hi Cara! Thank you so much for featuring on your blog and in this wonderful project :) Mighty Min is my first authored & illustrated book and it is a story I feel that I have had inside me since I was a child. I’ve always been fascinated by miniature worlds and the thought of small people living below our feet - I loved books such as ‘The burrowers’ when I was younger and it definitely inspired this story.
‘Mighty Min’ is about a miniature girl called Min who lives with her 4 equally miniature but very mighty aunts. Min dreams of being strong and brave like her aunts and one day she gets swept up by an owl and she finds herself on a mighty adventure where she discovers that just because she is small doesn't mean she's not brave & heroic.
The book has been described as ‘a Thumbelina for the 21st century’ which I think describes it well.
You have such a beautiful style in your book designs and illustrations, where did you find your inspiration for your colourful work?
It’s been a life long process of discovery plus trial and error by finding out what I love and what I don't love - all of this has informed my style up to now.
Things I love and which influence my work is the organic shapes and colour in the natural world, as well as textiles, ceramics, typography, screen printing, and old printed books. I love anything that is printed in layers as that’s how I work, I find that building up an image with layers of colour is a such a beautiful process and I love anything with a strong use of colour, layer and pattern.
Melissa, you have been nominated for Book design awards and are well established in your field. How did it all start? What made you choose the career you have?
Back in 2006 I started an undergraduate Degree in illustration which I completed in 2009. From that degree I knew I wanted to be an illustrator but I struggled at first, after I finished my undergrad I spent 2 years travelling and working a day job not knowing how to get my work out to potential clients as I wasn't particularly confident in my work back then- it looked a lot different to how it does now.
I then decided to do an MA in children's book illustration at the Cambridge school of art, and started that in 2011. It was the best decision I could have made, it introduced me to screen printing and working with bright colours plus it opened doors into the publishing world and really set me up for life after the course and how to earn a living out of it.
I wouldn't choose any other career - being an illustrator means you can apply your work to so many things, book covers, picture books, textiles, ceramics, the list goes on. I love the variety and the opportunity to see my work in and on so many different things.
Being an illustrator means you can apply your work to so
How long does it take you to develop your characters and world in your book illustrations?
My first book ‘If I had a little dream’ written by Nina Laden and published with Simon & Schuster US, took me one and half years to complete. I spent a good 6 months developing the character and another 10 months developing the whole book. I was so grateful to have that much time as it was my first book.
But now it takes a lot less time, on average its 5 months from start to finish for a book I’ve illustrated and 7-8 months for a book I’ve written and illustrated. It usually takes 2-3 months to draw up the whole book and the rest of the time is the development of the book.
I see you now have quite a few bookish projects under your belt as well as other illustrated collateral you sell through your online store. How many new products to you bring out per year, how do you plan out your production schedule for your creative work?
My online shop has actually just re-opened. I had an online shop before but I didn't really make new stuff or promote it. So at the beginning of this year I closed that shop and set a date of May 6th to re-open it with lots of new products and time I wanted to make it more successful and devote a lot more time to it.
My shop is now open and I’m really excited about it! It’s had a lot of amazing feedback from people and that’s spurring me on the make lots of new things for it. I’m aiming to have a new item added every month :)
I’ve actually split up my working week - so 4 days a week I spend on commissions and book projects and 1 day a week I spend on my shop making new things and packing and posting etc. So far its working out well! but I would like to eventually spend more time on my shop.
You have done several collaborations with different authors, how do you find working on someone else’s vision? Could you run us briefly through the process of working with authors and publishers in the the creation of a picture book?
Yes! I do love working on other peoples texts :) there is a freedom to it, in terms of not being as emotionally caught up with the text because its not your own - so it leaves me more breathing space to concentrate on the images.
What usually happens is a publisher will act as an intermediary and match up an illustrator with the authors text. So there isn't any direct contact at first with the author and illustrator, it works out well because the vision the illustrator has of the book isn't disrupted by what the author may envisage.
With all picture book projects there is an art director who is there to guide the illustrator and make suggestions to layout and the design of the book. They will go through character development, roughs, colour roughs, final artwork and then any tweaks that need to be made to the final artwork, and finally the cover and end papers. Its a long but very enjoyable process especially if you have an amazing art director to guide you, which I’ve been lucky enough to have for most of the books I’ve made.
Your new book is now out! Could you tell us a bit about the process of how it came to be?
Mighty Min came out of me having a meeting with art director Zoe Tucker & Alison Green of Alison Green Books. They wanted to make a book with me because they had seen my previous work, but they were keen on me writing the story which I had never done before. They were both such an amazing team and guided me though the process of writing so seamlessly that I couldn't have hoped for a better experience!
I had already had the idea of having a miniature girl as the protagonist but I wasn't sure on the structure of the story, I basically wrote a list of things I wanted to draw and then formed a story around that - I wanted to make sure I was drawing things I loved and enjoyed every minute of the process, which for me is the main thing.
The final book was printed in spot colour which is why the colours are so vivid and delicious! It was one of things which we discussed in my first meeting with them, that the final printing and finish of the book was very important to me. They had shown me a book they had published a year before called ‘Hector and hummingbird’ by Nicolas John-Frith, which had been printed in beautiful spot colour- spot colour is the printing of layers of pure colour like a screen print. I knew that if we could achieve this then it would be something special, and I wasn't disappointed! I’m so so happy with the final result :)
You not only illustrated this book but wrote it, how did you find stepping into a different creative discipline? Is writing a natural progression for you?
Writing is a very different world to illustrating, and I found it really hard. But I had a wonderful publisher - Alison Green Books and she helped to pull the story out of me and we honed the words together. Having that collaborative writing process was wonderful and made me feel a lot more secure in this unfamiliar creative form.
I’m writing my 2nd book with them at the moment and its a lot better the 2nd time round. And I’d say it’s a very welcome progression from illustrating other peoples texts.
I am sure some of our readers would be interested in following in your footsteps as beginning designers/illustrators. If you had one key piece of advice that you would give an illustrator beginning their professional journey, what might it be?
Here are a few pointers for starting out as an illustrator
Only put up/show work your are happy with - there is nothing worse than getting interest for a company/publisher from work they have seen which you don't like yourself- and then having to recreate that work over and over.
Don’t get wrapped up in other illustrators work, it can be the most creatively stifling thing when you find yourself mimicking another persons ‘style’ or way of working because you like it or it’s deemed popular. Alway be true to yourself and never get sucked in by what’s popular - popularity always fades.
Be versatile, don’t think that you need a very specific visual ‘style’ this can be good but it can also limit your outreach.
Have an online presence - join Instagram, twitter, possibly facebook, have a website and pin your work on Pinterest. All these things will help other people find your work and increase the chances of you getting illustrative work.
Enter illustration competitions - this is a really good thing to do not only for exposure but also to have a ready made deadline, often its hard to feel motivated but if you have a deadline such a competition deadline then its something you can work towards and keep your self busy.
What is your dream project?
I have a few! :) I’d love to design and illustrate a pop-up book, I’d love to have my own range of home wares, I’d love to design and illustrate something 3D and large maybe furniture or sculptural. And I’d love to have my own screen printing studio which I could run courses in and offer the community space for printing.
When you began as an illustrator and designer 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?
I spent a lot of time building up my portfolio online and getting my work onto as many internet platforms and social media platforms as I could! I knew that a lot of people spent a lot of time online and felt that that was the best way to go at that time.
I made a website, put my work on Tumblr, Instgram, Facebook, twitter - all the outlets. And it did eventually pay-off, I got my first publishing commission through the art director finding my work on Pinterest. It turned out that other people had been pinning my work from many of the platforms I had added to - so you never know who will see your work and think of you for a project.
From that one commission I got more commissions and then an agent- and things have been busy ever since. Never underestimate the power of the internet :)
Where can people find your new book and your other published works?
You can find my books in local indie UK bookshops, as well as Waterstones, Foyles & Amazon. And you can buy my prints & products from my shop.