Children’s book illustrator

 8 February 2011

Natalie Russell has written and illustrated the books, ‘Hamish the Highland Cow’,‘Donkey’s Busy Day’ and ‘Moon Rabbit’ for Bloomsbury and Macmillan Children's books.

Natalie wrote and illustrated the children's book Hamish the Highland Cow.
Natalie wrote and illustrated the children's book Hamish the Highland Cow.

Starting out in illustration

“From early childhood I was exposed to many different aspects of art and design practice. All the members of my family have studied art in one form or another so when it came to deciding what I wanted to study, art college just seemed the right place to go.

“My interest in books and design developed from browsing through the art books in our house and admiring the images. I didn’t enjoy reading so much when I was young, but I remember enjoying illustrated books, such as Alan Aldridge’s The Butterfly Ball. I used to examine the detailed illustrations over and over again.

“When my little sister India was born we bought lots of picture books to read to her. The illustrations were great and I started to have a revived appreciation for many of the classic books that I had when I was young. However, this time around it wasn’t the illustrations that interested me so much as the stories themselves. I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books.”

Writing a children’s book

“The process of writing a children’s narrative can be very lengthy and problematic. It is like a puzzle to solve. All the pieces have to fit in the right place and at times the pieces are hard to find.

Moon Rabbit, a book recently published by Macmillan, took a year to write. There were so many variations of the character, Little Rabbit. She took on many personas and experienced many situations until, one day it all started to make sense and I wrote the story in a night.  The dummy was completed that day and it was then thrown into the post.

“The last two books published, Donkey’s Busy Day and Moon Rabbit both stretched my creative abilities.

Donkey’s Busy Day caused many technical problems because of the detail on each spread. I found it difficult painting all the farmyard animals and objects in the backgrounds. The tractor, for instance, what a nightmare! 

“Moon Rabbit caused problems in a different way. Each spread was screen-printed. I spent four months printing and had mixed 72 pots of coloured ink, which were all used throughout the book. It really pushed my technical abilities and physical stamina. But is very, very rewarding.”

Training as an illustrator

“I have been really fortunate since finishing college. I started working at Dundee Contemporary Arts, Print Studio in 1999, during my Master of Design Degree. That, I would say was the turning point in my career.

"Get to know the types, style, and format of books that are published. Look at the work that you produce and see what other illustrators have a similar aesthetic. Find out who their publishers are and create a list."

“The art centre itself offered the chance for me to meet other artists, see exciting work exhibited every two months in the gallery and build confidence through teaching workshops and working with internationally renowned artists on the Made at DCA editioning programme, such as Claire Barclay, Rosalind Nashashibi, Martin Boyce and Richard Deacon.

“It was during this time that I started to write children’s books. So, after arranging a series of meetings with London-based publishers I wrote a story about a Highland Cow as I needed something child-friendly to complement my folio of rather sophisticated prints and drawings.

“Surprisingly, the character and story interested Orchard Books and I started to develop the picture book with the editor and art director over a period of nine months. It looked hopeful it might be published with them but it was declined.

“Nevertheless, with an increasing confidence I sent the developed story and dummy to a few other publishers and it was thankfully picked up by Bloomsbury. And that was that, Hamish the Highland Cow was published by Bloomsbury in 2003. I am really happy with the way everything worked out.

“Through the experience of working with Orchard Books, I started to gain a greater understanding of the process. This stood me in better stead working with Bloomsbury and Macmillan.”

Working in the publishing industry

“In the beginning, the process of publication seemed so very long and I had to wait for what seemed a long time to hear back from editors, art directors etc. With a first book, the time from initial meeting with a publisher until a book is finally published can take two to three years. This is something I warn students about. I have learned it is just part of the process. Patience is a virtue.

“Now, however, having established a close working relationship with a couple of publishers, editors and designers, I don’t expect to wait so long. I feel there is respect for each others’ input to a piece of work. My editor will need time to look over my text and to make comments. She may take a week or so to establish an opinion or compile some advice or comments. These comments are usually very helpful in progressing the project. That’s the way things work.

“Computers have played a major factor in the commercial industry. It is essential to be up to date with technology for promotion, communication and correspondence. Apart from that, I would say that fashion plays a large role in what influences the changes and as we already know, fashion is an ever-turning wheel.”

Advice to other illustrators

Get to know the types, style, and format of books that are published by particular publishers. Look at the style and nature of the work that you produce and see what other illustrators are producing work which may have a similar aesthetic. Find out who their publishers are and create a list.

“The process of writing a children’s narrative can be very lengthy and problematic. It is like a puzzle to solve."

“Every year The Artists and Writers Handbook is published with up-to-date information and advice on publishers’ contacts and addresses. Through this resource you can find the best person to contact and make an appointment or send some samples of work to.

“It is important that there is something about your work that will stand out: packaging, colour, character. Each publisher is flooded with manuscripts and samples each week, and there may be a chance of a submission being tossed onto the slush pile if it doesn’t make an instant impression.  

“Also, visit the library. Although the internet is a fantastic resource, it is really important to value the work of artists from previous decades. There are hundreds of books in any high street bookshop that students can pick up and read. But in our university library there are copies of classic children’s fiction, which are out of print or hard to find, such as Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There. These books are rare, precious artefacts (some with the last stamp date being 1973!)”

Finding work as a writer

“As an author, I have to generate work for myself and believe that it can be published. To make the work as good as I can make it – and be prepared to make changes to a project over a period of time without being paid. It is all about being self-motivated.

“If someone is trying to ‘get work’ then they have to learn how to promote themselves i.e. website, sending promotional Christmas cards, and being prepared to take rejection with a smile and move onto the next possibility.

“There are many other aspects of being an author that are rewarding. Working with children in schools promoting reading and literacy skills. Visiting book festivals, such as the Edinburgh International Book Fair, Aye Write and The Inverness Book Festival. It is a great way to meet interesting people from the same genre of work.”

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