Open Studios: Amanda Hall

This week we had the pleasure of speaking to Amanda Hall, who works full time as a freelance illustrator, producing captivating children's book illustrations. We started by asking about Amanda's early influences...

Tell us about your father's creativity in costume making and painting, and how this impacted on you from an early age.

My Dad taught at the Cambridge School of Art on the Art Foundation Course. He was a painter and mainly worked in oils. In his spare time he also worked on stage set and costume designs for the productions at what is now the Mumford Theatre at Anglia Ruskin University. I have wonderful early memories of him boiling up great kettles full of tights with red dye for the stage and making felt hats that he stiffened with melted cow glue. He also built tiny models of the stage sets on the living room table. It all fascinated me as a child - I always loved drawing and making things, so my Dad was a big influence on me creatively.

To me, illustrating a story is rather like putting on a play. As an illustrator, you create the set, choose your cast and their costumes and then stage the drama, so there are a lot of parallels. I think these early influences fed enormously into my creative imagination.

Where did you train and when did you set up your business?

I am from the Cambridge area and trained at the Cambridge School of Art, so my Dad was one of my tutors initially. I did the Art Foundation there after doing my A-levels and then stayed on for three years to do the Diploma in Graphics. The course had a strong illustration bias, as most of our tutors had been trained in illustration at the Royal College in London.

After completing my Diploma I moved to London and became a freelancer, doing design and paste-up as well as some illustration. I worked in graphics studios with small teams of designers and for the illustration work I used whichever room I happened to be living in at the time as my studio. I took some time out to travel in the mid 80s and only really settled down to running my business in an organized way in 1986, when I returned to Cambridge and found myself a small studio in town to start my business in earnest.

What mediums do you use when creating your illustrations? Are you interested in developing other mediums? 

While I was at college, I started to experiment with watercolour paints and began to work into the dried paint layer with pencil crayon, as I found it gave me the control I was after. I have refined that technique over the years and still enjoy working in that way.

However, for some books I have wanted to use a richer palette than I could achieve with pencil crayons. I decided to use watercolours in combination with gouache for my book Tales from India (written by Jamila Gavin, published by Templar Publishing). I needed the illustrations to capture the feel of Indian miniatures and so the colours had to be really vibrant.

For one of my most recently published book The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (written by Michelle Markel, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers) ). I used my usual watercolour inks, but this time combined with acrylics, as I wanted to use something closer to Rousseau’s painting method, but thought oils would just take too long to dry. I would love to have time to work in oils at some point - maybe in the future!

Describe your working space.

I love my studio - ‘The Shadowhouse’. It is basically a large shed with a raised wooden floor and was part of the reason I bought my house, as it was here in the garden already. It’s situated halfway down my garden and I have created a shaded jungle garden (with hills) and a veranda at the back. It’s very peaceful and is really warm, even in the winter when it’s snowing. It’s great having a dedicated space for my work, as it puts me into the right state of mind when I’m here. It is a small space, but I like to be pretty organized and I can fit in everything I need.

I do have a Mexican hammock for the veranda and have been known to have a very quick siesta mid-afternoon, but only when strictly necessary, of course! I use my space to host my Open Studios when I do them and it works well, as the veranda allows more people to wander around.

When you are set a brief by a publishing house, what are the processes involved from the outset to the final drafts?

The work I do is usually either for a picture book or story collection for the children’s trade market. I also get educational commissions; often these will be one-off stories in a larger book. I illustrate for both the UK and US markets, and many of my books are co-edited in other languages too.

The educational briefs can be quite prescriptive. With these commissions, the sizes, positions and content of the images required will probably already have been plotted out by the designer. They want me because they feel that my style is right for their job, so my task is to create my own illustrations based on their instructions.

When I illustrate a whole book, though, I am usually allowed far more creative freedom to make the design decisions myself. I am happy working in either of these ways, but the latter is more challenging and therefore more engaging, as these books are more my own vision.

The process often goes like this:

I’ll get an email from a client, briefly outlining the commission. Initially, they need to find out whether I am interested and available. If I am, I then receive a contract and a brief from the client. The brief will include the text, the format of the book, or page size (although I sometimes get to choose that too). I will be told the extent of the book—i.e. how many pages (if it’s a small educational job, I’ll be sent the designer’s visual). If it’s a whole book, I may be required to decide where the text breaks fall and which parts of the text would be best to illustrate.

I then create rough pencil drawings, to show my ideas. If it’s a job where I have a lot of creative scope, I’ll make these very rough to start with to make sure that the client is happy with my approach (I don’t want to produce a lot of work that I’ll have to redo). Once I know they are happy, I then go on to produce finished roughs. Illustrators are very different in the way they work, personally I like to completely resolve the design of the illustration at the pencil stage. These I then scan and strengthen by adding contrast to the scans to make them clear before they are emailed to the client. Then I wait for their comments before going on to start the final artwork.

Once I have the client’s comments back, I can see if they want any changes made, but usually I can go straight to the final artwork stage. For this, I draw up the images again on water colour paper in pencil from my roughs, using a light box. These days I like to work on a good quality hot-pressed watercolour paper. Next I use my watercolour inks (very dilute) to develop the image tonally, deciding on the colours - this is when my illustrations start to come to life. Finally, I will rub out all the pencil lines and work into the image more with which ever medium I have chosen for that job, as described earlier.

What does it feel like to see a finished published book containing your work?

Even though I have illustrated over 40 books, it’s still a thrill, particularly when it is a book I have been really involved with. If I have illustrated the whole book, I will be sent printed proofs, so that I can check and approve the colours. This is usually when I first see the book as a whole, although the pages will still be in separate sheets at this point. There’s nothing like receiving the first advance finished copy through the post.

What outlet do you use when selling your original works? Do you make giclee prints?

Since 2011 many of my original illustrations have been shown and sold at the Chris Beetles Gallery in St James’s, London. My new artwork remains  on their website, if you want to take a look It’s a great gallery, specializing in illustration in particular. Chris Beetles also shows work by illustrators such as Quentin Blake and Michael Foreman to name just two, as well as many illustrators from the past, so I am in very good company!

We loved leafing through the book, 'The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau' by Michelle Markel. Did you have to do a lot of research for the imagery?

I’m so glad you enjoyed Rousseau. Yes, I did a huge amount of reading around the subject as this is a non-fiction book for children, so the historical detail had to be right. I managed a trip to Paris to look for relevant references, which was a real luxury. I don’t usually get the chance to do that before working on a book.

Do your works appear in other guises, as well as book illustrations?

One of the poems I illustrated for Ladybug Magazine in the US The Pelican Chorus by Edward Lear, was turned into an iPhone app for Ladybug’s Bookshelf. Here’s the trailer for it on Youtube

I am exploring other illustrated app. possibilities at the moment. It’s important for illustrators to see what new technologies allow us to do with our work. My work has also been used in radio and television, as well as on products. There are many other applications for illustration work that I am exploring as well.

What dates can people come for Open Studios?

I will just be doing one Open Studio weekend this year. I will be opening for weekend 3 which is the 20/ 21st July from 11 am – 6pm both days – please do come along, I’d love to see you! For more details I am no. 54 in the Cambridge Open Studios Guide. 

What kind of works will be for sale at Open Studios?

I haven’t done an Open Studio for a while as I’ve been so busy, so I will be showing work from some of my most recent books: The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, Classic Aesop’s Fables and Tales from India  among other books. I will be signing copies of my books and will also have signed prints of some of my illustrations.

I am currently in the process of creating a print shop on my new website, so will be selling some new prints from the site. I’ll be up and running with the shop soon.

Do you have any talks coming up, so we can learn more about your practice?

I’ll be presenting a talk at Tindall’s Art & Graphics in King Street, Cambridge on Saturday 6th July. The title will be The Illustrated Picture Book – From concept to publication and all the bits in between – and I’ll be focusing on my book The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau. I will be there from 10 to 4pm, but there will be two specific talks, one from 11 – 12am, the other from 2 – 3pm. Otherwise, I’ll be there if people just want to have a chat about illustration. Again, I’d love to see you if you want to come along.

If you could illustrate any book, what would it be?

I would very much like to illustrate more of the classics, I have already illustrated Classic Aesop’s Fables for Lion Hudson (retold by Margaret McAllister), I also really like The Brothers Grimm among other classic stories. I’m very keen to do more non-fiction books about artists and have one or two ideas on that front. The exciting thing about illustrating is, you just never know what’s going to be around the corner, so it never gets boring.

To date what has been your favourite book to illustrate?

Definitely The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau. It’s beautifully written by Michelle Markel – I was very touched by the text as soon as I read it.  It took me forever to illustrate it, but I am very proud of that book and it has been favorably reviewed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, so it was worth all the time and effort.

What awards have you received for your book illustrations?

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau has just become 'Winner of the Parents' Choice Gold Award Spring 2013 Picture Books', among many other nominations for that title in the US. Some of the artwork was included in Society of Illustrators “The Original Art” Annual Exhibition 2012 in New York, which was a real honour.

Robi Dobi: The Marvellous Adventures of an Indian Elephant (written by Madhur Jaffrey , published by Pavilion Books) gained ‘Winner of the Parents' Choice Silver Award 1997’

Open Studios Guide:

Amanda's Website 


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