Open Studios Interviews 2015 - Marion Lindsay

The last in our series of interviews for Cambridge Open Studios features illustrator Marion Lindsay. If her works seems familiar, it's because you may have seen her illustrations on and in children's books in your local bookshop or library. We met her in her studio to find out more...

Marion Lindsey

Your children's book illustrations are absolutely delightful. How did you break in to the business?

Thank you! I really started working full-time as an illustrator after I left college – I graduated from Cambridge School of Art in 2010 with an MA in children's book illustration and that started me off. The MA at Cambridge has some really fabulous tutors and is a fantastic way to develop your own illustration and enter the publishing world. The graduation show is very much on the map as far as publishers are concerned. I actually started trying to get freelance illustration work whilst I was still a student however, I made a nice little mailer which I then sent to as many publishers as I could find out about that I thought might like my work.

It's hard when you're just starting out and you don't really have a feel for who the publishers are and what distinguishes them from one another, so invariably you make mistakes, but that's how you figure out who is who and what they all do. It's also hard to make the follow-up phone calls but it has to be done! Most of the responses I had were pretty positive though and the great thing was that I got a couple of jobs straight away. Later came an agent who helped find me some really exciting jobs – it is very helpful to have an agent because they are out there every week showing your work to publishers which is something that's really hard to do when you're on your own.

What kind of characters do you like to develop?

I love to draw children and animals and luckily it has happened that I always seem to have the opportunity to draw both in the books I've worked on. Often when I have been asked to illustrate chapter books I only really have a sketchy idea of the characters I'm going to be illustrating, this is because quite often the story isn't yet finished. This is because of the way publishing timing works; publishers need to promote their new books in catalogues well ahead of their release. So whilst the book is still being written I'll often need to come up with the front cover which of course will need to show the main character!

I will be given an idea of the protagonist's main characteristics and direction from the writer as to how they are going to look and I start there. I begin with my sketchbook where pages will be filled drawing the character again and again. At first they look completely wrong, but by and by elements that feel right seem to evolve and sooner or later the character starts to emerge. The publisher and the writer need to be happy and sometimes they ask for changes - they don't always like the size of the eyes I give my characters (which are admittedly fairly enormous), but with a little give and take everyone is usually happy!

What medium do you like to work in?

I work a lot in acrylic ink, which I think is great for illustration because the colours are so vivid. You need to have strong colours when your images are going to be reproduced as they can easily become a little dulled down. I find inks are very versatile and I use brushes and dip pens to make my pictures, I also often work in collage. Watercolour is a wonderful medium too and although I am no expert, I do use watercolour quite a bit as the range of colours is quite different again and beautifully subtle. Although a lot of my work is necessarily very planned I do like to break out when I can! I find that working more spontaneously without sketching first makes for much looser and more fun work – if I scan what I've done I then have to opportunity to compose a picture in Photoshop, which makes the process a bit like collage but without involving glue!

Do the publishers give you a fixed brief about what sort of illustrations should appear in the books, or do you sometimes have a free rein?

It tends to be a bit of both and rather depends on the individual publisher as to how much involvement they like to have.  I think for an illustrator it's brilliant to be trusted to come up with ideas, it often makes for better work too, but that may not always fit with the publisher's vision of the book so again it's a case of give and take. It really helps to build up a good relationship with your publisher where you are able to take on board their ideas but also be happy to communicate your ideas. When the relationship and communication with the publisher is working well then the end result is always so much better I think.

Who are your favourite authors to illustrate for?

One of my absolute favourite writers is the late Diana Wynne Jones who wrote so many wonderful books about magic, including the wonderful “Howl's Moving Castle.” So when I was asked to illustrate “Earwig and the Witch” I was pretty over the moon. Although Diana was very poorly when that book was being produced (the story she had written some time earlier) and I never had the opportunity to meet her, I know she did see my illustrations and approved of them!

I am really lucky in that all my authors are fantastic and their stories are doing so well – my first picture book “Ready, Steady, Ghost!” by Elizabeth Baguley was a real international success and both Holly Webb's series “Maisie Hitchins” and Ruth Symes' “Bella Donna” have been translated into all sorts of different languages too and are being read by children all over the world!  It's awfully exciting to see the foreign co-editions, I received a copy of “Bella Donna - Coven Road” in Hebrew recently which was amazing – it all goes back to front!

When you are not working on a specific book, what do you do like to make and do?

I've always got my own little ideas I'm playing about with so I'm often drawing characters or working on images for my portfolio. I have also started being a bit freer with just doodling and drawing in a more abstract way. I recently took a course in surface pattern design and one of the exercises was to put up a really big piece of paper on the wall and doodle on it whenever I fancy a break form work. I've found it to be a wonderful creative thing to do and I don't think I can live without it now.

Often when I'm working to a deadline I find I miss being genuinely creative – the process can end up being about doing an awful lot of inking in a short amount of time which can be a bit exhausting! So having an outlet where you can play with colours and marks but without any judgement is incredibly useful. It also feeds back into your work when you give yourself the time to explore new ways of doing things.  I've always had other outlets though, for example I love painting drinking glasses – putting colour onto glass just makes me happy, it's such a different thing to painting on paper because you're always thinking about the light coming through rather than bouncing off the paint. My next mission is to learn to do screen printing which is something I've always wanted to have a go at. If it's a success I may show some prints at Open Studios this summer, but I'm not making any promises!

Have you ever developed you own stories with illustrations?

Yes, I have lots of ideas, it's just a case of finding the time to work on them really. My stories always tend to be a bit longer and more complicated than picture book stories can be so I struggle to make them succinct! But there are a few ideas I have I would love to develop and I'm sure I will at some point, and maybe I'll just write a longer children's book, I'll have to see what happens. I love to make my own characters though, those ones are always a bit odd but I like them.

We loved looking at the 'Grubbies' kerchiefs when we visited your studio. It's great to see your illustrations in a different format, on fabric. How did this project come about?

Grubbies are a children's wear company who were looking for an illustrator to make designs for their children's range of kerchiefs. They stumbled across my work on the AOI (Association of Illustrators) portfolios page which is an online gallery for illustrators. I think their original plan was to have a different illustrator for each pair of scarves that came out with the new season, but they liked my work so I have ended up designing all of them to date! I really loved the process of designing the kerchiefs, it was just refreshing to have a completely different set of constraints to work with and really a lot of fun. I forced me to get much better at Photoshop too which is no bad thing, and it made me think upside down as well as the right side up if you see what I mean.

Do you collaborate with the other artists who share your studio space?

Yes absolutely! I share my space with author/illustrator Nicola Killen, artist Neil Warmsley and photographer Ian Farrell so it is a very creative environment to work in. It helps hugely to have other artists around to bounce ideas off, in fact I think it's the biggest advantage of sharing studio space. From a more structured point of view Nicola and I have joined forces a few times to hold joint workshops for children. I love working with children and have often focussed on character creation and Nicola has different fortes including making pop-ups – the workshops are immense fun mostly because children always create things you weren't expecting!

Summer Art Club Marion Lindsay Nicola Killen

Nicola and I are actually running an art club together this summer at Rock Road Library too. It's the first series of classes we will have worked on together and it came about because we had a number of requests last year at Open Studios from parents with artistic children who want to draw and paint more during the summer holidays. We'll be holding the Rock Rock Art Club on Tuesday afternoons throughout August and if anyone fancies coming along then they just need to drop into the library and ask about tickets. It should be a lot of fun as we are planning sessions involving drawing, painting, collage and we are even moving into 3 dimensions!

When we come to visit you in Derby Road for Open Studios, what kind of work will you have available to see and buy?

We're planning to turn our space into a bit of a gallery where Nicola and I will be exhibiting framed original illustrations from our various books as well as giclee prints, Neil will be exhibiting his paintings and drawings and Ian will be having an exhibition of photographs in the main photography studio. Nicola and I will be signing our various children's books which range from board and pop up books to picture and chapter books and Ian will be signing his book “Complete Guide to Digital Photography”.

We will also have cards and postcards for sale alongside my Grubbies scarves and if I can make it all work then I might even have some screen prints for sale too! Ian is going to be taking photographs on the day as part of a project he is working on and of course we'll have sketches and sketchbooks around and about the place too. So there should be plenty to see! I'm so looking forward to Open Studios because it's just such a lovely thing to show your work and meet the people who come to see it – and it's a real bonus when I get to meet the children who have been reading my books!

Visit Marion on weekends 3 & 4

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