Emma Allen

Emma Allen

Represented by Sylvie Poggio
Emma Allen Interview

Emma Allen

Children's Illustrator

How and why did you decide to pursue illustration as your career?

Illustration was something I had always been interested in since my days at school. When I first learned to read and write at primary school I became an avid bookworm, and I wanted to be an author when I grew up. Over the years that morphed into the desire to become an illustrator. When I left education I found myself working in magazine production and design, which I think were ‘the wilderness years’ for me in a way, but I learned a lot about printing, working to deadlines and of course Photoshop, which have been such useful skills to cross over into illustration. I took the plunge into illustration after my daughter was born and I was at a crossroads in my life, that was when I decided to pursue my dream of becoming an illustrator. 

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Did you attend art school or undertake any other formal artistic training?

I attended Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, studying a BTEC Foundation, after which I entered employment in magazine design and production. Between 2011-2013 I studied for a Children’s Book Illustration diploma with the London Art College and gained a Distinction. This was perfect for me at the time as I needed to be able to study around my young daughter. 

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Do you have a favourite picture book or recall one of the first picture books you saw?

That is a tough question as so many memorable books have influenced me over the years. I think if we are talking about books from my childhood I tend to recall the books I was reading after the age of about 7 more clearly. I was mesmerised by Jill Murphy’s illustrations in The Worst Witch (amazing!), and I loved the pen and ink illustrations by Pauline Baynes in the Chronicles of Narnia. I also deeply admire the ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’ books by Graham Oakley; as an adult I can really appreciate the perfect marriage between the text and the illustrations, where they come together to show an amusing moment, that to me is a truly harmonious use of text and picture. I used to collect Storyteller Magazine as a little girl and they were packed full of stories illustrated in such a huge variety of styles – actually I would say those really stuck with me the most. I still have them all now and read them with my daughter. I do occasionally buy more recently published picture books just for myself simply because I am awestruck by the illustrations, and I think of those my favourite would have to be ‘Wild’ by Emily Hughes. That book is a masterpiece, in my humble opinion. It’s so beautiful and the story is simple but perfect. I also love ‘Goat’s Coat’, the illustrations by Christine Pym are just lovely.

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What was your first commission as a professional illustrator?

My first commission came along whilst I was still a student at the London Art College, and it was a children’s e-book for an environmental charity. It was an excellent opportunity to learn and grow and I still work with that client today, I have illustrated multiple books in the series. They are a wonderful client to work with and their books, which educate young children about environmental issues, are particularly topical at the moment, and much needed.

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What is your favourite medium to work with and why?

I love working in watercolours, specifically Sennelier watercolours, they are gorgeous to work with. I used to work in acrylics back when I first started out but I often felt as though I was doing battle with the paint and oh my goodness…so many ruined paintbrushes…. Watercolour suits me much better. I am considering looking into illustrating in a more digital way going forward, I think that is the way the world is going and I would love to not have to scan things. If I am working in black and white then pencil, graphite and carbon are my tools of choice – I thoroughly enjoy using those. I did a little set of black and white illustrations based on the book ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and those materials were a joy to use.

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Which project has been most instrumental in developing your personal style?

I think the best way I can answer that question is to say that actually what has really helped to give me direction with my portfolio and personal style going forward was the SCBWI conference last year, during which I had a portfolio one to one with a fantastic children’s book art director. I know the direction I want to go in with my portfolio now, and I have been working on a picture book dummy of my own between commissions, and I think that project is the best representation of my style development and where I am heading with it. I will never stop striving to be better, there is always more to learn.

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Talk us through the process of creating one of your latest illustrations or books.

My process usually starts with character design, then a flatplan with thumbnails to work out the flow of the pages and a rough idea of how it all might look. After this I move on to pencil drawings – I prefer to go straight to more polished drawings, I just find that it saves time but it also gives me a better idea of how the illustrations will shape up. There is, of course, proofing to the client between all of these stages. If there are any amendments or additions to do to the drawings at the proofing stage then those are all neatly wrapped up before I make a start on any painting. I stretch hot pressed watercolour paper to a board to ensure it is tight and flat – I won’t paint on paper that buckles when wet – and off I go. Once the paintings are finished I scan them in and then import them to Photoshop to do any tidying or colour corrections, before delivering them to the client as digital files.

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Take us behind the scenes and describe your studio / workspace.

Ah, my workspace is rather humble. I would love to have a studio, and frequently suffer from studio-envy, but at present a large table at home with good light and a steady supply of chocolate does the job admirably.

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Do you have a favourite soundtrack you listen to when you’re working?

Actually no, I don’t like to listen to music when I’m working which probably puts me in the minority. I actually prefer to have a story going on in the background, a movie or a documentary, something I can listen to and take interest in to relax me when I’m working. I find music too mood altering.

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What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

That comparison is the thief of joy. Be inspired by others but remember to be true to yourself. Finding your own style takes time (sometimes a long time), but you will get there in the end. It’s important to step back sometimes, take stock of everything and just think. And when you’ve had a good think about it all roll up your sleeves and get to work.

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