Helen Cann

Helen Cann

Helen Cann Interview

Helen Cann

Children's Illustrator

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

Yes. I have a Batchelor of Arts (honours) degree and a Postgraduate Diploma in Visual Arts. I learnt a lot at university but so much more about being an illustrator and illustration when I left.

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Where do you currently live and where did you grow up?

I now live in the seaside city of Brighton and Hove on the South coast of the UK. It’s a very happy, open place that attracts many creative people and those following alternative lifestyles. I love being by the sea, hearing the sound of the gulls and being close to the rolling wilderness of the South Downs.

I was born in Bristol but spent much of my childhood in commuter belt Surrey, very far from the twinkly colourful lights of Brighton...

Have you always loved to draw?

I always loved to draw and as a child, use to make my own tiny books written and illustrated by me. My mum helped me sew them down the middle in white cotton and I thought they looked very professional!

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Describe your working technique and how you came to perfect it.

I start by drawing out the page dimensions on heavyweight Fabriano hotpress paper and make a rough indication of where the text will go. This helps me have an idea of what kind of shapes I’m working with.

Then I hit my sketchbook and the internet, drawing out ideas and researching. I first read the story, marking where there are particular dramatic highpoints and more quiet passages. It’s important to get the flow and pace of the narrative right.  I play with ideas for characters if necessary at this stage too.

Sometimes images pop into my head fully formed so coming up with compositions for these spreads is easy. Others take more time and I play around with multiple versions in my sketchbook till I’m happy.

From here, I create a set of thumbnails in a grid. It gives me a general feeling for how the book looks as a whole. I send it to the art director.  Drawing roughs is a detailed and time consuming process so if it’s a good idea to head off changes earlier at this stage and the art director can get an idea of what I’m imagining for the book.

Once approved, I work closely with the thumbnails to create the roughs. My drawings are precise - not rough and sketchy at all - so what you see will be what you get. These also go to the art director once finished.

Colouring up is the next step. I work entirely by hand in mixed media including watercolour, gouache, inks, collage and coloured pencil. Part of the joy of illustration for me is the physical process of painting so I’ve actively chosen to use the computer as little as possible. I work across all illustrations at the same time in stages, sometimes one colour at a time or one medium at a time. After using any paint, I add the collaged areas ( traced and then cut out using the tracing paper as a guide) and then add coloured pencil to neaten up and create depth and shadow.

I have perfected this technique over many years but allow myself to be open to changing it further.  I think it’s really important not to fix on a particular process. The world and I, as an artist, develop and change so process should develop and change too.

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Do you keep a sketch book?

Yes. Sketchbooks are my playground. They’re places I can experiment in and make mistakes, full of stick men and scribbles and shopping lists. I think it’s important to use them as working tools rather than the perfect showcase artist books that many art colleges ask their students to create. I use a sketchbook assuming nobody but me will ever need to see it.

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How long does it take on average for you to finish a spread, from initial sketch to final colour?

That all depends on the complexity and size of an image and how long response times are from art directors.  In general, however, if all goes smoothly, it takes me about three or four days to create a double page spread from the idea in my sketchbook, to thumbnail, to rough to completed cleaned up artwork.

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What do you do in your spare time?

I enjoy having adventures in my spare time (!). In the past, that’s included sailing as crew across the North Atlantic tracking whales, driving a dog sled in the snowy depths of the Arctic Circle and drinking reindeer blood with Sami herders, acting in an immersive theatre event in an abandoned building in London’s West End, acting as a body double (my hand, drawing) for a BBC costume drama, working as a forger (legitimately!) and learning to blacksmith...
During more frequent introverted moments, I quite enjoy walking, going to the cinema and drawing as much as I can!

This is a picture of me in my wet weather gear pointing out a hurricane in Reykjavik Harbourmaster's office on my trip across the Atlantic.

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

I have worked in many studios in Brighton but have been in my current place for almost 5 years. Previously I’ve been in a converted warehouse that used to have a meat storage room - there were still hooks in the ceiling and it was always freezing - and also in a converted stable next to a chocolaterie that used to smell amazing.
This studio is above a milkshake shop in the centre of Brighton. It’s not the quietest place; the seasonal buskers outside playing for the tourists often compete with the sound of the blenders downstairs. However, it’s very close to the art shop, 10 minutes from the beach and we sometimes get free milkshakes!  Working with others (my two studio mates) is very important to me -  we drink coffee, bounce ideas off each-other and provide practical support.

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Have you taken part in any speaker events?

Yes, I have spoken at a Brighton Chamber of Commerce creative industry event, at the Brighton Illustrators’ Group and at Brighton Catalyst Club - a night of talks of unusual and esoteric passions.

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Have you visited any schools to speak or hold workshops?

I’ve never visited any schools but have run mapping workshops at galleries and museums and general art workshops at a couple of cinemas. I love working with children – it’s so refreshing that they rarely censor their creativity and are happy to play and experiment.  Somehow, kids manage to be fascinated in every small detail and they are forever curious about the world.

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Are you an author/illustrator?

Yes. I wrote and illustrated ‘Hand Drawn Maps’ - published by Thames and Hudson in the UK and Chronicle in the US. I absolutely loved writing it and if I couldn’t sleep at night, would get up and write a chapter!


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Animals feature heavily in children’s books – do you have a pet?

Yes. Marvin is my cat. He’s very critical of all my work but is supportive when he needs to be/feels like it... If I work from home, his favourite place to be is lying on top of my paintings.


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What advice would you offer someone just starting out as a children’s illustrator?

Do what you enjoy rather than trying to fit into a style or market you think is fashionable but not really your taste. 
If you feel that a particular style of yours isn’t being picked up commercially, may be put it aside for a while, try something new, but remember you can revisit it at any time. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of the right timing. 
Keep learning new skills and don’t be afraid to play and make mistakes at whatever stage you are in your career. You can learn so much from both. That’s how you develop and maintain professional longevity.
Don’t give up and always have fun!


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What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?

I love drawing animals, birds and plants... and hand drawing maps and lettering is also a real passion of mine...


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Do you offer more than one style, if so – talk us through the different approaches and the audience you are targeting for each.

I have worked for a variety of markets within children's books throughout my career. 

Picturebooks like 'Feathers for Peacock' and 'We're Riding on a Caravan' and poetry collections like 'Manger' are aimed at the 4-8year old age range.  I try to make images colourful and warm with appealing characters.  There's usually lots to look at and I make clear story telling important. 'Feathers for Peacock' won the award for best children's picturebook (hard cover fiction) in the Best Book Awards in 2017.

I have also illustrated chapter books for older readers for the 8+ age range.  These have included images for classic novel adaptations like 'Call of the Wild' (Miles Kelly) and 'Little Leap Forward' and 'The Inuk Quartet'  for Barefoot Books.  I make sure that details are historically accurate for books like these (appealing to librarians and teachers everywhere) without compromising on beautiful compositions and sensitive drawing.  Storytelling is also important but as there isn't always a picture on consecutive pages, the flow of the book layout is slightly different. Children's interest needs to be maintained with drama and detail.  'The Raiders' from 'The Inuk Quartet' was listed in the Fall Selection for the Junior Library Guild and 'Little Leap Forward' was also listed by the Junior Library Guild and won a Nautilus Book Award.

Lastly, maps are becoming an increasingly important element of my practice.  They have been used in anything from educational history books, to fantasy novel endpapers, to Bibles (The Lions Bible for Children) to illustrated atlases (Picture Atlas, Paragon)...  Most have been created for the 8 -12 year old age range but in all cases, geographical accuracy is important but the complexity of information shown is adapted for each audience.

The pictures below come fom 'Feathers for Peacock', 'Hand Drawn Maps' and the fighting wolf and starving husky scene from 'Call of the Wild'.

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