I’ve had the opportunity to be represented by an amazing agency, Illustration Ltd. and one day while updating my page on their site I became curious who the other artists they represented. So my procrastination of updating began…I was sucked into the vortex of illustration portfolios. But one such illustrator’s work rang out to me like a clanging gong, Alexandra Ball. Her compositions and her sense of color were just so SPOT ON. And the animals. This girl can illustrate animals. I would rather wrestle a lion physically than wrestle with a drawing of a lion. So I had to start pestering her. Luckily enough, she was so gracious to let me interrogate her and hopefully her mastery of color, composition and carnivorous beasts would rub off on me.
A little bit of background on Alexandra…
I spent my early years in a small village in the middle of the countryside of Hampshire (England). I remember it being a very free childhood, where my older brother and I would spend our days climbing trees, having picnics in cornfields and making dens in rhododendron bushes. When it rained and we were unable to go out, I’d get my grandfather¹s old typewriter and thwack away at the keys until I had invented a story. And of course a story always needs an illustration to go with it.
My love of art and stories followed me through adolescence and later led me to Falmouth, Cornwall, where I did a degree in Illustration. However it wasn’t until 7 years after my graduation that my career in children’s book illustration started, but now I am here I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Describe yourself in five words:
Fun: enjoyment or playfulness
Empathetic: showing empathy or ready comprehension of others’ states
resourceful: having the ability to find clever ways to overcome difficulties
Indomitable: impossible to subdue or defeat (my new favourite word)
cheeky: impudent or irreverent, typically in an endearing or amusing way
Now, please tell us how you got started in picture book illustration (in more than five words)…
My journey to picture book illustration wasn’t the smooth journey I thought it would be after completing my Illustration degree at Falmouth college of Arts in 2002. After a couple of sample send-outs with no bites, the necessity to earn money took over and I ended up taking a 9 to 5 job as a children’s bookseller. It was about 7 years and 3 jobs later that I finally got my first break into the illustration world. I had been working as an assistant lending manager for a large building society and when the credit crunch hit our office was closed and we were all made redundant. ‘Hoorah’, I thought, ‘a perfect time for me to do what I’ve always wanted!’. So with the new time on my hands and the severance pay in my pocket I spent the next 6 months getting my portfolio up to scratch. I visited a couple of publishers who gave me a few tips and was finally snapped up by my lovely agency, Illustration Ltd, who I’ve been happily working with ever since.
If you had to describe your work in terms of your artistic influences, you would say it is…
…stolen from everyone – ha! No, I love Studio Ghibli films and I suppose the sensitivity of my work, especially involving animals, is similar to some of Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Things like My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke rank high on the list. Another animation dear to my heart is Hedgehog in the Fog by Sergei Kozlov. It is collage-like in appearance, mixing real footage with drawn images. A beautiful work of art! I also love the silent expressions that Tove Jansson created. A lot of her characters don’t have visible mouths, yet you know exactly what they’re thinking. Everyday life is also a great influence on my illustrations. The sometimes subconscious sometimes conscious infiltration of a style no doubt happens on a daily basis.
Of the six fundamentals of 2D design (line, shape, volume, perspective, shading, and color):
As an illustration is stationary I always try to give my work life by making my compositions as fluid and interesting as possible. So I suppose shape is my greatest strength. However I think colour comes a close 2nd.
Which poses your greatest challenge?
Even though I find it a strength of mine, I think colour is probably the most challenging to me. I can sit for hours playing around with different colours until I’m happy with the result. Thank goodness Photoshop is so versatile!
It can be extremely hard to be disciplined and my routine can vary depending on what work I have to do from day to day, but I love what I do and look forward to what I’m going to be creating next. One highlight illustrators have, is that they can have a film or an audio-book playing in the background whilst they draw. It’s brilliant, work and play all at once! So I generally put one on, close myself in my studio with my dog, Bee, laying at my feet, and get on with the days tasks. In fact I think I might be the World’s best things-to-do-list-writer. I’m not saying that the items always get crossed off when I want them to, but they ARE written down!
‘Create something that the client wants and not necessarily what you want’. I still sometimes find that hard to heed, and when you’re lucky the two are the same, but as an illustrator I always have to remember that I’m working for the client and at the end of the day they need to get what THEY want.
Sometimes the stylization of an animal comes naturally to me, and I can draw the animal freehand without even looking at a reference picture. Other times it doesn’t come so easy and I have to study the animal further, generally through Google images. On occasion I find that I can spoil my style by working from photos of animals too much. It seems to crush my previous conceived feeling of that animal, so I end up going back and starting from scratch without any reference, again. My aim is not to make the animal realistic but to personify it and give it an quality of its very own.
What new projects have you got coming down the pike?
I’ve just finished working on an interesting project with Compendium Inc. I’m not sure how much I can divulge, it is for children but it’s not a book. Compendium specialise in inspirational ideas so it’s quite fun. That should be out early next year and I’m due to start a similar project with them again very soon.
One more thing to add…I asked Alexandra to share some of her “early” work, and from it is clear she has always been suited for storytelling…