Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 9, 2013

Illustrator Saturday – Yvonne Gilbert

Anne_Yvonne_Gilbert_WebAnne Yvonne Gilbert is our featured illustrator this week. Yvonne’s work runs the gamut from children’s books and postage stamps to posters and record sleeves. The richness of her imagination reflects her life long research and interest in the quality of materials and surfaces, from the familiar glint of an embroidered cloak to the soft, unblemished skin of an infant.

Her love of Fairy Tales and history combined has resulted in the design and illustration of many books for the top publishers worldwide. Amongst her many other commissions she has designed three sets of postage stamps for Royal Mail, (her 1984 nativity winning ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Stamp’ and the ‘Golden Stamp Award’), and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ album cover.

Her originals are held in many private collections including those of Arnold Swartzenneger and the late H.R.H. Princess Margaret.

Here is Yvonne discussing a work -in-progress:

While doodling idly in an old notebook one day, the idea for ‘Nelly’ sprang into my mind. As usual it arrived almost fully formed and I jotted down some very rough thumbnails outlining her story. I believe this is my own tiny bit of heart-felt action to open minds, especially young ones, to this sad state of affairs elephants face everyday in circuses. I have always believed that children must be taught very early not only to love and respect other creatures but, more importantly, be aware of their precarious existence and dwindling future. Most literature for children is relentlessly cheerful and, dare I say, trivial yet I maintain that children not only need a balanced variety of literature but are happy to absorb vital information while being entertained.


The Circus is such a historically beautiful visual theme; the costumes and the colours, the classic poster art, the carnival atmosphere—it has always been a favourite subject for children’s books and films. Years ago I produced a sample piece for a story idea that involved intricately cut paper figures in bright primary colours and though it netted no commissions it has always been a favourite of mine.


The flat colours (such a wonderful change from coloured pencils!) contrast well with the more developed areas of the illustration and in some ways harkens back to old screen-printed Circus posters.

I decided to go back to this method of illustration for ‘Nelly’, the use of strong colours being far more suited to the Circus theme than my more usual methods of working. Despite the subject matter this is still a children’s book and must be as appealing as any other to small people; it must still reflect in its graphic tone the world of the travelling Circus, the elephants must look sympathetic and friendly, the details engaging. I chose to set my Circus in the not too-distant past, in the ‘golden-age’ of carnivals and sideshows to ‘soften’ the impact of the more distressing images, the sight of shackles and the dreaded ‘bull hook’.

I began by showing Nelly safe in her mother’s womb unaware of her life to come, an image I think will appeal to small children. The colours are bright and cheerful; the clowns happy and playful—the innocent face the Circus projects to the world.


Penned in the rolling wagon at night Rosemary has given birth watched over by the rest of her troupe. Elephants are intelligent empathetic animals that care for each other and show great interest in babies born into the herd, both captive and in the wild. This is a gentle and private scene with no sense of danger or threat—no humans present!


As soon as she is big enough Nelly’s fate is to be trained as a useful member of the troupe. Training young elephants for the Circus is a prolonged and cruel affair—let no one mistake this for training our pets to beg for biscuits! The animal is forced to overcome her fear and perform actions that are totally alien to natural behaviour—when did we ever see an elephant stand on her head in the wild? They do not do this willingly and a regime of force is necessary where the animal is restrained and the bull hook is used frequently and effectively.


In this latest spread Nelly’s training continues. She has grown bigger and more agile but is showing no signs of accepting her fate. She is still shackled and wearing a plain leather harness both to control her and prepare her for wearing more elaborate costumes in the future. She has learned to obey her trainer keeping a wary eye on the bull hook and at the same time aware of the cruel Ring Master. She is aware of the other captive animals going through their routines and learns to accept that humans are to be both feared and obeyed.


Once I have the line-stage organized to my satisfaction it is a matter of tracing the figures onto Canson papers, cutting and gluing—blame it on all those cutout dolls I used to make when I was a child. It’s time-consuming but really enjoyable!


After a lot of mess with glue all over the place, this is how it comes together.


Because the arc of the story is already known through the song I am writing each chapter as I illustrate it, fine tuning the words to the pictures. Now THERE’S a change!

My extremely talented husband Danny Nanos is adding his magic to each spread with his brilliant design and typography elevating my work to a much higher plain, as usual. I cannot stress too often the joy of working in tandem with someone whose sense of aesthetics and design compliments my illustrations so wonderfully well!


Yvonne continues with her journey with Dracula:

DRACULA (Templar Publishing ISBN 978-1-84011-571-0)


I had wanted for years to illustrate Dracula—–however, type-caste by my use of coloured pencils to draw endless princesses and dragons, no one would look at me when it came to ‘darker’ subject matter. Imagine my joy when Mike Jolley at Templar rang me to ask whether or not I’d be interested!

For me Dracula is a love story, not so much a vicious creature of the night, more a tormented loner looking for love the only way he knew how. He was always going to be the Byronic anti-hero of my book rather than the depraved monster of legend. I had tackled similar subject matter before which had mostly gone unnoticed—-years ago a friend posed for a vampire from the middle-east which appeared in Time-Life Books, and more recently I had produced a sample-piece based on ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’. I will be forever grateful to Mike Jolley who showed great faith in my abilities, previously untried, by offering me this book.


When I am offered a new book I always take it upon myself to produce a sample in which I explore the nuances of mood and colour and where I decide on the overall style. The drawback to coloured pencils (one of many, that is) is the inability to make strong dark colours—particularly black, so my first thought was to use acrylics. I have always said I am a drawer rather than a painter so it wasn’t an easy decision. I produced the sample below concentrating on the atmosphere of repressed eroticism and the idea of forbidden love—-she is wrapped in her grave clothes but it is unclear whether she is dead or undead, but passive in the manner of Victorian womanhood.


The painting was greeted with general approval but the Templar crew wanted to explore alternate approaches before committing themselves so I took the same image and translated it into pencil. It was far too pallid so I went over it with a drawing pen, which added strength and (added benefit) gave almost the appearance of an old etching. This style seemed to fit the narrative and gave me the opportunity to add more detail so I decided to explore it further.
The true test of whether the pen and ink were the most suitable medium was to pull back from the figures and illustrate more of the setting. I wanted the background to the illustrations to be very lush and Gothic to emphasize both the ‘romantic’ aspects of the tale and the busily ornate Victorian era in which it is set, so I placed Dracula in an Italianate night garden amongst marble statues and trailing foliage. (At this point Dracula had long black hair as I had not received Nicky Raven’s manuscript.)


When we received the script (at this point it was decided that my husband, graphic designer Danny Nanos, would design the book) the first thing we noted was that Dracula was described as having long white hair and violet eyes——perfect, as we had already discussed avoiding wherever possible the usual red and black associated with the book! I started sketching immediately——I wanted to make him lean and hungry looking yet still attractive in an unconventional manner. (I have attached some of those initial sketches below.) I also chose not to use real people for reference as A.) I couldn’t find anyone who looked the way I imagined him and B.) I thought it would restrict the freedom I had to imagine the scenes.


This was the second time Danny and I had been commissioned to work on a book together and it made the experience one of mutual creativity and inspiration. We have a similar sense of aesthetics, both like to pare things to their essential elements; both are interested in exploring new ways to work. Danny’s love for typography informs all his work—he is inclined towards the spare and elegant emphasized by his use of white space. Working in the studio side-by-side enabled us to create the spreads together, passing them backwards and forwards, adding and subtracting in a way that would be normally impossible between an illustrator and a designer working in the usual way.


Even once the book was planned many of the spreads continued to evolve as we worked on them. We both like to employ nuances and subtleties, for instance, the wind blowing the type or lightening striking through it.

Together we created a visual language that became the voice of the project. Analyzing the essentials of the story the three main themes are love, death and fear and we felt we should not draw back from depicting any of these—-however, to our disappointment, many of our original ideas were either deleted or watered down in deference to the younger readers. (I have attached some of our deleted spreads below). I still wonder why this type of censorship is necessary; though living in a far more repressed society than we inhabit the Victorians still felt free to depict nudity, religion and violence in even their children’s books. Have a look at Rackham and Dulac and Heath Robinson.


Even once the book was planned many of the spreads continued to evolve as we worked on them. We both like to employ nuances and subtleties, for instance, the wind blowing the type or lightening striking through it.

yvonnedracwomanwithbookuntitledAfter scanning-in the illustrations and laying the type one or other of us would often suggest adding another layer to either the foreground or the background, adjusting the illustrations and text accordingly. A style unique to this project evolved as we worked—-the directness of the design had a traditional quality to it whereas the simplicity of the drawings had a fresher, more contemporary feel to them and the two combined succeeded in interpreting Dracula in a completely new way. I enjoyed the whole project immensely and discovered a new freedom to illustrate which was deeply satisfying. Working together we felt able to try anything new that occurred to us, our only constraint being the ultimate deadline. Another point—although I do all my illustration the old-fashioned way with paper and pencils I discovered that computers are marvelous tools, for instance we were able to ‘ghost’ images with great subtlety, adding interesting layers to the pages quickly and efficiently.


I feel I should talk more about the cover. Neither Danny nor I thought the cover should have the colour red anywhere near it. The colour of Dracula’s hair and eyes, according to Nicky Raven, informed the whole book and we therefore felt the cover should stick to the same tones. There was to be a slipcover bearing illustration and type and the book itself was to have an embossed hardcover studded with purple jewels like the famous ‘ology’ books. We presented many designs for the slipcover and a detailed drawing for the embossing. Disappointingly the embossing and jewels fell by the wayside and all that remains is a subtle hint of what it could have been.


And the cover became a bone of contention as it was reported to us that the booksellers insisted that all Draculas had to be red, this obeying some kind of law, and that our designs must be altered accordingly. We were very disappointed by this and tried to make the red as UN-red as we possibly could but still wish we could have changed it.


Danny decided to use the original sample of Dracula in the garden for the frontispiece with a bit of digital manipulation to alter the black hair (not to mention the nudity of the statues!).


My one great regret with this book is that they never made it into an app. It cries out for an eerie soundtrack and some subtle animation, it would work superbly! Who knows—-they might change their mind.


Another new book that Yvonne is very proud of, for Grimm Press in Taiwan—-a new version of ‘Rashomon’.


Initially made famous by Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (‘Rashomon’ and ‘In a Grove’), it is has a plot device that uses various characters to recount different versions of a violent event. It has a rape, a murder, a ghost and plenty of dead bodies——a little different from the fairies, princesses and knights I am often asked to illustrate!


I was very excited to be offered this commission, not only by the setting of ancient Japan, but also by the dramatic story-line that allowed me to explore a different side to my work. (As I usually work with coloured pencils I am often typecast as an illustrator of softer, more romantic subjects; something I have always fought against.) I have been fascinated by Japanese prints since my youth and decided to approach ‘Rashomon’ with these in mind knowing their strong colours and graphic nature would be well suited to the gruesome subject matter. (I particularly liked Kuniyoshi’s skeletons and used a version of these as my ghost.)

Also, when it came to where to put the type I noticed that a lot of the Japanese printmakers would add a scroll or banner on top of the image to contain the written information and so I decided to employ this device.


Researching the actual ‘Rashomon’ gate (which was an old city gate of Kyoto fallen into ruin) was quite challenging as there is very little evidence of what it looked like therefore I kept mine pretty vague and atmospheric, giving a shadowy impression of pillars and falling timbers. At the start of Grimm’s version a young man shelters in the ruin during a storm and comes across an old crone kneeling in the dark, plucking the hairs from a corpse—-the building being used as a dumping ground for the city’s dead.


To achieve a more graphic appearance to the spreads I chose not to photograph real people as I usually would, but based my figures loosely on film stills and my imagination, drawing them in a fairly free manner using bold lines and colour. It did make me very nervous being so experimental—–the only other book that I have attempted to work on without taking my own reference pictures was ‘Dracula’ (for Templar Publishing). Having so little to work from did liberate my drawing from too much fuss and forced me to make bigger, bolder strokes rather than get hung up on finer details.



Recently I have begun varying my techniques more and more and found that I can work more freely and make bolder marks by using thick Canson papers and working with marker pens on top of coloured pencil. Forcing myself to use thick black lines has changed my style and allowed me tremendous freedom. I would never advise an illustrator to use an experimental style on an actual commission but the older I get the more I find it rewarding to take these risks. At the age of 62 I think I am just coming into my creativity!


Is Robin Hood your latest book? How is it doing in the market?

Robin Hood is my latest in the UK—-no sales figures yet though it won’t sell in the huge numbers that the ‘ologies’ did. My latest book is for Grimm Press in Taiwan—-Rashomon. Or it could be for the Folio Society—‘The Vampyre and Other macabre tales.


How long have you been illustrating?

I think my first paid job was 1975


I read on the Internet that you live in Canada? Have you always lived there?

I moved to Toronto nearly 6 years ago after meeting and falling in love with my second husband, Danny Nanos, a graphic designer. My first husband David Owen, who I met at college, died in 1991 when my son Tom was only 6. Danny had in fact written to me when he was a student to discuss illustration and we wrote off and on for a few years in the 80’s before losing touch again.


Where did you study art?

I did my Foundation Studies in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1969 before going to Liverpool College of Art to study illustration/graphic design.


What type of classes did you take?

In those days people went to art college to be an art student, to have ‘sit-ins’, ‘happenings’ and protests and my tutor said to me “enough of this tight-arsed drawing Yvonne, why don’t you go out and weld a fucking big sculpture or something?” so I took him at his word, disappeared from illustration classes and spent a wonderful 3 years moving around all the courses doing printmaking, photography, jewelry, fine art, ceramics etc. Of course they weren’t actually happy that I did that but then another tutor told me I’d never make an illustrator—so there you are. I’ve always doubted the efficacy of an art education—you can in fact teach yourself anything you need to know.


Do you feel the classes you took in college have influenced you style?

I think the people I met influenced me a lot—-after all I was plunged into the ‘Free Love Era’ straight from Morpeth Grammar School for Girls! The atmosphere of creativity, liberalism and freethinking so typical of the 60’s and 70’s was like oxygen to me. My actual work I think is more influenced by art and artists that I love, particularly the great Victorian illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.


How did you decide to get involved in illustrating children’s book?

Well not because of my education. After leaving college I had no clue how to start a career, and probably hadn’t even thought of it as this was the period when everyone wanted to ‘drop-out’, so I ended up teaching art at the Hugh Baird College in Liverpool as I was sick of having no money. It wasn’t until several years later that I met someone who had and agent and was working that it occurred to me that this was what I wanted. I had been drawing again and had enough to put a port-folio together and John Barker ate Artist partners must have seen enough in there to convince him to take me under his wing. I didn’t start out with books—-I started out in magazines—my very first job was created especially for me by the Daily telegraph Magazine—-6 famous celebrities drawn as the historical character they most wanted to be. It wasn’t until a few years later that I got my first book—-“Abbey Lubber, Banshees and Boggarts” written by Doctor Katherine Briggs and published by Kestrel Books.


What was the first book that you illustrated?

See above. It was a dictionary of fairy folk—K. Briggs was a highly esteemed folklorist.


What do you consider as your first big break?

John Barker recognizing that I could draw people. Very few can but it’s probably 90% of the work available.


Who is John Barker?

John Barker’s father set up Britain’s oldest artist’s agency “Artist Partners’ early in the last century and John, already in his late 70’s was running it still when I joined. He was a really old-fashioned gentleman who loved illustration above everything and he mentored me during my early career.


I see that early on you did a few board books. Did you write these, too or did the publisher give you the text?

No—-they were just commissions.


Do you have an artist rep or an agent? Could you tell us how the two of you connected?

I am with Thorogood Illustration in London and Alan Lynch Associates in the US. I send samples of illustration when I want a new agent.


You have done a number of books with a UK Publisher, Templar. How did you connect with them to illustrate those books?

They were in trouble with Wizardology and needed an illustrator quick——it came through my London agent Doreen Thorogood.


Can you tell us about how you built on that relationship to get more work?

I got them out of a really tight spot by being able to work very quickly, after that they felt I was reliable and sensitive to their needs.


Is most of your work done with color pencil and ink?

Yes—though I do try to change the way I work with just about every job as I am so bored and frustrated with pencils alone.


Were you approached to do the Dracula book or did you do the art first and send it off to publishers?

Because we had a good working relationship we discussed many ideas and Dracula kept floating to the top of the pile. I did several samples in different styles to whet their interest.


I see you have been published in Japanese. How did that come about

I don’t know about Japanese—mandarin yes as I work for Grimm Press in Taiwan. Have you seen any Japanese editions?


Have you worked for educational publishers?

Yes but I can’t remember the titles.


What types of things do you do to find illustration work?

Whatever I can. I contact publishers directly, have my agents contact them, do e-blasts, send out promotional pieces, update my website and blog, use Facebook and Linked-in.


Not counting your colored pencils and ink, what is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?

My drawing board—-impossible to work on a flat surface, but then again I need my computer for scanning and printing and searching for reference too.


Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

My husband and I work virtually every day and even if we’re not in the studio we’re finding things that interest us, looking for books, meeting other designers, going to exhibitions. Our whole life is work in a way.


Have you ever won an award for your illustrating?

Lots. But I don’t keep notes or trophies—I value my peer’s opinions more.


Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?

Yes—lots. i always use friends and relatives in my illustrations—-it makes it more amusing for me to work on. It usually involves lots of costume and pretending to be flying or riding a horse etc. I love history and costume, arms, armour, etc. so I have a lot of books on related subjects. Wherever I go I visit castles, palaces and museums, storing the information for when I may use it.  I also have a house full of costumes and props.

I need lots of models of course—I use all my friends and family in my pictures (though once or twice I have had to pick people off the streets). They have to be prepared to dress up in bits of material fashioned into costumes, holding bin-lids and broom-handles as shield and sword. I have a collection of photographs of people looking very strange—lying on the floor to appear to be flying, sitting astride sofa backs to appear to be horse-riding.

It probably takes as long to prepare an illustration—sketching roughs, e-mailing them to clients, finding models, props and reference, taking the pictures—as it does to do the finished piece, and it takes me roughly one week to complete a   moderately detailed illustration.


Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Only as many as it has closed. The Technological revolution has been as devastating as the Industrial Revolution, it has decimated the industry while giving less experienced people access to skills they haven’t earned.


Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

I tweak the colour balance, as the scanning tends to leech the colours.


Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?

I do have a tablet gathering dust—I use it very rarely.


Do you want to write and illustrate your own book?

I have had one published—‘A Babies Book of Lullabies and Cradle Songs’ in the UK and the US. Recently I have been writing a lot more of my own stories and hope to see something published soon.


How many books have you published?

I have 64 books in my bibliography—not counting foreign editions, compendiums etc.



Can you tell us a little bit about the British Stamps you did?

I illustrated 5 sets of stamps for the Royal mail 3 sets of which were used—-they’re done in blind competition so you never know if they’re going to be used or not. The chosen sets were Christmas 1984, Mallory’s ‘Morte D’arthur’ and Christmas 1994. The commissions come directly from the Royal Mail and are approved personally by the Queen. I never got to meet her but Princess Margaret ‘stole’ the artwork for her palace—-questions were raised in the House of Commons as to whether she could keep them (it was decided they had to be returned after her death, to this day I don’t know if they were).


Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

If you want to use pencils you need a smooth china-filled paper used for the print industry. The pencils need to be fairly hard so that they can be kept sharp—-Schwann Stabilo and Caran D’ache are my favourites. When painting in water colours I paint directly onto finely sanded ultra thin plywood as it holds the paint beautifully and can be worked over without bleeding.


Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
Just to get some of my own book ideas into print.


What are you working on now?

I am starting a new book on the nativity for a UK publisher and working on a laser-cut book for Grimm.


Do you think your style has changed over the years?

My style has evolved somewhat I suppose, I have been forced by the industry to use more colour as my preference is to be more monochromatic. I have got a lot more experimental with materials recently.


Do you have a site where you sell prints of your art?

On my website:

yvonne64672Do you ever use watercolor?

I have used watercolours a bit—however, I gave up trying to use them on paper when I discovered how beautifully they work on finely sanded thin plywood. The colours don’t lift so I can keep applying layers and detail.

How do you correct mistakes using colored pencils?

Correcting coloured pencil drawings is a big, big problem. I do all the preparation as line on tracing paper so that there is no erasing necessary, and get this stage approved before going any further.  However I do occasionally have to make alterations—if it’s a lightly drawn area I will erase it and draw over, if it’s heavier I may have to make a patch. Nowadays a lot of stuff can be done in Photoshop.

What advantage do colored pencils give you?

I think the only advantage to coloured pencils is that they are clean because they are very unreliably manufactured,       too easily broken, and sadly lacking in strength of colour (this is where Photoshop is a boon).  I use Prismalo Caran D’ache and Schwan Stabilo because they are the most consistent and have harder leads—which mean they can be used with sharp points.


Do you use a certain type of paper with the colored pencils?

I use as smooth a paper as I can get without being shiny—mine is Popset  weave by Wiggins Teape, it’s china-filled for the printing industry. I’m trying not to show the grain of the pencil which would show starkly on cartridge paper.


Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

Persevere. it’s incredibly hard to break into the industry now and you have to take rejection after rejection. Most people give up after so many—-don’t. it may take years but keep going. It pays to know who is out there doing what, and I mean internationally, and to know who went before you. Don’t copy current styles, establish your own. Draw people well.


Thank you Yvonne for sharing so much of your art, process and journey with us. You are very talented and I loved having the time to appreciate your artwork. I hope you will stay in ouch and let us know when you find a home for ‘Nelly’ and of course your other future successes.

You can visit Yvonne at Please take a moment to leave Yvonne a comment. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I am so impressed with Yvonne’s work. Karen, thank you for sharing! Yvonne, your work is so Incredible (with a capital “I”)!! Love it.


  2. Absolutely fabulous work!


  3. Absolutely breathtaking!


  4. What a talent. I´m so impressed how she managed to use everything for illustrations to be perfect. There´s nothing else to say than bravo Yvonne.


  5. Yvonne, your artwork is so detailed. Loved the color on Sleeping Beauty and thank you for sharing your “cutting and glueing” process…very interesting. 🙂


  6. This is stunning and beautiful work. Thanks for sharing it with us.


  7. Yvonne is a fantastic artist.I have been very impressed with her style .Love the technique use of colour and characters.
    We miss you here in Toronto and wish the best to you Danny and family.
    Ps I never looked so good as a model in Robin Hood !


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