Writing and Illustrating

Illustrator Saturday – Mary Hall

Mary Hall is a freelance illustrator, living and working in Bath, UK. She was born in Essex (the eldest of six), studied Architecture at Bath University, and worked as an Architect before becoming an illustrator.

She has been illustrating for over 20 years, and have produced artwork for children’s books, magazines, stationery and educational publications.

Mary likes to work in ink or pencil line, and colour using watercolour or photoshop, or a combination of the two. Occasionally, if feeling a little giddy, she may even crack open a box of colouring pencils.

Here is Mary discussing the. This is the fourth book in the series of eight Spell Sisters books.


This is my first rough. It shows a scene from the story where Amelia is finally released from an evil spell that has held her trapped inside a tapestry!

Comments came back that Amelia was looking a little too happy and static… So here is the revised rough, along with a first attempt at colour ideas…

Getting there, but it is decided that more movement is required….
So here’s the next rough, showing enchanted silver objects flying across and out of the frame.

This rough is approved, with a few minor amendments to be included – the main one being that the arms need to be clear of the tapestry, to make it clearer that Amelia is escaping – and I can proceed to final line!

I do the final line using a 2B pencil, and then scan the image into photoshop…

I then clean up the line, keeping it quite faint at this stage, and can start to colour in photoshop!

I start to lay down the colour. I’m working in many layers, and keep the text and circular template visible so I know where to allow for bleeds…

I just keep building up the colours in layers…adding shadows, textures and highlights and strengthening the line where necessary…

And here’s the final piece…

And the illuxtration on book cover.

Close up of cover for book eight in series.

Close up of illustration for first book cover in series.

Close up of second book cover illustration.

All eight covers in series.

What made you decide to leave architecture to go into illustrating for children?

In short, the recession in the early 1990s! The architectural firm I was working for went into receivership, and I was made redundant. There was very little architectural work around and I had to find something else to do to pay the bills!  I started out doing architectural illustrations for firms that still had work – mainly artist impressions of hotels, shopping centres and offices.

By chance, an architect friend had a neighbour who was a children’s writer and editor and I got mentioned in conversation. She asked me to visit her for a chat. I went along with my portfolio full of architectural buildings and details, and she flicked through and said ‘very nice, but have you ever tried drawing cats, dogs and farm animals?’  I went away and drew some cats, dogs and farm animals and took them back!  And she offered me some work!!
And that’s when I decided to leave architecture and go into illustrating for children!!
(So thank you to Moira for spotting some potential in my at-the-time inappropriate portfolio!!)

Do you think you carried over some of the things you learned while studying architecture at Bath University?

Definitely. There may not seem an obvious connection between my architectural education and me drawing cats and farm animals, but actually, what I learnt about general design, draughting skills, and presentation of work have all been incredibly useful.

Did you take any illustration classes at Bath or during the last twenty years?

I’ve never taken any illustration classes, but I’ve gone to Life drawing classes on and off over the years – at university (many architects did!) and later at local classes here in Bath.

What is your favorite type of illustrating job?

Picturebooks, poems, jobs  that require decorative borders, or  cute toddlers in cute outfits, or trees (I love trees!), food, flowers…sorry, this is turning into a list of things I love to draw…but I can’t name just one  type of job!

But I will add that my  most favourite jobs are the ones where I’m given enough time to do them  really properly…and I’m  offered a fair fee for the work!

Did the School help you get work as an architect?

No. The course at Bath was quite unusual in that it was a ‘sandwich course’, so that each year two terms were spent at university and the third term spent in an architects office.  We found work by writing to Architectural Practices…I remember pinning many, many, rejection letters to the walls of my student house, but eventually I was lucky enough to find work at some great practices.

What do you think influenced your style you have today?

It’s just evolved as I’ve soaked up all the illustrations I see around me and  the ones that came before… along with trying out different mediums and just generally experimenting and trying to improve all the time…

Does the UK have a robust artist community?

Absolutely.  There are so many  talented artists everywhere!! I’m in a local illustration group called Swill (South West illustrators) and I know there are similar groups dotted around the various regions of the country!

What was the first thing you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

As a teenager, I often got paid in chocolates and packets of crayon pencils for producing artwork for various posters, cards, leaflets and adverts for friends, family and school.

But the first thing I illustrated for real money was a cd display case for a South American shop in Bath!

All thanks to a Peruvian architect I was working with at the time – thank you Sandra!! This led to more illustration commissions from the same shop, including cd and cassette covers and t-shirts….

And this was the first time I actually realized that I might be able to make money from illustration!

This cardboard display case is over 20 years old and I’ve kept it safe all this time!!

What was the first illustration work you did for children?

A craft book illustrating how to make Friendship Bracelets, for Zig Zag Publishing. I can’t find any images from the original book, but here are a couple of pages from subsequent titles in the same range – which included books on making badges, jewellery, rubber stamps and calligraphy. At the time I was using 0.18 rotring pens for the linework (definitely a technique carried over from architecture) and colouring in inks – I haven’t used these mediums for many years now. It’s interesting to see what a fine line I was using back then.  I use much thicker lines now!

How did that come about?

This was the work I got offered by the editor I mentioned in the first answer!

Are you represented by an agent? If so who, how long, and how did you connect? If not, would you like to be?

I did have an agent for over ten years, which was very helpful at the start of my career. I connected with him through the aforementioned editor.  I’m happy without an agent at the moment but wouldn’t rule out the possibility of being represented by one at some point in the future.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate a children’s book?

I’ve wanted to illustrate a children’s book since I was a child! I just didn’t take a very straightforward route in achieving this goal!!

Which book was your first?

The craft books described above were my first books, but my first proper picture book was called ‘Amanda Mouse and the Birthday Cake’, written by Gyles Brandreth and published by Madcap Books, Andre Deutsch Ltd.  This led to three more little books in the series and a larger book called ‘Welcome to Mouse Village’.


It was such a great project to work on. I got to design the whole of Mouse Village – all the different houses for all the different characters! There were plans to produce plush toy mice and sell them with a little book in a tin box houses. I started to design the toys and even saw the prototype tins, but sadly these plans never came to fruition.


However, I do now possess a lovely little ‘Mouse Village Post Office’ tin which serves as my sewing box!

How did that happen?

It came about through my agent.

How did you get Simon and Schuster interested in your illustrations?

The commissioning editor found my portfolio on the Association of Illustrators website (UK organization of which I am a member)  and emailed me.  She spotted samples of previous work I had done for the National Trust books and thought my style might be suitable for the Spell Sisters books.

Above is a spread I illustrated for the Jan ’11 issue of Highlights High Five.

Do you think you will ever try writing and illustrating your own book?

Yes! I’ve got several projects started – I just need to find the time to finish them!!

Below is January issue of Highlights Hello Magazine that I illustrated. It is a new magazine for babies and toddlers – it’s baby-friendly, with rounded corners and no staples, and is less than A5 in size… and it arrives in a sweet matching envelope.

Did you do anything specific to get to illustrate for Highlights High Five Magazine?

Again, they contacted me out of the blue by email. I’m not even sure how they found me, but it was probably through one of the portfolio sites I’m on.

I’m sorry to say I had not heard of Highlights at that point. (My excuse is that we don’t see it here in the UK!)  Of  course I now know it’s an amazing company!!

Can you tell us a little bit about the educational publishers you have worked with? Do they have different needs than a company like Simon and Schuster?

I’ve done a lot of educational work over the years and a wide range of projects – all the publishers are different!  I’ve worked on a big literacy project for OUP, which required hundreds of B&W illustrations, and maths, poetry and religious textbooks and magazines  for Scholastic, which required mainly B&W drawings, but some colour illustrations too.

I’ve also worked on some large schemes  for the German publisher Cornelsen Verlag, producing picture cards and various spots in their accompanying books. I also had to draw a little mole character called Morris many times, in various outfits and situations so he could be dropped in through several books! Here he is!

My most recent educational work was for The Educational Company of Ireland, where I had to illustrate some poems and the Chinese folk tale ‘Four Rivers’,  for their Primary English books.

How did you get the opportunity to illustrate the stamps for the ‘Sugar Nellie’ rubber stamp company?

Again, an email enquiry. The owner of Sugar Nellie had spotted my portfolio and had liked one image in particular (little boy in pyjamas, below) which prompted her to contact me. They were a lovely company to work for and I had a two year exclusive contract with them.

How did you get involved with National Trust Guidebooks? Are they all places in the UK?

Initially, through my agent at the time.  Yes, the properties are all in the UK – lots of stately homes, full of history, stories and ghosts!  So plenty of great images to illustrate!!

I assume you got the jobs doing step-by-step projects at ‘Art Attack’ because of your architectural background. Is that right? Can you tell us a little bit about them and your nine years working with them?

I’m not sure my architectural background had much to do with me getting these jobs, but it probably helped me do them sometimes. Every month I would be sent photos of 2-3 ‘makes’ (or sometimes the actual ‘make’ itself if it was a tricky one) and I would then illustrate the steps to make the object. They very often involved papier mache. I must have drawn hundreds of balloons covered with torn newspaper over the years! As well as the monthly magazine, I also worked on quite a few books for ‘Art Attack’  too – again, ‘step-by-step’ illustrations showing how to make such things as masks, puppets, storage or how to decorate your room…

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

I have done postcard mailouts and have had a little success with these. However, the main thing I do is keep my website going and try to get on as many portfolio sites as I can afford. Some have worked better than others but by far the best ones for me have been  childrensillustrators.com and the UK Association of Illustrators site.

I’ve got a blog too, but have not managed to keep it going as much as I did a couple of years ago.

Am contemplating Twitter and Facebook, but have not yet taken the plunge…but probably should.   

Do you think you do as much B & W illustrations as color illustrations?

It really varies from year to year, and just depends what work comes in… Having just completed the internal b&w drawings for the Spell Sisters books, which all had 35-45  b & w drawings each, the balance has definitely shifted to b&w over colour of late.

Not counting your computer, brushes, paint, or ink, what is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?

Tracing paper – I get through tons of it! And my dip nib pens. (Sorry, that’s two things, but I need both!)

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

I do try to draw something every day, even if it’s just doodling (I love doodling!) But I am certainly not regimented about it.

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

Yes, almost always. Google image search almost every time! Just how did we cope before the internet??

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Absolutely. Without a doubt. This is how I get most of my work these days.  Almost all new work enquiries originate from somebody finding my portfolio on a particular website.  And the most amazing part is that I can be contacted so easily by someone from any country of the world.

Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

Yes, I’ve been using photoshop for about 15 years.  I don’t tend to draw in it, but scan in pencil or pen line (or even full watercolour images more recently) and finsh/colour/tweak in photoshop…

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet to illustrate?

Yes, I used my trusty little Wacom for over 12 years, but am a little sad as I was recently forced to upgrade to an intuos tablet, (after a major computer malfunction led to the purchase of new computer and I could no longer use my old tablet with the new computer) I’m sure I will get used to the new tablet – it looks like it does lots of extra things I haven’t discovered yet – but my main gripe is that the pen is too large. I’ve got small hands and the old pen was perfect – the size of a standard pencil – just right. But the new pens seem to be much thicker.  I will try to adapt…although the frustration with the new pen has made reach for my real pens and brushes again!

Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your materials changed?

It’s been very interesting to look back at old work while answering these questions…and I can see how my style has evolved, and hopefully improved. The biggest changes are the way I draw faces and animals… I’ve never found animals easy to draw and have had to work extra hard to try and improve them…I’m still working on it!

The main change with materials is the introduction of photoshop…but I’ve not switched over totally to digital working by any means. I tend to use photoshop alongside the traditional methods, but I’m still experimenting all the time.  Just recently I’ve been using watercolour more and more…

What things did you do to attribute to your success?

I wouldn’t particularly describe myself as successful – but I’m very grateful that I’ve managed to make a living doing the thing I love, for 20 years!  There have been some very good years – and some lean ones.  It’s a tough profession to keep a steady flow of work going…but I haven’t given up yet!  And am hoping there are good things ahead yet!!

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill? 

Oh yes! Lots!! I want to write and illustrate my own story. (And then another…and another!) I want to illustrate some fairy stories. And poems. And design some greetings cards…

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished my first ‘hidden picture’ illustration for Highlights… (and would like to do more!)

Right now, I am working on a set of greeting cards. I’ve been meaning to design more cards for years. Although I have produced other types of stationery in the past, I’ve only ever done one greetings card before – about 10 years ago! Here it is! A different style I tried at the time… using an ink brush and gouache…..

Above is a recent poem illustrations produced for The Educational Company of Ireland for their Primary English books.

And here’s a card I made just the other week for my little niece…(using probably my favourite medium –brown ink and watercolour)

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.

The watercolour ‘rose dore’, which is a good base for skin colours. Another illustrator suggested it to me years ago and I now feel I can’t paint skin colours without it! (Of course it’s one of the more expensive colours, but it does last me a long time!)

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator? Keep trying to improve your skills, keep positive (try to rise above the rejections, copyright grabs and low fee offers!) and don’t forget to promote, promote, promote yourself (even when you’re busy! The quiet times can creep up on you if you don’t!!)

Right, I’m off to repeat the above lines to myself – again – put the kettle on, and then get on with the best bit – illustrating!!

Thank you Mary for sharing your art, process, and journey with us. I loved getting to see and appreciate your artwork. I hope you will stay in touch and let us know about your future successes.

You can visit Mary’s website at http://maryhall-illustration.co.uk/ or drop by her blog at: http://maryhall-illustration.blogspot.com/ Please take a moment to leave Mary a comment. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy