Alison Jay was born in Hertfordshire, grew up in Derbyshire and studied graphic design in London where she now lives. After graduating she worked in animation for a short while but gradually started to get commissions in illustration.
She works in Alkyd a quick drying oil paint on paper and sometimes adds a crackle varnish to give the work an aged appearance.
She has worked in all areas of illustration including advertising ,packaging, editorial and design. Her commission’s include a 48 sheet poster for B.T, a TV commercial for Kellogg’s corn flakes and has recently illustrated the new baby range of products for Crabtree and Evelyn.
She has also illustrated lots of children’s books including ‘Picture This’, ‘William and the night train’,’The Race’, ‘I took the moon for a walk’, ‘The Emperors new clothes, If Kisses were colours, ‘ABC Alphabet’.an unabridged fully illustrated version of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’,Listen Listen’ ,Welcome to the Zoo ‘, A Child’s first Counting Book’ ‘Today is the Birthday of the World’ and ‘Nursery Rhyme Rainbow’. She recently worked with Aardman Animation on the development of a feature film and is currently working on a version of ‘ The Nutcracker’.
Her book ‘ Welcome to the Zoo’ which is a wordless visit to a cage less ‘ animal hotel’ has been selected as one of New York’s Bank Street’s 2009 best books of the year.
Here is Alison explaining her process:
This is the rough I e-mailed to the publisher, which I drew at A4 size.
The next is a photo of the drawing enlarged to A2 size, slightly larger than the print size. I trace the drawing very faintly onto thick smooth cartridge paper using a very heavy weight 100lbs/220gms.
I then start to paint, usually the sky first using Alkyd a quick drying oil paint and then the rest of the background.
If I am painting fine details, I sometimes add liquin to my paint. This helps the paint to flow easier. It is also helps the paint to dry quicker. I do not use any liquid adhesives to avoid painting mistakes. I just avoid the area and paint the background as close to the edge as I can.
Final without text. The publisher always needs to see the work before I apply the crackle varnish in case of any changes or mistakes so I usually e mail photographs or scans for them to check. Then after I finish that final step I send the art work to the publisher to scan. If the commission involves fewer illustrations I have scanned the art work professionally and uploaded the scan to yousendit or wetransfer for the editor or art director. This especially works well if the job is urgent or when the publisher is located in another country.
How long have you been illustrating?
I have been Illustrating for nearly 20 years.
Where did you study Graphic Design?
I studied Graphic design at the London College of printing which is now the London College of Communication.
Did the School help you get work?
No I think it was a bit of a shock when I left college, although my older sister who also studied Graphics and specialized in illustration had left college two years earlier and was finding it very tough so I should have realised .. My illustration tutor may have suggested how to make appointments and show my portfolio but she didn’t introduce me to any art directors or help me get work.
What was the first thing you did where someone paid you for your artwork?
I think the very first thing I was paid for was an illustration for an article in a music paper NME ,I was so excited to see my work in print, it was a simple black and white pen and ink drawing.
What type of job did you do right after you graduated?
After I graduated I found it difficult making a living at illustration, I had been very interested in animation at school so in addition to making appointments for illustration work I visited animation studios ,I was given some freelance work painting and tracing ,then quite a lot of background work and a little bit of animation work . I loved the idea of working as an animator but at the time I think I wanted more control over style and narrative. The animations I worked on were advertisements, a children’s series and a feature film all of which were already in production.
Do you feel the graphic art classes you took in college influenced your style?
No I think we had a very good illustration tutor who worked in the industry but she didn’t have any influence on my style .I think I probably looked at artists and illustrators I admired and took influence from them but tried develop my own style.
How did you start doing advertising work?
The advertising work came later after I got an agent.
When did you do your the first illustration work for children?
The first work for children was about two years after I joined the Organisation Illustrators agent. I think it was a book cover for a children’s novel.
How did that come about?
By the time I joined the organizationI I had developed my style of painting ,after a few months I started to get more and more work in all areas of illustration. I illustrated some greetings cards which were quite popular and then Penguin books offered me a manuscript for a children’s book ,I was thrilled.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate a children’s book?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision ,I think I was just so lucky that my style could be applied to lot’s of different areas of illustration .I always loved the idea of story telling in my animation days so illustrating a Children’s book is a bit like a very detailed story board and I had a lot more control over the style and compositions.
A CHILD”S BOOK OF GRACES was published in 2003. Was that the first book you illustrated?
No The very first book was Emma’s Doll by Brian Pattern.
Did you continue to illustrate children’s books at that time, or did you do other things and come back to doing children’s books later?
After my first Children’s book I was soon given another manuscript for a very big project, ,a” Treasury of Children’s prayers”. At the same time I worked on other commissions including packaging ,editorial work and some advertising, so I managed to work a few days a week on the book and also fit other work in at the same time, the book took about a year all together.
What was the first picture book that you did for the American market?
The first picture book for American was for Dial books (part of the penguin group) it was “A World of Wonders “ by J Patrick Lewis although Dial had bought the rights to publish “Picture This” which is how I was noticed by the editors.
Have you worked with educational publishers?
Yes I have ,it was a while ago for different reading stages.
What was your first illustrating success?
I think it was “Picture this” published in 1999,It won the” Transworld Childre’s Book Award” and was nominated for the “ Kate Greenaway” award.
I see you have done many board books. How many have you illustrated.?
I am not sure it must be about 15.
Do you think board books represent a large opportunity for illustrators?
The board books I have illustrated have been produced after the full size hard back books have been published ,they have been re formatted by the publisher . I have never set out to illustrate specifically for a board book.
How many picture books have you illustrated?
I think about 30 but there maybe more as sometimes publishers re use illustrations to produce more books as with the touch and feel books.
Is your new book, OUT OF THE BLUE, coming out in June, the first book you have written and illustrated?
I illustrated a book a few years ago called” Welcome to the Zoo” a wordless picture book ,which although the publishers asked for a book about a zoo they allowed me to weave little narratives into the illustrations. I had been doing that for previous books and now I always try to put in little sequences .“Out of the Blue” came about by the publisher suggesting a beach combing book and I though up the narrative ,again it is a wordless picture book with a main loose story and other little narratives happening in the backgrounds. I hope to write and illustrate a book (with words) one day but need a lot of practice on my writing skills.
Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?
Yes I have had quite a few commissions from ‘Club house Junior” and “Nick Junior”. I really enjoyed working on those jobs the subject matter is often fun and it is nice sometimes to work on shorter projects than a full books.
How long have you been represented by The Organisation in London?
I think it must be about 18 years.
How did you connect with them?
My sister who is also an illustrator joined the Organisation a few years earlier than me and she suggested I meet them for advice .I was amazed when they said they would like to represent me too.
What types of things did you do to find illustration work before you had an artist rep.?
When I first started trying to get illustration work it was just before the days of e mail so I had to phone art directors at magazines ,design companies and advertising agents and try and make appointment for them to see my portfolio. My partner worked in a graphic design studio so he gave me a few contacts but it was hard work just getting appointments.
What is your favorite medium to use?
I use alkyd paint which is a fast drying oil paint.
Has that changed over time?
When I was a student I used a lot of coloured ink and made three dimensional model illustrations which I painted with gouache it was a time of experimenting, I tend to use the same type of paint now but I would like to try water colour one day.
Did you study painting or did painting just come naturally to you?
I have always painted ,I think I just worked out a way of painting that suited me,. I know my sister and her husband paint in different ways ,I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way ,it is a personal thing I guess.
How long ago did you come up with the crackle look technique and what made you think of trying that out?
I first used the crackle varnish about the time I joined the Organisation. My cousin used crackle varnish on some decoupage trays and products she made , she also worked as an interior designer and used the varnish for paint effects on walls. I always loved old paintings I think they have a mysterious quality so I tried the varnish to give my work an aged look.
Do you have a studio in your house?
I use a small bedroom in my house as a studio ,I am rather a messy worker so it is usually a bit chaotic.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
I think apart from the obvious paints ,brushes and paper it is my light box. I work on rough drawings at a very small scale,it seems to helps my see the composition early and quickly, I then enlarge them to slightly larger than print size on a photocopier and faintly trace off the drawing onto thick cartridge paper ready to paint.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
Not really I have been working constantly for a long time on commissioned work but I think my work has changed naturally over the years,. When I look back at my very first books they look very crude to me now.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
Yes I sometimes take pictures ,when I started working on “Alice in Wonderland “ I took photos of different houses and buildings that I used as the white rabbits house and the little hut in the croquet court . It is also nice to let my imagination go and make up landscapes etc,I had fun doing that in “ The Cloud Spinner.”
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
I think it must have done ,I have never got around to setting up my own web site but it is on my to do list I would love to sell pictures , prints , cards etc and that would be a great way to do it.
Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?
No I am so old fashioned I work with paint on paper so if I make a mistake I either stick paper over the area or start again.
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?
I bought a graphic pen and drawing tablet recently but haven’t got around to installing it yet ,I’m ashamed to say it is still in the box.
It looks like GIFT FOR MAMA that came out at the end of March is getting good reviews. Was that the first book that you did with Barefoot Books?
The book, A Gift For MAMA was commissioned by Gullane Children’s Books and bought I think by Knopf Doubleday. I also illustrated, “ The Cloud Spinner “ for the same publisher so it was the second book with them. I think they have sadly been a victim of the recession so those are the only two books I will have illustrated for them.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I have been so lucky with my career sometime things happen that I could never have dreamed of. Recently I have been asked to exhibit some of my illustrations from “The Nutcracker “ in the Ghibil museum ,Tokyo Japan by the amazing Hayao Miyazki the director of the wonderful ‘Spirited Away’ and The Wind Rises. I am being flown over to Japan for the opening of the exhibition and spending a couple of days touring the animation studios and the museum. I can’t believe my luck.
Apart from that I would just like to carry on illustrating and as I mentioned earlier write and illustrate a children’s book.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I am working on a nativity book for Lion Children’s books ,I am really enjoying painting the illustrations as they wanted a medieval slant as apposed to a biblical look, I have always loved early renaissance paintings, medieval art and the work of Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch so I have been looking at their work for inspiration.
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.
No not really, I think it is best to try lots of different mediums and decide which one suites you best.
A lot of people use computers nowadays with amazing results, but I think I will stick to paint for now.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
I can’t really advise about writing as I am still struggling with that part myself but I think it is important to illustrate whatever you love or feel passionate about as it will always show .
Thank you Alison for sharing your illustrations, journey, and process with us this week. We look forward to following your career, so please let us know about your new books and all of your future successes.
You can see more of Alison’s work at :
42 Delavan St
New York, NY, 11231
Please take a minute to leave Alison a comment. I am sure she would love to hear from you and I would appreciate it, too. Thanks!