Karen Perrins studied art at Wolverhampton University where she did a Foundation course followed by a BA (Hons) in Visual Communication. I then studied for a MA Visual Communication at UCE, Birmingham.
Karen says, “I always drew as a child and only ever wanted art materials for Christmas presents. I have always worked at another job whilst illustrating and have been an art technician for many years – previously in a college and now in a school. I did some teaching in Adult Education and have run printmaking workshops at local art galleries.
I live with my partner and two cats and have a fabulous studio at the bottom of the garden. I love holidays and discovering new places, eating out and old fashioned English pubs.”
Oxford University Press, Ragged Bears, Scholastic, Reed Books, Folens, A Child’s World, Parragon, Splimple, Minerva Press, TES, New Internationalist, Imperial Cancer Research Fund, Macmillan, A & C Black, Lindt & Sprungli, Quarto Books, Harcourt International, Benchmark Education, NFER, Choice, Kevin Mayhew Ltd, Book Guild, Bender Richardson White, Kinver Brewery, Cambium Learning.
Here is Karen discussing her process:
Demonstration of ‘Boy on an elephant’. This was not a commission – just a sample piece to show my usual working method. I will probably use this as a greeting card.
After drawing the image out on tracing paper I am ready to transfer this to a piece of stretched Fabriano Ingres paper on a drawing board. I always use tracing paper for roughs so that I can see from both sides – it’s easier to make changes.
The image is on the drawing board and I get together my equipment – my box of watercolour paints, brushes and the essential hairdryer which speeds up drying time. I prefer using half pan watercolours rather than tubes as there is no waste – this magic paint box has lasted for years.
Initially I paint in the colours quite pale so that I can see how the overall picture looks.
A small area at a time I start building up layers of watercolour to make the colours more vibrant.
On to the watercolour base I start brushing over some oil pastel that gives another layer of colour and texture. The paper that I use is a textured pastel paper so has a fine ‘tooth’ on it that catches the pastel. I use Caran D;Ache oil pastels because they are just the right softness which I keep in a wooden tray to keep the colours from muddying together.
I continue adding the oil pastel – this gives texture and another layer of colour. I have to be careful because the oil pastel can smudge so I use a piece of kitchen paper to rest my hand on.
After the oil pastel is added I then work on some areas of the image with more watercolour to make some areas stronger. As the oil pastels and watercolours don’t mix it creates pools of texture.
The finished image – I then spray a fixative on this to help to ‘set’ the artwork.
Karen’s Books covers
Karen’s Awards include: HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council of England) card design – first prize Stamp design – runner up prize – Barclays Bank award for ‘Excellence in Design for Communication’ – Imperial Cancer Research Fund ‘Image for Christmas’ winner
How long have you been illustrating?
I studied illustration as a mature student after years of drifting between various unsatisfying jobs and I started illustrating as soon as I graduated. I had already done a few commissions before that so in all I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now. I have been drawing for most of my life and was always in trouble for ‘doodling’ on anything.
What was the first art related work where someone paid you for your work?
I won several competitions when I was in my teens so I suppose I got paid in prizes then I won a Christmas card design competition and I got money as a prize but they also wanted the original art work so they bought that off me as well. I also did a few commissions whilst working in Local Government – things like leaflet and poster designs.
Did you study art in college?
Yes – I did a Foundation course, then a BA (Hons) in Visual Communication at University of Wolverhampton, followed by MA in Visual Communication at UCE, Birmingham.
What type of classes did you enjoy the most?
I always enjoyed print making classes and anything that allowed me to experiment with different materials and techniques.
What do you think helped develop your style?
Playing around in the studio – experimenting with textures and materials that work together (or not) as in the mixture of oil based and water based materials. I used to work on a much larger scale but the practicalities of producing illustration work to a brief has meant that I work much smaller now and my style has changed accordingly.
What type of work did you do right after you graduated?
Like many art graduates in England I started out doing a lot of editorial work – I found this really interesting as I was asked to do so many diverse subjects. I illustrated food and recipes for health magazines, financial pages, short stories, articles on health and safety and also children’s magazines. It was a really good grounding because the editorial deadlines were quite tight which made me think and work quickly, It was also nice to get printed samples of my work really quickly which helped me to build up my portfolio.
What made you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
Lots of people commented that my work was very decorative and I loved illustrating animals and ‘characters’ so it seemed a natural progression as I’ve always loved working with stories.
Was The Clever Rat and Other African Tales the first picture book you illustrated?
It was the first picture book that was all my work. Previously I had illustrated lots of books with other illustrators – poetry anthologies or collections of nursery rhymes etc. The Clever rat was my first solo project.
How did that contract come about?
To promote myself I have always sent samples to publishers in the way of small postcards of my images. I send them out regularly and this is where most of my work came from. I would often get lots of rejection letters saying “we’ll keep your samples on file”…However the samples sometimes landed on the Art Director’s desk at the right time. Henrietta Stickland of Ragged Bears Publishing had the manuscript for The Clever Rat and was considering who to illustrate it when my sample turned up showing African type images so she invited me to take in my portfolio and the job was mine. I had a fabulous few weeks of illustrating lovely stories!
It looks like your latest picture book is THE FROG KING. How did you get to illustrate that book? Is it a self-published book?
It’s not a self published book – it was published by the Child’s World in USA. Another way I promote myself now is through my own website and space on childrensillustrators.com. I have had quite a few commissions from this website – particularly from publishers in the USA. I was contacted by Mary Berendes from A Child’s World after she had seen my work on that website. I loved working on this and I also think it turned out to be a beautiful book.
Have you illustrated any other books?
I have worked on approximately 30 books now as well as book covers. I have produced over 2000 commissioned pieces of work so far for greetings cards, book jackets, editorial pieces and packaging work.
Would you like to write and illustrate your own picture book?
Yes – I’m not very good at writing though so although I have several ideas in my head, I’ve not actually done anything about it yet!
What types of things do you do to find illustration work?
I still send out printed samples – an A4 sheet folded in half with around 6 examples on. I send out different samples depending on the clients. I have one with children’s illustrations on and one with food etc. I also have my own website and advertise on the childrensillustrators site.
Do you have an agent that represents you? If so, how long you have been with them? If not would you like to find representation?
I have never had an agent. Since leaving college I have always found my own work and handled all contracts/payments/promotion etc which has been good experience. I would always be open to working with an agent as it would be another way of finding work that I would welcome.
What materials do you use to paint your illustrations?
I am a total traditionalist as I never use computers except for scanning. My studio is full of watercolours, oil pastels, chalk pastels, etching inks, charcoal and pencils. Most of my work is done using printmaking methods or watercolours and oil pastels.
Have you done illustrations for any children’s magazines?
Yes, I have done articles for TES Primary and Scholastic magazines – stories of Native American legends and fables etc
Have you worked with educational publishers? If so, which one’s?
I have done quite a few educational books – in the UK I have worked for Bender Richardson White, Chalksoft, NFER and Folens. In the USA I have done work for Quarasan and Cambium Learning.
How much time do you spend illustrating?
Not enough! I work part time as an Art technician so the illustration makes up around half of my average week. I have always been employed in another job as well as illustrating. It helps with stability when the commissions aren’t flowing and it’s also a break from working alone talking to the cat.
Do you have a studio set up in your house?
I have a lovely brick built studio at the bottom of my garden which was made with mostly reclaimed materials. It is surrounded by trees so I can have my music on very loud without disturbing anyone. I have a large plans chest, etching press, shelves full of reference books and loads of materials in here. These have been accumulating for several years so I’ve built up quite a collection.
Do you still do artwork other than for children?
Yes – I do quite a lot of packaging work. I have illustrated chocolate boxes for Lindt & Sprungli and design the beer labels for Kinver Brewery.
Do you ever exhibit your work?
I do take part in some exhibitions and also enter competitions as this is also a way to get commissions. I won a few design competitions early in my career – particularly for greetings card designs. This has led to greetings card commissions – I have produced over 100 designs for Splimple as well as charity cards. I recently took part in an exhibition called ‘Telling Tales’ at Bilston Craft Gallery.
What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?
I have a radio/CD player that is essential. When working on a book I’m often in my studio for around 10 hours a day so I like to listen to lots of music – I also listen to audio books as I’m working. I also couldn’t do without a hairdryer as working with watercolour it saves a lot of time.
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
I always like to keep working – even when I don’t have a specific commission I still keep churning out work. Sometimes pieces that I’ve produced for no reason can be sold later as a greeting card or for another use. Several pieces that were never published have been used years later as book illustrations that they were not intended for. Pharoah’s Dream is an example of a college project (the Bible story of Joseph) that was never finished but was used in a book about religion years later.
Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?
I always like to do research before I start a commission – I have built up quite an extensive library of reference books in my studio and I also visit museums and galleries to get information about specific objects. I travel quite a lot so take many of my own photographs that prove to be useful at some point.
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
I have received many commissions from websites so it obviously helps me to reach many more potential clients.
Would you be open to working with an author who want to self-publish a picture book?
I have worked on several self-published books so yes I would do more.
Do you use Photoshop or Corel Painter with your illustrations?
No – I only use Photoshop for scanning artwork as most clients want the artwork supplied as a jpeg these days – when I first started illustrating it was more common practice for me to send the original artwork to the publisher. I wouldn’t know where to start using a computer to draw with!
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?
No – I have no idea how to use these and I love working with traditional materials.
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
I would love to do more commissions for diverse projects. I enjoyed doing the children’s chocolate packaging and often dream of having similar commissions – dream jobs would include a children’s cookery book, more food packaging work, wine bottle labels, animal stories, posters for theatre etc.
What are you working on now?
I’m producing some new samples of work using traditional print making methods – linocut, monoprint, collograph and drypoints. I used to do more printmaking in my early career and they are techniques that require more time to produce but I think worth the effort. I hope to have an exhibition of print works at some point in the future.
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.
I have always loved working with good paper – I like strong papers that can stand up to watercolours, pastels, being scraped etc. I love Fabriano papers and I mostly use Fabriano 5 which is a very white strong paper and I use Fabriano Ingres pastel paper as it has a lovely texture to it that ‘grabs’ the pastel and oil pastel.
Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?
I think that you need to be quite tenacious to do this – receiving lots of rejection letters and having periods when you have no commissions is quite soul destroying so being stubborn and persistent is good. Keep sending out samples and promoting yourself as you never know when it will lead to a fantastic job.
Thank you Karen for sharing your talent, process, and journey with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us.
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Karen. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!