Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 27, 2016

Illustrator Saturday – Richard Johnson

RichardJohnson_PictureRichard Johnson is a professional freelance illustrator with 17 years experience working within the industry. He specializes in Children’s Book illustration with emphasis on Narrative and Sequential Imagery, Story Boarding and Character Development. He also develops illustrations for Packaging Designs, Advertisement Campaigns and Editorial purposes, Newspapers and Magazines.

Clients include Liberty of London, HarrodsTemplar Publishing, Random House, Usborne Publishing, Cadburys, Macmillan Publishing, Barefoot Books, Marks and SpencerThe BBC, The Times Newspaper, The Radio Timesand Scope.

He has worked as a professional illustrator since graduating with a First Class BA (Hons) degree in Illustration from LUSAD in 1999. My tutors were Mario Minichiello current Professor at the University of Newcastle, Australia and Andrew Selby, Head of the School of the Arts at Loughborough University.

Richard also is a part-time lecturer and tutor for the Lincoln University Illustration Programme and a visiting lecturer for the Loughborough University Visual Communication Programme.

Here is Richard discussing his process:

This image was designed for book ‘The Usborne Illustrated Book of Rhymes’ and the poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’. The book contained over a hundred illustrations, most were vignettes but there were also some larger double page spreads, which were really fun to develop…


I always start with exploring the possibilities of the composition and characters within my sketchbook.  These are scruffy doodles, out of which will hopefully grow some ideas…

 I have the dimensions for the page and after working up a proper line rough, within the layout of the spread, I send to the client for approval. I wanted these images to be bold and playful as the book was for younger readers, they would be based around shapes, which incorporate the text.


I decided that for this project I would paint the images digitally. Partly on a whim and partly out of the odd combination of control and randomness the medium allows me…

In preparation I created various textures by hand, which I scanned. I can use these when working on the finished image to help add texture.


Here is a close up of the finished drawing that I used to build up the finished artwork. This is the foundation of the image and is quite detailed, note that I have already worked out the images lighting, which in this case will be coming from the large moon and fairy lights on the boat. Therefore I have included some areas of darker tone to help guide the colouring.


I now begin the process of dropping in some of those scanned textures. I try to use textures like washes of paint, these form the bottom layer, I’ll then build up various digital layers in Photoshop, adding colour and tone, then finally the details, which I’ll paint with digital brushes I have captured, its much like the way I paint with actual materials.


The close up shows the detail work I add…

I planned the image to be at night so predominately cool dark tones, with splashing of sea green and night blues…The focus of the illustration is the relationship between the characters so I decided that to help make them stand out I would use warmer colours and smaller areas of red to draw the eye to this area.

My main ambition was to really use the light to my advantage to create an image with atmosphere and create movement of the design around the text.


Completed printed illustration.


Above and Below: Some Published Book Covers




Completed printed illustration What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?

I think my first paid job was for an inflight magazine article on hypnotism. It came directly after graduating from University, so I was incredible nervous, which showed somewhat in the finished artwork. The first couple of years working as a freelance illustrator were definitely the hardest, this was my first step on the rocky road.


Have you always lived in the UK?



What made you decide to attend the Loughborough University School of Art and Design?

My art school education up to the point where I was deciding where to study at a higher level had been based in fine art, therefore more conceptually driven, which didn’t fit too well with my love of painting and drawing. I was feeling somewhat lost and confused.

After looking at my options, I was guided to the Illustration programme at Loughborough University, which had an excellent reputation. After arranging to meet with the course leader, Mario Minichiello, I went along to an open day with my sketchbook and a few pieces of my own work.

He gave my folder a savage review, and rightly so, I was young and cocky and my work wasn’t anywhere near as good as I had presumed it was. This meeting changed my life, I had been shaken awake and realised I wanted to draw but draw for a purpose. I saw the possibilities of Illustration and knew it was the direction for me.

Inspired to prove myself, I spent the next few months working on reportage drawing, at the zoo, ,in the park, even drawing my own meals! I would draw anything and everything…

Our next meeting went a lot better, a formal interview. Mario was impressed, his final question, “If I put your portfolio in the bin right now, what would you say?” Understanding, I replied that it was the process of drawing that I had learnt from… I was selected to be part of the programme.

Its probably worth mentioning that these were the old art school days, when lecturers could and would rip up your work!


Can you tell us about some of the classes your took while attending LUSAD ?

The course ran practical-based life drawing classes and location drawing classes, along side developing our visual identity and problem solving skills with industry led studio projects. We also had guest lecturers and theoretical lectures, including a course in film studies.


Could you explain for the USA audience what is means to graduate with a First Calss BA (Hon) degree?

The term means I gained a first class ( A grade ) qualification as a Bachelor of Arts in Illustration, with honours meaning we spent 3 years studying a diverse range of modules including completing a 10,000-word dissertation.


Do you feel College helped develop your style?

My time on the course helped me to understand the importance of drawing, and by this I mean strong observed drawing and core picture making skills, using them to visually communicate a concept to an intended audience.

Perhaps more importantly, it helped me to understand how to develop these skills along side a better understanding of my own directions and motivations as an artist. By the end of the course I had developed an honest way of working that was my own, albeit in its infancy. It took a lot of effort to really sharpen my skills in the years to come.

For example, I came to understand my creative driving force derived from controlling light and shadow, blending tonal contrasts whilst creating an atmosphere to tell a story through picture making. Slowly I built on this core, expanding on shape, movement, colour, character and a better-drawn language.


What type of work did you do after you got out of school?

Absolutely anything! Initially I thought my work was perhaps directed towards more editorial, a more adult and sophisticated audience. This changed, as I will explain…


Did LUSAD help you get work when you graduated?

Links with the University were good, though in the freelance world you start out pretty much on your own!


Have you seen your work change since you left school?

I want to see my work change year on year!

That’s something I really live by, Its very important to me to keep pushing the work onwards and evolve small changes in approach, stylistic developments of my language, or even the materials I use to create the images help me to keep enthusiasm and the work fresh.

My work has changed an enormous amount since leaving Art School, my folder was good but not strong enough to truly succeed, if I hadn’t kept working on the problems and weakness in my portfolio then I don’t think I would of been able to make it as an illustrator.


When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

As I mentioned, my work was perhaps more editorially driven when I graduated. The first few jobs I managed to get were for magazines, these eventually lead on to publishing commissions to accompany poetry, which lead on to being selected to work on some children’s nursery posters. My portfolio developed a little at a time and became stronger and more diverse…

It was through this period that I released that I could use my visual language to branch out into different areas of illustration rather than try and confine myself to one direction. And through working on the weaknesses within my work, namely character development and storytelling, I found my visual language start to sing in terms of children’s publishing.


What was the first book you illustrated?

It was a reworking of ‘The Three Billy goats Gruff’. I had a lot of fun designing and working out the Troll character and It was this job that really started my career in illustration; one of the illustrations was selected as part of ‘Best of British Illustration’ Images competition, It also won a Silver Medal in the Children’s Book category, which gave me some great exposure very early in my career.

christmas skating

How did that contract come about?

It was through my work on children’s nursery posters that the commissioner decided to give me the opportunity to work on a whole book, It was a small independent publisher but I learnt a lot from how to work on multi images to tell build story through pictures.


I see that you have worked on a number of pop-up books. Did you do the engineering and the art for those books?

The pop-up books were a fantastic project to work on and came to me at just the right time. I worked very closely with the paper engineer, Andy Mansfield. It was a really enjoyable and interesting process, as we had to make sure the actual mechanics of the book functioned before I designed the illustrations. My goal was to embrace the odd angles and viewpoints created by the mechanics and create interesting compositions around these confines.

It was also one of the first books that forced me to develop the artwork separately in stages, knowing that they would all be later pieced together in production, so the design of the entire book was really important. Something I later realized I could use in flat work too.

Obviously I had to also employ all of the other things an illustrator has to consider too, such as pacing and making sure each spread was different and engaging, whilst keeping the characters consistent. Pinocchio was awarded the best children’s book at the British Book Design and Production Awards later that year.


What is the title of your latest book? How did you get the contract to illustrate that book?

The last few years I have been working on a set of really nice books gift books for children that contain a range of stories and poems for Usborne Publishing.


How many picture books have you illustrated?

I think it’s in the region of around forty-five now. These range vastly in terms of publishers and age groups, I have been lucky enough to work for all sorts of areas of Children’s publishing.


Do you plan to writing and illustrating one of your own books?

I wrote and illustrated one of my own stories quite early in my career, it was called ‘ Grandpa’s Amazing Inventions’. It was really a combination of my little sketchbook drawings of machines and silly situations that they could be used in, which were worked up into a narrative.

I would really love to develop more of my own stories; I have a personal sketchbook, which is full of ideas for narratives and imagery. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to bring them to life, as paid commission work has taking precedence.

This is one of my main ambitions, to bring these thoughts and scribbles to life!


Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?

No, I’d actually love to create a wordless picture book, I think once the text is no longer a factor to consider in terms of composing the layouts; you are allowed more creative freedom. Though this means having to work harder to really communicate the narrative.

I think the best picture books are when the pictures and the words bring something different to the narrative, yet work in harmony together.


Do you have an artist rep? If so, who and how did you connect?

Yes. The Organisation, I started working with Lorraine around 15 years a go.

After the small success I received after my first book, previously mentioned, I was approached by a couple of agencies. Lorraine was a perfect choice, I hadn’t considered an agency at that point in my career, 2 hard years in, but my folder had reached a point that was becoming commercial and was really heading into Children’s Publishing. She has kept me in work ever since!


Do you illustrate full time? Do you spend a certain amount of time illustrating?

Yes, I’ll often take on as much work that comes my way. Ideally, I like to work on a large commission and take on smaller jobs around that schedule. I also teach part time at Lincoln University, this is great because it gets me out of the studio and gives me some time away from staring at my own work all day. In some ways it really helps my own work develop too.


Do you have a favorite medium you use?

I mainly work in acrylic paint. Thought I often use a mixture of materials on a piece of artwork, including pencil crayons and graphite. I’ll also capture textures from literally anything I can find, using them digitally to collage back into my drawing.


Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

It’s important to get the facts correct in any picture, so research is often essential. I’ll often try to get reference from life if possible, which often means I’ll be taking photographs of myself in various positions to help with those difficult angles. Of course, the Internet is an invaluable tool to quickly travel any where in the world to get reference!


Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?

I use Photoshop a lot, In fact the majority of my recent works is painted digitally using Photoshop. I’ve built a lot of my own brushes digitally.

Sometimes I’ll use the digital tool to colour a scanned drawing, or I might compile drawings and paintings that I have created physically, or even work back into a physical painting digitally.

I try to mix up ways of working depending on the commission and how I’m feeling at the time.


Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

I started with a small A5 Wacom Tablet and worked my way up to Intuos 5, I got on well with these but I had the opportunity to work on a Cintiq about a year a go. I was astonished at how well I got on with it, so I had to get one. It has really bridged the gap between picking up a paintbrush and painting on canvas and picking up a wacom pen and painting on screen, its speeded up my process too!


Do you do exhibits to show off your art?



Would you be willing to work with an author who wants to self-publish a picture book?

Of course, I’m always excited to work with new people.



Has any of your work appeared in magazines?

Yes, I really enjoy working for magazines and newspapers. Editorially the imagery can usually be a bit more conceptual and I like the challenge of solving a problem with a quick turn around of an image.


Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes, I work from home and have an exceptionally small studio but It serves its purpose and has everything I need, including a small fridge and a kettle. I live with my partner who is an art teacher and silversmith. I think you have to be very focused to work from home and not be too distracted, but it also helps that I can close the door at the end of the day and the commute is very quick in the mornings!



Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?

I think I’d be lost without my Mac. Technology has become such an integral part of our lives now, in terms of communication and also how it has become an essential tool in the production of my work.


Have you won any awards for your art?

Yes, though I’m not sure how! I have been honoured to be shortlisted in a number of competitions including the World Illustration Awards and 3×3 Illustartion Shows. I have also been awarded Gold and Silver medals for my work, presented to me by the Association of Illustrators in the UK.


Any exciting projects on the horizon?

I am just about to start work on a Christmas poetry songbook, which should be a real good commission to work on heading into spring. I’m also looking forward to working on a set Nature Books for Children after that.


Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?

Its definitely made the world a smaller and quicker place.


Do you have any career goals still to accomplish?

I definitely want to produce more work that comes from my heart.

As I mentioned, I’m really hoping to develop my own stories and imagery, when ever I have a gap in between work and life, I’ll try and develop my own imagery. I think this is really important as an artist to develop ones own personal visions and direction, trying new ideas.

I’m also definitely my own hardest critic and I’m always trying to improve, looking back on my work I’m never satisfied, Its a constant battle to get better. Though, If I can keep working as an illustrator then I’m happy.


What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished working on a small book about a bear learning to swim and also a series of 8 religious book covers.


Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?

I use very normal everyday materials really, no secret techniques.

I do use a very heavy paper to work on, almost 300gsm and I also use watercolour brushes rather then acrylic brushes, which give me better results working as I do. I like using acrylic paint as it can be used in a variety of ways from watercolour washes to opaque or very thick impasto techniques and it combines well with other materials.


Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?

To succeed an illustrator, talent is perhaps not enough; you also need to be able to take and build upon criticism and rejection. Try to develop honest work too, which means putting in effort to develop, understand and evolve your own personal visual identity. Things don’t happen sitting on your arse.

house boat

Thank you Richard for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of Matt’s work, you can visit him at website at:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Richard. I am sure he’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I absolutely love your style, Richard!


  2. Beautiful work!


  3. Thank you for sharing your work! It’s so well done! I especially love the illustration for Girls and Boys Come Out to Play, as well as the forest scenes.


  4. Wonderful work, Richard!


  5. I got inspired, thanks!, I realized that you are an artist but also an amazing person who loves what he does, thank you, i really hope to see the day that you will published something from your own heart, I know you do everything from there, but an original story!


  6. What an illuminating interview. I adore the illustrations and never realised how much can be conveyed intentionally. I can’t wait Togo back and do some closelooking at children’s book illustration.


  7. hello sir … i love your work .l will do this kind of


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