Helen Cann is an author and illustrator specializing in children’s books, mapping, drawing and lettering. She’s contributed to over 30 books, won several awards and exhibited around the world. Her book illustrations are mainly hand produced using watercolour, collage and graphite and have been used in picture books, anthologies and chapter books. She also loves anything to do with maps and type. Sometimes the two things even come together! Illustrations, drawings and lettering have been used for business branding and props for TV and film. She currently works in a studio above a milkshake shop in sunny seaside Brighton in the UK.
Occasionally she works as a fine artist and information about her maps, paintings and drawings (and current exhibitions) can be found on her fine art website. She is represented by ONCA Gallery in Brighton and Art Republic.
Uncharacteristic extrovert moments have included learning to blacksmith; a brief employment as a forger (legitimately!); employment as a ‘hand double’ for a BBC costume drama (although they never actually made it to the screen); performing in a theatre show based in London’s West End; drinking reindeer blood with Sami herders; driving a dog sled above the Arctic circle and sailing as crew 1300 miles across the North Atlantic tracking whales.
HERE IS HELEN DISCUSSING HER PROCESS:
All of my work is hand done. Here are two examples of a rough sketch and finished artwork from an illustrated poem (The Country Mouse and the City Mouse) for Lady Bug Magazine. I use Photoshop to clean up and occasionally to intensify colours if the scan isn’t particularly strong. The joy of being an illustrator for me has always been in the physical process of drawing and painting, feeling the pencil on paper and getting my hands dirty, so I have actively chosen to use digital technology as little as possible. I’d rather be using my hands than sitting in front of a computer all day…
Then I complete the drawings to size on high quality watercolour paper, usually Arches or Fabriano 300gms hotpress. My drawings are very accurate, not sketchy at all – what you see is what you will get.
Once approved by the art director, I go straight to paint. I use a variety of types of paint – really whatever colour or opacity suits whatever I’m painting. Paints range from gouache and watercolour to acrylic ink. I don’t have a favourite paint make but I always make sure it’s artist quality. My local art shop stocks Daler Rowney so nine times out of ten, that’s what I’ll be using by default. I work across all of the illustrations at a time, often using one colour at a time.
Interview with Helen Cann
How long have you been illustrating?
A long time! A good 20 years or so…
What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?
I sold some framed illustrations (of scenes from the Greek myth of Danae and from the story of The Frog Prince) during my university final show. It was incredibly exciting!
Have you always lived in the UK?
I was born in the UK but also lived for a while in Germany. I had a German boyfriend and we lived in a farmhouse converted into flats in the orchard countryside of Baden-Wurttemburg. You could see the Alps from the window and we used to ride our vintage 1960s East German Scooter down to Lake Constance and watch the sea eagles.
I now live in Brighton, a small city by the sea in the UK that attracts many creative people and those with alternative lifestyles. There aren’t any sea eagles but plenty of gulls.
Did you go to college to study art?
Yes. I went to university and completed a Bachelor of Arts and a Postgraduate diploma in Visual Art. I think I did a lot of growing up there but learnt more about illustration and being an illustrator after I left.
No. I did that myself.
Do you feel art school influenced your illustrating style?
I see that you also do fine art. What percentage of what you do is fine art?
That depends on how much time I have and if there is illustration work. Although I have an established illustration practice, I would describe myself as an emerging fine artist at the beginning of a fine art career so work in that field isn’t always regular. If there is illustration work, that usually takes priority. My fine art practice is building so the art/illustration balance may change in the future.
When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?
I wanted to illustrate books for children when I was a child myself…I used to make tiny doll size books, sewn down the middle and filled with my own stories and illustrations.
Was Father and Daughter Tales your first book? If not what was the title and when was it published?
No, but it was one of the first. I think Mother and Daughter Tales came before that and there were a few gift books before then.
How did that illustrating job come your way?
I found an agent through a portfolio consultancy at the UK Association of Illustrators pretty much straight after university and she got the job for me.
Was The Loving Arms of God your first published book with a US publisher?
I’m not sure. I think it was the American coedition of Mother and Daughter Tales for Abbeville Kids…
How did you get interested in illustrating maps?
I worked in an antique print shop for a short time after university. I wasn’t very good and got the sack after about three weeks (!) but what I did take away from the experience was a love of the 17th century maps that were sold there. They were so beautifully illustrated and lettered – the personality of the mapmaker always shone through….
I started creating my own maps and in 2017, ‘Hand Drawn Maps’, the first book I both wrote and illustrated was published by Thames and Hudson in the UK. Chronicle Books published it in the US this year.
Do you have an artist rep. to represent your illustrations? If so, who and how long. If not, would you like to find one.
I currently don’t have an artist rep. To illustrate children’s books, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to approach publishers without an agent. The majority won’t even look at your work without one if you write to them personally so for that reason, an agent would be useful. I market myself through social media: my website, blog, instagram, twitter, childrensillustrators.com etc and publishers usually approach me. Marketing in this way is a more scatter-gun approach however and less directed.
Is Feathers for Peacock your latest picture book?
Yes. ‘Feathers for Peacock’ was the most recent picture book to be published. Since then I’ve worked on a classic chapter book ‘Call of the Wild’ for Miles Kelly and also a gift book tied in with the Harry Potter film franchise ‘ The Marauders’ Map Guide to Hogwarts’ for Scholastic (to be published in June 2018). (Nb- the cover image for the book comes from the Marauders’ Map in the films and I didn’t illustrate it….) I also wrote and illustrated ‘Hand Drawn Maps’ as I mentioned and created further maps for books and as set props for film. My drawings have also been used for set props in a couple of BBC costume dramas. I have quite a varied practice!
How often do you exhibit your work?
My map work is represented by ONCA Gallery in Brighton and Art Republic Gallery so it’s on show in one way or another all of the time at the moment. I exhibit as part of a specific show occasionally when I have enough work to put something together or if I’m invited…
How did you get the job to illustrate MANGER by Lee Bennett Hopkins?
I had illustrated a book for WMBEerdmans a few years ago and they approached me to illustrate ‘Manger’. It’s been one of my favourite books to work on because I enjoy painting and drawing animals so much.
Have you done any book covers?
I’ve done covers integral to books that already include my illustrations but never as a separate piece of work for a cover alone.
Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own children’s book?
I’d love to. I recently developed a picture book project about a garden but haven’t had time yet to approach potential publishers or agents with it.
I’ve provided a single illustration for a self-published book before, mainly because I was commissioned by a professional editor employed by the author. I wouldn’t usually work with authors who would like to self publish.
Yes. Educational publishers are often bread and butter work. Most recent educational publishers have included Scholastic and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines? Which ones?
Yes. Ladybug Magazine and Cricket Magazine for Cricket Media. I am the cover illustrator for the May edition for Cricket Magazine this year.
Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?
I haven’t but never say never! I think it would be fun.
That’s not an easy question to answer. The word ‘Success’ can only be defined on a very personal level. I’m very proud to have written and illustrated ‘Hand Drawn Maps’ because I’d never written a book before. I’m also proud of the research and design that went into ‘The Inuk Quartet’, (Barefoot Books). The story was set in Inuit Greenland and the illustrations were inspired by Inuit folk art with lots of white space and fluid lines. I learnt so much about Inuit culture and would love to travel to Greenland. The series won several awards. And lastly, I’m proud of ‘Little Leap Forward’ (also Barefoot Books) that was included in the 2014 Diverse Voices List, a list of the top 50 British books celebrating multicultural diversity since 1950 (collated by The Guardian Newspaper, Francis Lincoln Books and Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books in the UK.). It’s a semi- autobiographical story for young readers set in Mao’s Beijing and my research for the book included talking to many Chinese people who had lived through that time. It also won a number of awards.
I work in mixed media, usually a mix of watercolour, gouache, ink, collage and coloured pencil. I don’t have a favourite medium but if the illustration’s not done by hand, it’s no fun!
I have always worked in mixed media but over time I have introduced new media such as gouache and acrylic inks. I think it’s important to play.
Can you tell us a little bit about your studio over the milkshake shop?
I’ve worked in studios of many shapes and sizes since I moved to Brighton. One was in an old Victorian building that used to house a meat store. There were still hooks in some of the ceilings and it was always freezing cold but it had huge arched windows looking over the rooftops and fantastic light. Another was in a converted stable down a cobbled mews. It was right next to a chocolaterie which used to smell incredible. My current studio is above a milkshake shop in the heart of the city. It can get very noisy sometimes with the buskers outside competing with the blenders downstairs but the location is great and sharing a space with others is very important to me. I have two studio mates and while we’re working, we drink coffee, listen to music, exchange ideas, laugh and set the world to rights…
Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?
Not really, other than I work every week day in the studio. I usually have a fairly late start but work evenings and weekends if I have to ( or choose to if the mood takes me).
Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?
I usually research projects heavily before I start a project. I try to the best of my ability to make sure details are right. Many of the books I’ve illustrated are anthologies of multicultural stories (for example ‘Dance Stories’ or ‘Fireside Tales’, Barefoot) so I might have to find out what an ancient Japanese basket looks like, or a mud hut from Mali or a the traditional clothes worn by a Syrian shepherd boy.
Some years ago now, I also provided display illustrations for The Children’s Museum of Manhattan exhibition ‘Gods, Myths and Monsters’ which required huge amounts of research and images that were accurate to museum standard.
Do you Exhibit your fine art?
Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?
The Internet has been invaluable in allowing me to research subjects easily and market myself widely, potentially to a worldwide audience. It also keeps me abreast of current illustration and art trends.
Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?
I use Photoshop occasionally to clean images up but my love of illustration comes partly from the physical process of drawing and painting so usually I prefer not to. I really like getting my hands dirty!
Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?
Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?
In general, I’d just like to continue working with some great publishers on further picture books. I’d love to see my ‘garden’ project published and perhaps be involved in illustrating for more films too. I was once employed to be a ‘hand double’ in a film. One of the characters in the film was supposed to be an artist and my hand would take the place of hers in close-up shots of her drawing. The scene was cut in the end so it would be great to have another opportunity and actually make it on to the screen this time.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently waiting on feedback on several projects (sample illustrations and chapters for a couple of new books) from London Book Fair. I can’t talk about those projects yet.
I’m not sure I do. Process is always something personal and what’s right for one person is wrong for another. It’s more a matter of experimenting with technique and tools and finding out what suits you best at that particular moment.
Other than that, I love using Daler Rowney Designers’ gouache in rose pink. It’s the most shockingly glorious colour…
Do what you enjoy rather than trying to fit into a style or market you think is fashionable but not really your taste.
If you feel that a particular style or piece of yours isn’t being picked up commercially, may be put it aside for a while, try something new, but remember you can revisit it at any time. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of the right timing.
Keep learning new skills and don’t be afraid to play and make mistakes at whatever stage you are in your career. You can learn so much from both. That’s how you develop and maintain professional longevity.
Thank you Helen for sharing your talent, process, and expertise with us. Make sure you share you future successes with us. To see more of Helen’s work, you can visit her at her website: www.helencann.co.uk
If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Helen. I am sure she’d love to hear from you and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!