Shona Shirley Macdonald talks all things illustration for Under the Covers
What brought you to illustration?
I was lucky that my mum fed us illustrated books and strange animations when we were kids. I loved to read, write, and draw, making my own mini books and board games.
Then I studied traditional animation at Edinburgh College of Art, specialising in stop-motion which was fantastic. But after that I found it easier to tell my own stories through illustration and creating books, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
How do you start?
If I’m writing it as well, there’s constant juggling with sketching and writing. The written and visual storytelling develop simultaneously, but the writing needs to be mostly finished first before starting on the finished illustrations, so that I can leave room for it.
When illustrating a story written by someone else, like An Féileacan agus an Rí by Máire Zepf (Cló Iar-Chonnacht), or Cluasa Capaill ar an Rí by Bridget Bhreathanach (Futa Fata), I read the text first, and then I create tiny thumbnail sketches for the full story, and I go back over them making changes and re-doing them until I’m happy.
I write down all the things the illustration should say, how it should feel, what I want it to be. As both of those books were set in a mythical Irish past, I also did some research into ancient Celtic clothing, architecture and patterns, so that I could incorporate elements into the illustrations.
How much collaboration is there between the author and the illustrator?
Usually there is no direct communication, as generally the illustrator liaises with the publisher and doesn’t meet the writer until after the book is finished.
With my most recent illustrated book, Girls Who Slay Monsters by Ellen Ryan (HarperCollins Ireland) I did actually get to speak to Ellen via Zoom and she sent me a document with her research of the character descriptions she’d found in the ancient manuscripts, pointing out which descriptions she’d added herself, so that I knew which details were changeable, which was really helpful.
What is the most misunderstood thing about an illustrator’s role?
I think Sarah McIntyre explains it well, regarding the role of writers and illustrators in an illustrated book: “Both are ‘authors’ of the creative work—one author writes and the other author illustrates.” Sarah McIntyre created the #picturesmeanbusiness campaign, there is a dedicated website for it that is well worth a look, as well as Sarah’s blog and website.
What gives you a buzz about your work?
I particularly love the beginning of a project when I am excited about all the different possibilities. It is also wonderful to see or hear about kids reading and enjoying the book.
How do you approach illustrating someone else’s story, as opposed to your own?
Recently I also got to illustrate the cover for The Book of Secrets by Alex Dunne (The O’Brien Press) which was brilliant.
I was able to read it before doing the illustration. Apparently this is not always the case when you’re only doing the cover, but I think it’s essential in order to try and do a good job. It’s fun to be able to read excellent stories as part of the job!
When you are illustrating for children, what do you keep in mind?
I try to make sure I don’t draw anything inappropriate! I try to remember what I found exciting as a kid.
What’s been the most challenging thing for you about your journey into illustration?
Negotiating fair contracts and living on poor wages.
What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?
I get to create fun, beautiful, strange stories, places and characters, both as my own stories and in collaboration with others. I feel that I’m adding something positive into the world. And I like being my own boss.
Is there an illustrator that you really admire?
Too many to mention. But some are: Edward Gorey, Mini Grey, Anthony Browne, Shaun Tan, Babette Cole, Maurice Sendak, Wayne Anderson, Dave McKean, Helen Ward, Colin Thompson and about a million more!
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about becoming an illustrator?
Make work you love.
Join an illustrators guild like the Illustrators Guild of Ireland and the Association of Illustrators. Their advice and understanding regarding the business side of things is hugely valuable.
Your own time and work is also hugely valuable, despite what others may try to lead you to believe! Get a drawing board, make sure your drawing setup is comfortable and not straining your arm. Sitting drawing for long periods of time can build up tension in your shoulders, neck, arm. Walking and yoga are helpful. Make sure you can also take time off to see friends and family, and to look after yourself.