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The big picture: Jennifer Farley on process and persistence in the world of illustration

Jennifer Farley talks about drawing out the story

What is the most misunderstood thing about an illustrator’s role?

I would say that an illustrator is a problem solver. Illustration can help clarify complex concepts, it can enhance writing and it can entertain. 

What excites you most in your work?

It’s always exciting to start a new project—getting ideas together and sketching. This is usually followed by a massive swing to oh my God what am I doing? and then hopefully a swing back to a finished illustration which your client and you are happy with. When you’re working on an illustrated book this is extended into months of going between enjoying the process—and wondering if you should find another job doing anything else.

But finally, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, something lovely comes along.

When you are illustrating for children, how does it differ from illustrating for adults (or is there a difference)?

I tend to draw the same way whether it’s for kids or adults. My illustration style is colourful and warm, so I generally take that approach with most projects I work on.

Do you think that illustrators are given enough credit?

No. But the situation is improving. Sarah McIntyre, an illustrator and writer set up a campaign called #PicturesMeanBusiness a few years ago. The idea was to show how everyone wins when illustrators are credited properly for their work.

Many kids have their first introduction to art and stories through picture books but they don’t necessarily realise a real person made the pictures unless it’s pointed out out to them. 

Most authors and organisations like Children’s Books Ireland are fully supportive of this campaign and always include the illustrator’s name when mentioning books. However, there are still “systems” in place, such as online bookshops where there is only room for one name in the listing, and this is invariably the writer’s name.

What illustrations are close to your heart?

I’ve been very lucky along the way and have had some great projects to work on, but there are some things close to my heart.

The cover of Cara magazine, illustrated by Jennifer Farley

Illustrating the cover of Cara magazine for the 80th anniversary of Aer Lingus’ first flight was a huge buzz. That was the first time Cara had ever used an illustrated cover and lots of friends sent me pictures of themselves sitting on Aer Lingus planes holding the magazine.

Winning the An Post Irish Children’s Book Of The Year in 2019 was AMAZING. That was for Shooting For The Stars, by Dr. Norah Patten, illustrated by Jennifer Farley (The O’Brien Press). I can still remember the feeling when they called out our names. Ecstatic.

From Scout’s Best Day Ever, illustrated by Jennifer Farley

Now I have a new book out called Scout’s Best Day Ever (The O’Brien Press) and I’m really proud of it.

It takes a long time to make a picture book, as simple as they may look sometimes. 

To go from a blank piece of paper to a printed book is quite the journey. Not just the writing and drawing, but questioning yourself and what you are doing. It can be an emotional rollercoaster!

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about becoming an illustrator?

I would say absolutely go for it. Think about the kind of illustration work you would like to do. There are many different areas within the field of illustration, from editorial to children’s books, fashion to cartoons. Certainly, look at and study illustrators’ work but don’t spend too much time looking for “inspiration”.

Get off social media and start drawing.

Do lots of personal projects while you are getting started. They can be included in your portfolio as you build it. I also think it’s important to have contact with other illustrators. It can be an isolating experience working by yourself all the time, so (when the world returns to normal) try and get to events where you can meet other people with similar interests. 

And most important—don’t give up.

If you want to work as an illustrator, you have to keep going even when your work is rejected or it looks like everyone else is making progress and you are not. Persistence is your friend.

You can find out more about Jennifer Farley here, and Scout’s Best Day Ever here.