Meet children’s book illustrator extraordinaire, Happydesigner’s Sarah-Leigh Wills – lover of the great outdoors, who draws for a hobby as well as for a living, and who is probably named after a dessert!
When did you start drawing and what was the first drawing you ever did?
That’s a hard one. I have been drawing ever since I can remember and I love drawing animals. I have always been a big animal person. Plus I love drawing foliage, daft as that sounds. Basically, anything messy that I can scribble.
When did you start thinking of drawing as a career?
When I finished my GCSEs I had the idea of working with animals, maybe as a veterinary nurse, or in a kennel – anywhere that I could be around animals. But the careers adviser said I had to think about what my skills were, and when she asked ‘what can you do?’ I said ‘Well, I can’t speak any foreign languages, I am useless at maths and I can’t spell – but I can draw.’ She suggested fine art, but I knew I didn’t want to work in a gallery or paint. Then she suggested IT. It was my idea to go into design, where I could use my drawing skills.
So I studied graphic design, found I enjoyed it, and then looked for an apprenticeship. I worked for a local design company, but when that business folded a lot of the clients wanted to stay with me. I already had Happydesigner as a kind of gallery page to showcase my work, so used that as the platform to build the business. And the rest, as they say, is history.
My first jobs in design were creating websites, but that didn’t rock my boat – I like wonky lines too much. Why have straight lines when you can have wonky lines? So that’s why I gravitated towards logos and, of course, children’s book illustrations.
Where does your drawing talent come from?
Definitely from my Dad and he is pleased as punch with what I do here at Happydesigner. He’s a drawer, so I developed my hand from him. He always drew black and white, graphite pencil portraits – in fact, he still does it now – but only ever as a hobby.
Confession time: have you ever drawn on a book?
Yes, on practically every book I have ever owned. All my school books were doodled on. When I worked at the design company, I doodled on all the timesheets. In fact, the boss used to get quite mad at me but also joked he would auction them one day.
Barry, my partner who also works in the business, still has the first doodle I drew, from when we first got together.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl. I have a wicked, slightly sarcastic sense of humour and that really suits me. I love Roald Dahl.
Who is your favourite illustrator?
Hands down, Quentin Blake, who of course illustrated all the Roald Dahl books. He is a big influence on me. I love that he has not restricted his hand at all, which a lot of illustrators will do to meet a client’s (or author’s) requirements.
When you illustrate for other people, they will often try to mould your hand – in other words, you end up drawing as they want you to and not as you want to. This happened to me once, a few years ago. It restricted me, and it took me a long time to shake that off and get back to ‘me’.
Interestingly, often an illustrator’s best work is in their sketchbook, where they are totally free; it reveals how they were born to draw.
Now of course I have gone totally digital. I realised I was going through thousands of sheets of paper a year and that didn’t chime with my love of the outdoors and all things nature and the environment, which we have to look after. So now all the drawing is done on screen.
What’s your favourite colour?
Orange, definitely, but I don’t tend to bring a certain colour to a project. I just love colour full stop, so it depends how the mood takes me.
What do you do to relax?
I am one of those very odd people who does the same thing to relax as I do for a job. I have my own children’s book series, Gillie Can, so when I get the chance I work on this. But the difference is, then I can sit on the sofa and put my feet up while I work!
I also love walking and the outdoors. We walk an hour or an hour-and-a-half every day. Plus I have Erik, the cat, and my lovely guineapigs. We’ve just two of them left now, Freddie and George. We used to have Zippy, Bungle and Geoffrey too. Clearly, all named in honour of that wonderful children’s show Rainbow.
Who chose your lovely name?
I think my parents must have been craving Sarah-Lee gateau or meringue pies when expecting me. Maybe a lot of people would ditch the ‘Leigh’ but I really love it.
What is your favourite medium to draw in?
I do like to draw in pencil. I love a nice, fat-headed pencil – something like a 4B or 6B. Bit scruffy and a bit scribbly. Then I can have my wonky lines. You can’t beat that.
Is there anything you find tricky to draw?
I genuinely dislike drawing human feet. Hands and faces are fine, but feet are a really hard thing to draw. It’s the shape and the form – sometimes toes just look like clubs! But apart from that, I’m happy drawing anything.
What’s your favourite thing to draw?
Probably bugs, cats and spiders. When I am doodling, it will often be spiders. I don’t know what that says about me. I expect a psychologist would have an opinion!
What’s your process for creating your illustrations?
Some clients come to me just with the words and have no idea, visually, what the characters will look like. That’s a dream job, because I get to create everything from scratch. Some clients have a strong idea of what they want for each picture, but on the whole I’d say the majority will leave the creative side to me.
What are you top tips for someone who loves drawing?
I would always encourage somebody to take their time. Don’t look at a professional who has 30 or 40 years on you and punish yourself for not being at their level. I know a lot of people do this.
Secondly, be true to yourself. If you are only good at scribbling, then scribble. There is nothing wrong with that and that will improve in time. I started off really scribbly and I still scribble, because I love it.
Thirdly, make sure you do it only for as long as you enjoy doing it. If it becomes a chore then take a step back. When you enjoy something you are doing, you put your best into it.
Written by Jo Smyth (www.wordworker.co.uk)
Have you got a children’s book that you’d love to see brought to life with Sarah-Leigh’s illustrations? Then we’d love to hear from you. Whether you are just starting to get the story down, or you have a finished manuscript ready for illustrating, why not get in touch and we can have a chat.