Making a career from a love of drawing

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.

andy mccluskey omd

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.

childrens book illustrator uk

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.

A few of my previous clients

happydesigner clients

  • “I was so nervous ringing you as i've never done anything like this before, but you were so friendly and put me completely at ease.” - Donna Purvis

  • "It's been great working with Sarah as our illustrator! She's been so great in taking all feedback on board and delivers work of the highest standard. Would 100% recommend :-)" - Michelle Gibbs, Doodle Dozen Series
  • “I am so happy that I found Sarah to bring my book to life. Sarah took the time to listen and really made the effort to make sure that I was happy and her brilliant designs translated the words of my book into a beautiful visual story." - Jodie Jackson

  • Sarah has a great insight into how to best produce a children’s book and is really helpful in getting you there! I really cannot recommend Sarah enough – brilliant designer, friendly and professional. The experience has been a great one!“ – Jodie Jackson
  • "Sarah quickly understood what I wanted to achieve and the look I was after. Sarah kept me informed and brought me into the whole process” – Darron Jon Love

  • Sarah is professional, friendly and very knowledgeable, she delivered 100% with a new logo that was spot on! We can't recommend her enough!” - Lucy @ Get Active

  • "Sarah is amazing - very fast at understanding the requirements, great pictures and never too much trouble. I recommend her wholeheartedly" - Fernando Caldeira-Saraiva
  • "I can’t speak highly enough of Sarah! She has brought Roopert Snoopert to life in a way I could never have imagined.
    The illustrations are fantastic! Sarah keeps you update with progress from the draft stage right through to sign off." - Paul Micklewright
  • “Sarah’s re-branding of my business has given it a much needed fresh and quirky feel. She provided us with an extremely friendly courteous and efficient service and injected an energy into the project, that only Sarah could.” – Discovery Leisure

  • "These posters and flyers are perfect”
    - Julia G, Manager at the Truro branch of Pets at Home

  • “Sarah’s advice has been invaluable, she could have just illustrated my first attempt but knew there was more to be had from the story and pointed me towards the right help." – Darron Jon Love

  • "Sarah understood what I was looking for and produced a fantastic logo for me.  She is very approachable and friendly – I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend her” Katie Jarvis, Fancy Prints

  • “Sarah was lovely to work with and keen to make sure that the illustrations were a perfect match for the story. It’s obvious that she really cares about her work and wants you, the author, to be happy with the final results.” – Marion Adams

  • “Thank you, Sarah, for the amazing work you did on the illustrations for my book. Working with you has been so easy thanks to your enthusiasm, flexibility, support, professionalism and, of course, the amazing quality of your work." – Stuart Neath

  • "She has a keen eye for the quirky detail, she is punctual and a joy to work with. I simply cannot praise her enough.” - Clickety Books

  • "Sarah loves her work, her friendly ‘can do’ approach is reassuring whether you’re on your first or tenth book."  – Darron Jon Love
  • "The logos are absolutely fantastic, they are spot on brief and are even better than we imagined!Paolo Pini, Step Up To Languages

  • “Books arrived safely today- I am absolutely delighted with how they look – I can’t thank you enough – you’ve made my dream come true :)” – Jane Collins

  • "WOW! Love it! I'm so happy with what you've produced- and with so little input from me. FANTASTIC!!! THANK YOU” - Darren Pascoe: 'Red Rabbit Book'

  • Sarah really understood the brief right from the beginning and has been able to translate my ideas and mental images, that at times were quite specific, into magical illustrations that are better than I’d ever hoped. She has absolutely nailed it!” – Gareth Edwards

  • “When we first contacted Sarah, Dainty Dizzy was a concept;  an idea to be shaped into a brand.  Sarah took this idea and illustrated it perfectly….and our brand look and feel was born.” – Dainty Dizzy

  • Sarah is an extremely talented designer and illustrator. She has that rare gift of being able to find something in your business or character that you never knew existed" Craig Green

  • "Outstanding illustrator with exceptional talent. You couldn’t wish for a better artist, as it would be impossible to find. Such a spectacular gifted designer who is always happy!" - Rachel Lake

  • "I hope my recommendation will persuade you to use Sarah! I cannot fault her, for her professionalism, enthusiasm and talent." - Michelle Hawkins, Director: The Flying DoDo