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18 April 2019

Lizzie Mary Cullen: ‘I’ve always loved storytelling through my illustration’

by Jack Hadley From Our Students

Lizzie Mary Cullen is a multi award-winning illustrator, speaker and artist based in London, as well as a member of the AOI (Association of Illustrators). Last year she took part in our inaugural online Writing and Illustrating a Picture Book course, written and presented by Sarah McIntyre and David O’Connell

We interviewed Lizzie for the AOI website about the challenges of creating great picture books, and her experience on the course …

Could you tell us a little about your background as an illustrator and an artist?
I started out in murals for brands, editorial illustration and advertising illustration before getting a book deal with Penguin Random house for my colouring-in book series The Magical City, The Magical Christmas and The Magical Journey. They were followed by a colouring-in series with Hodder and Stoughton. I loved working on the books, so I started to think seriously about a picture book.

What made you decide you wanted to dip your toes into the world of children’s picture books?
I’ve always loved storytelling through my illustration and I’m constantly inspired by many of the picture books out there. I’m always asked if I’ve thought about doing one, and I keep thinking about ideas but I’m very good at putting things off – so this course seemed like a really good push.

In your view, what kind of challenges are there for illustrators trying to create children’s picture books?
I think there’s an idea that it’s easy – it’s not! There are so many skills in creating picture books – and to create a truly special book, I think many things have to align – the writing, the illustration and the voice. This is what I’m trying to master at the moment but I’m still waiting for that magic moment of alignment. I’m hopeful!

You took our ‘combined’ course – which part of the process did you find more challenging, the writing or the illustrating?
I think both were equally challenging for me – I’m very used to creating illustration that portrays an idea, or a concept – creating a narrative illustration was like learning a whole new way of working. I also found working on developing the visuals for characters a new skill that I’m still getting used to. The writing was great as David O’Connell set different challenges to lead us down different idea avenues – and often they would lead to the craziest, strangest places. It was so exciting and broke open my inhibitions when it came to beginning a story.

What kinds of things have you learned during the course?
I think a big lesson was – don’t be afraid to start – you’ll always fear the blank page but every story has started somewhere. Having weekly projects provided me with a framework that I’ll continue to use now the course is over to carry on the work on my picture book. I also was encouraged by Sarah McIntyre’s advice to keep trying new mediums, so I got really into oil pastels during the course and that was amazing to see how they brought my pen and ink work to life. It was a bit of a light bulb moment, understanding that although I have a professional style, I don’t need to tether myself to it – I can allow myself to try other things.

What projects have you got coming up this year?
Well, right now I’m developing a new portfolio of illustration. I’ve moved from rapidograph pens to brush and ink which has been an education. It’s a totally different medium and it’s been so cool seeing the results. I’m also working on my novel re-write which is a wonderful (never-ending) journey!

And finally, could you tell us any of your favourite picture books, or favourite author/illustrators?
I completely adore William and the Missing Masterpiece by Helen Hancocks. William is this detective cat who is on the trail of a robber who steals paintings with cheese in them. Her painterly style is so beautiful and it’s very funny!

I also love The Promise written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Laura Carlin. I read it in Waterstones and it had me crying – it’s a story of finding beauty and goodness while living in a seemingly grey urban space. Such a powerful story, and illustrated so perfectly by Laura Carlin in a wash style.
Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is an incredible book which made me see children’s books in a different way.

And, not a picture book but Hugo by Brian Selznick blew my mind in terms of thinking about another way to approach prose and illustration.

There’s too many to name, but there’s so many wonderful authors and illustrators out there.

This interview was originally published by the AOI (Association of Illustrators) read it here.

Find out more about the services the AOI has on offer here

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Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book

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