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Illustrator and author Lizzy Stewart

We asked Lizzy Stewart; what made her want to be an author and illustrator, about her career, and what advice she'd give to any budding illustrators out there.

Lizzy Stewart is an illustrator and author from Plymouth who lives and works in London. She has written and illustrated three picture books for children alongside Walking Distance, an illustrated essay, and It's Not What You Thought It Would Be a graphic short-story collection. Her new illustrated novel for adults, Alison, publishes in paperback this August (2023). Her debut picture-book There's a Tiger in the Garden won the Waterstones Children's book prize for picture books in 2017 as well as a World Illustration Award. She teaches illustration at Goldsmith's college.

1. Can you tell us about how you started your career as an illustrator / graphic novelist?

I’ve been an illustrator a lot longer than I’ve been an author so I’ll start there. I studied Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. I initially went to university to do Fine Art but when I got there I found that what I actually enjoyed was much closer to illustration than anything I was doing on the Fine Art course. I had a bit of a panic because I thought I was stuck on this course that I wasn’t enjoying but, luckily, you’re always allowed to change your mind and, at the end of my first year, I switched to the illustration pathway and everything got a lot more fun!

After I graduated I worked as freelance illustrator for many years working for books and magazines and so on, I wrote a few children’s books too. It took a while to build enough confidence to make work for adults so, first, I made a lot of shorter comics to practice. Each time I made a slightly longer comic and, before I knew it, I’d sort of tricked myself into writing a book!

2. What made you want to become a graphic novelist? Was the transition from being an illustrator to a graphic novelist one you always wanted to make?

I actually don’t think I’ve changed my career at all. At least in my head it hasn’t changed! I still think of myself, primarily, as an illustrator. So even when I work on books that people refer to as graphic novels I, personally, think of them much more as illustrated novels, like picture books for adults. I think my work relates far more to the work made by people like Raymond Briggs and Shirley Hughes, who made picture books than to the work of cartoonists and graphic novelists.

I ended up making full-length, adult books because…I love books! I just love reading and I always loved writing when I was at school. When I went back to writing as an adult I found that I loved it just as much as I had when I was younger but I think I’d had this belief that I had to focus on one thing only and that one thing was drawing. I realised, a bit late, that you could combine the things you care about to make a new, even more fun, thing. So it made sense that when I wrote a book it would include both words and pictures. Because I love them both equally!

3. How did you develop your distinct style?

Haha, I don’t ever think of my work as distinct at all! I think that’s the same for all artists, we get hung up on not having a consistent style. But if you show my work to someone else they can usually identify it as mine. So there must be a style there somewhere!

A thing that I love about drawing is that you can’t really lie. Even if you’re copying someone else’s style of drawing or painting your hand will only do what it does naturally. You’re sort of incapable of being anything but yourself. Which is nice! You see stories of art fraud where there was just this tiny tell, this clue, that the painting was a fake. Even the people who are the best at copying can’t make it identical to the original!

4. What advice would you give to someone who would like a future as an illustrator / graphic novelist?

Keep doing both things. Write and draw, draw and write. Sometimes one thing will feel more natural to you and when that happens, just go with it. Maybe that means, like me, that you don’t write for ten years! But it’ll come back, eventually. More than anything else it’s the sheer act of doing something over and over again that helps you get good at it.

I would also advise that you share your work. Show your friends and family! Show your classmates! People will enjoy seeing it and you’ll get more confident in talking about it. AND people will understand you better. For a lot of us drawing is how we communicate how we see the world. It’s a real joy to be able to share that with people.

5. How do you go about starting a new project? What materials / tech do you use?

I’m a very analogue person, really. At the start of a book project I always buy myself a new notebook and pen to try to recapture that back-to-school feeling. I spend a lot of time making notes and doing very rough sketches. It takes a while for a plot to become fully-formed so you kind of have to just noodle around in the idea for a bit.

Once I get around to drawing I used all sorts of materials. For my latest book, Alison, I used quink ink, which is this writing ink that is, usually, used to refill ink pens. If you use it to paint with, though, it does this magical thing when you mix it with water where it goes a bit pink and purple, sometimes even brown, even though it’s a black ink. It’s really fun and unpredictable and I like bringing a tiny bit of chaos to my work! For my picture books I use watercolours and pencils. And then there’s always quite a bit of Photoshop or Procreate at the end to tidy up the spillages and smudges. I’ve been doing this job for fourteen years but I will never learn not to eat my lunch over the top of the painting I’m working on! There’s always something gross I have to edit off!

6. Can you tell us a bit about your new book ‘Alison'?

It’s the story of Alison, who has grown up in Dorset in the 70s. She’s in her very early twenties and a bit stuck. She got married very young and has settled into a domestic life that, perhaps, doesn’t really suit her. A chance encounter with an older man, an artist, re-routes her life to London where she embarks on her own career as an artist whilst navigating romance, intense friendships and loneliness.

It’s so fun to see something from your head come to life on the page.

7. What challenges do you think there are for people who want to be illustrators / graphic novelists?

It’s hard to make a living just from making books. It’s unlikely it’ll be your full-time job. Which is a bit of a shame but if you’re prepared for that you can find other ways of earning money (I teach illustration as well as working as a freelance commercial illustrator).

It can feel like a very uphill struggle to getting published BUT a great thing about comics is that you can self publish very easily. All you need is a photocopier and a stapler and you can produce a comic cheaply. Over the past ten plus years I’ve self-published around thirty comics and zines. I print them and sell them online and in comic shops and, miraculously, people buy them! It’s a great way to get your work out into the world. It helps you build an audience and you make a bit of money too.

8. What's your favourite thing about being an illustrator / graphic novelist?

I love getting lost in a project. When you’ve done all the planning and plotting and you’re stuck into the writing and drawing. It’s so fun to see something from your head come to life on the page.

9. What graphic novel would you recommend (apart from yours )

WELL! Well, well, well. There’s loads. And you’ve sort of opened a can of worms here cos I could bang on for hours about good graphic novels. I think that graphic novels and comics get treated like a ‘genre’ when, in fact, they are just a medium or a format. So within Graphic Novels there’s drama, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, comedy and all the other things you’d find in a regular novel. And it depends what you like to read as to what you’ll enjoy. The best thing to do is go to a BIG bookstore, or even better, a comic book shop. And ask the staff for recommendations. They’ll have books that they feel passionate about and want to tell you about.

If I was to recommend you a book RIGHT NOW I’d say Super Mutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki. Which sounds..kind of insane but is actually this really funny and smart and sad collection of comic strips about growing up and trying to, just, be a person. All the stories take place in this high school for mutants but that’s kind of by the by. I think it’s one of the funniest and cleverest books I’ve ever read.

10. What's next for you?

I’m working on a new book but it’s a slow process. Once I’ve got the text right it’ll take about a year to draw, or more. So I guess what’s next is not leaving my studio for a very long time!