We’re so lucky to work with fantastic artists here at Mouse + Magpie. Their creativity, whimsicality, and sense of wonder shine out from all of our products, from shower curtains to pillows. The joy they find in the world and share with the rest of us is what makes our children’s decor items so unique and lovely.
For parents, we think it’s extra special when you can tell your kids about the artist who drew the picture in the framed print hanging on their walls, or on the cozy Sherpa blankets on their beds. Doing this, it transforms the pieces into keepsakes. There’s a unique story behind them, and they know you selected those pieces just for them.
With that in mind, we asked one of our amazing artists, children’s book illustrator Alexandra Ball (who goes by Alex), to share a bit about herself with us and with you. We talked about what inspires her, how she developed as an artist, what techniques she uses, and why she loves creating artwork for children.
Ahoy There, Mr Turtle Art Print
Mouse + Magpie: When did your interest in art begin? How did it develop?
Alex: It began when I was tiny. My mum kept all of my artwork, and going back, I have pictures of quite good quality things at the age of two and a half.
My brother is 18 months older than me, and I was always trying to catch up with him and draw things as well as him. I think that's probably where it started. People used to praise me for my drawing abilities, so I carried on and did it. I kept on practicing and practicing and practicing, doing everything in my spare time.
My grandad gave me an old typewriter—one of the ones with the big heavy keys that made a “Ching!” sound. I used to spend my rainy days writing stories and then illustrating them afterward.
Meeting Finn Lamp
Alex drew inspiration from stories she read as a child. One of the stories she remembers as a favorite is probably familiar, but there was something about Alex’s experience with it that is a little different.
Alex: We loved Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The thing I remember about that book from my youth—and I always thought that every copy had it—is that we used to weave a shoelace through the holes in every page where the caterpillar had eaten.
That used to be the most fun thing for me at ages 3, 4, and 5. When I saw it at someone else’s house, I was like “Where’s the shoelace? They don’t read it with a shoelace?” So if you have kids, and you’re reading them Eric Carle, try threading a shoelace through The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s fun.
Alex has a springer spaniel, named Bee, who is her constant companion. Bee accompanies Alex on the walks she takes around her village for inspiration and has even made it into Alex’s artwork.
Alex: She’s so fun. She has inspired some of the characters I’ve created because she is crazy, sensitive, and a little character. She’s my little sidekick, definitely.
I did a book fairly recently, called Oh! New Year’s Tree, and Bee is featured as the dog in that. (Although the springer spaniel in the book is brown, and Bee is black.) I go on walks every day with her in the countryside. She and the countryside inspire me.
Naptime for All Throw Pillow
Alex also goes on walks with her daughter in a rucksack on her back. She finds inspiration in the natural world around her.
Alex: The forest that we go walking in is walking distance from my house. It’s an ancient forest, so the trees are really old. They’re all gnarled and have beautiful shapes. We went on a walk today, and we saw a tree that had grown into another tree. I love things that are unusual.
That’s what I take back with me—the shapes that you see in things. The shapes that the leaves make. The colors as well: the natural dots of white you see in some of the wildflowers against the trees. I try and absorb it when I’m seeing beautiful things and hope it gets stuck in there somewhere, so I can bring it out and draw it later on.
Alex can be fastidious about her work, particularly when choosing colors.
Alex: I fiddle a long time with color. I don’t always know what color a picture should be when I start it. For some pictures, I’ll have what colors I want in my head, and I’ll choose a color palette I really like. Other times, I let it grow organically from the first color that I choose.
Sometimes when I’m drawing a picture, it can be completely different from the start to the end. I’ll suddenly decide, “I don’t like that all.” I’ll change the colors, and it’ll look much nicer.
When I have lots of characters and lots of things going on in one picture, it takes me ages to get the colors sorted. Quite often, I layer colors so they blend together.
While it begins with old-fashioned paper and pencil, Alex’s work afterward is done almost entirely on the computer. Alex draws first on paper because she feels she has better control over a real pencil, then scans that picture into the computer. Once the drawing is in Photoshop, she’ll begin layering different shades and textures.
Alex: I treat each picture like a collage of pattern, texture, colors, and the shading I do on my tablet. Each of my Photoshop files can have literally hundreds of layers. Because I do each color and each texture on a separate layer, I can adjust them or mend them as necessary. My pictures do take quite a while, actually. They’re quite complicated.
Heave Ho! Lamp
Alex learned to use Photoshop while studying at Falmouth College of Arts in England, but she didn’t use it much at first. Her early work often involved painting with oils, which is a lengthy and demanding process. As she worked in other fields for eight years after she graduated, Alex taught herself to use Photoshop more quickly and with greater versatility than she could painting with oil.
Alex: Oils look quite natural and, obviously, handmade. I love the quality of work done with oils. But with Photoshop, I try to get it looking quite handmade still. I try to give it a natural spin. That’s why I put all the textures in, and make it look more like it’s not being done with a computer.
Surfing Pirate-Style Throw Pillow
To make her digital work look more natural, Alex uses an interesting technique to create texture.
Alex: I scan a piece of paper, then drag and drop it over all of my pictures. I make it see-through, so it’s like a transparency. Anything that’s a little darker than white comes up as that color, and it gives it a nice texture. If I take that off, the picture might look computer generated. However, because I added that texture, it gives it a nice, handmade feel.
Alex often uses multiple scanned pieces of paper for a single picture. Sometimes, she uses even more interesting textures, like a faux-fur hat.
Alex: I go to the haberdashery shop and buy discount fabric with nice patterns that I can scan. For example, I’m doing a picture of an elephant. The elephant’s skin needs to be quite rough, so I scanned in a thick, woven piece of cotton sheeting and used that as the texture. It’s not too harsh, but it looks different from other animals in the story.
In between art college and becoming a full-time illustrator, Alex spent eight years working jobs in different fields, including a bookstore, an art supplies store, and a building society, before she finally had the opportunity to chase her dream of becoming an illustrator.
Alex: I didn’t do anything in illustration during those eight years, other than for myself or my friends. I was working in the building society when the credit crunch hit, and my whole department was made redundant. With the money we were given, I spent six months creating a portfolio. I had always wanted to pursue my dream of being an illustrator, but I hadn’t actually been able to. Because the payout was big enough, I thought, “This is it! This is my time.”
Picnic Under the Tree Canvas Print
Fortunately, one of Alex’s old friends from art college saw some of her work online and helped her find representation at an illustration agency. While she’s thankful for this luck, Alex also knows her success is the result of hard work. I asked if she had any advice for future aspiring illustrators.
Alex: Be disciplined and determined. You have to be disciplined to be an illustrator because you are your own boss. Although you often have clients telling you what they want from you, on a day-to-day basis, you work at home generally, and there are so many distractions at home.
You also must be determined. Because it is so hard to get into and you have people telling you you’re not good enough quite a lot of the time. Try to put a positive spin on that, and say, “I will just improve this,” rather than saying, “I don’t want to try anymore.” You just have to try harder.
Octoscope Canvas Print
Alex’s work, whether as part of a picture book, standing on its own, or printed on a clock, lamp, or blanket, often features animals and is almost always intended for children.
Alex: [I create art for children] because I see things like a child sees sometimes.
As an example, Alex says the things she draws are things she would like to do herself.
Alex: Quite often, [my drawings] feature a little child hugging a big animal. I would still like to do that sort of thing. Who wouldn’t like to hug a big bear? Or ride a polar bear? Or sit on a big deer?
Just as Alex draws images that she imagines herself a part of, she hopes that children who see her art can picture themselves in it, as well. She hopes children will imagine themselves in the worlds she creates.
Alex says that she loves working with Mouse + Magpie because she has complete creative freedom.
Alex: The work I do for Mouse + Magpie are all my ideas, rather than a client saying “draw this specifically.” It’s just a blank canvas for me to play around with how I want to. So the work that I’m doing for Mouse + Magpie is completely what I want to do. It’s my work.
We hope you enjoyed your time with Alex as much as we did! To see more of her work, visit her portfolio on our website or check out her own website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr.
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