September Artist of the Month

Meet Picture Book Queen, Sheena Dempsey, our September Artist of the Month.

Sheena shares with us a refreshingly honest and insightful journey into her practice as a best selling picture book illustrator. Sheena took my class around 7 years ago as far as I remember….she was an outstanding student.

Sheena Dempsey author and illustrator

Sheena Dempsey author and illustrator

When did you first ‘feel’ like an artist?

I don’t usually use the word ‘artist’ to describe myself but I started feeling like a proper illustrator (that is saying it without hesitation when people ask what I do) about four or five years ago.

Do you have a ‘day job’? If so, does it drain or fuel your personal work?

I don’t have a day job right now, I’m very lucky to be illustrating full time at the moment. I spent years working in restaurants and bars to support myself while I was breaking into children’s publishing and I find the idea of having to go back there very motivating when I’m feeling a bit lazy! I think it’s good to work in these kinds of jobs at first because it provides you with perspective about how very lucky you are when you get to the point where you are making a living from your creative work alone. Who knows how long it will last though, I’m very busy for the next year and a half but nothing lasts forever. Fingers crossed the work keeps coming in.  

Where do you find inspiration?

Like most people, I’m interested in and curious about people, their life stories and experiences. Books, films, podcasts and human stories in general inspire me. Other illustrators and artists inspire me, of course. Silly animal videos on the internet inspire me. Travel and new places inspire me.  Any number of things can inspire me. It’s quite a hard question to answer in a specific way!

How do you research if you need reference material e.g. Pinterest, the library, personal photos, etc.

I use Pinterest to create boards when I’m working on a book, especially if it’s set in a house. As an illustrator you have to design lots of things in a book like clothes, houses, toys, living spaces, gardens, bedrooms etc. I use Google images a lot. I make folders on my desktop with interesting photos. I sometimes stage photos if I need to get a pose right. I do use personal photos already in my photo library sometimes, if they fit the subject matter.

Do you work from home or in a studio/shared space? What is that like?

I work from my studio at home and I love it. About five months ago we left London (where we’d lived for 9 years) for Folkestone (a seaside town in Kent) and haven’t looked back. In London, our living room doubled as my studio so it still feels like a massive luxury to have a whole room for work. There is nothing that makes me feel luckier than on a rainy day when I get to sit in my studio and make illustrations for the day, plus I have my greyhound Sandy for company. I’ve considered renting studio space so I can have the experience of camaraderie and sharing ideas with other creative folk but I keep funny hours and I don’t feel I can justify the expense when I have so much space at home.

Have you ever experienced creative blocks? If so, how do you deal with them?

I do get stuck with illustrations, often I can’t find a way to resolve something and things look stale or lacklustre or just plain bad. I heard on an illustration podcast recently the expression “you have to inhale as well as exhale.” That resonated with me. It’s hard to see the wood from the trees when you are sitting endlessly in front of the work. The obvious thing is to take a break, go and see something interesting, take some exercise. Coming back with fresh eyes makes it easier to see the problems clearly.  Since moving to the seaside I’m finding the coastal walks very restorative and helpful for unconsciously working things through.

Do/did you ever equate your self-worth with your artistic successes?

I try not to equate the two. It’s hard though, I think illustrators are generally quite sensitive people. In these social media-obsessed times there’s the increasingly common practice of putting your illustrations into the world where “likes” come into play. You can quickly be sucked into a damaging mind-set of likes, followers and praise being a measure of your worth as a person, but it’s hard to separate your work from your self when it comes from the deepest part of you. A writer friend of mine once said that writing (and I think this applies to illustration too) is a double-edged sword because you have to be sensitive and self-aware enough to make the work, but strong enough to withstand the rejection and disappointment. I think that is very true. And I suppose my identity is undeniably a bit tied up in what I do.

Are you a morning lark or a night owl?

I’m a night owl. Annoyingly, my most productive hours can often be between 9pm and 3am. I really have tried to train myself out of this bad habit so I can have a normal life, but the truth is I am just not as productive during the day. My worst hours are during the afternoon, I feel sluggish, unmotivated, sleepy and distracted. Morning larks don’t understand night owls, I find, I am often lectured by various morning larks in my life that I could easily change my ways if I wanted to! But when I am under pressure, my work hours always shift gradually into Night Owl Mode, it’s when I can get most done without interruption and I get a surge of energy that I can’t explain during the wee hours.

Does criticism affect you? If so, in what way and how do you handle it?

Criticism does affect me but I am learning not to take it personally. I now welcome critique when it’s presented in a positive way because it helps me to grow and improves the work. I’m learning so much from the various art directors I’m working with and I feel grateful when their input is in-depth and thoughtful because I can take that experience and growth onto the next projects I work on.

Once I got a stinky review at the beginning of my career in a well-known slot of a national UK paper, it felt quite brutal and it knocked me for a while, worst of all because I actually agreed with most of it. It was humiliating at the time but it was probably good for me in the long run to go through that experience.  I was sort of stuck at the time and I had a choice to give up or keep pushing through and try to get better. It was a turning point for me.

What was your favourite commission to date, if any?

If I had to choose, I would say the Dave Pigeon series of books have been my favourite job so far. As well as being so much fun to illustrate (silly, bird-based humour in black and white) I’ve become great friends with the author Swapna Haddow, which has made promoting the books really enjoyable. We’ve travelled to the Middle East, Ireland and all around the UK with these books. Soon Swapna and I will embark on a new series together with Faber and Faber, so watch this space.

Is your work primarily imagination or observation centred?

I work from my imagination primarily.

Do you keep sketchbooks? If so, daily or now and again?

I have sketchbooks but they are mostly for scribbling down ideas or working things out rather than for making finished drawings in. They’re not very pretty. I heard someone say recently to think of them as ‘ideabooks’ rather than ‘sketchbooks,’ I think this takes the pressure off slightly. My sketchbooks are for my eyes only, I’d rather not show them to anyone else!

Do you enjoy location drawing? If so do you have a favourite spot?

I don’t do much location drawing. It’s not very cool or “authentic” to admit you don’t spend hours doing careful location drawing, which you then artfully convert from sketchbook into final artwork, but there you have it. I think if I was better at it I might do it more, but that would only happen if I did it more in the first place. It’s a chicken and egg situation!

Do you have a list of favourite pens, pencils, paper or art materials? If so what to you love about it/them?

For roughs, no pencil will do except the Staedtler Noris School Pencil, HB. It has a lovely flow and texture. I like to use this on a nice toothy cartridge paper. About three years ago I made a big change from hand drawing my final artwork in watercolour on paper to doing my colour work digitally. I bought a Wacom Cintiq 13HD, which I think helped my work get better faster because I was able to experiment more. My palette got bolder and I was able to push the work further without worrying about messing it up and having to start over as I had with paint on paper. It was very freeing once I taught myself how to use Photoshop. People say there are no happy accidents with digital work but I don’t agree. I had a desk disaster last year where my glass desk exploded spontaneously and the Cintiq got damaged, at the moment I am using an Intuos with my 27 inch iMac and Photoshop Creative Cloud. I love Kyle’s Brushes and Grut Brushes, there are so many amazing resources for digital art these days.  

Do you have any ‘tricks’ or habits, if for example, you are having trouble with a piece?

Sometimes when a spread won’t resolve itself no matter what I do to it, I will move onto a different spread and then come back with the visual language I have developed in that new spread and apply it to the tricky one. That sometimes works. Usually it is just a question of trial and error, and lots of it. Lots of deep breaths are helpful. Back stretches are crucial, for preventing pain and for taking a quick break. I used to get quite annoyed when I realised that a piece I’d been working on for a long time was irredeemable and I had to start over but I’m learning to accept it as part of the trial and error process of creating illustrations.

What does your inner critic say (if anything)?

What doesn’t it say, I can’t get it to shut up half the time. “You’re a fraud, you can’t write, you can’t draw! Imagine how much better this would look in X illustrator’s style! That’s been done to death!” My inner critic is quite toxic, but luckily when I’m working to deadlines I don’t have time to entertain him. I have to just push through and ignore the prattle. It gets easier to ignore that stuff the more experienced you become I suppose, you sort of develop a system and power through.

Which artists or illustrators do you most admire and why?

There are such a number of illustrators I admire I can’t even list them all but here is a condensed list of some of my favourites: I believe Sara Ogilvie is such a master of picture book illustration; her visual flow, loose linework, characterisation, colour and textures are outstanding. David Roberts has been a massive influence on my work, too. His draughtsmanship, style and humour are excellent. I love Tor Freeman’s beautiful comic book work, confident humour and uniquely lovable characters. I love Alex T Smith’s hyper stylisation and tactile pencil-work. In painting, I’m usually most attracted by beautiful colour and textures, and satisfying mark marking. Some painters I love are David Hockney, Van Gogh, John Singer Sargeant, Modigliani and Peter Doig.

Would you throw a piece away (or delete it!) if it was not working, or would you just ‘keep at it’ until you were happy?

Usually there isn’t the option to just abandon things if you have to draw them for a client or publisher, you have no choice but to keep pushing through! It’s different when it’s spec work or personal work, then you can change things around to make things easier for yourself if parts of it aren’t working.

What would you do if you weren’t an illustrator?

I think I would work with animals in some capacity if I couldn’t do creative work for some reason. I am a big animal lover.

A selection of books by Sheena Dempsey

A selection of books by Sheena Dempsey

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