Kate Leake chats about life as a freelance illustrator, with tips on how to get started in the business and an insight into her own work process…
Hi Kate, lovely to be chatting to you again. You illustrated my Minnie Piper books and I just love your quirky style.
Hi Cand, thanks for having me on Om Pom! It was great fun illustrating your fabulous books. I love to work in a doodly drawing style and your quirky, energetic writing really called out for that. Brilliant teamwork!
Tell me how you got into drawing. Have you always been a doodler?
Yes, I would say that I have been doodling since I was a dot. My sister was a huge fan of fish and mermaids from a young age, so I doodled a lot of under-the-sea scenes for her. Also, it would seem, fruit with faces!
Awww, Fiona ‘T’ Fish goes shopping! Hmmm… could be an idea for your next new book! You’ve obviously always had a vivid imagination! As a child, were you creative in other ways?
Yes, I pretty much loved everything creative when I was growing up, especially writing, colouring and getting into the latest craft trends. Fimo modelling clay and t-shirt paints were a firm favourite of mine.
And were you always sure you wanted to draw for a living?
No, the 8 year old Kate wanted to work in an ice-cream van! The plan was all completely dreamy in my head, until I cottoned on to the fact that nasty wasps like ice-cream. I convinced myself that churning out Mr Whippies all day would make me a prime stinging target!
And actually, it wasn’t until I moved to Big Scary High School that I realised just how much I enjoyed art, to the point that I thought… Wow, this is something I’d like to do for a living! And I remember looking forward to drawing a diagram or an illustration during science and history lessons, too. I often got 10 out of 10 for my science diagrams, but never did so well on the sciency knowledge. Please don’t ask me a physics related question! I’d leave that to my super brainy husband, Alan.
A lot of people dream of being a children’s author and illustrator. How did you go about it?
In my case I did have an advantage, having graduated with a BA Hons in Illustration for Children’s Publishing. My third year project at university involved writing and illustrating my own picture book called The Best Chip, which won runner up in the Macmillan Children’s Book Prize and got published shortly after. I feel lucky to have had some good grounding in the art of writing and designing children’s books, but not everyone needs a degree to be successful.
My biggest advice to start with would be to research your market, read publishers’ catalogues to see what is trending and read lots and LOTS of children’s books to get a feel for what is out there. It is a competitive market and there are so many brilliant books around. The trick is to stand out, but fit in with the publishing lists at the same time.
Yes, I think people don’t realise how tough it is and just because you’re new to the game you still have to compete with all the big names. You need to be just as good, if not better than them…
Yes, and of course finding the right publisher can be tricky, but no one should get too disheartened by rejections. Most successful authors and illustrators have had them!
Absolutely, which is why it’s a huge congratulations on your new book, Don’t Chew the Royal Shoe, which you’ve written as well as illustrated…
Thank you, yes I’m over the moon about the new book! I knew when I set out that I wanted to write a story about a really scruffy, but loveable dog, called Chips. He was inspired by our family dog, Barney, who was always getting up to mischief. There were many occasions where Barney could be found munching on a forbidden treat he’d snaffled from the kitchen worktop.
Chips, on the other hand, has a cheeky habit of chewing the royal shoes! This caper gets him into all sorts of trouble with the Queen until he chews a burglar’s boot and becomes a royal doggy hero.
You say you were inspired by Barney, but how did you get from that initial spark of an idea to the finished artwork?
Well, with this book I started by drawing a rough character design. Chips didn’t begin life as a royal dog – this came later as my ideas for the story developed. Once I’d decided what the story was going to be about, I needed to practice drawing him chewing shoes in lots of different poses. At first this turned out to be trickier than I thought it would be! I had to study many doggy photos to make sure I was on the right track.
On the opening spread of the book, I wanted to just show how scruffy and unrefined Chips is. I thought it could be quite fun if he was munching away on a big string of messy, greasy sausages! So I roughly sketched my idea out in pencil and scanned him into my computer…
… And once I was happy with how Chips was looking, I redrew him in detail in pencil, scanned him in and added colour and texture. Ta dah!
And of course you don’t just illustrate books. You design greetings cards as well…
Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of designing card ranges for clients like Hallmark, Hotchpotch and The Monster Factory. My first card range commission featured a character called Dotty Small, who also appeared on gift wrap…
I also love an opportunity to do a customised illustration that’s really personal to someone. Recently I had the joy of designing the stationery for my sister’s wedding which had a gorgeous woodland theme. The invitation featured the sweet chestnut tree at Kew Gardens where they got engaged…
Oh, how romantic getting engaged in Kew Gardens! So what’s a typical day like for you at Planet Pencil, the studio where you do all this fab designing and doodling?
Well, first of all, I can’t do anything constructive without a constant supply of tea! So once I’m equipped with the first brew of the day, I’ll check my emails and to-do list. Some days I’ll be working on new ideas and doing lots of doodling. Other days I’ll be doing research and reading, or visiting schools to run workshops. When I have a book on the go, I’ll be working my way through the design process and no doubt panicking as the deadline looms! These are the days where cake is most definitely needed!
And I do happen to know you’re mad about baking cakes as well as eating them!
Well who doesn’t like cake?! There’s nothing quite like the yummy hot-from-the-oven homemade cake to enjoy later with a cup of tea. Mmmmmmmm! These days I have to be on special alert when my husband is around, as cakes can mysteriously disappear when my back is turned!
My mum (who is a super baking genius) taught me how to bake when I was young and I’ve been hooked ever since. I felt very proud that my mum was able to make our wedding cake for us. This is the design I drew and Wonder Mum turned it into an amazing delicious reality…
And of course I’m a huge fan of The Great British Bake Off. Mary Berry is the queen of cakes and her lemon drizzle tray bake is an absolute winner!
As, of course, are your wonderful books, as they’ve even been read on TV! That must have been very exciting to see…
Yes, very! ‘Never Say NO to a Princess!’ was read on CBeebies by Floella Benjamin…
And ‘Football Fever’ was read by Mark Lawrenson…
It felt very surreal watching books that I’d illustrated being read by amazing TV presenters but jolly well brilliant too!
Absolutely! And of course you’ve illustrated lots more books than sadly we’ve got time to talk about here. How can readers find out about them?
They can find them at Planet Pencil!
Brilliant! Thank you so much for stopping by, Kate. It’s been fantastic as always to chat to you. And the very best of luck with Don’t Chew the Royal Shoe!
Here are some of Kate’s other books…
words: CAND JUSKUS
photos: KATE LEAKE