Yasmeen Ismail, animator and award-winning children’s book author and illustrator, chats about Specs for Rex, working with the National Portrait Gallery and Amnesty International, and offers us a glimpse inside her sketchbooks and typical working day…
Hi Yasmeen, thanks so much for joining us!
You write and illustrate such wonderful books including Specs for Rex and Time for Bed, Fred! I love them all…
Did you study illustration at university or did you arrive via a more circuitous route?
It was a little bit of a round-about way getting to where I am, but it feels quite organic when I think about it now. I was born in Dublin, Ireland all the way back in the ’80’s, and as a child I was very sure that I wanted to be an animator. I pursued that idea and got into an animation school (Dun Laoighaire Institute of Art, Design and Tech [DLIADT]) and completed my degree (hurray!). I bumped around for a while thinking that a job would just present itself to me, and eventually I decided that nothing was going to happen unless I did something. So I followed my sister to the bright lights of London.
When I got there I was just as lost, if not more. I got by, rented a room in a lovely house in Clapham and got a job in a shop (and then some bars and then some more shops). It was all fine but I felt that I was way off track. I eventually, thanks to a lovely guy called Kev, got a job in my field. I was working as an intern for an animation company. I did two whole weeks there and I thought “this is the beginning!”
In a way it was. After my fortnight as an intern I went back to working in bars and nothing continued to happen, until one day I got a call from a wonderful person called Sandra (whom I’d met at my internship) and she gave me a job. I quit the pubs and after working with Sandra for a while we decided to set up our own company… and we did.
Four years of laughter and tears and hard work, we ran a cracking little company. But there was a point where our paths diverged and we said goodbye to the company. At that point I was left with this huge void… What next?
Something that had been nothing but a pipe dream for the last few years was speaking up, “why not do illustration?
That sounds like a nice thing to do.” And I thought, “but what if I’m no good at it?”
Fortunately my time with Sandra, who really encouraged me in my work, and the huge confidence and knowledge that I had from running a company, gave me the courage to pursue this dream.
You’ve made three animated short films for Amnesty including one for the Beijing Olympics. How did that come about?
Well, it was really a case of word-of-mouth. Our company was recommended to the director of these particular films and like any project we met, discussed the ideas and the storyboards and got to work. There are always jobs that come along that either align or misalign with your beliefs. This was one that, yes, I could do, and it wouldn’t tread on my ethics. If anything it supported them.
With the jobs where I am not in agreement with the message it is important for me to know where to draw the line. This line represents where I am comfortable. I think everyone must trust their own boundaries. For instance I was recently asked to pitch for a £40,000 job to promote the use of fossil fuels and downgrade the idea of renewable energies. It was very clear to me that there was no way I would entertain the idea and I politely declined. I did also tell them why I declined. Everyday I am voting for what I believe in by the actions I take.
I can’t believe that such outrageous pitches exist. How sad that they do. It’s very disturbing and congratulations in declining. It would be terrible to associate your work with such causes. Your illustrations are so happy, joyful, playful, colourful and fun. They have a real ease about them, almost childlike. Were you a creative, artistic child and if so, did you become more photo-realistic as a teenager or were you always happy with a looser style?
I remember drawing constantly. I would draw rainbows on every picture. They were very important to me. Rainbows everywhere. I loved making and sticking and doing and colouring. I liked pictures that were very funny. I loved all the colours. My style has fluctuated. I am not sure what it was when I was really little, I remember drawing something and spending ages on it (it was a project for school and we had to draw our favourite tree, FUN RIGHT?!), and when I brought it in all the kids said that I had cheated and had got my mum to draw it. I was outraged.
When I was a teenager my work was very intuitive. I spent hours after school in the art room with my friend Liz (we were very lucky to be allowed to go in after. Our art teacher gave us the keys to the art room so that we could be there always). I guess you could say my drawing was a little tight. I hadn’t learned so much about controlling my drawing arm.
Then in college I totally loosened up. We had hours and hours of life drawing every week. We were encouraged to stand and use large pieces of paper. It was great. I loved it.
Even though your art appears effortless, I’m sure it’s not!
It’s not 🙂
And even if it was, there is still decades of working and learning behind everything I do.
When I make my books now there are a few stages:
- Writing, of course, unless I am not writing the book!
- Storyboarding, getting it right, sending it for approval, several stages of this until sign off
- Character design
- Sketching, final sketches
- Artworking, painting all the elements of the spread
- Scanning artwork in
- Assembling all artwork in Photoshop
- Approvals, changes, approvals, changes, tweaks, ad infinitum… !
Do you work from home?
I do now!
Since moving to Bristol I work in our new house. I have a whole room to do it in. I have a beautiful big window to look out of and I am surrounded by boxes (not unpacked fully yet). I have a big glass table covered in paintings, paints, palettes, pencils, brushes, crayons and paper. My Apple Mac, Wacom tablet and scanner are there too. I have a great chair, very fancy, but worth the money. If I am going to sit on my ass all day I had better not be damaging my spine.
And what’s a typical working day?
I get up early-ish, after my husband gets up and I mosey downstairs. I fix some breakfast, usually avocado on toast or something equally delicious. I take it into the office and check my emails. I check Facebook basically all the time. It’s a curse. I have to use an app called ‘Self Control’ to stop myself going on it. Then I force myself to actually do work. Normally there is a mountain to get through but I have to not look at the mountain in case I freak out.
You’re the official illustrator of the BP National Portrait Award Family Trail 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Wow, that’s a prestigious honour!
Ah, it’s fantastic. I am so honoured to work with the National Portrait Gallery. It’s wonderful to know that my work and books will be in that building!
I had to have an interview, and it’s been so long since anyone has interviewed me. I was sure that I had messed it up but was delighted when I found out that they had chosen me! I was in Malaysia after travelling to Australia to be part of the Perth Literary Festival when I got the email over breakfast. I was so happy!
You’re obviously a busy bee so what do you to do to unwind?
I am very busy and I have to remind myself not to feel too overwhelmed with my workload. I know that I love what I do and that I have the best job ever. But I do have to relax now and then. I like to do yoga, where ever I can find it. I have to make time for it or I’ll go mad. I’m not very good at it but I love it. It’s such a stress buster. I have also started running. I am training for a 5k, not very long, but I am not so ambitious as to presume to do anything more!
And you have some fabulous new books coming out this year!
My new one for Bloomsbury is called “I’m a Girl”. It’s a hit-back at gender stereo-typing, why should we inform kids that they have to like certain things, or be a certain way just because they are a boy or a girl. Equality is a very important issue to me. This is out in August this year.
I also have an activity and sticker book coming out with Pan Macmillan. It’s called “Let’s Go Find a Tiger”. It’s a great deal of fun for kids who want to draw. I have left plenty of space for them to be super creative. I wrote the book whilst I was in India in a wonderful safari park called “Kipling” (another great writer!). The park is called
Khana National Park and the tigers there are very well protected. The safari place was founded by a wonderful woman called Belinda who pioneered the protection of tigers in India many, many years ago. She is actually a national treasure in India. Anyway, we were going on safari every day, 3 times a day some times, looking for
wildlife. I wrote “Let’s Go Find a Tiger” in the forest with a G&T in my hand on a sunny (it was always sunny) afternoon. Just gorgeous.
And another one is called “Christmas for Greta and Gracie” for Nosy Crow, which will be out this October. These two little sisters are bunnies and they have an interesting relationship!
Yasmeen, good luck with all those lovely new books and thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you very much again. I’m off to have some tasty risotto with my husband now! Roll on the weekend!
And what better way to end than with the wonderful end papers of One Word from Sophia (above) and a fantastic short video of Yasmeen painting Fred the dog from Time for Bed, Fred!
WORDS: Cand Juskus and Yasmeen Ismail
PHOTOS: Yasmeen Ismail