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  • Lucy Fleming

My Illustrator Story.

I remember that I was around 10 years old and I'd just finished reading J.K Rowling's 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'. As I shut the hardback book, I looked down and noted to myself that this was the thickest book I'd ever read to date. I remember swelling with pride. The book had daunted me with its masses of pages, but not only had I completed it, I'd been absorbed by it. Looking down at the hefty book with it's battered dust jacket, all I wanted to do was open it up at chapter one and start reading it again. Fortunately, by that time, the next book in the series was out and all I had to do was go fetch it from my sister's room and dive straight in.

By that point it was no secret that the Harry Potter books had sold millions world wide, a couple of films were already out and the success seemingly had no end. I was enthralled by the world of children's books. I'd known and loved lots of books throughout my childhood, but this was the first time I really saw publishing as an industry. I was enthralled by the idea of having a career to nurture. I know that it isn't the same for everybody. I know it's not all there is to life, but having a career deeply interested me. I floated so many ideas around as I grew up, as we all do, but I kept coming back to stories. I loved reading Jacqueline Wilson books, Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket, and as I became a teenager, Twilight, The Book Thief, Angus Thongs, Agatha Christie books. So. Many. Books.

I wondered what it would be like to be an author. People could read your words and nobody need ever necessarily know what you looked like. Readers could love your work rather than your clothes, weight or what you looked like - all the things a teenager worries about would be immaterial. What a wonderful thing to do with your life. What joy you could bring to others. Creativity, fun and kindness are as valuable in todays world as ever before.

A plan started to formulate in my mind. I started to write lots of short stories, whenever I was travelling in a car or walking to school I'd imagine wonderful worlds. I had an imaginary potato that I walked to school with (really bizarre I know). I was always the person who when assigned with writing a 2 page story at school, would write 12 pages.

Then everything changed when I began my GCSE in art and I drew a leaf on the first page of my art sketchbook. It wasn't a groundbreaking leaf, but I found myself entranced by drawing and actually wanting to do it, and do it well. I enjoyed making up stories and characters in my mind, and suddenly a new way to bring to life stories was born in my mind.

I was addicted to drawing, I could sit for hours lost in my sketchbooks. Everyday after school I would draw, I would rush through other homework just so I could spend more time with my art books. When I wasn't drawing I was looking at artists online and in awe of the magic their illustrations had which transported you immediately, without words, somewhere new, or to evoke true emotions.

I didn't know it at the time, but the kind of art I was interested in was mostly illustration. I liked art that had a story to it or something that had some functionality. I looked at Yoshitaka Amano and Arthur Rackham as my two artists to study for my GCSE. I loved the fluid nature of their work, the depth, magic and beauty. It was around that time that my art teacher told me that my work was leaning very much toward illustration. I hadn't really known the term 'illustration' up until that point, of course I roughly knew what It meant, but I suppose I'd never really considered it a form of 'proper' art.

When I got home from school I researched illustration - a lot. I learnt what it was inside and out. Illustration was art with purpose, but there was such a wide spectrum of artistic careers you could pursue as an illustrator - not just books. It was specialised, but still flexible. It seemed the most likely route to get a real job creating artwork. Could it really be possible to spend my days drawing? Someone's got to do it, right?

I knew that I loved art, loved stories, loved the idea of being in publishing in someway or another and I had a feeling I'd found something that I'd really want to do with my adult life. But how? I figured out that it was possible to study illustration at University. Thank goodness for the internet is all I can say. It opened up so many doors in researching my future career - that was invaluable for me. It was an exciting prospect because I'd been sure that I wanted to continue an education for as long as possible so the idea of going to University was scary, but exciting.

Since I'd already decided what I wanted my degree to be I didn't see the point in doing 4 subjects at A-level (much to the dismay of my teachers!) I decided to dedicate myself 100% to honing my art skills and taking an art course at college. I received a lot of comments from my teachers at that stage telling me what a huge mistake I was making, how I would never make money from doing art. Unfortunately for them, and rather fortunately for me, this only served to make me want to prove myself all the more.

Leaving my friends was hard, but I knew anything worth doing wouldn't be easy. It was the right choice for me even though it was tough at times. I'd have to make friends from scratch (something I'm absolutely awful at as I'm the slowest person to open up to people ever!), I'd have long commutes to and fro each day and would have to invest in expensive art equipment (No where near the expense of graphics tablets I'm lucky enough to use today, but watercolours and sketchbooks indeed rack up in cost!) To afford this I managed to secure a job at WHSmiths. I was working on the book floor as a sales assistant. My favourite part was alphabetising the books and tidying up the children's book section (nobody else wanted to clean up the kids books because it always got very messy!) But I loved looking at all the artwork. I remember before leaving to go to Uni I said that I hoped my books would be on those shelves someday. That was met with chuckles, but I've not given up on that wish.

At college I had to study a range of art forms, this was lots of fun and also helped me decide that, yes, I definitely still wanted to pursue illustration as a career - my skirt making skills were utterly terrible and nobody wants to see me attempt that ever again. I enjoyed art history lessons greatly, It was one of the most useful classes I took at college. I would not need to do a foundation art course as well as the National Diploma I was doing and would gain enough UCAS 'Points' to apply to University at the same time as my A-level friends.

I was accepted into the University of Lincoln and I genuinely think it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Despite the student and accommodation fees being a huge investment (Thankfully very kindly supported by my family who trusted my decisions.) I adored being independent, making new friends and working toward my dreams. It was a hopeful time, of course there were ups and downs (but I like to focus on the ups). I finally felt that I was in a group of completely like-minded people who I could go to Waterstones with, flip through children's picture books and not feel like a complete numpty being there without any children.

I met my partner at Uni, and some of my best friends. And I worked, and I worked and I worked a little more. I don't know if art ever came naturally to me. I feel like it has been a long process of practice and insecurity (still ongoing I might add!).

I must say, I'm not sure I do really believe in natural talent, or especially not in my case anyway! I can only see a culmination of all the hours of work, tears and fears, stemming from all those years ago when I closed a Harry Potter book. A long ribbon of struggling, learning, and growing as a person as well as an artist. I also see a vast ocean of what I'm not yet capable of spanning in front of me.

I've made mistakes, but I've been very lucky at times, very lucky indeed, and I don't take that for granted for a second. I had the full support of my family and close friends, I had tutors that truly wanted to help me and give me the best chances in a competitive and tough industry. I don't feel as though I breezed into illustration by chance or luck alone though, I really did try and fail, and keep trying - never giving up even when I really felt like it (lying on the kitchen floor of my Uni house clutching a burnt baked potato in an oven mitt in my hands. Meanwhile the cat took a dump by the back door and I was sat wondering if i'd made a huge mistake pursuing a dream that could never come true, because life isn't a Disney film, or a Harry Potter book...)

Coming out of University was a huge shift in perspective. Our tutors had been firm with their critiques and prepared us for the industry as best they could. But some things can only be learnt on the job. I spent most of my waking hours desperately trying to reconfigure my portfolio and trying to get my work to a higher standard. I knew that I wasn't industry ready coming out of Uni. And whilst many people coming out of Uni were happy the hard work was done, I knew it had only just started.

I worked all Summer, and by Summer's end I'd found an illustration home. I'd found an art Agent, The Bright Group, who remain my agents to this day, they've helped nurture my career and helped me become a better illustrator. They've never steered me wrong.

At the beginning of my career my work was still not quite up to where I wanted it to be (arguably it never will be). I wouldn't even be close to the standard I wanted to be at for another year or two after that, even more dedication, even more practice and a lot of patience. But, even as I was still developing a portfolio, because of my lovely agents I was able to get some work and start earning and paying rent at a flat. I was able to learn how to work at industry level, I would get feedback from Art directors and I would learn how to be better at my job constantly. Each new project brings with it a breadth of learning. I still can't believe some of the jobs I've been lucky enough to have, I have 'pinch me' moments when I think of them.

The fact that my agents and the lovely Walker Books have believed in me enough to allow me to write and illustrate my own story means more to me than I'll ever be able to express. I'm not sure if I'll be able to create another authored story in future, I'd really love to, but I keep flitting around different ideas and not settling on one.

There's nothing I want to do more that make art and tell stories. Anyone along the way who has had faith in me, supported me or made my dreams come to fruition In any way shape or form I have nothing but gratitude toward.

To be an illustrator, in my opinion, is to remain a life long student who is always seeking, striving for their best and is willing to pick themselves up from the bottom, time and time again. I am Lucy, an illustrator, and now an author, and still with my head in the clouds.

This is my illustrator story (so far.)

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All images © 2019 Lucy Fleming