Almost ten years ago to the day I answered the phone to someone from Hachette Children’s Books. They wanted to offer me a contract to illustrate a picture book. It was my first real illustrating job and I danced around the house like I’d won the lottery. Surely the natural progression from there is more recognition, more work and a flourishing, brilliant career? Ten years later though I feel like I’ve only just started.

Getting some perspective

I’ve listened to couple of brilliant podcasts and books recently that have made me look at the last ten years and some of the stumbling blocks along the way. Make It and Tell Everybody is a podcast hosted by Dan Berry. He spoke with Dapo Adeola about learning how to illustrate children’s books on the job and having to work it out because you get paid an advance so you’ve got to do it one way or another. This can lead to creating work that you’re not happy with but it has to be delivered anyway. I can totally appreciate this. I feel like it’s taken illustrating 20 books to just get close to doing work I’m happy with. Perhaps that says more about how self deprecating I can be, I don’t know. The trick is to not stop. During the podcast Dan Berry relayed a story of someone watching him draw and saying ‘that’s great, I used to draw’. So many people stop drawing or creating things because they feel it’s not good enough.

Time to give up?

Illustrating children’s books was something I always wanted to do and still is. But in any job you can become disillusioned. It’s hard to admit that I’ve illustrated books I’m ashamed to look at now. I wish they weren’t in the world. I’ve also illustrated books that I don’t like because the writing wasn’t great. And some books that I’ve poured my heart and soul into, only to printed so badly I’ve cried when I’ve seen the first copies. And don’t get me started on accepting a pay scale that is way below the work you’re putting in. So much goes into creating a book that’s out of your control – the title choice, the printing, the book design, the writing. They are big projects and sometimes the end result is not what you hoped for. Too many of those kind of projects can make you want to give up. But every project, even the really messy ones, have something you can learn from.

A couple of years ago I started searching for some other creative fields to work in. I upped my digital skills in Adobe Illustrator and learnt how to design patterns. I illustrated two books digitally and also worked on a series of sketch videos. The learning curve was super steep but its been worth it. I’m illustrating another picture book now and really enjoying the whole process.

Helpful stuff

In Mo Gawdet’s ‘Solve for Happy’ he distinguishes our sense of self and our identity. He highlights that our thoughts, accomplishments, ideas and bodies are not ‘us’. I found this really helpful. I’m almost fifty so there’s a lot of reflection going on. Particularly related to what I’ve achieved and what I want to achieve. Listening to Mo Gawdet cut through all that. It’s irrelevant how I feel about the work. The only thing that’s important is that you keep going because you love it.

I’ve also been listening to Brene Brown (of course, which middle aged woman doesn’t?). She said that people often give up on creative pursuits because of shame. That struck a cord with me. I thought that was about other people. It’s can’t be me because I’m always working on the next creative project. I wear it like a badge. But I did almost give up illustrating books. I haven’t worked on one for the past two years because I stopped sending submissions to publishers. I’d convinced myself that my work wasn’t good enough. Now I realise I’ve only just started.

So after all this soul searching, it’s not time to give up. In fact I enjoy it more than I ever have.

Posted by:Karen Erasmus

I am an illustrator and surface pattern designer. I have illustrated 18 picture books. I live in Melbourne, Australia with three kids, two dogs, four chickens and a mad husband. Life's busy. I also love to sew and cycle and visit galleries whenever I get the time.

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