Illustration as an art has progressed a lot since Beatrix Potter’s universally loved (and still popular, vide the new animated version) anti-hero, Peter Rabbit, jumped off the page in 1902. You only have to look at Northern Ireland’s current bestselling artist-illustrators. Joining the distinguished lineage started by Sam McBratney with another toothy mammal (Guess How Much I Love You), there is the magnificently left field Oliver Jeffers (The Day The Crayons Quit, Here We Are) and now Belfast-based Ashling Lindsay.
Lindsay, 27, is the newest Northern Irish draughtsman on the block. She was shortlisted for the 2013 AOI New Talent Award for Book Illustration when she was a student. Although still in her twenties, she has notched up significant successes in her own and collaborative projects such as the current series of children’s books with Louise Greig, including The Night Box (nominated for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Book Illustration Award alongside Quentin Blake, Mr Jeffers and other luminaries) and Between Tick and Tock (out on May 31).
Talking down the line from her studio, Lindsay reveals that the working day of an illustrator is quite reflective, although she pursues creative ideas too. 'I storyboard and spend a lot of time thinking things out. I write a lot of stuff down which is very rough, scribbles really.' She admits though that she is not inspired by nature – 'I don’t do all that wishy washy art speak' - nor does she maintain the perfect sketchbook. 'There is a lot of writing and words,' she says of hers, 'they're mad. It doesn’t have to be perfect.'
The creative process nowadays thrives on a multi-platform approach. It’s revealing that although Lindsay works a lot of the time on-screen, using her computer’s drawing application, she likes using pencil and crayons and is now incorporating them into her work.
The first illustrated book Lindsay got to know, and love, was The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Edward Gorey. 'It was read to me in primary school and basically the boy starts shrinking, she recalls. 'He keeps getting smaller and his parents don’t seem to care.' It was the disturbing nature of the story precisely which drew her in however. 'I prefer things that have an element of danger and the weird like this old book, published in ’81. I loved the book itself because the cover was a spooky green colour and the drawings were creepy. Children like creepy.'
Lindsay attended an Irish speaking school, where she continued to enjoy horrific narrative likes Goosebumps, and where teachers fostered her artistic talent – although she can't recall their English names. 'But I remember the head of the Art Department there was the first person who suggested to me I could do a children’s book. I thought at the time I’d never do that, it was so cheesy.'
She adds the adjective 'tacky'. Her reaction is ironic now but at the time, Ms Lindsay was also investigating art history, particularly German expressionism which encompasses artists from Emil Nolde to Kandinsky. Later, when studying for her A Levels, she gained more general encouragement. 'My parents always encouraged me to be creative, and all our family is quite artistic. Dad is quite good at art, mum is good at fashion and textiles. But I also had some amazing art teachers at Colaiste Feirste.'
Then came a degree at the super-creative School of Art at Ulster University, also Oliver Jeffers’ alma mater. Ralf Sander, Reader in Fine Art at the college, recently designed a flamboyant work for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. College provided Lindsay with the tools needed for her brilliant career, although she knew which direction she wanted to go. 'I already had illustration in mind but was still open to my work developing in any direction,' she says. 'I studied graphic design and illustration at degree level, and learned how to tell stories through my images, how to work with narrative, use digital software and make animation!'
Lindsay animated the videos for 'Ghosts' and the title track of Ciara O'Neill's 2016 album The Ebony Trail
Apart from attending the right college, Ashling Lindsay’s first piece of advice to aspiring illustrators is simple: 'Get an agent.' She expands on this. 'A lot of people have success on social media but for me, it was a conscious decision to get an agent if I was going to get a book done. I read a lot of submission advice online.' Approaching the task in a business like manner, Lindsay worked on ten images. 'I got ten together, sent them to a few agents but they had found me on Twitter. So key people had seen my work.'
The illustrator admits to being ambitious. 'Yeah, I always have something in mind, sort of like goals,' she says. 'They’re always very defined.' Then there is the vital question of individual style. Lindsay's figures and landscape may have a slight resemblance to the drawn world of Mr Jeffers, but she has fierce individuality, the creepy quality when required, and wit. On the cover of The Night Box her fox, always a sinister animal, is a bit of an aesthete, delicately about to sniff a flower. We talk about other artists and illustrators, agreeing that Nadin Shereen’s Good Little Wolf is the business.
Lindsay’s current project is a book of her own, not shared art with a writer, but with text and images that she has produced on her own. It forms part of her MSA or masters degree in Design at Ulster University and needless to say, she won’t tell me what the book is about, although she reveals 'it’s totally separate from my other work.'
In her experience it's important to get 'contextual references', to see round your own work. 'It gets you to your style, rather than emulating somebody else’s style,' she notes. 'If you look at lots of things, have a wider selection, you’ll be yourself.' Ceramics and paintings for example, as well as illustrations. 'If you only look at other illustrators, you’ll be derivative.'
Lindsay also emphasizes the practical side of freelancing, saying would-be illustrators should consider their cash sheets. 'It’s all about cash flow. When I first went freelance, I just focused on the work, not the money.'
I wonder whether Lindsay has a typical day and how does collaboration with the writer work? 'When you’re working on books written by somebody else, you don’t necessarily speak to them,' she explains. 'You get updates. It’s usually me and the publisher’s creative director and whoever she deals with.' There is a bottom line, after all, and that is to do with sales as well as creativity. 'It is based on sales and the publishers want an angle. I don’t necessarily like it, it may be a challenge.'
How does work on screen compare to on paper? 'I do most of my work digitally, working between 12 noon and three, when I become timid,' she says. 'I use a tablet with basic software, nothing fancy. You can edit work, delete is as well which may be a downside. It makes me work more precise, but maybe it sometimes gets flat. But on paper, you get to embrace mistakes, discover the happy accident.'
True, although there’s nothing accidental about Ashling Lindsay’s success.
Ashling's new book with Louise Greig, Between Tick and Tock, is out on May 31, available to pre-order now from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles.
This article was originally commissioned as part of Creativity Month 2018, themed this year around creative industries careers and skills. For more articles you may have missed click here.
By Jane Hardy