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A Bright Career with Nicola O'Byrne

last updated 24 April 2020


To celebrate reaching 50,000 followers on our Instagram, we’ve asked Bright author-illustrator Nicola O’Byrne to host a special ‘Draw This In Your Style’ competition! The competition will be running on the Bright Agency UK instagram, and Nicola is challenging artists to draw her famous grumpy crocodile from her Waterstones Children’s Book Prize Winning book ‘Open Very Carefully’. The winner of the competition will get a free online portfolio review with one of our fabulous Bright agents.


Find all the details on how to enter the competition here.

Alongside the competition, we’ve asked Nicola what goes into being a successful picturebook author and illustrator, how her career started and her top tips for aspiring artists!

When did you first join the Bright Agency? What drew you to Bright?

Bright approached me in July 2010 after seeing my work on display at D&AD, and I joined in October of that year. I was obviously delighted! I remember sitting at my desk after receiving the email, with my Mum and Dad looking over my shoulder, pouring over the Bright website. I was impressed by the quality of work from the other illustrators on their site, and when I had that initial meeting, I was excited about the plans Vicki (founder and MD of the Bright Agency) had already made for me.

title ‘Open Very Carefully’ cover // Nicola O’Byrne // Nicola’s Dad reading to her as a baby

Tell us a bit about where the inspiration for ‘Open Very Carefully’ came from?

I was in the library at Edinburgh College of Art, trying to write an essay about the use of illustration in branding. I drew a crocodile in the margin and I wrote ‘HELP! I want to get out of this essay!’ My crocodile looked so grumpy, I could relate. I felt pretty excited about the doodle, much more so than about the essay that I wasn’t writing. I entered the first version of that book in the Macmillan Prize and was highly commended.

title From roughs to final artwork: ‘What’s Next Door?’ is the sequel of ‘Open Very Carefully’. I wrote it several years after the first book, and when I came to doing the final artwork I realized I had not made a note of the colours I used to paint the crocodile. He might look pretty simple but there’s actually no green paint on him. I mixed two yellows and a blue to colour him, and when I came to doing the final artwork of WND? this caused me a lot of problems. I didn’t have the same paint set, and it came out very yellow. Eventually I figured out a solution, but now I always make a note!

How do you create characters like the crocodile from ‘Open Very Carefully’? Talk us through your creative process.

I seem to have two ways of working. One where I’m supposed to be doing something else, and I procrastinate, doodle, or draw something for fun, and something falls out like it was already there. The other way of working is that I have a story in mind and I try to search for the characters that fit. ‘Bad Cat!’ (Nosy Crow) is an example of the first; the bears from ‘Where’s Home, Daddy Bear?’ (Walker) and Rabbit from ‘Use Your Imagination’ (Nosy Crow) are examples of the second. I wish I could choose which one happens, but it doesn’t seem to work that way for me.

title ‘Bad Cat!’ // ‘Where’s Home, Daddy Bear?’ // ‘Use Your Imagination’

How do you work through a creative block?

I am still trying to figure this one out. I think there is a balance between allowing yourself time to draw for fun, and pursue other interests that are creative (or not), like in my case reading, sewing, or going to the gym, or making yourself sit at your desk and work through a problem. Sometimes taking time away helps you see things afresh, and sometimes I’m just procrastinating and the problem will be solved by 6-12 more hours of slogging through it. I also find that the people I work with are a fantastic resource, so I can always work through a few different ideas, send them off and see what other people think. Every time I have creative block I think everything is rubbish and I’ll never have a good idea again. But so far, that hasn’t been the case! I try not to let it stress me out anymore.

title Nicola winning the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize // Nicola at a children’s event // A child dressed up as the crocodile for World Book Day!

Why, as an artist, is it important to have a creative community around you?

I feel like a person’s creativity is a finite resource, and you can only make withdrawals when you also make deposits. Working as an illustrator can be quite isolating, and burn out is real. Having other creative people around you allows you to see things in a different way. It’s also really lovely to be able to chat with people who just understand, without trying to fix you. When I moved from Cambridge, UK, to Los Angeles, I had no illustrator friends, and I would try to talk to people who didn’t work in the industry and I’d spend so much time explaining myself that I felt exhausted afterwards and a bit mopey. I also love seeing what other people are working on and hearing them talk about it. It makes me feel more excited about illustration in general. I am enjoying the illustration community on Instagram at the moment for this reason. Alice Melvin’s #walktosee are a constant source of inspiration.

title Rough sketches for ‘Bad Cat!’ // Final artwork

What one piece of advice would you give to an artist who’s just starting out?

Marry rich!

I’m kidding - I would suggest looking for representation. My agents have been so incredibly supportive, in more ways than just what you would hope for. When my Dad died unexpectedly my agent Arabella Stein picked me up from Heathrow at 5 am and drove me to my sister’s apartment. Who does that?! I will never forget it. You will have ups and downs over your career, and things happen that are outside of your control. It’s good to have support.

title Nicola at book signing and children’s events

What’s your favourite thing about you job?

SO MANY THINGS. I think when your finished work is published, sometimes a year after you completed it, and you’re working on other things and don’t really think about that project too much anymore, and then someone sends you a photo or video of their child reading your book. That’s pretty terrific.

title ‘Bad Cat!’, published 2nd April by Nosy Crow

What are you currently working on? Can you tell us what to expect next?

I am currently working on some new ideas for an author/illustrated book that are at a VERY rough stage, I am hoping if I prod them enough, one of them will decide to blossom into something useful! I’m also illustrating roughs for a book that is a sequel, there is a lot of fur and quite detailed backgrounds, and I am really enjoying the backgrounds, but not so much the fur. A lovely balance of new projects and repeat work. Working on a sequel is like being visited by old friends. Old friends with sharp teeth!

You can see more of Nicola’s work in her portfolio. To enquire about working with Nicola, please contact Arabella Stein.

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