In Conversation With Sarah Long
last updated 13 April 2023
Talk us through your creative process. How do you approach a brief?
If I’m working on a book cover I will ask to read the manuscript and while I’m reading I will take notes about the characters, scenes, what they’re wearing and their personalities – little details that I can pop in as Easter eggs on the cover hopefully. If I can’t fit in details because they’re unrelated to a cover composition, I will add a nod to these as pin badges or a t-shirt that the character can wear. Designing their outfits is something I really enjoy and they can tell you so much more about what’s inside the book.
With greetings card briefs I like to work spontaneously so I get the blank card template up on my screen. I might paste in a few photographs for inspiration or if I’ve seen textures or patterns that I like I digitally collage them onto the file. I have a whole folder on my Mac, full of inspirational material on different themes, colours and topics, so I have a look to see if anything there will spark an idea for this project too. I then sketch over the top, but it’s always evolving and whilst I’m working on one idea it will normally make me think of alternative designs at the same time. It’s a very fluid process and I can end up with three or four ideas for one concept.
Once the sketches are approved I go with my heart as to what feels right with colour. I don’t use restricted colour palettes, although it’s something I’d like to play with in the near future, and I like adding patterns into the icons. It’s the fun bit. I never know how the end result is going to look as I chop and change all the way through the process, often asking myself at different stages, ‘would I buy this in a shop?’. That’s key to my designing. It has to be something I would be drawn to. I am also the customer.
Who/What have been your key influences as an illustrator?
I think I’m influenced by everything. I get so excited and inspired by all styles of art, illustration and design that I find myself picking out the elements that I think I could use in my own work and so it becomes an eclectic mix.
I’ve always loved children books that are interactive: But Where is the Green Parrot? by Thomas Zacharias; Jan Pienkowski’s brilliant Haunted House pop-up book; Spot the dog; and, more recently, No Such Thing by Ella Bailey.
I’ve just realised, by listing these books, that all the illustrations are fun, playful and have lots of other hidden details in the scenes. A lightbulb moment – I have been doing this subconsciously for years!
I also find the Sunday magazines a big inspiration for colour and pattern, and I use a lot of references from the interiors sections and apply them to new card designs to help move my creative voice along. It’s fun to try out new things.
How did you begin illustration? What was the spark of inspiration?
My dad would paint watercolours every week and was always in his studio at weekends. My brother was always drawing on everything, including the insides of cereal boxes and his school books. I was more into making and designing things. I remember a particularly good project where I made a space rocket out of two card boxes and then proceeded to illustrate the whole of the universe on a big roll of paper, so that I knew where I was going. I must have been about eight years old. I managed the planets and a few stars but I ran out of steam for the vast area of the rest of the black universe and only coloured about a quarter of it. In school I was much more interested in illustrating the diagrams, book covers, maps and science experiments than in the actual facts and results themselves. Looking back now, it’s so obvious that that was what I loved doing, but at the time I didn’t think, ‘this is what I’m going to do when I’m older’.
What’s your favourite part of the illustration process?
It’s definitely adding pattern and finding fun colourways to add to my illustrations, and creating outfits because I can literally make up any item of coloured or patterned clothing I like. It doesn’t have to exist, it can be something I’ve always wanted to wear or design myself but couldn’t find in real life. So I draw it!
It’s so satisfying when you’re really having fun creating something because it just feels right, but when you’re struggling and you can’t work out why – it’s the worst. That’s the time to down tools, make a cuppa, go for a walk. Take a break and come back to it a bit later. When it starts to become fun again then you know you’ve turned it around and it will be successful. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions for every illustration!
To an up-and-coming artist, what’s one piece of advice you would give?
The longer I’ve worked as an illustrator the more I’ve realised that if you create illustrations that you love and excite you then that is your creative voice and that’s what will make you unique and what clients will commission you for. Not everyone will like your work – and that’s ok. But create what you love and then the jobs you get will be a joy. And trust your gut feeling on whether an illustration’s working or not. You will always know. Always.
What would be your dream brief?
I would love to design food packaging. And a recipe book. Full of fun colours and patterns. I’m going to manifest this by mocking up some of my own for my portfolio. It’s a great way to get on the radar of potential clients – to show them something similar to what they want and to attract the commission you want!