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Artist Journey: Rachael McLean

last updated 23 August 2019


Rachael McLean lives and works on the East coast of Austrailia with one of the world’s most beautiful beaches as her backyard—it’s no surprise then that she is inspired by all things bright, colorful, and whimsical! Using clean shapes, bold colors, and subtle textures, Rachael is a master at creating characters and illustrations that are fresh, fun, and oh-so-adorable. We were delighted to catch up with Rachael on the blog to discuss her nontraditional path to becoming an artist and the magical debut of her first author/illustrated board book, My Best Friend Is a Unicorn!

Your work is inspired by bright colors, clean shapes, and whimsical designs—it’s impossible not to smile when looking at your illustrations! Can you tell us a bit more about how your artistic style has developed?

I’ve always been a color lover and clashing colors have always caught my attention. My favorite children’s books growing up were the ones that pushed boundaries, and that has influenced my love of breaking traditional color rules. Once I started to draw full time, I found my style tending toward drawing animals and people with clean shapes and big eyes. I’m always striving to draw as much cuteness as possible, and that’s where my love of big heads and little bodies has come to be part of my signature. Rosy cheeks, anthropomorphic animals, and cheeky smiles are my favorite things to draw too.


Did you know you wanted to be an illustrator from an early age? Where did your journey as an artist begin?

No, definitely not—I am living proof that it’s never too late to start! All through my childhood and into my teens I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon and look after animals. Then I went on a placement during school and realized I was too much of a softy and I had to find another career path that wouldn’t have me in tears all the time! I loved art and drawing and dreamt of being an illustrator, but I couldn’t see how I could make a living from it, so instead I worked in finance and then became a high school English teacher for over fifteen years.


I rediscovered my childhood love of drawing in my late thirties when I taught myself how to use Photoshop and Illustrator in my evenings after work. I drew every single day for several years, practicing techniques and mastering Photoshop as much as I could until my portfolio became something I was proud to show. I’ve been a very late bloomer as an illustrator, and it is only now in my forties that my journey has really started to begin. If you told my twenty-year-old self that she was going to be a children’s book author and illustrator later in life, that girl would have been very surprised and definitely very proud she had made that dream come true.

You recently finished your first author/illustrated book, My Best Friend Is a Unicorn! Filled with glitter and fun, this board book embodies the magical power of friendship and imagination. We’d love to know more about how this charming story came to life!

The little unicorn in this book was one I had drawn a couple of years ago. She had been floating around my portfolio waiting patiently for a lovely book to call home. I was very lucky that the amazing Eve Adler, who was Senior Editor at Penguin Workshop at the time, saw her and fell in love with her too! I had written a story for her and I worked with Eve and my agent, Alex Gehringer, on finessing the text and making it perfect for little kids to enjoy. Eve and Jay Emmanuel from Penguin Workshop made the process so enjoyable and stress-free and their talents really brought the book to life.


Final cover for MY BEST FRIEND IS A UNICORN. Published by Penguin Workshop

When I was writing the story, I wanted to show how sad days can be made better through friendship, positivity and a little dose of imagination, and having an unicorn and her best friend work as a team to overcome the odds seemed like a the perfect way to show children this message. It’s about getting the most out of situations we don’t always enjoy and finding comfort in friendship.

Can you tell us about your creative process when working through a new concept or character? What are your go-to tools for creating your digital illustrations?

I’m not a traditional illustrator with sketchbooks everywhere around the house. I solely work digitally in Illustrator and Photoshop. If I am drawing something I feel comfortable with, I will just sketch it out as flat colors in Photoshop and then add texture and shading. If it’s something I’m not familiar with, I usually sketch out the line work in Illustrator as it has more flexibility for making quick changes.


Process shots from the making of MY BEST FRIEND IS A UNICORN

Procreate has also become a place I sketch too as it’s mobile and I can take it to the beach for a change of scenery. When I am working out a new animal character, I usually first look for reference photos of that animal and use my own style to exaggerate its features to make it cute. Once I’m happy with the basics, I’ll move everything across to Photoshop where the magic happens! I use a range of Photoshop brushes to bring the illustration to life through texture and shading. That’s always the fun part!

How did your agent, Alex Gehringer, support you during the creation of My Best Friend Is a Unicorn?

Alex is so wonderful to work with—her positive energy is such a bright spark in all situations. She helped me feel comfortable and capable throughout the entire process of creating my first author/illustrated book. Alex liaised with Penguin, helped with ideas in the drafting stage of the text, provided a lot of constructive feedback in the illustration stage, and most of all, encouraged me to work hard towards making this into the book I am now so proud to share with everyone. Having someone you trust to bounce ideas around with is important, and Alex has a great way of steering you away from the bad ideas towards the good ones! I have said all along that My Best Friend is a Unicorn is Alex’s book as much as it is mine, as without her, it wouldn’t be so sparkly and cute! I am lucky to have such a great team.


Final interior spread from MY BEST FRIEND IS A UNICORN

You live in a beautiful coastal town in Australia. Do you often look toward nature for inspiration? What else influences you while working on a project?

I live in a little coastal town near one of the world’s most famous surf beaches, and I walk on the beach every day for a break from my desk. We have koalas, kangaroos, whales, dolphins, and a huge variety of birds all around us, so I am often inspired by the beautiful place I live. The tropical weather here is perfect for getting outside all year, and when I am not drawing, I’m usually outdoors enjoying it. I also often look to artists from my childhood books such as Richard Scarry, Joseph Giordano and Marjorie Auerbach.


LEFT: A recent illustration inspired by the beach in Rachael’s town

RIGHT: A collection of some of Rachael’s favorite childhood books

What does your workspace look like nowadays—when you’re not working on the beach, that is!

I work from home, so my workspace is upstairs in my house with a lovely view of the mountains and lots of comfy places for my two chihuahua work colleagues to rest. I work on an iMac with a Wacom drawing tablet and oodles of screen real estate so I can have all my computer programs open on their own screens. I’m lucky to live in a quiet neighborhood and have sea breezes, so my studio if a wonderful place to be. My husband built me a bookshelf for all the books I’ve drawn, and I’m not shy about putting them up to show! I’m very proud of everything I’ve done in the past two years with Bright and feel inspired to work harder when I see those books sitting there each morning.


Rachael’s home workspace and diligent design associate, Mister Barkley

How has your career as an illustrator developed since joining Bright, and what exciting projects lay ahead? A little companion to Unicorn, perhaps?

Joining Bright has been so life-changing. I never thought I could have a career as an illustrator, but my agents have worked hard to help me make this dream come true. Since joining Bright, I’ve worked on board, novelty, coloring and sticker books, as well a licensing projects such as greeting cards. I’ve worked with fantastic publishers from many different countries and seen the books I’ve illustrated translated into multiple languages for children all over the world to enjoy. I’ve had my first series of author/illustrated books published, met other inspiring illustrators, and spent my days doing a job I love. My agents have made me feel so valued and have all been delightful to work with - I genuinely look forward to chatting with them each day. The whole team at Bright have been welcoming and their professionalism and approachability is something I value enormously. It was the best decision I ever made!


I have a little companion to Unicorn coming out early next year! My Best Friend is a Dragon is the second in the series and chronicles the day in the life of a boy and his magical BFF. The cute dragon helps the little boy to overcome the challenges he faces during the day and shows him how important best friends can be. I can’t wait to share it!


View Rachael’s full portfolio here.

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