Illustrator Interview- Heather Dickinson

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As promised, I am interviewing another UK illustrator today to ensure some continental balance in this series! I fell for Heather’s illustrations when I first met Zoe and the Big Orange Kitten on uTales. Okay, okay, I AM a sucker for big CATS, but this isn’t the only reason I appreciate Heather’s artwork. Look closely at some of her child illustrations and see if you don’t agree with me that she captures childhood expressions and personalities beautifully?
  • Illustrator or author/illustrator?
I would prefer to say author/illustrator but my usual work is as an illustrator. However I now have two of my picturebooks on uTales.
  • What is your nationality and how does that and where you live/have lived influence your Art?
I grew up on the edge of the Saddleworth moor in the North of England ’til I was nearly six (that’s why I’m called Heather, my father spent much of his life shepherding on the heather covered Saddleworth moor). Then we moved to an extremely remote farming area of Yorkshire. I think it was living there that affected me creatively for I had to develop my own amusements. I remember reading fairytales over and over again and my mind becoming very visual.
Drawing became a sort of outlet, something that I loved to do whenever I could. I remember often asking my mother to bring me drawing books and pencils when she visited Settle, the local market town.
Drawing figures at an early age was the beginning of a lasting love of life drawing. I still go to a life class once a week.
There always were plenty of animals around to draw. One of my early memories is the magical feeling of a tiny duckling climbing on my hand, it was the inspiration for one of my MA picturebooks “A Mermaid on my Hand”.  I’ve always loved the animals, especially cats. I always had a special pet cat which I drew again and again.
When I was little the only collective noun I knew, living on a farm, was “herd” so I used to tell every one that when I was grown up I was going to have “a herd of cats”. The earliest illustration I actually saw being created was by my cousin (himself an artist) who did a drawing of me surrounded by cats entitled “Heather and her herd of cats”. So the first thing I ever saw being illustrated was a phrase I had created myself. I have the drawing to this day.
Being able to draw people and animals has proved very useful to me as an illustrator.
Some time around the age of nine or ten I started to develop a love of history. My favourite children’s programme was Noggin the Nog. I loved the images. I started to like quirky objects and images that had developed in a less-saturated society and seemed to have a sort of magic about them, masks, old chess pieces, ship figureheads, harlequins, jesters, lanterns, old keys and door knockers. I often include things like this in my illustrations.
  • Tell us a little about your beginning as an artist?
When I was little I kept filling tiny books with pictures and stories I had made up. I often got paints as a Christmas present , they usually got used up pretty quickly.
One of the things I remember about starting to paint was a growing love of pure colour. I always noticed that everything including numbers, letters and words all had a visual colour in my mind. It was often confusing for me at school because exercise books would be in a colour that didn’t match the colour of the word in my head so I would accidently hand in the wrong book.
I can remember being completely fascinated by certain objects, partly because of what they actually were, but mainly because of the colour. I used to stand by hedgerows looking hard at the rowan berries and rosehips. I remember incredible pleasure in trying to recreate them in watercolour.
My Art teacher at secondary school spent a lot time sitting with the boys in my class talking about football. In someways this was useful to me as he would set up someone as a model and I would spend the whole time figure drawing.
However it was with this teacher I started to love Art History. In A level Art history he dealt with a different artist each week and usually brought in a pile of books.
I clearly remember the lesson on Carravagio. It was a strange feeling and it’s never gone away. A feeling of inspiration that sometimes comes either when looking at a certain painting or creating a painting myself. I used to say it was like breathing ice crystals.
Visiting Florence, my favourite city, when I was older I realised just how much I loved Florentine painting in that “cradle of the Rennnaissance”. My love of colour and narrative all seemed to come together in the wall paintings, frecos and sculptures. I remember I found it very hard to leave.
All these influences have stayed with me and indirectly influence my illustrations.
  • What is your favourite medium for your Artwork?
I love using watercolours in halfpans and can never resist collecting the different colours when I’m in an Art shop. I also use white gouache for flicking in highlights. I have some rich Dr Martens watercolour inks but I only use them for brightening certain areas toward the finish as they do run quite easily. I have a large box of Windsor and Newton inks which I also tend to use sparingly. Sometimes I add crayon for some of the modelling. My favourites were Karisma colours but these days they are very hard to get. One wonderful Christmas I got the full set of eighty two colours, they are very small now but they are still beautiful to use.
  • You have just completed an MA in author/illustrated picturebooks. Can you tell us a little about this course and why you chose it?
I finished my MA at the University of Central Lancashire in 2009. One of the main reasons I chose this course was because it was particularly about children’s illustration as well as writing, designing and creating picturebooks. It also was within travelling distance of where I live in Manchester. I did the course part time as being a parent was my most important role, also I had some commissions from a local community publisher that I didn’t want to miss. I got a lot out of the course. We had talks and tutorials from very helpful professionals from the publishing industry and full time writers and illustrators. After the design projects of the first semester briefs were set in collaboration with the course tutor. In my second year I entered “A Mermaid on my Hand” in the MacMillan competition and was highly commmended. The last year included a final project and dissertation.
I did my dissertation on ” The drawing of children of picturebook age for illustration and character development.”  I chose something that was going to be useful to me when I had finished the course, researching in detail, through drawing, the changes in characteristics and appearance of children from one to six. Then exploring how this can help in character development.
I am still in contact with many of my fellow MA students and it was doing this course that led me to my joining SCBWI which has been very helpful to my work as an illustrator.
  • What does your workspace look like?
I work in the baywindow of an upstairs room.
My drawingboard is covered in quotes that I have been inspired by and scribbled down over the years usually from books I have been reading or Radio 4.
I have plenty of music nearby and a radio. I have one lovely Schmincke paintbox that I keep replacing the colours in and one large box of miscellaneous colours that I keep collecting. I tend to leave objects around on the desk that I may be including in some artwork, recently an old 1940’s teaset I used in Red Riding Hood.
  • Can you share a piece or two with us and the process of producing them?
I’ve recently been illustrating “Little Red Riding Hood and the Blueberry Muffins” with award-winning writer Rosemary Kay. The cover is very important and I wanted it to be special. I spent a lot of time on the design. I work on strong drawing paper that I can make a lot of alterations on and when I am really happy with it I transfer the design to a fairly thick watercolour paper and work up some of the lines with a fine liner.
I tend to block in large areas of colour with transparent washes and build up the layers ’til I get the intensity I want. Sometimes I add detail with pen and ink and highlights with white gouache. I find I have to move away from a piece of for a little while (usually a walk round my local park for an hour) and then I have a more objective look before I put in final touches. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and often decide I’m going to redo an illustration because some tiny thing is really annoying me.
  • What authors or illustrators influenced your childhood?
My first favourite picturebook when I was little was a book called “Harold and his Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson. I loved it and when my children were small I managed to get a copy for them.
One year Father Christmas brought a fairly large book called “A Treasury of Grimm and Anderson” illustrations by Doreen Baxter. I still have it although it is very battered and covered with my childhood drawings of swans and princessses.
I had quite a lot of the Beatrix Pottter books, and Cecily Mary Barkers “Flower Fairies of the Autumn” and “A flower Fairy Alphabet”.
The first novel I read through was when I was nine. “As I was Young and Easy” by Clancy Carlisle. I read it again recently I still think it is a brilliant book for children of that age. I’m amazed no one has ever made a film of it.
  • Tell us a little about your uTales experience and how might this benefit other illustrators and authors.
I have two picturebooks on the uTales website. “The Cat who Swallowed the Moon” and “Zoe and the Big Orange Kitten”. It’s always a pleasure to see my stories getting hits. I love the feeling that children somewhere in the world are getting fun and enjoyment from something I have created.
The uTales team were very helpful with editing and advice. E books don’t have the same constraints as traditional picturebooks. There isn’t the same limit on the number of pages. Also they do provide a good showcase for work. There were no ebooks when my children were little but if there had been I would have made good use of traditional and e-picturebooks.
Stephen Fry said recently that saying books are threatened by Kindle is like saying stairs are threatened by escalators.
  • How are you involved with SCBWI  UK?
I go to SCBWI North West meetings at the Waterstones events room in Manchester every few weeks. Members share their work and get feedback from the others. Recently we’ve had some excellent workshops and lectures from writers, illustrators, publishers and author /illustrators.
I have made some very good friends through SCBWI and good contacts. Steph Williams who runs the North West group, herself a writer, is an excellent coordinator.  Sometimes I go to events with the North East SCBWI group organised by Maureen Lynas in York. These have also been extremely helpful. Occasionally I get down to a masterclass in London.
  • Five fun ones to finish.
What word best sums you up?
If you could live anywhere for a season where would you go?
What’s your favourite smell?
In the kitchen…..coriander
on me…..Roma or Coco  if/when I can afford either of them
Cats or dogs?
Cats (and lemurs)
If you could spend a day with one children’s book illustrator with whom would that be?
There are so many, but if I can only choose one, Mick Inkpen.
Heather, we share much. Fresh coriander, Florence and Madagascan lemurs- Yes! Thank you for such a super insight into your creative life and inspiration. To your continued success with these delightful illustrations.
Heather can be found at
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19 Responses to Illustrator Interview- Heather Dickinson

  1. Tina Cho says:

    Beautiful illustrations, Heather! I’m going to show my daughter these, as she is thinking of being an artist when she grows up.

    • heather dickinson says:

      Your daughter will have a wonderful time, my daughter has just started an illustration course at Cambridge School of Art and is loving it.

  2. What an incredible interview of a fascinating and talented woman! Heather, I was particularly intrigued by your saying that words have a color for you, and that the feeling of inspiration was like breathing ice crystals — wow! Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, and of your art-life.

    Great post, Joanna and Heather!

  3. Lovely interview. Hurrah for Northern girls.

  4. Heather, I enjoyed learning about your early beginnings as an artist. What a gift you have. Your artwork really stands out. Have read your uTales stories and wish you much luck with being an author/illustrator. Great interview ladies. This is such a fun series.

  5. Gosh, what beautiful illustrations Heather and yes, I remember the Cat Who Swallowed the Moon. With your mention of Florence, I remember always looking at the ceilings as well as the paintings on the walls of some of the most beautiful buildings in Italy. A lovely interview ladies, and thankyou Heather for sharing some of your artwork with us. I loved it.

  6. Candilynn says:

    Lovely illustrations, Heather. Nice to meet you. 🙂

  7. Great Interview! I love Ms. Dickenson’s books! Is Mick Inkpen real? 😉

  8. heather dickinson says:

    Thankyou so much Erik.

    Mick Inkpen did ‘The Blue Balloon” “Nothing” and many others.

  9. Sue Stern says:

    A fascinating interview.Thank you, Heather and Joanna, for creating together something so revealing and so delicate. I was taken by Heather’s perception of seeing the world as ‘ pure colour’, when she was small. I now have the great pleasure of working with Heather as she creates the illustrations and cover for my book for older children, Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid. It was totally by chance that we met at a SCWBI meeting in Manchester, and later, she sent me an email…

  10. Oh, what gorgeous illustrations, Heather! Just delightful! Thank you both so much for a wonderful interview and for sharing this beautiful art!

  11. lynn says:

    dear heather, you deserve to be up there with the greats. your heart and soul are totally reflected in the work you do.
    thank you for my wonderful illustrations for miss mousey. it made a dream come true.
    you are a wonderful human being

  12. Lovely work and delightful illustrations. Heather is a very talented artist.

  13. Betty Massey says:

    The artistic talent must be in the fairbank genes. Your grandfather painted beautiful rural scenes in oil. Your great aunt Lucy Amy Fairbank was a watercolourist. I loved her horse paintings – small but nice!
    I have really enjoyed your Christmas card paintings, especially the older ones of Rowan and Saskie. Your Rudolph sketch on this year’s card is fascinating.

    You do look like my cousin May. Your Aunt Eleanor always said she resembled the then Princess Royal. I heartily agreed!
    Much love to you and the family,

    • I have only just seen this, thankyou for the lovely comments. Was my great aunt Lucy Amy Fairbank the lady who did cine films of Linthwaite and Golcar? I will pass this information to my niece Heloise (Joseph’s daughter) she is building up a family tree and wants me to tell her any anecdotes about family members, I only wish i had jotted more down when my parents and grandmother were alive. Are you on email? Much love to you all in Canada. Heather xx

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