Nick Sharratt graduated from St. Martin’s School of Art with Graphic Design (BA Hons) in 1984. He has worked ever since for a range of publications and authors, most notably for author Dame Jaqueline Wilson. Not satisfied with his illustrious career as an illustrator, Nick has also turned his hand to writing, with a number of children’s books under his belt; Shark in the Park, Don’t Put Your Finger In The Jelly, Nelly! And What’s In The Witch’s Kitchen? To name but a few…
Have you always been interested in illustration? I’ve been interested in drawing and image-making since I was a toddler. I don’t know where that interest came from because I’m not from an artistic background, but my parents were always very encouraging. I became more specifically focused on illustration in my teenage years.
How did you end up studying at Saint Martins? And what’s your favourite memory from your time there?
I did Art O’ and A’ levels at school, then a foundation course at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University). When the time came to choose a degree course I went for Graphic Design at St Martin’s School of Art (as it was) because the college had such a good reputation and because I was keen to experience living in London. I studied Graphics due to the fact that in the early 1980s there seemed to be very few colleges offering degrees solely in illustration. My favourite time at St Martin’s was the first year. It all seemed very glamorous: we were in a sparkling newly converted building (an old banana warehouse) in Covent Garden and the projects we were set were fun and exciting. We had amazing visiting lecturers – legends in the design world, though I didn’t fully appreciate that at the time. As a bonus I spent the first year living in the wonderful Ralph West Halls of Residence, with a great view of Battersea Park from my room, cooked breakfasts every morning and even afternoon tea and cake on a Sunday!
I enjoyed the location drawing projects most; memorable days spent at Crufts Dog Show or Chelsea Pumping Station or sketching opera rehearsals at the London Coliseum. There were some impressive students on the course in the same year, who went on to do great things: David Ellis, one of the founders of Why Not Associates; Robin Derrick, former creative director of Vogue UK; David Turner, co-founder of Turner Duckworth; the painter Anne Magill and advertising creatives, John Gorse and Nick Worthington.
Tell us about your career since graduating?
I graduated in 1984 and have been working as a freelance illustrator ever since. It was a good time to start my career as there was plenty of illustration work around, particularly editorial, which accounted for the vast majority of my commissions in the first few years. I worked for a wide number of magazines, covering every subject from accountancy to yoga. Cosmopolitan were particularly good to me and labelled me their ‘favourite cartoonist’. Alongside this I did packaging designs for Marks and Spencer, got the odd advertising commission and undertook a fair amount of work for the educational wing of Oxford University Press.
I finally got my foot in the door of the children’s books world when a designer from the trade section of Oxford University Press noticed my work and suggested me for a picture book poetry anthology. That first book led to another and then another. At the same time David Fickling, my original editor at Oxford University Press, moved publishers, put me together with the writer Jacqueline Wilson and gave me The Story of Tracy Beaker to illustrate. That was in 1990. By the mid-nineties I finally felt confident enough to devote all my energies to children’s books, writing them as well as illustrating other authors’ texts. I’ve illustrated about 250 books in total.
Do you have any tips for illustrators starting their careers?
When I left college finding work was a matter of phoning up magazine and book publisher art departments, making appointments and going in with the ‘folio, then hoping that the phone would ring – and that I’d be in to answer it! (I didn’t even have an answer phone to begin with). I’m sure what hasn’t changed is that you need to be highly determined and prepared to stick at it through fallow times. I know for many years I seized every work opportunity that came my way, no matter how small, and often one tiny illustration job would be a stepping stone to another slightly bigger, better job. For potential children’s book illustrators there are one or two excellent competitions, such the Macmillan Book Prize, that are well worth considering – they can really open doors.
What do you think the secret is to getting regular work as an illustrator?
You need artistic talent, obviously, but you’ve got to be reliable too, making sure you meet your deadlines and deliver the goods, which also means you’ve got to be prepared to put in long hours and work extremely hard sometimes. I think it helps to be flexible and willing to make certain changes if requested. And I’d agree with the opinion (voiced by John Vernon Lord I think), that an illustrator should believe they are capable of drawing anything – though what that can often mean in reality is doing some very crafty lateral thinking! Also, for a children’s book illustrator, the publicity side is increasingly important, so it’s good to be someone who can handle talking in public, at book events and on school and library visits. Meeting and talking with children in schools can be a great way to stimulate book ideas – several of my books evolved out of inspiring sessions with primary school children.
What piece of work/project are you most proud of?
I feel proud to have been the illustrator of books by brilliant writers, Jacqueline Wilson in particular, but the greatest sense of achievement comes from doing it all – writing as well as illustrating. I’m proud of Shark in the Park, Don’t Put Your Finger In The Jelly, Nelly!, What’s In The Witch’s Kitchen? … But, I’m forever hoping my best work will be turn out to be the thing I’m working on at that time.
You have a touring exhibition ‘Pirates, Pants and Wellyphants‘ at the moment. Tell us about that…
The exhibition is going to be touring the country for the next few years. It’s come about thanks to an Arts Council-funded consortium of galleries in the north who want to produce exciting, inclusive exhibitions aimed at children and young people, at the same time encouraging local communities into greater interaction with their cultural spaces. They were after an artist with appeal over a broad age range, whose work would also link in with the promotion of reading and literacy. They thought I ticked the necessary boxes and I was delighted to be selected.
The consortium and Leach Colour, the designers, consulted me every step of the way and the resulting exhibition is even better than I hoped it would be. There are sections exploring different reoccurring themes in my book work, and areas showing how ideas evolve and the various ways I create my artwork. There are plenty of drawing activities for youngsters and lots of examples of the pictures I drew as a youngster – I’m particularly keen to encourage children in their own art.