Creating a magical world through illustration

  • by Romane de Beer

She’s the creator of the most enchanting undersea environment you’ll ever see, and she's as intriguing as she is talented. When Lily Uivel’s portfolio landed in our inbox, we were floored straight away, and she’s been an absolute delight to partner with to create the adorable under the sea story that is, Samson.

Portrait of Lily Uivel

It takes you just one look at Lily’s gorgeous illustrations for Ethicool to see that they’re far more than just drawings - they’re a complete and utterly mesmerising world. But how do you create such worlds? Lily shaped her talents from an especially young age, among a family rich in creative mastery. Read on to discover more about Lily’s fascinating artistic life, and how she brought the magic to Samson.

You’ve illustrated several children’s books now, Lily, and your fans and followers are growing and growing! Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how it all started for you? 

Sure thing. So, I’m from Wellington, New Zealand, which is where I’m currently based, but I was recently living in the UK. In incredibly exciting news, I’ve also just made the transition to becoming a full-time illustrator! 

In terms of my background, I come from a close-knit family of six, including two sisters and a brother. My parents are both artists, and they are also creative business owners. They actually own a props-making business!. They’ve owned that business my whole life, and it’s been a fascinating and exciting journey, making everything from costumes to movie scene backgrounds, as well as items you might find in museums or other art installations. Outside of their business, they also both had their own creative pursuits: Mum’s a talented sculptor; and Dad is a ceramicist. 

Samson C. Turtle by Lily Uivel

I grew up surrounded by art and creativity, and in many ways, I always knew it was what I wanted to do. 

For as long as I can remember, I drew and drew. I had notebooks full of characters, and I would create everything for them, from the expressions on their faces to the costumes they wore and how they accessoried them. But it wasn’t just characters that I drew. 

I would draw entire worlds, and fill them with everything that belonged there. These worlds would be incredibly detailed, and I would often imagine myself in them. 

One example that I can remember is I drew a world like the movie Avatar, with islands floating everywhere. In that world, I drew giant birds and all of those birds had to attend flying school. 

At school, I always loved art, so when I graduated, I ended up studying conceptual art. At the time, I was interested in illustration but I couldn’t quite find the right course. Conceptual art felt like it would open up more opportunities, even though I wasn’t sure if they would be right for me. 

As it turned out, though, studying conceptual art wasn’t right at all. It turned me off so much that something terrible happened. 

For a whole year, I felt like I couldn’t make art. That was devastating to me. 

It was then that I realised how critically important being creative was to who I was as a person. I needed it just as much as I needed the air I breathe. I needed it to survive.

After I graduated though, I did land a few great jobs, mostly in the props-making industry. I worked for a few different companies, including working with my family for a bit. I was happy - or maybe I could say I was happy-ish - but I ended up moving to London as I still felt like there was a part of me that wasn’t fulfilled by what I was doing. 

Samson C. Turtle by Lily Uivel

Around the time I moved to London, I started to explore the idea of illustrating again. At the time, I thought perhaps it was just going to be a hobby for me. Nonetheless, I wanted to do it well, so I started drawing a lot. I went to lots of different life drawing classes and did anything and everything I could to brush up on my technical skills. Just as I had done in my childhood, I started drawing and drawing, drawing and drawing some more, until I was drawing up to 3 hours a day or more. I felt this great relief. I felt as if I was finally catching up. 

From that point, about 3 years ago until now, I’ve been building my portfolio and have been fortunate to work on quite a few children’s books. I’d always been attracted to children’s animation and entertainment, so illustrating children’s books felt like a natural choice for me. 

I love children’s books because of the imagination and magic behind them. I like the lightness of it. 

Wow it sounds like you really love what you’re doing! But also that you’ve just recently taken the leap into becoming a full-time children’s book illustrator! Can you tell us what made you make the big decision? 

It has been a big decision! My big move actually coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been terrible, of course, but was the catalyst for me moving back from London but also I think the push I needed to finally realise my dreams. 

You always tell yourself you’re not ready. But then you see that you were always ready. 

And I love it. I love being self-employed; I’ll never have a desk job again. Saying that, though, I do try to stick to the 9-5 routine, but sometimes I do need to do some work in the evening, but even then, I hardly mind. Drawing on the couch at night feels like more of a hobby than a job! 

We often hear from illustrators that the path to success can be far from easy. Why do you think this might be?  

Illustrating is something a lot of people are passionate about, and so it’s competitive. There are a lot of people who want to do it, and as a result, many will charge less. In my experience, though, you do get what you pay for. 

Samson C. Turtle by Lily Uivel

From my own experience, I know the time and effort required to create beautiful illustrations, and also a lot of the work you don’t see, including the hours and hours you spend developing your skills. I think if you do that, you know your worth, and also what you can bring so you don’t want to charge those incredibly low prices. 

I think as well - and people often forget this - if you’re going to run a business being a children’s illustrator, you can’t forget about the business side of it. You need to know how to market yourself, you need to know how to quote, how to deal with clients and deliver a good service, and also how to back yourself in challenging situations. 

Illustrative talent is important, but the business side of things is just as important. 

We totally understand that! So now, onto your first book with Ethicool, Samson C. Turtle. Can you tell us a bit more about the creative process behind that one? 

Sure, so I follow quite a strict creative regime in order to get consistent results. Here’s what I do: 

  • Study the manuscript: 

My first step is, unsurprisingly, reading the manuscript. But in this stage, I like to dig a little deeper. If I have any questions, I try to get them answered here as it’s always better to do that sooner rather than later. I also always like to talk to both the author and the publisher, to get both of their perspectives on what would work. Ultimately, though, I’m not looking for too much information, as I do need to leave space to create my own little world for the story. 

  • Create the aesthetic profile 

Before I start any children’s book, I always create an aesthetic profile. The platform I feel works best for this is Pinterest. Using Pinterest, I usually group together tens, if not hundreds of images that will inspire me, including photos, and of course, the work of other artists. For example, with Samson C. Turtle, I collected numerous different images of sea turtles, as well as underwater scenes, that I could use as my inspiration. 

I personally feel that if you work from references, you get a much richer result. 

  • Create the characters and rough sketches 

As I mentioned before, the business side of illustration is just as important, so with any new book I always do sketches first. I usually start with the characters, and then do a lot of messy sketches of the key scenes. 

Once I’ve done these - so kind of the storyboarding stage - I’ll always get lots of feedback from the client. Sometimes you do need to take the illustrations a bit further - for example, add colour - so the client can really imagine what they’ll look like. Whatever you do here though, feedback is so important! It’s so much easier to fix your sketches than to produce a finished illustration then need to change it.  

  • Finish your piece - and don’t forget to recharge your creative batteries 

Illustration is so much more than creating great pictures. A big part of it is interpreting what other people are thinking, while at the same time bringing them something new and unexpected. And to really bring that wow factor, I think you need to invest in yourself as well. 

Samson C. Turtle by Lily Uivel

For my creativity to stay at its most productive level, I need to do a number of things to recharge my batteries. These include drawing for fun, but also normal life things like exercising, socialising, and taking breaks. Whenever I’m working on a project I always like to be in nature, for example, you might go to the beach and get a whole new level of inspiration for something. I think if you do this, you can really bring the wow the client is looking for.

  • Samson is one of our most popular characters so far! What sets your style apart from the rest? 

That’s great to hear! I think Samson is so special, partly because of the process I followed with him, but also the story. 

Sea turtles are genuinely awe-inspiring creatures, and I think having him preside over the ocean and offer sage advice as a wise, old and omniscient turtle is really powerful. He’s peaceful and approachable, yet intriguing and fun all at the same time.

  • Ethicool Books is a special publisher that promotes understanding of the issues that matter. What issues that Ethicool promotes are important to you and why? 

Living in New Zealand the majority of my life, I’ve always cared deeply about the environment. We’re doing some exceptional conservation work here and it will only be worthwhile if future generations can continue it. 

  • What is your favourite type of book to illustrate, and why? 

I really love creating magical worlds for children, so there’s a wide range of books that I love illustrating. 

But there is one very important thing for me. 

I don’t really like books that try to tell kids how they should be. 

For example, if a book told girls they needed to be princesses in pink, that wouldn’t appeal to me. Kids need to be encouraged to be who they want to be, without limits or stereotypes.

We totally agree! Ethicool books is all about challenging stereotypes for the better and inspiring the next generation to make the world a better place. So I’d love to hear from you: finish this sentence. “If I could inspire the next generation to do just one thing, it would be…”

… To build strong communities, have empathy and support each other. The next generation is certainly going to have a lot to grapple with as the rate of change has become so rapid. So I’d love to see people all around the world uniting and supporting each other, regardless of differing opinions, races, religions or worldviews. 

Instead of staying behind our computer screens, I think we all need to get out there and create supportive and kind communities, committed to our future wellbeing.

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Lily’s debut children’s picture story book for Ethicool is now available for pre-order. Grab your copy here.

Tagged with: how-tos illustration oceans
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