Cute and Bright : Brilliant Illustrations of Natalie Smillie

Natalie Smillie is a children’s book illustrator living and working in Airdrie near Glasgow. Her cute illustrations are bright with a lot of fun elements that keep children amused and engaged. Creating fantastic fairytale and mermaid characters, Natalie also does some freelance design works that are distinct with her signature style and stroke. Natalie’s art has been featured in many reputed magazines and she’s represented by the Bright Group. Her clients include renowned publishers including Benchmark Education, Trillium Publishing, Scholastic, Oxford University Press and Highlights Magazine, to name a few. Here’s our Q&A with this very talented artist:

Hello Natalie! Please tell us something about yourself and things you like:

I’m 28 and live in a town just outside of Glasgow, called Airdrie. I moved here with my husband after he got a new job earlier this year. We live here with our ginger cat, Loki.

I’m a freelance children’s book illustrator, represented by the Bright Group - I was very lucky to be signed up with Bright while I was still at college studying for my HND in Visual Communication. They’re a wonderful bunch and someone is always around to offer brilliant help and advice about your work.

I’m lucky enough to be making a living from my hobby! So what I used to do for fun, I now do for work! I don’t think many people can say that, and while it is terrifying, it’s also really fulfilling.

Natalie Smillie art (2)Tell us how did you become an artist and an illustrator. What kind of design work do you do?

When I was in school I applied for a place in Plymouth College of Art and Design and that’s what I did when I finished my exams. I had a notion in my head that I wanted to work on computer games and I had actually wanted to be a background artist for Disney for a long time. I didn’t know which was the right course for me, so I chose a Multimedia course and it was awful. It wasn’t what I wanted and I didn’t do well at all - the tutors were fine and the college was great but it just wasn’t for me!

I left and joined the Royal Air Force where I met my husband. I was too busy for the first couple of years to draw but I soon took it up again. It was HORRIBLE! I thought it was fantastic at the time but I shudder now looking back on it! I’m sure it’s the same for most artists when they look back on their development but mine was truly awful! After I left the RAF I did a couple of other jobs before sustaining an injury which meant that I couldn’t draw for a long time. I think up until that point I hadn’t really realised how much I loved art and how lucky I was to have some sort of ability. Gradually over a few years I managed to return to being able to paint and draw, however my injury meant that I couldn’t use the same mediums I used to be able to use. I have a shaky and painful hand and arm these days so digital art is best for me - there’s nothing more heartbreaking than getting through a watercolour painting only for shaky hands to ruin it at the end!

Natalie Smillie art (3)My husband and I moved to Aberdeen from East Anglia, my husband’s parents were so kind in giving us a place to stay and a headstart into a new phase of our lives. I attended a Visual Communication HND course at the College of Northeast Scotland and I can honestly say it was the best career decision I’ve ever made. The college was brilliant, the tutors were ace and I’m so happy to have made a load of lovely friends there. Whilst I was studying I decided that graphic design as a full time profession wasn’t for me - I like design, but I love illustration.

I applied to the Bright Agency in my Easter break and was delighted when they took me on. The agents there are wonderful - they help and guide you when necessary, give you a kick up the bum when you need it and are so, so lovely. I’m lucky to be a part of the Bright family! The opportunities that have come my way have been incredible and I hope to carry on working with them well into the future.

Your illustrations are very amusing and full of fun! How do you get into fun mode when you create illustrations for children?

I’m actually quite a serious person, I think working in the RAF made me grow up really fast and some of the things you see and read are incredibly sad and scary. However, I try really hard to be as upbeat and positive as possible, I’m making an effort in 2015 to have more fun! I used to play a lot of games, however my arm problem really put pay to that, so now what I do for fun is read more than I used to. I have an allotment and I grow vegetables, and I love films too. I realise I sound like the youngest old person on the face of the earth!

Natalie Smillie art (4)My niece and nephew are a source of inspiration for me, my nephew is such a funny boy, he’s so kind and sweet and I think he’s going to be totally lovely when he’s older. My niece is just two and has truly entered the ‘terrible two’s’ - which I think is hilarious but I don’t have to deal with it 90% of the time. I’m definitely a Hand Them Back kind of aunt! I try and sneak them both into any books I illustrate - I drew my nephew as a gnome recently!

My art is forcing me to think in a more fun and ridiculous way too - I did a lot of educational work when I started with Bright, which was brilliant as it let me focus on drawing characters in real settings, but I’m working on some things that are forcing me to think of things in a more surreal way now. Which is great! Kids like to have ridiculousness and silliness in their lives, and so do I, increasingly. Being an adult is SO boring sometimes, it’s nice to lose yourself in a crazy story.

What equipment / supplies etc. do you mostly use and why?

For personal work I like to sketch in a Moleskin sketchbook. I feel all proper and grown up buying these, and they’re so expensive I like to fill them up as much as possible so as not to waste them! I sketch with pencils (mostly H and HB when I want something darker).

Natalie Smillie art (5)For professional work I like to sketch in Photoshop, which is where I paint all my work. This is because if a client wants an amendment, it’s infinitely easier to do this in Photoshop rather than the sketching/scanning/editing process.

Your illustrations do look like stills from cartoon films. Do you take inspiration from comics and animations?

I love animated films. Disney and Pixar are a big source of inspiration for me - their more recent films (Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled) are brilliant - the characters and stories (with the exception of the Frozen story, I loved the art but the script was a bit flat), are fantastic. I also love their older films and Sleeping Beauty is one of my favourites - the art style is to die for, the palette and detail are incredible.

Tell us about your favorite project or any of your illustrations, if any:

One of my favourite pieces of work is one called ‘Repairing the Nets’ (see below). It’s one of the ones I sent off to Bright to see if they would represent me and while it’s from last year, I still love it. It reminds me a bit of myself and my granddad (even though it’s a boy and his father!). I think it just feels peaceful and restful and it’s still one of my best pieces.

Natalie Smillie art (11)What is your critical appreciation of digital works and what do you think about contemporary art?

I used to be firmly against digital art - I didn’t think it was ‘proper’ though if I’m honest I was being a watercolour snob. Now it’s pretty much all I use - partly because of my arm but mostly because I just love it so much. It allows me a lot of creative freedom and literally zero mess too!

Social media has been a huge influence on my art - the immediacy of it is fantastic - you post a piece of work and you get feedback straight away. Positive, negative and constructive criticism, it’s fantastic! I’ve made some amazing twitter friends that are so supportive and kind, and let me know when something needs amending or changing.

Tell us about your achievements, awards, recognitions, clients and any book that you’ve authored/published.

I’m extremely proud of the fact that I won the People’s Choice Award 2014 for my end of year show work - everyone that came to the show voted on a winner and that means so much to me!

Natalie Smillie art (6)I’ve worked on quite a few educational books for the US market and I’m currently working on two picture flats in tandem and there are a couple of other things planned in for later in the year.

What are your future plans/projects, inspirations and favorite stuff? How do you keep yourself motivated?

In the future I would love to have a tonne of picture flats under my belt, and the ultimate dream is to have authored and illustrated my own book. I’ve got a few ideas brewing and one of the lovely agents at Bright is helping me along with them. There’s no rush for me though, I want anything I do to be the best it can be, and I’m happy for that to be in a year or so’s time if necessary!

My sources of inspiration come from lots of places, daily life (I thought of a picture idea driving in the car the other day), conversations with other illustrators, books, films, and nature. Inspiration can strike from anywhere!

Natalie Smillie art (7)I keep myself motivated through a desire to keep creating! I love what I do and I can’t imagine doing anything else now - it’s so much fun. A challenge when you try something new, but still a lot of fun!

Say something to aspiring/budding artists/illustrators, your fans, and readers of the post:

I think the best advice is just to keep drawing, painting, however you create. Just keep doing it and don’t stop! Keep improving, ask for feedback and don’t be upset or take it to heart when you get it. It’s so easy to fall into a rut when something doesn’t meet a client’s expectations (I’ve been there), but don’t take it personally! And also, be as kind as you can to people - the world is short of kindness and my personal mission is to try to bring a bit more to people’s lives!

Natalie Smillie art (1) Natalie Smillie art (8) Natalie Smillie art (9) Natalie Smillie art (10)Natalie Smillie links: Website | Twitter

Note: All images used with permission. Please do not copy or distribute without the approval of the artist.