Amelia’s Magazine | Illustrator Johanna Basford talks about being #TwitterPicture girl and more


Johanna Basford specialises in finely detailed monochrome pen and ink illustrations, and and last year came to the media’s attention after she conceived #TwitterPicture, pills a crowd-sourcing exercise in which she asked tweeters to suggest images that she then compiled over a 48 hour period into one giant montage, nurse letting those involved follow her progress using the picture-sharing site Twitpic. Here she talks to recent collaborator Neil Ayres about working with the Edinburgh Fringe, the ongoing success and continuing permutations of #TwitterPicture, agency representation and making sure, when it comes to her work, that she’s always a little bit scared.

Johanna Basford_BotanicalRhapsody
Botanical Rhapsody, commissioned by Queensberry Hunt Ceramicists to create hand drawn surface patter designs for tableware collection, 2008.

For those that don’t know, and at the risk of making you cringe, you’re the ‘#TwitterPicture girl’. The first #TwitterPicture was a big success, but it was evident to anyone who was following your progress that it was pretty exhausting. You decided to follow it up with an even more gruelling version. Was this really sensible?
I’m a firm believer that if something isn’t challenging, it’s not worth doing. I work in a huge industry saturated with talent. My thoughts are that you have to put yourself on the edge a little bit to make yourself stand out. There’s nothing captivating about mainstream. 
Johanna Basford_DialogueOfTheDogs
Detail from an illustrated interpretation of Cervantes’ The Dialogue Of The Dogs, for The New Goodbye iPhone app, 2010.

You recently used the #TwitterPicture premise to create artwork for the Edinburgh Fringe. You’re also illustrating all of the literature for the coming festival. What other work has this involved?
I’m working with Edinburgh-based design agency Whitespace to create a series of illustrations for the programme, as well as having produced the final artwork which was the result of the #FringeCover #TwitterPicture. As the Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival, it’s obviously been a privilege to work on the project. I’ve tried to capture the bubbly sense of excitement and eccentricity which is at the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe. I managed to smuggle a few little quirks and surprises into the final artwork which I hope will delight and intrigue the audience.

Johanna Basford_Fashion_Vogue
Hand drawn images layered over fashion photography for Vogue, 2009.

And any more #TwitterPictures on the horizon? I’m sure it’s nice to be the go-to person for something, but are you in danger of becoming typecast?
Every time I finish a #TwitterPicture, I get a little over emotional and swear, ‘never again’. Yet I find myself being drawn back to the format of live drawing and crowd sourcing just a few months later. I would never run the same project twice, but I do believe evolving an idea to fit different formats and meet new challenges is both positive and interesting. Whether it’s adding the webcam, the non-stop 24 hour drawing or teaming up with a commercial client, each evolution of the #TwitterPicture has explored something new in the idea and pushed the concept to more extreme levels. As for the danger of becoming typecast, one look at my desk would reveal the dozen or so projects I am working on at any one time. Be it textile designs, custom packaging, illustrations, limited edition prints, website graphics or tattoos – my practise is diverse and always developing, the only constant thread is my love of monochrome.

Johanna Basford_Heartbreak
Heartbreak Pen and ink illustration, later screen printed as part of a limited edition print series created with Heartbreak Publishing, 2009.

Tell us a bit about how you came to do what you do. Have you drawn pretty much since you were knee-high to a pencil?
More like a Crayola crayon. I’ve always drawn, much to the peril of my parents who had to put up with a toddler who drew on walls. It’s a cliché, but I’ve always known I was going to end up drawing, I just wasn’t quite sure of the exact format. I went through phases of wanting to be an architect and a fashion designer, but at the core of everything was this passion for drawing. 
After school I went to art school and studied printed textiles, specialising in silk screen printing. I graduated and spent a couple of years making hand-printed wallpapers and fabrics, feeling a bit confused and very unhappy about the direction I seemed to be heading in. Then, thank God, the credit crunch hit. The recession was the best thing that has happened to me. It forced me to seriously rethink what I was doing, to be completely brutal with myself. I re-evaluated my business and the work I was producing and made some big decisions. I stopped messing about making and selling products. I set myself up as an illustrator, focused on the one thing in life which never fails to inspire and delight me. I’ve not looked back since. Life is good.
Johanna Basford_MoonlitWalks_chapillo
MoonlitWalks, Chapillo illustration for iPhone app The New Goodbye, 2010

And how have you managed to carve a career in what’s a notoriously difficult industry to break into. Did you start out with any form of game-plan?
I’m very conscious that my industry is jam-packed with talent and ambition and that each year a new wave of eager graduates swarm into the pool of illustrators competing with each other. I’ve always thought it was better to do something different, something a little unusual, which would help me stand outside the crowd and be different. So I concentrated on creating the most detailed, intricate, hand-crafted designs, done almost exclusively in monochrome. I can’t compete with everyone on every level, so I focus on creating the best work I can for a specific niche. That’s not to say I’m not flexible in my work, and I would never limit myself on a brief, but for the main part, I want to be known as the girl who does ‘the-super-detailed-hand-drawn-black-and-white-drawings’.

Johanna Basford_PunkPeacock
PunkPeacock first shown at 100% Design, 2008.

We’ve worked together on a project recently, to republish a novelette, The Dialogue of the Dogs, by Miguel Cervantes [author of Don Quixote] as part of an iPhone app. Illustrating an old, respected text must have proved a different challenge to the type you’re used to. How did you go about it? There are hundreds of different elements in the finished illustration—is there much preparation involved?
Reading is not my strong point, so I did have to plough my way through the story a few times to really get to grips with it. I then made lists of important events, main characters and iconic images from the text and started time lining them together into a sequence which mirrored the narrative of the story. Using my trusty lo-fi methods, I stuck together lots of sheets of paper to make one long canvas and started drawing in the top left hand corner. The drawing process was unplanned. I just followed the flow of the story, sketching in the characters and scenery as I came to them, working from left to right. As the paper filled up, I stuck another sheet on. The creative process was organic and rambling, which I felt fitted the narrative thread of the story. As the drawing grew, I moved off my desk and worked on the floor, finally, several metres of paper later, the artwork was complete.
Johanna Basford_SweetNothings_chapillo
SweetNothings Chapillo Chapter illustration for iPhone app The New Goodbye, 2010,

You’ve worked with some interesting clients, particularly high-profile in the creative industry (aside from the Fringe there’s Heal’s, the V&A, BBC, among others). Do you have any particular ambitions in regards to your illustration?
I love the challenge of working with new clients in mediums and contexts which are unfamiliar to me. I’ve just finished working with Oxford University Press on my first book cover which was brilliant. My primary aim is to keep things scary. The anxiety of working on a project in which I may be a little out of my depth always inspires my best work. Looking forward, I’d like to work with some more big name clients; I’d like to see my drawings come to life through animation; I’d be keen to work on some more multimedia projects. And as specific examples, I’d love to get my hands on a Selfridges’ shop window and a Boutique Hotel. I’d also love to tackle more installation projects and supersize my artwork. I have a lot of plans. I just need more hours in the day.

You’re represented by NB Illustration, and this is a relatively recent arrangement, right? How’s that working out?
I signed with NB at the start of the year as a way of opening up my work to a new audience. NB has been crucial in introducing my work to a segment of the industry I just wasn’t able to tap into alone. They handle all the horrible or slightly boring stuff and leave me to the joyful task of drawing. They warned me when I signed with them that it might take a few months for the first piece of work to come in, but we had just a week to let the ink on the contract dry before they lined me up with my first job. For an illustrator, they’re a great agency. Not so large that my work is lost in the chatter, but big enough to have a firm standing in the industry. If the first four months is anything to go by, it’s going to be a fruitful partnership.

Do you still feel the urge to push your work as well as relying on the agency?
Most definitely. I think you have to work in tandem with your agent to ensure you are reaching as wide an audience as possible, not just sit back and wait for them to come to you with work. I’m always working on numerous other projects direct with clients alongside the work I’m producing for NB, and usually have a few self-initiated and collaborative projects on the go too. I like it busy. I believe keeping the mix of work, clients and collaborators constantly evolving forces me to learn new skills, develop my craft and push my work to new levels.

Johanna has a website and blog at HYPERLINK “”; or find her on Twitter: @johannabasford; The New Goodbye, the app that includes her illustrated narrative of The Dialogue of the Dogs is released on the App Store at the end of May and the Edinburgh Fringe takes place 6-30 August.

Categories ,#TwitterPicture, ,edinburgh, ,Edinburgh Fringe, ,Heals, ,illustration, ,iphone app, ,Johanna Basford, ,NB Illustration, ,Selfridges

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Amelia’s Magazine | Lost Ocean by Johanna Basford: Exclusive Colouring Book Review and Artist Interview

Lost Ocean cover
Johanna Basford is the prolific illustrator behind Secret Garden, Enchanted Forest and now Lost Ocean, which was published in October 2015. For her latest underwater adventure Johanna has gone back to her marine roots to pull together a gorgeous volume full of intricately detailed drawings inspired by real creatures and ocean fantasies. It’s a must have for any colouring enthusiast!

Johanna Basford portrait
How long did it take to create your new colouring book, Lost Ocean, working on average how many hours a day?
Lost Ocean took about 4 months to complete. Average days don’t really come into play when you work from home and you have a little person to care for, but I have childcare 4 days a week so I cram as much as I can into these hours, then I work when she (finally!) takes a nap or goes to sleep at night.

Lost Ocean colouring by Johanna
Lost Ocean coloured by Johanna Basford.

What are you favourite memories of growing up on your parent’s fish farm, and how have these influenced the making of Lost Ocean?
My parent’s fish farm is a fresh water one and is located about 20 miles inland (not on the coast), so my experiences there didn’t influence this book so much, apart from seeing tens of thousands of fish every day! My parents are both Marine Biologists though so my sister and I spent a lot of time visiting scientific aquariums and on research vessels as children. We could barely make it through a seafood dinner without someone having their main course dissected and an impromptu biology lesson taking place. I think these kind of things all just help open your eyes as a child and expose you to a vast array of different experiences that form the foundation of your imagination as an adult.

Johanna Basford in studio
Your studio looks wonderful (very jealous!), I believe it is in your house? Where is it located, what is the view, how long have you been there and is it always as tidy as it looks in your videos?
We live in a converted farm building in the Aberdeenshire countryside. We are so lucky to be out in the wilds and I really love that feeling of looking out our windows and seeing the changing seasons. Due to the incredible amount of toys Evie began to accumulate (why do small people have so much stuff?!) we converted my old studio which was next to the kitchen into a playroom and I moved into the space in the attic. It was no hardship though as the view from the apex window out across the surrounding fields is so beautiful and it meant I was tucked away when I needed to work and out of ear shot of little people.

Lost Ocean by Louise Chagger
Lost Ocean coloured by Louise Chagger

How long did you stop working for when you had your daughter, and when during the day do you find it easiest to work now, and why?
I took 6 weeks ‘off’ social media when I had her, but was still checking in on email throughout as my second book, Enchanted Forest was about to go to print. My publishers were super understanding though and we all worked around the craziness that is coping with a new born. I worked around Evie’s schedule until she was 6 months, after which we had a wonderful family friend who is a nanny come and help me a few days a week. It wasn’t till then that I really got stuck back into things properly. I work best in the morning, always have done.

Lost Ocean by nijnaa
Lost Ocean coloured by nijnaa

What kind of work commitments are your priority now your time is more limited?
Now that there’s more to cram into a day I’m a lot more selective about what I can take on. I’d rather turn down a job or rejig a deadline than deliver bad work late. I’ve scaled back a lot on commission work and focused on the books and long term projects – the lead times for commercial illustration work are often just days or in some cases hours long and more often than not required immediate amends to meet print deadlines. I just can’t offer that level of flexibility anymore so I’d rather pass up on a job or recommend someone else, than take it and be unprofessional.

Lost Ocean Fish by Maria C Crowdey
Lost Ocean DPS by Maria C Crowdey
Lost Ocean coloured by Maria C Crowdey

What have been the most difficult and the most wonderful things about continuing to work and being a mum at the same time?
The most difficult thing is the guilt. I think all Mums experience this though whether they are working or not. You always feel you could do better for your child. I feel bad for not being with her every day, for letting her watch Cbeebies when I’m trying to answer urgent emails at 6am and for not serving her up a delicious, organic meal I’ve prepared myself every night.

Lost Ocean by Naomi Russell-Baugh
Lost Ocean coloured by Naomi Russell-Baugh

That being said, I wouldn’t change our situation. I love what I do and I’m so lucky to have a job that truly makes me happy. After a day of work or a trip away, I’m so delighted to see her. We make the very most of all the time we have together and I never take a day off for granted. Having that space to do a job I love and fire up my creative and intellectual side means that when I’m back in Mum mode I do so with a fresh head and a happy heart.

Johanna Basford Lost Ocean 1
Where is your favourite place to walk when you want to clear your head and reinvigorate your creative sensibilities?
We live in the middle of nowhere, so I love to bundle Evie into the carrier, grab the dog and walk around the fields and woodland the surround our home. I love the fresh air on my face, to see Simcoe our dog bounding about enjoying the outdoor time and to show Evie the changing seasons.

Lost Ocean by toomuchgoodfood
Lost Ocean coloured by toomuchgoodfood

How are you sharing your love of nature with your daughter Evie?
We spent a lot of time our doors playing, I want to give her the same sort of free range childhood that I had as a child. In the summer we pottered about in the garden, picking strawberries we had grown and smelling the flowers. As Autumn fell we gathered leaves for painting projects and looked for conkers.

Lost Ocean by Tamila Kushnir
Lost Ocean coloured by Tamila Kushnir

You have said that being scared inspires your best work, what situations are most likely to scare you the most nowadays?
Scary deadlines! Now that time is so scarce, anything that involves a short deadline terrifies me. I worry that I’m taking too much on, then I worry that I’m not pushing myself hard enough…

Lost Ocean front plate by Patricia Grund
Lost Ocean front plate coloured by Patricia Grund

You initially trained as printed textile designer (like me!) Now, do you consider yourself an illustrator, a designer, an artist or all the above?
An illustrator. I draw pictures, nothing more, nothing less.

Lost Ocean by laurengunnart
Lost Ocean coloured by laurengunnart

Where do you screen print your artist editions, and how often do you get to do that now?
Dundee Contemporary Arts. I love it there. These days I rarely print, but when I do it’s a treat to be surrounded by so many wonderful artists and to have the excellent facilities and staff at DCA on hand.

Lost Ocean by Rebecca Honeybee Swan
Lost Ocean coloured by Rebecca Honeybee Swan

We first met you when you launched your #TwitterPicture project: you have been very adept at using social media and the internet in general to raise your profile, when and why did you start doing so?
I didn’t want to move to London (or any big city for that matter) and knew that in doing so I was isolating myself. I wasn’t going to bump into art directors and commissioning editors at swanky exhibition openings and I certainly couldn’t just pop round their office with my portfolio to tout my wares. To get around this I used social media and the internet to allow me to open up my studio and connect with these people from my little studio in the Scotland. I tried to think of imaginative ways of getting people’s attention and making my work memorable. An email with a PDF or a link to a portfolio is so boring. I tried to be a little different and to think up ways of presenting my work that was a little more imaginative.

Lost Ocean by Amanda Steele
Lost Ocean by Amanda Steele

Why do you think that sharing work online has become such a major aspect of the adult colouring book phenomenon? 
Because we are all so proud of our creations!! For me colouring books are a collaboration. I create those black and white outlines, but it’s not until the owner of the book adds the colour that those illustrations are ever complete. We need to work together to create the final artwork. So when someone has completed a picture, they quite rightly want to show it off! Who wouldn’t?! The best part of my job, without a shadow of a doubt, is seeing all those amazing pictures on social media, in the facebook colouring groups and on my colouring gallery. It’s humbling to think I have the incredible opportunity to collaborate with literally millions of people worldwide and that we get to share our work with the world. I never see the same illustration twice, every time someone colours a picture they make it unique. It’s like a giant game of consequences; I do my part, then hand the books over to the world and everyone picks up the baton (or should I say the pencil!) and completes the pictures.

Johanna Basford Lost Ocean jelly fish
How much time do you have to upload stuff to your blog and various other online platforms these days? Your Pen Geekery section on your blog is so fabulously… geeky!
Not as much as I would like! Social media and my blog is so very important to what I do, so I try to schedule time for it every day. Whether that’s just posting a quick WIP on Instagram or uploading a new Vlog to YouTube, I feel the colouring community online are so important to what I do, so I want to connect with them as much as I can.

Lost Ocean by renatagclementino
Lost Ocean by renatagclementino

New Designers is one of my favourite places to discover graduate talent, what did taking part in the show do for you?
It was great for me, coming from a relatively small art school in Scotland, to just be in amongst the chaos. It’s good to be a bit scared and New Designers can be an overwhelming place! There’s so much talent, so much energy. Everyone is keen and fresh and unjaded, you don’t get that same feeling again! For me New Designers was a place to make connections. I spoke to lots of people, organized some internships, some freelance work and even had a couple of job offers. Ultimately, it all helped me decided what I did and didn’t want to do going forward.

I love your opinion that technicians are the unsung heroes of art schools! what was the best thing you learnt from them?
The nitty gritty. Like how to get a stubborn stain off a screen. Which inks would last longer than a week if I stored them right. How to make sure my paintings didn’t stick to the inside of a heat press… Not super glam, but it’s practical knowledge like that that you just can’t gleam from a lecture theatre. In my mind, infinitely more useful.

Lost Ocean by jamairanolasco
Lost Ocean coloured by jamairanolasco

Do you or did you ever feel isolated in Aberdeen? How often do you have to travel for work, and have you ever been tempted to move for work reasons?
No. I’m a country girl and I don’t function well in big cities. I can’t draw blossoms and hummingbirds surrounded by concrete and tarmac. I venture down to London about once a month, cram in a whirlwind of meetings then fly north again at bedtime.

Lost Ocean by insolitecass
Lost Ocean coloured by insolitecass. You can download this image for free here

Can you tell us any more about your upcoming collaboration with Staedtler?
Yes, we’re starting to post details of this now. I was approached by lots of different pen and pencil manufacturers this year, asking if I would partner with them. Although I loved all the products that were highlighted to me, I’ve used Staedtler pens since art school and they are the brand that I’ve been recommending for years, so working with them seemed the most honest and natural collaboration. We’ve made a series of videos, a super cool little adult colouring website and there are some special edition products and bundles on the way. I’m also speaking to them about a few top secret colouring projects that I’d like to see realized (watch this space!).

Lost Ocean starfish by dreammaker_kelly
Lost Ocean seahorse by dreammaker_kelly
Lost Ocean coloured by dreammaker_kelly

How do you feel when you see the huge piles of colouring books in book and gift shops across the country?
SUPER PROUD. To see the adult colouring category blossom is the biggest thumbs up you can imagine. What better sign that you are doing something right, something that people truly want in their lives? I love that with every new book that appears, more and more people around the world are putting down their digital devices and picking up pens and pencils. We’re onto a good thing here!

Johanna Basford Lost Ocean whale
I feel as though this Christmas we are about to hit “peak colouring book” for want of a better phrase, do you think the interest in adult colouring books will fade away, and do you see an end point for your (immense) contribution to the genre?
No I honestly don’t. I think adult colouring is just a new form a creativity, one that for whatever reason hadn’t risen to the forefront of popularity yet. The exact format may change and I’m keen to see how the discipline evolves, for example onto new materials, new applications, different techniques (have you seen those pan pastel artworks coming out of Brazil?!) but essentially, I think it’s something we’ve all been craving for a long time. An accessible way to be creative, a digital detox, a stress buster, a warm shot of nostalgia – whatever your reason for initially picking up a colouring book, I’m sure they will become a staple part of your creative life.

Lost Ocean by tatianecandido
Lost Ocean coloured by tatianecandido
Finally, what are you working on now and next? (and any clues as to what another colouring book might contain?)


A charity Christmas project I’m launching on 1st December, more details coming soon!
A new colouring book next summer (details are top secret for now I’m afraid).
More Christmas!
The list goes on and on…

You can tour Johanna’s gorgeous studio in the video above. Lost Ocean is available worldwide. Thank you so much for taking the time to give such brilliant and informative answers Johanna! I can’t wait to see what you do next. Images thanks to the members of Facebook group Colouring Companions and the lovely people who share on Instagram.

Categories ,#TwitterPicture, ,Aberdeenshire, ,Adult Colouring Book, ,Amanda Steele, ,Colouring Book, ,Colouring Companions, ,dreammaker_kelly, ,Dundee Contemporary Arts, ,Enchanted Forest, ,Evie, ,Exclusive Interview, ,insolitecass, ,instagram, ,interview, ,jamairanolasco, ,Johanna Basford, ,laurengunnart, ,Lost Ocean, ,Louise Chagger, ,Maria C Crowdey, ,Naomi Russell-Baugh, ,New Designers, ,nijnaa, ,Patricia Grund, ,Rebecca Honeybee Swan, ,renatagclementino, ,scotland, ,Scottish, ,Secret Garden, ,Staedtler, ,Tamila Kushnir, ,tatianecandido, ,toomuchgoodfood, ,Vlog, ,Youtube

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