The Inside Story with illustrator Jo Williamson

Hello and welcome!

There’s a big birthday celebration happening here today: my hellopipski blog is 5 years old!

The first ever blog post here was my response to seeing two inspirational author-illustrators in conversation: Shaun Tan and Quentin Blake.

They moved and inspired me so much, that I had to write down everything little thing that I remembered. And from there this blog has evolved and matured over the years. I’m very lucky that so many authors and illustrators and poets have helped by accepting the invitation to be interviewed. Many thanks to you all!

It therefore seems fitting today to invite along the fabulously talented illustrator Jo Williamson.

Not only is Jo an illustrator, but she’s also a freelance fashion designer.

Based in Hastings, Jo has given us a sneaky peek into her studio and work. She’s generously shared tips galore for writers and illustrators.

So hello and a warm welcome to you, Jo.

It’s an honour to have you here on hellopipski’s 5th Birthday!

Jo Williamson

Hi Jo! Can you describe your usual workspace for us? 

I’m extremely lucky to have a large room of my own to work in, and to leave in chaos for weeks on end. My studio is situated on the third floor of our house, and has views over the sea and the Old Town of Hastings. The room is quite shabby, with painted floorboards, which means that I’m not worried about making a mess when I paint or screen-print.

I sit and draw at a high trestle table opposite a real fire, where there is also a cosy armchair for thinking or for cups of tea with any visiting friends. The room is large enough to contain a plan chest, a school desk, an easel and a glass bookcase filled with picture books.

It is my favourite place to be, and every day I long to have enough time to paint the view.


Can you tell us your typical design process when working on a picture book? 

Creating a picture book can start in several different ways for me. Sometimes if I haven’t got any ideas I sit and draw characters in a sketchbook and never know who might appear on the page.

The character “Messy Molly” came to me as I was drawing lots of girl characters one day. She had messy hair and looked generally dishevelled, which prompted me to think that she was probably accident prone like myself. This led me to think of all the accidents that might have befallen her, and the text came very easily after that.

Messy Molly

Sometimes I start with the text first, planning out scenes and story boarding ideas. The text and images remain flexible as I keep drawing ideas and planning the roughs, and one image can lead me into a completely different way of thinking. I work backwards and forwards with text and images as I develop the pace and pagination of the book with my editor and art director.

Once the text and roughs have been given the go ahead by my publisher, I have a big tidy up in my studio and get everything ready to start the final artworks.

Illustrating someone else’s text is slightly different, as I am trying to represent someone else’s ideas, but bringing my own interpretation to it through my artworks. I was very lucky to be asked to illustrate Petunia Paris’s Parrot by Katie Haworth, and the text had some very humorous moments that immediately appealed to me. It’s a lovely story, and it gave me the opportunity to illustrate things that I hadn’t done before. This book really challenged my drawing and painting skills, as I had to draw large interior scenes and a full colour jungle scene at the end.


What draws you to screen printing?  

When I first started to illustrate, I’d spend hours on the computer trying to make something look like it had been created by hand. But I could never quite find the right colour or the right brush stroke effect. I finally realised that instead of trying to make something look hand-done, it might be better if I just drew it by hand, and if I mixed my own colours I could see immediately if it sat well next to the other colours as a palette.

I also love the reduced colour palettes of vintage picture books from the 50’s and 60’s, when they were printed with very few colours because of the prohibitive costs of printing. Often the alternative pages were printed in grey and black, with only three or four colours on the full colour pages.


It might seem a ridiculous waste of time to screen print, when I could get a similar effect by colouring my artworks digitally, but there are a few reasons why I do this.

Basically it’s much more fun to get covered in ink, and to create a physical paper artwork in my studio than to sit at a computer all day. To hold an original artwork in my hands with the lovely vibrant colours that can be mixed in ink, but never quite captured in CMYK makes me feel happy. But also, the act of screen-printing and of having to commit to a decision on colour and line with no backspace button changes the actual outcome and makes me think differently.

What was your route into illustration?

After spending over twenty years as a fashion designer in London working for large retailers, I decided to follow my other dream of becoming an illustrator and took the MA in children’s book illustration at Cambridge School of Art. My final masters project was a picture book called ‘How to be a dog’, and became my first published book.


It was just before my graduation show that I was signed up by the literary agent Helen Mackenzie Smith, and shortly afterwards I was initially contracted for two picture books with Scholastic. How to be a dog was followed by Messy Molly and then Cat in a box, (which came out in July this year). I am now working on my fourth book with Scholastic, which is due out next year.

Cat in a box

Jo, how does your experience in fashion design feed into your illustration work? 

My work as a fashion designer has had quite a large impact on the way I approach my illustration work. Whilst working as a designer, I would be expected to come up with lots of different styles, drawing them one after another and changing details and styles as I go. So if I start to sketch out characters, I begin by drawing the eyes, and then change the hair and the proportions and so on until another character is looking out from the page.

It is also very easy for me to dress my characters, as drawing a coat or a dress is second nature, and I don’t even need to think how to draw it, as I know how it is constructed, and how the collar will sit etc. I was also working with colour palettes all the time, and learning to mix colour palettes, which has helped me work out my own palettes for each book.


Any helpful tips for those of us writing picture book texts, especially if we’re non-artists?  

Be flexible about the text changing or being edited, as the images can do a lot of the work. Also, more ideas can be generated from developing illustrations and may help to bring more to the story or the humour element of a book.

Allow the illustrator enough freedom to interpret things in their own way, and they may add more to your story than you may have imagined. Their illustrations may also affect the tone of the book and heighten emotions without having to spell it out with words.

Pictures and words work together in different ways, and it can be interesting or humorous if the text says one thing and the pictures say another. It would be very boring if the pictures just repeated what the text has already told us, and the illustrations would not be needed. Getting the words and pictures to work alongside each other should bring something extra to the narrative.


In which direction are you taking your illustration next? Is there a particular focus you’re interested in? 

I would love to illustrate some young fiction, and develop my black and white line drawings further. Developing my illustrations for a slightly older audience is something that I’m keen to do alongside my picture books.


You can find out more at    and you can view Jo’s portfolio here.

Many thanks to Jo, and we very much look forward to seeing your forthcoming work!

jo sig 2


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