Drawing inspiration with Melissa

Course: Children's Book Illustration MA

7 February 2020

Melissa Castrillon looking at a picture book, in front of a full bookcase

I did the BA Illustration at Cambridge School of Art in 2006-2009, and then had two years out before starting the MA in Children's Book Illustration in 2011, which I finished at the beginning of 2014.

Since 2015, I have been a full time freelance illustrator, illustrating for book covers, picture books, editorial, textiles, packaging & stationery.  It’s what I hoped and dreamed of doing, but didn't think I would realistically be able to live on it. I’d say I’ve definitely smashed my rather low expectations, which is amazing!

As well as living comfortably off of freelance illustrating, my other major achievements would be writing as well as illustrating my own picture books; winning the Society of Illustrators’ Gold Medal for my authored and illustrated book The Balcony; and getting the opportunity to illustrate the covers for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Cover illustration of Philip Pullman's 'Northern Lights' by Melissa Castrillon
Illustration of a girl in a hammock reading a book, by Melissa Castrillon
Illustration of 'The Balcony' book by Melissa Castrillon

The Children's Book Illustration MA gave me such a solid foundation that leaving wasn't as daunting as I had previously thought it might be. It does this by giving the students the opportunity to show their work to publishers through the Bologna Children's Book Fair. They also invite professional illustrators to talk to you about their work and how they got to where they are, plus publishers, art directors, editors and agents all come in and give talks. This gave us the opportunity to ask all the important, niggling questions we had about real world stuff, and helped us to know how to approach publishers and get our work seen.

The course facilities are amazing.  I spent a lot of time in the print room discovering screen printing, which had a huge impact on the development of my work. For career development it helped just being in a supportive community of alumni who had done the course and been successfully published. Those alumni were also teachers and lecturers on the course, so you were able to talk to them about their experiences, which was invaluable.

The world of children's books is so vast and so many countries produce such a variety of books and illustrators that the course doesn't shy away from opening your world up to the expanse of this industry, which is wonderful.

Because of the BA and MA courses, Cambridge has a really big community of illustrators, specifically children's book illustrators, which I feel you don't get in a lot of other places, apart from big cities like London. The course has really nurtured so many of us that a lot of us have stayed and made our lives here after the course is finished. And having that community is important to me because I get to share and receive knowledge and support from my peers and be with like-minded people.

Heffers bookshop in Cambridge centre has been a real support hub, and a way for illustration students to meet alumni and published illustrators / authors, because it offers free book launches to MA alumni, so there   are frequent events where we can all get together.

The highlight of the course for me was meeting and mingling with working illustrators, and also the print room. Screen printing sessions in the print room were some of my best memories on the course - the facilities are just fantastic and John the technician is really supportive.

My advice to other students is make the most of the illustrators who are teaching you.  They have a wealth of knowledge and experience, so ask them lots of questions which you feel would help you find your way and navigate the world of publishing.

Make the most of social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter too. There are a lot of publishers and art directors on there who will see your work, but balance that out by going and meeting publishers face to face at fairs such as Bologna Children's Book Fair, London Book Fair, Paris Book Fair, and many more.

Make sure that you like what you’re showing. If a publisher becomes interested in work that you don’t totally like or aren’t sure of, then you may be asked to repeat that work and there's nothing worse than doing work you don’t enjoy.

Don’t copy someone else's ‘style’.  Styles come and go.  Just be true to how you work without getting sucked into someone else visual world.  Find what interests you and build on that.

Draw, draw, draw, and just enjoy it!


Melissa Castrillon studied on the Illustration BA Hons and Children's Book Illustration MA courses. See more of her work on www.melissacastrillon.co.uk

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