Alexandra Ball – the storyteller
Jane McGuire

Alexandra Ball – the storyteller

Alexandra Ball the storyteller

First published date November 10 2015 Amended date November 10 2015

There’s something special about the whimsical illustrations in Alexandra Ball’s portfolio. Transporting me back to bedtime stories as a child, I knew I had to find out more about the lady behind the drawings. Luckily, Alexandra was more than happy to sit down at chat to Hotcourses, sharing her story, her inspiration and her advice with our readers. Someone who proves that with hard work and perseverance anything is possible; if you’ve ever wanted to leave the nine till five behind and rediscover something you love, Alexandra is an expert worth listening to.


First things first, have you always been interested in the art of illustration?

I got to where I am today through lots of practise, some discipline and a bucket-full of luck. After completing my degree in illustration at Falmouth College of Arts, I naively thought I’d be able to bounce into the illustration world without a problem. Unfortunately, despite sending off a plethora of samples to publishers and agents, the road to my art career came to a halt as the necessity to earn money raised its head. For eight years I worked in ‘ordinary’ nine till five jobs, leading me to the opposite side of the spectrum from art and into finance. Luck would have it for me that the credit crunch hit, and in late 2008 my office was made redundant and given a payout. I happily spent the next six months solely working on updating my portfolio and visiting publishers. It was in this period that my art was noticed on social media by my now agency, Illustration Ltd, and I haven't looked back since.

What qualifications or training did you need?

After my A Level in art at College, I took a National Diploma in Foundation in Art and Design and then the BA (Hons) in Illustration. My art style changed so much through the years of training that for me I know I couldn't have got where I am today without it.


So what part of your job now do you love the most?

I think the best part of my job is seeing other people enjoy my work. I occasionally get photos sent to me of children reading my books and it absolutely makes my day every time I get one. It feels a bit crazy to me that something I've done has touched some previously unknown person's life.


That’s so sweet! On the flip side then, what’s the most challenging part?

As an illustrator you are generally commissioned by someone else to create what they want you to create. Obviously this is mostly how you would choose to create it in the first place (I mean they pick you because they like your work), but on occasion it is not, and the client has a different opinion to you as to what looks best. I think one of the most challenging things for me is to accept criticism at these times and to find a balance in creating something that both you and the client are happy with. Quite often the result is actually better than your initial efforts anyway.

You work predominately on children’s illustrations. Why do you prefer working in this genre?

Ever since I was able to draw I always drew characters from stories, so there was never any thought that I would be any other kind of illustrator. I think it may have something to do with my mental age being about eight too! No, seriously, I've always loved stories and storytelling. All through art school my favourite projects were those which involved children's book illustrations and as soon as we could choose our own briefs that's exactly what I chose.


Where do you get your inspiration from?

The inspiration for my designs comes from a multitude of things. I could be walking down the street and see a child holding his mother and siblings up whilst he crouches on the path in fascination over the tiniest little ant, or I could be looking out the window of my studio to watch a robin flitter his way through the branches of the hedge, wondering what it is he is doing. If you look for it, inspiration is there. My work quite often involves animals and nature so my daily walks around the countryside with my Springer spaniel, Bee, is always a great help for inspiration. There's nothing better than to immerse yourself in your chosen scenery to get some ideas.


Now for a question nobody ever likes to answer! You have a very impressive portfolio of work, but if you had to pick, what would be your favourite project so far?

Most projects I love in one way or another, but if I were to pick one above the rest, I think it would have to be my 'Care for Our World' book. Written by Karen Robbins and published by Compendium Inc, it is a story that is right up my street in terms of morals for children. It encourages respect for all living things and is extra special to me because it was the first proper children's book I worked on. I got pretty much full-rein with the illustrations and even now when I look at them I'm still proud of the work I produced. Being a bit of a picky person, like I am, I can tell you that that's not always the case.

How long on average do you get to illustrate a book?

A children's book project can differ greatly from one to the next. For example I was given about six months to complete the illustrations from roughs to finals on the 32 page 'Care for Our World' book, but only a couple of months to finish a 50 page children's book earlier this year. Quite often I have more than one project on at a time so it doesn't necessarily mean that because I have more time I'm able to work on the illustrations more.  Sometimes the timescale given depends on whether the client has given me set layout ideas or whether I have more freedom in design. They often give me more time if I've got to work out the whole design ideas from scratch myself. Each brief is different with different challenges and different results. To me this diversity is what makes illustrating so captivating and so fun. 


What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?

My advice would be to be disciplined. As an illustrator you’re likely to be freelance and therefore your own boss. This sounds all very good, but what you have to remember is that there is no one to tell you what to do and when to do it apart from yourself, and it’s so easy to get distracted – a dog at your ankles staring at you with longing eyes, a mountain of washing that needs to be done, or your friends going for a nice summer picnic. Sometimes work needs to take over because in this business if you don't finish it on time you don't get paid. You'll also need oodles of perseverance. The sad truth of the matter is that you’re likely to have to jump a lot of hurdles before you get anywhere in the illustration world, so if you’re a persistent person who doesn’t take things personally you’re more likely to succeed. Also I'd advise anyone wanting to be an illustrator to set out on social media sites, follow artists and add your own work. It's a marvellous platform that offers both inspiration and exposure.


That’s really great advice, thanks Alexandra! Before I leave you to your work, can you tell us what artists or illustrators most inspire you and why?

I follow a lot of other artists on social media sites and am inspired by their beautiful work daily. To name a couple, Rebecca Green's serene colours and intricate yet delicate patterns and David Litchfield's amazing and original characters always make me wish I had their talent. An old illustration favourite for me is Tove Jansson, who created ‘The Moomins’. I grew up watching these timeless animations and I just love the simple, silent expressions she created. Another long standing inspiration is the studio Ghibli animations, like 'My Neighbour Totoro' and 'Princess Mononoke'. The relationship Hayao Miyazaki shows between the children and the animals is really sensitive yet adventurous at times. There are so many wonderfully talented people out there it always makes me feel incredibly lucky to realise I've got where I have today. 


If Alexandra has inspired you to pick up your sketchpad, learn the art and follow in her footsteps, why not take a look at the illustration courses listed here? Who knows where your drawings might end up...?