Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books: Interview with Sara Mulvanny Illustrator (Q&A)

It's fantastic to have the very talented illustrator, Sara Mulvannyon, on Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books today. It's always fascinating to uncover the inside life of an illustrator, their work and background. I love Sara Mulvanny's work, especially her brilliant book covers for children and adult books. This post has been a wonderful opportunity to ask her questions about her career and life. I hope this little interview has piqued your interest in her work. If so, then why not pop over to her website and take a look at her other projects at 

Have a great day and happy reading.

How did you become an illustrator? 
I grew up painting and drawing and I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an artist. Although I was quite academic at school and excelled at maths and physics, my favourite subject was art. It was something I loved doing so it never felt like a chore. At college, I realised that it was the commercial application of art that I found really fascinating rather than fine art. I loved collecting old posters, adverts and beautiful ephemera. I studied Illustration at Kingston University and graduated with a BA (Hons) in 2010 after which I moved back to my Hampshire studio to pursue a career as a freelance illustrator. I was thrilled to receive my first commission a few days after I graduated, it was a book cover for Random House. Since then I’ve created illustrations for books, magazines, packaging, restaurant/museum interiors, and posters. In 2013 I joined Agency Rush and each year gets better and better and therefore busier and busier! 

What is your favourite medium to draw/paint with? 
All my Illustrations start as rough sketches to work out ideas and composition. I use a Staedtler Mars Micro Mechanical Pencil on cartridge paper, my favourite being Daler Rowney Smooth Heavyweight paper which is great for line work. When I am happy with the rough I will effectively pull it apart so that I can re-draw each element separately using pen and ink. My favourite finer liners are Uni PIN Drawing Pens, but I also use a Rotring Artpen and a Pentel brush pen as well. Those separate line drawings are then scanned into my Apple iMac and the final illustration is digitally composed on Adobe Photoshop using colour and texture. My final illustrations exist as digital files and are composed of sometimes hundreds of layers which gives me freedom to adjust colours and layout easily. I absolutely love my Wacom pen tablet which I use for Photoshop work and I don’t know how I ever survived without it. 

Describe your typical working week? 
Every week is different and I love the variation in my working life, you never know what challenges you will face from each day to the next. I’m the most productive and creative in the mornings so I tend to get up early if I’m very busy with commissions. I’m disciplined about taking tea/coffee/yoga breaks otherwise I become sluggish and lose motivation during the afternoon. When I have a lot of deadlines I will draw all day. I find that allocating a certain amount of time for each project prevents me from falling behind. I dislike working late at night because I’m not very productive when I’m tired. When I have a respite from deadlines I catch-up on more menial tasks such as organising paperwork and accounts. I also try to go to the gym every evening to do an exercise class in an attempt to stop myself from becoming a hermit. Trying to keep a good work/life balance can be difficult, they can easily amalgamate into one and the same thing which isn’t particularly healthy. I’m lucky enough to be part of Agency Rush who are a great bunch of people, they are really supportive and they definitely help me feel less isolated when I’m working on my own. Occasionally I get the chance to go to London to visit a client, or Brighton to visit Agency Rush, these days a rare luxury now but it’s always good to get out of my quiet studio and see the hustle and bustle of the city. 

What kind of illustration projects are you most interested in? 
I’m very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects over the years; My illustrations have been featured in a variety of media from books to packaging, restaurant interiors to posters. It’s this variety that makes life as an illustrator so exciting, rather than a particular type of commission. I’m often juggling a few commissions at once, and it’s their differences which make them enjoyable, rather than their similarities. I’m currently working on a large commission for a museum, a book about plants, a map for a magazine cover, a science book, and an editorial piece about wedding cakes! 

Could you tell us a bit about any of your upcoming projects? 
I’ve been working on a large commission over the last few months for the Museum of Royal Worcester which is having a complete redesign by the very talented Studio Savage. My illustrations are being used on each floor of the museum in a manner of different scenarios which is really exciting. The largest part of the project is the life-size kitchen installation. The kitchen is split down the middle, with a 1920’s design on one side and a 1970’s design on the other. I’ve illustrated everything from the floor patterns and wallpaper to the kitchen cupboards, food, china, life-size oven, microwave, table and the posters adorning the walls. I also created a large 18th century map of England and a smattering of other illustrations throughout the museum. It’s currently being printed and I can’t wait for the launch, it’s the largest commission I’ve worked on and it will be great to see my work in such an immersive setting. 

What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received from someone within the industry? 
There’s plenty of great advice out there for new illustrators, fledgling designers should definitely pick up a copy of The Fundamentals of Illustration by Lawrence Zeegen: it’s packed full great tips and advice I found useful when starting out. But often the best lessons are the hard ones you learn yourself. You can’t avoid making mistakes, it’s a natural part of progress. However, when you make mistakes you learn from them and (hopefully!) you don’t make them again. 

A quote that I found helpful over the years is: 

‘Admire someone else’s beauty without questioning your own’ 

As an illustrator you will have moments in life when you compare your work to other people’s with the result being that you end up feeling inferior. An important skill is being able to admire other people’s work without doubting your own abilities. There are so many great illustrators out there it can be daunting pursuing a career in such a competitive market. But we all have insecurities as an artist, days when we feel like what we do isn’t good enough, and there are some commissions which just don’t work out as well as others for whatever reason. However, I’ve found that there are far more good days than bad, and there are some really great days as well. Perseverance pays off and the great days make all the hard work worthwhile. 

What is a favourite piece of work that you have produced? 
One of my favourite book cover commissions is still ‘Chasing the Dram’ by Rachel McCormack. The brief itself was quite open: the publisher wanted the cover to feel ‘really fun’ and if I made sure the whisky and travelogue aspects were clear, I had a free reign so to speak. That kind of brief either works out really well or can be a bit of struggle if the client is unsure of what they want. In this case it was the former and it’s one of my favourite commissions as I got to combine my love of hand-drawn typography with some humour and narrative elements, a limited muted colour palette and the creation of a map for the end papers. 

Who are your favourite illustrators and why? 
I love the strong, bold designs of Noma Bar: his clever use of negative space and humour is unapparelled, it’s essentially the definition of great design. Being able to communicate an idea with minimal shapes takes maximum skill. On the other side of the spectrum I’m always in awe of the lavish wallpaper patterns by William Morris, the beauty of the sinuous flora is mesmerising. I love patterns and it’s something I would like to do more of in the future. 

Tell us a secret? 
I’m a massive Harry Potter geek, I queued up for the books at midnight and my sister and I have been on the studio tour 4 times so far… I also listen to the Harry Potter audio books read by Stephen Fry when I’m getting stressed because they keep me calm. In truth, my family and friends would say my Harry Potter obsession is less of a secret and more of a well-known fact.