Millie Marotta is a best-selling author and illustrator who creates her much-loved illustrations in her studio by the sea in West Wales. Millie’s love of illustration is fueled by her long-time fascination with the natural world in all its complex symmetry, patterns, and detail, which are ongoing themes in her artwork.
You may be familiar with some of Millie’s existing books: Animal Kingdom and Tropical Wonderland. In anticipation of her latest release, Wild Savannah, we sat down with Millie and chatted about her life as an illustrator.
1. Tell us a little bit about you and how you got started?
I work as a freelance Illustrator from my studio by the sea in a little corner of West Wales. My drawing days started pretty much a soon as I was able to hold a pencil, even at that early age I found it to be a very engaging activity and naturally gravitated towards it as a hobby and then as a subject to study. I studied Wildlife Illustration at college, which was amazing for me as it meant I got to combine the two things I had always felt very passionately about; drawing and wildlife. I grew up on a smallholding in the hills of rural Wales and from a young age developed quite an obsession with all things flora and. When I look back now I suppose my path was always mapped out, though I didn’t realize it at the time. It wasn’t until quite a while after my studies that I actually began to work as a freelance Illustrator, but I had always carried on with my own creative projects alongside other jobs during those years. After teaching Art in a local secondary school for a few years I finally decided to take the plunge and here I am today, absolutely loving it. I put a lot of effort into my work and often work very long hours, but it’s a real privilege to earn a living doing something that I love.
The colouring books came about at a time when I’d been working as a freelance commercial Illustrator already for some years. One day I received an email quite out of the blue from my now Publisher, asking if I’d be interested in the idea of making a colouring book for grown ups. Straight away I thought it would be a really exciting project and felt that the style of my work, with all its intricate detail, was really well-suited for producing images that adults would enjoy colouring. I really didn’t have to give it a great deal of thought and couldn’t wait to get started. We met and I showed them some samples of the kind of artwork I wanted to produce for the book and they loved it. It really was as simple as that, I went home from that initial meeting and started working on my first book, Animal Kingdom, the very next day.
2. Why adult coloring?
At the time that I started work on Animal Kingdom colouring books for adults really weren’t the huge thing that they have become, but the idea of offering beautiful and sophisticated illustrations to grown-ups to colour simply made sense to me…as children most of us will have enjoyed colouring as an activity and a way to be creative, why should we stop simply because we have grown a little older? I don’t believe that hunger for creativity ever really leaves us, I think for many it just gets a little buried as we grow up and other things become more prominent in our day to day lives. Overall, I wanted to make a book that would encourage people to be creative and which they would enjoy colouring as much as I had enjoyed putting it together.
Colouring is a very absorbing activity, it encourages us to focus on the here and now, especially when working on very detailed images, and allows a bit of time out of the day to switch off from all the things which may be playing on our minds or causing us stress or anxiety, which we otherwise might find hard to put to one side. It also allows us to engage with or even reconnect with our creative side, which can be a great outlet. I think it can also be wonderful in giving people a sense of satisfaction or achievement after carefully working on and finally completing a piece, which helps to contribute to a general sense of wellbeing.
3. What is your earliest creative memory from your childhood?
My earliest creative memory is actually of my mum’s little sketchbooks rather than creating artwork of my own. I grew up in the countryside and I remember flicking through books of little watercolours she had done of the landscapes around where we lived and little pencil sketches of various things around us at home. In terms of my own creative endeavors I think the earliest things I remember would be making little handmade gifts or cards for people when I was at primary school. As a child I adored colouring, painting, drawing, making things, basically any kind of creative activity would always be a sure fire way of keeping me quiet. I have always found colouring and painting to be particularly relaxing and that has stayed with me throughout my adult life too.
4. What inspires your illustrations?
I’ve been fascinated by the natural world since as far back as I can remember. That attraction to all things nature is a very inherent thing so I never really have to think too much about where to find inspiration for my work, it’s just always there. I grew up on a smallholding in rural west Wales so I was very much immersed in nature throughout my childhood and I’d say that’s probably where my ‘obsession’ began. With an entire planet’s worth of plants, animals and habitats out there to explore and discover I cannot see a day where I would begin to tire of it as a subject for my work.
5. What is your favorite subject to draw?
I’m generally pretty happy drawing anything nature based. From fish to birds, plants to mammals and anything in between.
6. Do you have a favorite pencil, marker or pens that you like to use?
Yes, I have used the same drawing pens for years; these are Rotring Rapidograph fine liners. They are quite technical pens with very fine steel nibs. They give such a lovely smooth line and allow me to be really precise and accurate, which is perfect for me given the level of pattern and detail in my work.
7. What are your favorite drawing and coloring materials to use?
Aside from the drawing pens I mentioned above I love to draw on Letraset marker paper as it has a very smooth surface, which is perfect for steel nibbed pens. When it comes to colouring I prefer pencils myself rather than pens, as I just love how versatile they are. My two favourites are Faber-Castell Polychromos and Prismacolor Premier.
8. Do you draw every day?
Pretty much yes. Sometimes this can be in the form of very quick and rough sketches while I’m planning the pages of a book, other times it will be working on final artwork and being very much more precise and careful with what I’m doing.
9. How long on average does it take you to complete a book?
On average about 5 months from start to finish.
10. Do you ever get “writer’s block”?
Sometimes yes. It’s something that happens from time to time and I think the secret is knowing when to step away from the desk. It took me a long time to realize that if I do get ‘stuck’ it is often far more productive to step away from it, and go to do something else for a short while instead. I’ll often just go for a blustery walk on the beach, which is great for blowing away the cobwebs and allows me to come back to work with a much clearer head and a fresh outlook on the work.
11. How has coloring changed your life?
In some ways things have changed the same time other things are very much still the same. My working routine is still much the same, I still work using the same methods, materials and processes and I’m still working from the same studio at home. So day-to-day things are still very much the same for me as they were before.
What is very different is having the luxury of working on one thing that I can dedicate months to, rather than days, as was often the case on commercial projects. I’m also sharing my work with a much wider audience and in a way that they are being invited to participate and contribute to the work themselves, which was a very new concept for me and is something I absolutely love. I’m naturally quite an introvert so sharing my work and interacting with literally millions of people has been a very new and exciting experience for me.
12. What advice can you offer to aspiring artists?
I think I would just say create work which is very much your own and is very much ‘you’. With the market being so competitive and with so many people out there trying to find their place in it it’s really important to stand out from the crowd. Work hard to find your own style and don’t try to force a style if it doesn’t come naturally. Once you’ve done that, and your style is consistent then clients will become familiar with what you do, people start to remember you for the work that you create.
Also, be resilient, not only is it a tremendously competitive market but you also need to be prepared for knock backs, just take it on the chin and persevere, if you’re willing to work hard it will pay off eventually. Ultimately, I think illustrators do what we do for the love of the creative pursuit and that has to be more important than anything else, to have a passion for what you do.
13. What’s next for you?
Right now I’m beavering away on book number 4, which is very exciting indeed. I’m afraid I can’t give away the title just yet but it will of course have nature at it’s core and I’m simply thrilled to be bringing a fourth book to colouring fans. Beyond that I have a range of Tableware launching later on this year, which has been another new and very exciting experience for me. There are a few other projects in the pipeline but I can’t really say too much about those at this stage.
I have also just become a patron for the Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife charity devoted to compassionate conservation and animal welfare, which is something I have always felt very passionately about. By joining forces with them, and through my own artwork, I look forward to helping them continue the incredible work that they do across the world.
I think all of that should keep me busy and out of trouble for a while.
Check out Millie’s new book, Wild Savannah, and share your coloring adventures with us on Instagram using the hashtag #ColoringWithMichaels.