Jess Racklyeft is a freelance illustrator who works from her home studio in North Fitzroy, Melbourne. It’s a two-story building across her courtyard garden that wears many hats. The ground floor serves as a music studio for her husband while the upper floor is Jess’s studio, a granny flat for visiting parents and in-laws and Winston the dog’s day bed.
Filled with books, papers, artwork and craft-market inventory, Jess’s studio is undeniably, gloriously chaotic. Jess is a whirlwind of activity who clearly adores her job—but she didn’t set out to be an illustrator. As she describes it, ‘I always wanted to work for myself, and I always drew, but I hadn’t been brave enough to put them together.’
A vocation lost and found
When Jess was twelve years old and attending a family friends’ wedding, the photographer asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. Jess told him that she wanted to illustrate books. It just so happened that this photographer had written a picture book manuscript, which he sent to her afterwards. Jess remembers drawing pictures for it. ‘I did the whole book, but I never sent it back to him. I was too shy,’ she recalled. After that, she forgot about wanting to illustrate books.
‘I had really arty friends at Uni,’ Jess explained, ‘so I didn’t think of myself as arty [by comparison].’ She did a degree in communications in Perth, travelled overseas, then moved to Melbourne and took a job in customer service at Lonely Planet. From there, she was invited to work in a sales role in children’s publishing. That job was a turning point. She attended industry book fairs in Frankfurt and Bologna, saw what it might look like to work as an illustrator and got valuable insight into the business side of selling books.
She used her maternity leave as a window to try working as a self-employed illustrator. ‘I went into a frenzy. Every nap, every spare minute, I was going at it,’ she said. Jess got her big break when a publisher at Omnibus, to whom she’d been submitting her folio on a yearly basis (‘because she sent me an encouraging letter’), offered her a book. That first contract gave Jess the belief she could make a go of it as an illustrator and she’s been doing it ever since.
There’s an urgency to the way Jess works that seems to spring from gratitude and delight at finally doing what she loves. Interestingly, for someone who was once too afraid to show her work, a hallmark of her practice has become posting and sharing illustrations online.
Now working on her ninth picture book, due out in 2018 and tentatively titled Dreaming A to Z, Jess also runs an Etsy store, sells originals on Instagram and has her charming illustrations turned into pins, wall decals, cards and gift wrap. Yes, Jess crams a lot into those two days a week her kids are at childcare. How does she juggle it all?
After dropping off her kids, Jess grabs a coffee on her way home and is at her desk by 9 a.m. She starts every workday by making a list. It’s a democratic, back-of-the-envelope affair: a combination of illustration work, business admin and household chores. Jess numbers the items, putting the jobs she least wants to do first. She starts at number one and moves through the list, spending twenty minutes on each item. Anything that can’t be finished in twenty minutes gets revisited later in the day (for another twenty minutes) or goes back onto the list tomorrow.
Jess has been using this system to structure her days for the last couple years. ‘By the end of the day, I know I’ve touched each thing I need to do at least once,’ she said.
Jess has experimented with a bunch of mediums and techniques but watercolour is her favourite. Her approach has evolved from doing illustrations entirely in watercolour to using a combination of watercolour and digital. She often paints the background separately from the foreground elements, then puts them together in Photoshop. This gives her the flexibility to move elements around, lighten or darken them, and have more than one go at people’s faces, which she does digitally. ‘The eyes make such a difference to a picture,’ she explained. ‘With watercolour, you only get one go. If you get it wrong, you’ve killed the picture.’ On her current book—the first one she’s writing as well as illustrating—Jess has digitised her kids’ artwork and is using it to create background textures. ‘Hopefully they won’t sue me when they grow up!’ she said.
Jess considers practicing your craft daily to be the most valuable thing an illustrator can do. Like the small birds she loves to paint, Jess skips lightly over her busy schedule, in constant motion. ‘I chip away at a tiny bit of everything each day,’ she said.
Jo Watson is a Melbourne-based screenwriter and artist. Visit her on Instagram (@diary_of_a_picture_book_maker).