Anna Walker is one of Australia’s most established and beloved picture book creators. She has published twenty-fivebooks in a career spanning twenty years. Her newest book, Florette, has just landed in bookstores and is a beautiful meditation on how to become comfortable with change.
I met Anna in her studio, a converted shirt factory she shares with a printmaker, an interior designer, a tea importer, and a book designer. You know you’re talking to a visual thinker when she says, “I wish I could respond to your questions with a painting instead of with words.” But as you read on, I think you’ll agree that Anna’s words more than suffice!
Anna had the good fortune of knowing what she wanted, right from the get go. “I remember looking at the illustrations in a book of fairy tales and thinking, ‘Those are so beautiful; that’s what I want to do when I grow up,’” she said. How did she turn that early inclination into a rewarding career? It was hard, she explains, and there were obstacles, but she would “try to find ways of overcoming them.” Anna is petite but possesses a stubborn determination, to which she largely credits her success.
After studying graphic design at Swinburne University (where “there were no illustration courses,” she said), Anna set up shop straight out of school. Her parents ran their own business, so working for herself felt more like a natural step than a leap of faith. Besides, she says, “I had nothing to lose.” At first, it was all design work. Whenever there wasn’t enough work, she would invent briefs for herself and treat them as real commissions. After a few years, all of her work was illustration-based. Gradually, picture-book illustration became the foundation of her business.
The importance of presentation
For illustrators still building their businesses, Anna stresses the importance of presentation and attention to detail. Small details—like a visual link between your website and your business card—matter. She also suggests finding ways to put your work in front of potential clients, both online and in hard copy. This might mean incorporating an illustrated element into your email signature, or sending out postcards, bespoke holiday cards, or, occasionally, original artworks. “People don’t get that kind of thing very often,” she said, “and they appreciate it.”
Giving work space and time
Anna and her character Mae in Florette have something in common. They like to be immersed in an environment that is beautiful and familiar. While Anna’s studio retains the exposed brick and pipework of its industrial heritage, she has transformed it into a bright, welcoming space. It feels like a loft, though it is actually a basement.
Her desk looks out through an arched window at street level. She enjoys watching the passing foot traffic, including a Greek neighbor who always bends down to wave hello and children who look through her window.
“I’ve always shared a studio,” she said. “I go a bit crazy working by myself at home.” Having others around provides moral support and an exchange of ideas, both vital to a happy work life. And from a business perspective, having to meet an overhead (rent) pushes you to find work.
Just as important as environment is time. Anna devotes a year to each book, a pace that allows her to let the work develop fully, take on select commissions to subsidize her picture-book work, and be present for her three teenage children.
Anna uses a variety of techniques in her work, including collage, woodblock printing, etching, watercolour, and ink. She’ll sometimes redo an illustration twelve times before she feels it’s right. Regardless of the method, her illustrations always seem to strike the perfect harmony between detail and simplicity.
Anna suggests not worrying too much about developing a personal style. “It was years before people started saying, ‘I recognize your work,’” she said. “You can’t have a style until you’ve got a volume of work behind you. Just do the work.”
The power of knitting
Like many creatives, Anna references self-doubt as one of her biggest challenges. She tempers those unhelpful thoughts by running three times a week, sharing a studio, keeping in touch with other illustrators, and…knitting. Anna knows she’s bringing too much work anxiety home when her husband says, “Now, where’s your knitting?”
I asked Anna what she does with her ideas-in-waiting: ideas she’s had but hasn’t had the chance to use. Her response was golden. She thinks of ideas as little scraps of fabric. A book is like a sewing project: you assemble the bits you need, make a start, and keep going until it’s finished. “You don’t need to feel badly [about the ideas that] haven’t been used yet,” she said. “They’re just waiting there, ready to make the next thing.”
Meeting business challenges
For many illustrators, the biggest challenge is making a living. “Getting your folio out there and meeting with publishers is important,” she said. “When things are quiet, you worry about when the next job will come in. But that’s when it comes back to sending out postcards, freshening up your website, reminding people you’re here. If your focus is book illustration, joining the Australian Society of Authors is a must.”
Certain things, like cold calling and quoting, never get easier. Anna doesn’t have to do the former as much these days, but her motto when something’s difficult is: do it anyway. She suggests viewing cold calling, networking, or whatever “thing” you find difficult as just one part of your business.
If you’re not sure how much to charge for a job, Anna suggests talking to other illustrators. Take into consideration how the artwork is going to be used. Is it for one product, or multiple products? Will it be used locally, or globally? Also consider the duration of the usage license. Is it for one month? One year? In perpetuity? “I don’t part with copyright for anybody,” she said. There’s a way to give the client what they need and protect yourself. As she explains, “An exclusive license has just as much weight as copyright.” Don’t be afraid to request amendments to your contract.
“I’m working on a book with Janie [Godwin, a long-time collaborator],” Anna explained, “and I’m also working on my own story about a walrus.” Anna often starts a project by crafting her character in toy form. She showed me a loosely stitched walrus plushy. “So far, that’s what I’ve got,” she laughed. Recently, the final step on her projects has become creating a book trailer using stop-motion animation.
“I’ve always believed in the picture book as an art form,” she said. “It’s important to me that every aspect is crafted to be the best it can be.”
For more about Anna Walker, visit annawalker.com.au.
Jo Watson is a Melbourne-based screenwriter and artist. Visit her on Instagram (@diaryofapicturebookmaker).
Photos by Jo Watson