Amanda Hall is an award-winning illustrator of more than 50 books for young readers, including Out of this World (Balzer & Bray), Little Bear (Wisdom Tales), and The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau (Eerdmans). The art of How the Sea Came to Be was shaped by her reading, conversations with scientists, and explorations at London’s Natural History Museum and Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. Amanda works in her garden studio in Cambridge, England.

Amanda in her studio

What made you decide to illustrate books?

I don’t think I consciously “decided” to become a children’s book illustrator. Growing up, I was surrounded by art as my dad was an artist and an art teacher. I have always related to the world in a very visual way. I went to the Cambridge School of Art where I tried many art forms – 3D design, ceramics, textiles etc. but I found that it was when I was sitting creating pictures for books that I could truly lose myself in what I was doing, so I naturally gravitated towards illustration.

I have been working as a professional illustrator ever since and have illustrated eighteen children’s picture books and eleven story collections, plus stories and materials for educational publishers.  I have also both written and illustrated four picture books and am currently working on my fifth.

Do you have a favorite medium and style?

For many years I have used watercolor inks combined with pencil crayons. The watercolor inks come in a range of fabulous colors, and I use them to create the first layer of my illustrations (once I’ve drawn the image up in pencil). I then work on top of the dry watercolor ink layer with pencil crayon.

More recently, I have expanded the range of materials I use on the watercolor base, including digital layers. Now I might use gouache or acrylic paints, soft pastels and opaque white paint combined with pencil crayon, it just depends on the book I’m working on. I always like to be able to achieve a greater opacity than is possible with watercolor alone.

 My style has been evolving throughout my career. It really comes from the way I draw which is innate. I like to create a tangible and solid world you feel you can step into and walk around in.

Who has been a major influence on your illustrating style?

There are many artists whose work inspires me. When I was little, my dad took me to The Fitzwilliam Museum, here in Cambridge, England, to see some of Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s paintings. They made a real impact on me as Bruegel painted earthy buildings, landscapes, and people, sometimes showing actual bodily functions–all very fascinating to a child!

“A Village Festival in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony“ by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

 At college I was introduced to the paintings of Henri Rousseau, Stanley Spencer, and Eric Ravilious, and the illustrations of Edward Gorey and Maurice Sendak among many others. I particularly loved Sendak’s black and white illustrations from The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm. I realize, looking at this list, that all these artists are one-offs, rather than being part of specific art movements.

What’s your starting point when illustrating a book?

The author’s text is always my starting point. Jennifer’s text for How the Sea Came to Be is bold and dynamic–I knew that my illustrations needed to have an epic quality to match the power of her narrative.

When I have fully absorbed the text, I start my research. For How the Sea Came to Be, the research was extensive, particularly for the earliest prehistoric illustrations. When you are illustrating a book, obviously you must know what something might have looked like before you can draw it. For the earliest animals in this book though, as they were soft-bodied, very few of them have left a fossil record, unlike later creatures. Scientific work is ongoing as new ancient material is found, so identifying and visualizing hard facts about these creatures is a work in progress. This makes it a challenging but exciting illustrative task. There are many images on the internet that are now known not to be scientifically accurate, so I turned to university experts for guidance. Here are a couple of the soft-bodied fossils I saw at The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, part of the University of Cambridge.

Haootia Fossil
Charnia Fossil

Do you have a favorite place you go to create and illustrate?

For over 20 years I have worked in my wooden garden studio, where I’m sitting right now. It’s called “The Shadowhouse, “and is just down a little path leading from the house. My studio isn’t large, but it has everything I need – work surfaces, art materials, computer, scanner, bookcases, and a sofa for visitors. The studio doors open out onto a veranda overlooking my jungle-style back garden.

It’s great that the studio is separate from the house, as I’m “at work” when I’m here, meaning I can be in my own imagination rather than thinking about domestic stuff. I do find sometimes though that I get my initial creative ideas when I’m lying in bed, and therefore in more of a dreamy state. The actual “work,” though, gets done at my desk. I love my studio and am always happy here. Here are a couple of photos of my studio, front and back. You might well spot that some bits aren’t entirely real!

“The Shadowhouse
“The Shadowhouse

Is there a particular art spread that challenged you the most while illustrating How the Sea Came to Be?

Would you like to share how you created the artwork?

I thought I’d answer these two questions above together, and share the development of two of the illustrations that presented me with different kinds of challenges:

This early spread from the book shows first life in the sea and covers three billion years of evolution–quite a task! I wanted to reflect Jennifer’s text where she conveys how life grew and developed–and showing that was an exciting prospect. I came up with a sort of fan shape to show how early life diversified into bacteria, archaea and eucaryotes of different kinds, growing into a dizzying, overwhelming array of unstoppable evolution that the reader can believe bursts beyond the page, on and on.

This early rough shows the initial design and some of my research notes, followed by an early color visual.

First Rough
Rough visual

To create the final art, I drew the image in black ink on film. I also created a plain expanse of gradated pastel from dark blue to aqua. I scanned both and turned the black ink image into a pale-colored, gradated digital file that I overlaid onto the blue pastel base. Here is the final version from the book.

Final Art

Some of the other images, such as the end sheets were also created in this way.

This second image shows a range of strange, soft-bodied creatures such as haootia and charnia, as shown above. These were from the Ediacaran period of marine evolution. These animals all became extinct.

This image changed a lot from these first two initial rough images here.

First Rough
Rough visual

I discovered from the evolutionary specialist Dr. Imran Rahman at the Natural History Museum, London, that some of the animals I had depicted in this scene wouldn’t have existed at the same time, or even in the same part of the world. They also lived at different depths in the sea.

To get round this problem, I created the final spread by showing two distinct groups of creatures on either side of this illustration in a timeline. A third group appears on the next page.

Final Art

For this image I used my watercolor inks, then gouache, pastel, pencil crayon and opaque white paint, followed by digital layering. This combination is what I used for most of the illustrations in the book.

Were there any pieces that almost made the cut but didn’t make it into the final book?

No, there weren’t. I always expect to evolve my images between initial roughs and final art– but all the illustrations stayed in the book.

Is there a particular art spread that is your favorite?

There are a few spreads that I feel worked out well, here are a couple of my favorites:

I always looked forward to illustrating the deep-sea creatures spread. I have memories of visiting the Natural History Museum in London when I was a girl and being completely fascinated by seeing creatures in cabinets–like the weird angler fish with its terrifying teeth and monstrous head with the luminous light bulb sticking out! I particularly wanted this illustration to glow to capture the bioluminescence many of these creature’s display. It’s very easy to make glowy colors work on-screen, but harder in a printed book because of the printing process. I think the illustration does glow in the book though. That was partly possible because the background is so dark; also, I used digital color settings to make the illuminated parts of the image as vivid as I could. The designer and printers used their magic expertise too to get the right effects.

Deep Sea creatures

The other illustration I’d pick out shows the Archean Earth, with steamy vapor rising and gathering to eventually pour down as the first rains. This image needed to reflect the epic scale of Jennifer’s text. To convey that I used diminishing scale, but I also think the thickness of the vapor gives a sense of distance. I added to the steam by playing around with digital layers of white at different opacities–a great tool in Photoshop.

The image also had to show rocks heaving and puckering.  I have shown new mountain formations in the foreground, describing their movement by adding horizontal lines.

Archean Earth

Is there anything else you feel we should know about How the Sea Came to Be or yourself?

I have truly loved illustrating Jennifer’s fabulous text How the Sea Came to Be. I built a small natural history museum when I was about 10, part of which was a collection of fossils I found. Working on this book has allowed me to reconnect with my childhood passion, but also to learn so much more throughout the book’s development.

I am thrilled to say that there is now an exhibition of my original artwork from the book – “AMANDA HALL: HOW THE SEA CAME TO BEat Chris Beetles Gallery, London read more.

 And if you would like to be notified about future events, you are welcome to subscribe to my mailing list on my contact page.

Amanda at Chris Beetles Gallery in 2012 at an exhibition showing original art from THE FANTASTIC JUNGLES OF HENRI ROUSSEAU