Award-winning children's book illustrator Amanda Hall creates engaging images that are bright, busy, and full of wonder.

Amanda Hall’s dream-like imagery has earned her a reputation in the children’s book industry. Her illustrations are rich with movement and vibrate on the page with a modulated, vivid palette. Layer after layer, Hall creates rich, hand-painted shapes that are full and round, building tangible yet fanciful worlds that readers can step into and make their own.

Growing up in the fantastic world of her father’s art studio, Hall developed her creativity amidst the smells of boiling kettles of cow glue and oil paints. She went on to study graphic art and illustration at the Cambridge School of Art where her father, John Hall, was a beloved teacher, artist, and theater designer. Hall works out of her studio in Cambridge, England that is set within the garden of her home. Surrounded by a jungle of flowers, plants, and shadows, she finds inspiration between cups of tea, meals with loved ones, and putting on the occasional cabaret concert. 

Throughout her career, Hall’s award-winning illustrations have  been published by Balzer & Bray, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Barefoot Books, Lion Hudson, and Wisdom Tales. Since 2011, her work has been displayed at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London; the books she has illustrated can be found in the children’s section of bookstores and libraries around the world. 

From "Babushka." Courtesy of Amanda Hall.

You have described yourself as an illustrator whose “mind primarily conjures up images rather than words.” Can you describe some of the habits and rituals you use to capture these images for future illustrations? 

When I get a new commission, I familiarize myself with the text and immerse myself in everything I can get my hands and eyes on about the subject. That might involve research via field trips, Internet searches, books, and exhibitions. Then I have to relax and let the ideas come––I find this easiest when I allow my mind to drift. It’s good to have a sketchbook handy to capture the ideas as they bubble up. I can get this same process working with words too and have both written as well as illustrated books, but images come most readily to me.

 

Tell us about “The Shadowhouse” and your garden.

Although I live in the beautiful old town of Cambridge, England, I like to surround myself with greenery, as if I lived in the countryside. My illustration studio––The Shadowhouse––is an old wooden hut at the end of a narrow, cobbled garden path running from my modest house that is fringed by box hedges. I made a little hilly, wild/jungley garden and a Gone With The Wind veranda that is used for exhibitions in the summer; it sits at that end of the studio, covered in climbing plants. The whole space is very enclosed, timeless and dreamily quiet. Every woman should have her own special space!

Inside The Shadow House. Photo courtesy of Amanda Hall.

You are an accomplished artist who also gives talks about your work as a children’s book illustrator. Why are you so honest and available about your process and experience?

Many illustrators work alone; it can feel particularly isolating and uncertain when you first leave college. After training, I moved to London and met people, sometimes older than me, who had experience of the publishing industry and knowledge to share with me. Their generosity of spirit helped me at that stage before I became established.

Now, I have the professional experience to hand on. I meet students and young illustrators who are seeking guidance and reassurance, or they are just interested in the subject. I set up my FAQs pages on my website as a resource.

From "Tales From India." Courtesy of Amanda Hall.

You said the Cambridge School of Art  hadn’t prepared the graduates for the realities of being a freelance illustrator. What classes do you think should be taught to bridge this common gap in arts education?

Yes, we are creators but illustration is an applied and commercial form of creativity––it’s a business! If we are freelancers, we are responsible for all aspects of running our businesses: finance, contracts, intellectual property, marketing, and everything else that goes along with working in the industry. My art school training didn’t touch on any of these subjects, so I had to find out about it all, slowly, sometimes painfully. I certainly think art schools have a responsibility to help prepare their students for the business as well as the artistic side of their future careers by building this into the curriculum in interesting and relevant ways.

 

What’s one challenge you’re navigating on the business side of illustration?

For the last year, having had many of my illustration and book rights reverted by publishers, I have been working towards setting up a new side to my business. I will be offering some of those illustrations in different printed forms via my forthcoming e-commerce website. I will run this new business alongside my illustration work for new children’s books.

 

Can you talk about how your time focused on collective political action influenced your illustration career?

After the publication of my first two books, I moved into a housing co-op in east London. I found the lifestyle—which involved doing our own plumbing and electrical wiring—really exciting. The atmosphere was politically and socially intense. While I loved some aspects of communal living and would never wish the experience away, it was difficult to maintain my creative focus. I found that I had to move away from that world to regain my inner creative spirit.

 

After leaving the co-op, you traveled to Africa. How did your time there influence your return to illustration?

From London, I took myself off to Zimbabwe for 6 months in 1984/5, without any plans. Many people tried to talk me out of traveling alone to another continent but I went. While in Africa, I traveled around the country, met lots of people, spent time in rural villages, smelled wood fires, participated in village life, and gazed up at the magical night sky with no electric lights for miles around. Being alone somewhere new, relying on my own resources, opened my eyes and made me grow up.

I offered my drawing skills to a co-operative training course in mechanics in Bulawayo, for returning independence fighters who were mostly farmers. I was given a room to live in as payment. I sat, sweating in a garage, next to military vehicles, drawing engine components onto acetate sheets for an overhead projector. In Harare, I did some drawing for a Zimbabwean women’s magazine. I remember the feeling of peacefulness sitting and drawing pictures––illustrating again. It made me realize how much I had missed illustration and that I needed to get back to it.

From "Out Of This World." Courtesy of Amanda Hall.

What challenges have helped shape you? 

In becoming a professional, especially providing a service like illustration, I have had to learn to respond positively and creatively to feedback from clients who want things changed. Comments that feel like personal criticisms and can strike you down like a blow to the spirit. I have learned to step back and appreciate that these comments are from people who know their job and are talking about factors that I might not be aware of. I’ve learned that if I take their contribution onboard, it will probably strengthen what I produce. This is a bit easier to achieve now than earlier on in my career.

 

What subjects do you connect with and how does this work nourish your heart? 

Over recent years I have been lucky enough to work on some amazing stories, many through collaborations with well-known authors. Working with writers whose work I admire and feel an affinity with results in resonance between their words and my images. 

Subjects [that] have nourished my heart and my head include stories of characters breaking through isolation into connection, historical and cultural themes, stories of struggling through external control to personal autonomy, and animal characters are always a delight. 

Amanda Hall.

What lifestyle choices have you made to become successfully self-sustaining as an artist?

I have worked incredibly long hours and often do, still. While becoming established, I did all kinds of other work to survive––teaching, waitressing, bar work––but only temporarily. I also took a cut in living standards, investing time to become established in what I love doing. I am at a point now where commissions seem to come along but there is always some uncertainty to keep me on my toes. My particular style of illustration is very labor-intensive, so each book inevitably takes longer than many other styles.

 

What projects are you working on currently and excited about?

After the success of our book The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, Michelle Markel and I collaborated on Out of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington which was chosen for the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show which will be on exhibit in NYC from Nov. 13, 2019 through Jan. 4, 2020. 

Leonora Carrington’s life story was extraordinary. Her enigmatic images, her determination to forge her own creative and personal authenticity, all the more remarkable in the context of such historical and global turbulence. This was a truly fascinating commission to work on and I very much enjoy the creative opportunities offered by this kind of subject.

My current commission is a picture book for the US publisher Wisdom Tales Press. This book is my second in collaboration with the wonderful British author Dawn Casey. Our first book, Babushka, came out in 2015 through Lion Hudson. I love the emotional warmth of Dawn’s beautiful story texts. This new book Little Bear, adapted by Dawn from a traditional tale, is set in Greenland and will be published soon.


Grace Boyle is a writer for Rebel Girls, where she focuses on interviewing contemporary feminist artists and researching historical feminist leaders. Previously, she led the writing and content team at MentorBox as executive writer and editor, where she created educational content for world-class experts and thought leaders including New York Times bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grace studied writing at the Ezra Pound Center for Literature and learned to interview at the Nationally Acclaimed Public Radio show New Dimensions Radio. She regularly consults with podcasts and businesses on brand narrative and communication strategy. Grace lives by the ocean in San Francisco and begins each day with a cup of tea and a text to her mom. You can find Grace on LinkedIn and Instagram.