Húsavík Iceland

My partner Gerry Turley is an illustrator too, and one of the great things about our job is that we get to travel and draw together.

A couple of weeks ago we packed our bags, got a babysitter for Peggy dog, and headed to Húsavík in the north of Iceland with a pile of sketchbooks. The plan was to see humpback whales in their natural habitat. You probably know, Gerry makes beautiful screen prints of whales on to vintage sea charts (here), and we have been planning this trip for a long time.

Gerry Turley Húsavík

Gerry Turley Húsavík

Helen Stephens (drawn in the drizzly rain) Húsavík

Helen Stephens (drawn in the drizzly rain) Húsavík

Gerry was doubly keen to go because he is also illustrating a picture book about an Arctic tern and a humpback whale for Wren and Rook Books, due to publish 2019.

Gerry Turley Húsavík Drawing humpback whales from the boat

Gerry Turley Húsavík Drawing humpback whales from the boat

We were lucky to see numerous whales, including a mother and her calf and a group of males bubble-net feeding (see what that is here). Truly amazing! We are planning making a joint Sketchbookzine of this trip, we'll keep you posted on that. You can see some of our other sketchbookzines here.

Helen Stephens Húsavík

Helen Stephens Húsavík

Gerry Turley Húsavík

Gerry Turley Húsavík

Gerry Turley Reykjavik

Gerry Turley Reykjavik

Helen Stephens Reykjavik

Helen Stephens Reykjavik

Gerry Turley making his new Humpback Whale screen prints at Edinburgh Print Studio

Gerry Turley making his new Humpback Whale screen prints at Edinburgh Print Studio

Gerry's new Humpback Whale screen print is starting to take shape, it will be in our shop very soon. His last edition was featured in The Guardian and sold out immediately, so if you would like one you can join the whale newsletter below for a heads up.

This is one of Gerry's previous spermwhale screen prints. The next edition will be a humpback whale.

This is one of Gerry's previous spermwhale screen prints. The next edition will be a humpback whale.

Working with the door closed and allowing yourself time

I have just been listening to On Writing : A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.  He talks about the importance of 'Working with the door closed'. Meaning that, until your story is down on paper, from begining to end, don't show it to another living soul. Make it, then show it later. I am guilty of getting over excited and showing my ideas before they are ready, then being knocked way off course by other people's opinions.

A page from my Walk to See Sketchbookzine

A page from my Walk to See Sketchbookzine

Allowing yourself time... For the last few years I have worked with a timetable pinned above my desk that shows all of the projects I have lined up, sometimes going three years in to the future. For a few years I liked this situation, it made me feel secure. But graudually I started to feel scared of that looming timetable. I had no time to play or create for the sake of it. So I asked one of my publishers if I could pay back my advance (and they very kindly said yes), I turned down a two book deal in favour of a one book deal, and said no all other offers that came along for a while. I can't tell you how good it felt, it was such a relief. And now new book ideas are springing up everywhere.

There is a good article on the pros and cons of deadlines here.

Here is a link to something I have been enjoying whilst working recently. Chris Watson's album Weather Report. I find it hard to listen to music while I work, but his recordings of nature take me into another world, which is exactly what I need whilst I write. Let me know what you listen to, I am always on the search for inspiring listening.

The Importance of the first draft and my top five podcasts

I am currently illustrating a huge book of Fairy Tales, nine stories in total. It's almost as much work as illustrating nine individual picture books. It is something I have always wanted to do, and therefore I have to fight a pressure for this to be perfect. As soon as I feel pressure to do an extra specially good job, I freeze up and the work suffers. So I am being practical and just getting on with it. JUST GETTING ON is half the battle. Nine Fairy Tales is a huge mountain to climb, but I have to start somewhere and KEEP GOING.



Slowly, slowly they are taking shape... I make my way through step by step and even if I am not happy with bits and pieces I keep going. Once I have the first set of roughs done, I have something to work with, I can fine tune things and work out how to fix the problem pages later. It has made me remember again, that starting is the most important part. Especially true if you are writing or illustrating your first book. You have no idea where it is going, or if it will be good, or if anyone will read it. But get that first draft on paper, then you have something to work with.

Whilst I illustrate I often listen to podcasts on my earphones. I thought you might like to know my current faves:

1. The Adam Buxton podcast, especially this episode where Louis Theroux sings 'Yes Sir I Can Boogie'.
2. Your Dreams My Nightmares 'Internet Famous'. It is long and could do with some editing, but I enjoyed the part about Instagram and how copying is viewed amongst illustrators these days.
3. I went through a huge This American Life phase, and overdid it I think. But if you haven't been there yet I thoroughly recommend it. One of my favourites is this one about car salesmen, called Cars, probably because my dad was a cars salesman when I was a child.
4. Elizabeth Gilbert Magic Lessons
5. Death in Ice Valley

So many more I could tell you about, I will get to those soon. Let me know if you have any favourites I should listen to.

Picturehooks Mentoring

@KirstiBeautyman and I have been on an adventure together. I mentor, she mentee for the Picturehooks Mentoring Programme. Last night at the private view, we were delighted to find out she was chosen as Picturehooks Illustrator 2017! We each wrote a little about the process:

During our first meeting Kirsti showed me some beautiful, magical ideas she had for picture books, one stood out as having lots of potential: ‘Penny and the Mist Monsters’. She already had a title, and an almost fully formed story. Kirsti said she had never drawn children before, so that was the main focus of our work together. She struggled to show her rough drawings at first, but I think we conquered that without any serious long term scarring! I love how Kirsti has retained the mysterious, magical, strange qualities of her work, whilst finding her picture book voice.
— Helen
Penny and the Mist Monsters Kirsti Beautyman

Penny and the Mist Monsters
Kirsti Beautyman

Working with Helen over this past year has been an invaluable experience. The guidance she has given me throughout the mentoring scheme has been eye opening as she has guided me and helped me to adapt my illustrations to visually fit the market of children’s books. During this journey I have grown and gained confidence, but also I feel very lucky to have gained a supportive and inspiring friend.
— Kirsti

Isn't Kirsti's work beautiful? The exhibition opened yesterday and she has already been approached by a number of agents and publishers. The Bookseller, which is the magazine read by all the publishing types, bookshops, authors and illustrators (basically the best place to be featured as a new illustrator), wrote a piece about Kirsti. If you are recent graduate, wanting to illustrate picturebooks, the Picturehooks Programme is open to you. If you are in Edinburgh, go and see the exhibition:  So much new talent, and not-so-new talent (me, Patrick Benson, Ross Collins, Steven Antony and Debi Gliory).


How to Hide a Lion Helen Stephens

How to Hide a Lion
Helen Stephens

Yearly Doorstep Picture

It's just over 7 years since we left London, our home for 17 years, and moved up to the windy Northumberland coast. In the first few days here Gerry (my partner and fellow illustrator) took a photo of me and Pie on the doorstep. We did the same a couple of years later, and made plans to do it every year after that. Sometimes life got busy and we forgot...

but we remembered this year!

I love looking at these pictures, seeing the change in us as the years have gone by. Pie has grown from a brave, funny, adventure loving toddler who once dressed up as a knight in shining armour (naked bum peeking out under the breastplate which was on her back) and told us she was a 'shite in armour', into a confident, inquisitive 'big-girl' (as she calls herself) full of beans and cheekiness. She has just moved school and told us she likes it because the canteen is like the cafe in Ikea (I think she means you get a tray!)


And for Gerry and I, moving here has influenced our work in all sorts of ways. For me the silvery sea mists inspired me to write How to Hide a Lion (I'll tell you all about that in another blog post), and for Gerry the local wildlife, particularly a beached whale we drew at Beadnell Bay a few years ago have inspired his series of whale prints. You can see Gerry's whale prints and signed copies of How to Hide a Lion, and lots of other exciting goodies in our shop here.


Fleabag on CBeebies Bedtime Stories

Over the years most lots of my books have been read on CBeebies Bedtime stories, but perhaps the most exciting one was this: Fleabag read by Tom Hardy.

It was shown on National Dog Day and was the final appearance for Tom's dog, Woody, who passed away after the episode was filmed.

I love his 'WOOF! WOOF! woof!' bit!

Fleabag has appeared on Bedtime Stories before, it was read by Jake Wood. I love how Jake says 'Fleabag', he has a proper cockney accent and makes Fleabag sound hard as nails!

Don't use an open jar of ink as a paper weight

Shortly after making this film I spilled my grey ink all over my sketchbook. I used a bit of tissue to rub the grey in and ended up with a different type of drawing. I think I prefer the quality of the line drawing before the spill! Oh well, some you win, some you lose.


Below is a drawing I did earlier that day. I spilled my ink on this one too. Lesson learned: don't forget your masking tape and use an open jar of ink as a paper weight instead.


Actually, I don't mind accidents like this. Sometimes these mishaps can become something interesting, they can set me off on a new line of exploration.

And anyway Dave Shelton said,
'Stephens's "Oil Slick in the Harbour" is a devastating commentary on humanity's blithe disregard for the fragility of nature...'
Ha! Finally, someone who totally GETS my work! That's what I meant all along!

We are opening a shop! (fanfare please)

Ding-ding! Our (virtual) shop doors open soon and we thought we'd give you a sneaky peek.

There will be:

  • screenprints
  • signed picture books
  • sketchbookzines (that's a word now)
  • bookshelf owls
  • night iceberg posters
  • and various other random but amazing things.
Gerry's whale prints onto vintage sea maps, used at sea and annotated by navigators.

Gerry's whale prints onto vintage sea maps, used at sea and annotated by navigators.

Do you like our shop header? Those little blue waves are the doodles that Gerry makes while he's contemplating the bigger issues in life (or procrastinating). As we live and work on the windy Northumberland coast they seemed fitting. What do you think? We'd love to hear from you.
(Oh and MOST EXCITING OF ALL, I had a stamp made of the shop logo.)