Fantastic children’s books and how to illustrate them

Olivia Lomenench Gill
Olivia Lomenench Gill
Share this article

Her first illustrating job came about by chance, following a somewhat impromptu meeting with famous author Michael Morpurgo at a small book festival in Brittany, France, in 2009.

By Olivia Lomenech Gill’s frank admission, she had no idea – at that time – who he was. But the Northumberland-based artist clearly made an impression on the much-loved children’s author when they met

The Ocamy from Fantastic Beasts. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

The Ocamy from Fantastic Beasts. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

And, a short-time later, having purchased some of her work at a London exhibition, Michael and his wife Clare commissioned Olivia to illustrate their book, Where My Wellies Take Me, which was published in 2012.

Since then, the Greenaway Medal-shortlisted mother-of-three has not looked back.

Other notable projects have followed and Olivia has recently completed the commission of a lifetime, working with publishers Bloomsbury to produce a fully-illustrated version of JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

It’s pinch yourself stuff. And not at all bad for a self-taught artist who admits that illustration is not really her thing. But while she is building a glittering CV from her working studio in Belford, this humble talent is keeping her feet firmly on the ground.

The front cover of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

The front cover of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

“It is just a job, but I am very lucky to do what I do,” she said, “but the truth is, it doesn’t matter who you are working for, you apply yourself in the same way.”

Although, she admits that it is very exciting to work for such celebrated writers as Morpurgo and JK. 

Tasked with the enviable duty of bringing to life the wild wonders of the wizarding world, Olivia has created a dazzling array of beautifully-illustrated magical creatures for the Fantastic Beasts book.

Published in early November, this glorious new edition charts the extraordinary findings of famed magizoologist Newt Scamander, over the course of his adventures.

Olivia's work

Olivia's work

The project let Olivia’s imagination travel, literally around the world, all from within the confines of the her studio in Northumberland, and the end result is an eye-catching and mesmerising series of images, described by Bloomsbury, as ‘beautiful’ and ‘brilliantly inventive’.

But how did this artist from Northumberland attract the attention of Rowling?

She said: “As far as I can gather, someone at Bloomsbury liked Where My Wellies Take Me and they showed this and some other work to JK Rowling. The first I knew about it was when I had a call from the agent I work with, Alison Eldred, asking me to do some dragons! Apparently, that got me the job.”

It was a commission of a lifetime, but Olivia had to keep this fantastic news a secret. She said: “I was sworn to secrecy. When it comes to Harry Potter, everything is under wraps and for a year I worked on something that I wasn’t allowed to talk about or show.”  

Olivia's work

Olivia's work

By her own admission, Olivia is very much a Muggle, having previously had limited knowledge of the Harry Potter series. But she insists that this actually helped her in the creative process when it came to Fantastic Beasts. 

She said: “As an artist, I have always been narrative driven and this has led me to making work about lots of different subjects. But whatever I am working on, the more I try to learn about a subject.

“There are maybe some advantages in coming at something as an outsider, with no preconceptions and a fresh approach.

“What I most enjoyed about working on Fantastic Beasts was that it led me to research and learn more about different (real) species, even if I had to adapt and alter them into something else.

“And because I am not good at making stuff up, I really draw on a lot of the domestic things around me.

“Of course, I would love to go to the Serengeti to draw, but the view out of my studio window is just as good in its own way, just minus the elephants. I think that if you examine the ordinary, you find the extraordinary. Once you start looking, you realise we have lots of our own fantastic beasts right here.”

Olivia's work for War Horse: Only Remembered

Olivia's work for War Horse: Only Remembered

But working for JK does bring with it a certain amount of pressure. She said: “It has been a huge privilege, but you do go through the mill a little bit with something like this. Working as an artist is a very private thing, nobody sees your work unless you choose to exhibit it. Illustration is different, and Harry Potter is something else!

“I was aware of this enormous following for JK Rowling’s work and the fact millions of people around the world would be seeing my work, but if I had stopped to think about it too much, I would have stopped dead in my tracks. I had to put it to the back of my mind and forget who I was working for, which was difficult.”

One thing Olivia did question was when the Warner Bros. film of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them film – starring Eddie Redmayne – came out last year, when she was halfway through working on the book.

She said: “I haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter films, and I didn’t see the Fantastic Beasts film. I was aware that there would be some big differences in the Warner Bros interpretations and my own but when I asked Bloomsbury about this they said it was fine. What is great about the JK Rowling world is that it has given birth to so many different interpretations of the same things, it is a very generous world in this respect and that is brilliant. Apparently, when Newt Scamander comes home at the end of the film, he says that he is going off to write his book about all of the beasts, and that is the book I have illustrated! I did see Eddie Redmayne at an event last week, and I considered going up and saying ‘by the way, I just illustrated your book’, but I didn’t – he would have just wondered who on earth this madwoman was!”

Olivia, who lives just outside Wooler, says that Bloomsbury has done a great job with the book. And it is in Northumberland where Olivia draws much of her inspiration. She even featured on BBC One’s Countryfile, where she spoke about her creations and the Northumbrian land and seascapes that help to fuel her creativity.

She said: “I take inspiration from Northumberland and my surroundings. Although the funny thing is, I have never considered myself a landscape or wildlife artist. I have so many interests, and a fascination with trees and plants in particular. I wish I was a landscape artist but I am very bad at containing a big bit of landscape within four edges of a bit of paper!

“For me, I need a narrative, something like the Border ballads or Northumbrian folk tales such as The Laidly Worm; that is what makes me interested in the landscape – there needs to be some form of human connection.”

With that in mind, working on Where My Wellies Take Me was slightly out of her comfort zone. She said: “Michael Morpurgo commissioned me to do that book because he said he thought that I had a feel for the countryside, which always amuses me, but it did make do a lot of countryside work.”

Working on the Wellies book was the start of something special for Olivia, but she admits she was fortunate to get that big break back in 2009. She said: “I’ve been quite lucky and I secured my first illustrating job by chance. It was the one bit of serendipity when someone insisted that I must meet this very famous English writer.

“He was already a very big name of course, but I had no idea who he was; my children were not yet old enough to be gripped by Morgurgo fever!  

“We met and he saw some of my sketch-book work and then about a month later, after buying some of my work in an exhibition, he wrote to me and told me that I was right for Where My Wellies Take Me.”

The book was published in 2012 and, after this, she was commissioned by Michael to create the artwork for his concert performance, War Horse: Only Remembered.

It was a special piece of work for Olivia who has always had an interest in military history and horses. 

To make sure every detail was correct, she worked on site with The Kings Troop, Royal Horse Artillery who still have the original 13lb field guns used in the First World War and who are the ‘closest relative’ we have today to the British Cavalry regiments in The Great War.

Olivia is now working on another book for Michael Morpurgo with Walker Books. She said: “I seem to do the odd jobs in illustration, but I quite like that. I still consider myself as an artist, but even in that I am self taught.

“Illustration is generally not well paid so an illustrator needs to be able to turn around a lot of work very quickly, but that is not me – I am not good at that. Where My Wellies Take Me, for example, took nearly two years.” 

As well as JK Rowling and Michael Morpurgo, Olivia has also worked for the likes of Northumberland-based Katrina Porteous and Kathleen Jamie, one of Scotland’s leading poets. She said: “Working with poetry is my favourite thing and the books I have done with Katrina and Kathleen were challenging and enjoyable – a good combination for making good work.”

She has also taken part in events at the British Library and Seven Stories, as well as doing a recent talk in Belford.

And on Saturday, December 9, Olivia is hosting a local book launch of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at Lomenech Gill and Fils, 2 Market Place, in Belford; the studio she runs with her husband Vincent, who specialises in paper restoration and conservation framing. The launch will run from 2pm to 6pm, signed copies will be available and everyone is welcome.

It will be a proud moment for Olivia to showcase her work to a local audience; after all, the Fantastic Beasts book was created and illustrated in Northumberland.

A hippogriff working drawing for Fantastic Beasts. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

A hippogriff working drawing for Fantastic Beasts. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

The Acromantula from Fantastic Beasts. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

The Acromantula from Fantastic Beasts. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

Unicorn working drawing. Courtesy of Olivia Lomenech Gill

Unicorn working drawing. Courtesy of Olivia Lomenech Gill