Writer & illustrator Sarah Maycock talks career highs and lows, mental health and whales

We speak to the winner of the ALCS Educational Writers’ Award (EWA) about the highs and lows of her career

To date, Sarah Maycock’s career highlights include painting whales for the Natural History Museum’s 2017 ‘Beneath the Surface’ exhibition, wonderful dog paintings for Angus Hyland’s ‘The Book of Dog’, a painting of Liberty London for its luxury advent calendar, and the publication of a children’s book that she wrote and illustrated, Sometimes I Feel, which won the EWA Award.

Here she tells us (via Siri – she recently had a baby!) how it felt to receive mail from Sir David Attenborough, that she learned the underside of a whale’s tail is called a fluke, and how helping children to manage their emotions is ‘about as good as it gets’.

What’s been the favourite project or moment of your career so far?

The year after I graduated from university, I was asked by the BBC’s Eureka magazine to make some illustrations to accompany a large interview with Sir David Attenborough about his then new series ‘Frozen Planet’. I started receiving a few messages from members of the public who had seen the illustrations and felt moved to write to me to say how much they enjoyed them.

Something clicked, and I understood a bit more about what illustration can do. Even though the magazines were pretty ephemeral and ended up in the bin the next day, they had affected people. I then managed to send some prints of the illustrations to Sir Attenborough, and he wrote to me and thanked me and said how much he liked them. I mean…wow…I can’t imagine anything would ever top that.

Can you tell us about a low point?

A few years ago my granny died and I really struggled to work afterwards, it was quite a traumatic experience. I had lived with her from the age of two up until when I moved out to university so we were very close. It really affected my mental health. I started taking antidepressants shortly after which worked extremely well for me and I’m so grateful to have had the support. I have very understanding agents and I felt no pressure from them, so I could recuperate and take my time.

Financially it was also very challenging. I didn’t necessarily know I was in it at the time but looking back it was a real struggle. I do find illustration isn’t the sort of job where as long as you put the hours in, you get the good work that you want. But it also taught me that sometimes you just have to carry on as if that were the case, get the job done and answer the brief even if you’re not 100% happy with the work yourself. Often, you can look back and realise actually you do like what you made and something else was going on to throw you off.

What are the challenges you’ve faced as an illustrator when it comes to making a living, and how do you make it work?

From year to year, you never know how much money you might earn. Which can be a good thing and a bad thing. I’ve found that it can be quite tricky when it comes to mortgages to explain my job, and why my income can fluctuate quite wildly. I try explaining that it’s not about the hours I put in, it’s about the usage of the work. If you make an image for an editorial piece or a book cover, the fees are much smaller than if that same image were to be used for advertising. And it’s not like I can employ more people to take on more work…it’s only me, so there’s a limit. As well as the commercial work I get through my agents, I also sell prints, signed booked and do a few private commissions. I am forever in the process of setting up a functioning online shop, but it doesn’t come naturally to me.

Your portrayal of whales for the Natural History Museum’s ‘Beneath the surface’ exhibition is incredible. Did you have a fascination with whales before being commissioned? 

Thank you so much, I absolutely loved working it on it and I’m not sure I’ll ever top the high of seeing my paintings on huge banners adorning the Natural History Museum. I had worked with whales about 10 years before in a painted typography job for The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. They made a short film with a voiceover from Sienna Miller, and superimposed my writing over the footage. Even though I wasn’t painting whales per se, I was using ink to mimic watery textures and the colours of whales and splashing waves. I also painted a humpback whales’ tail curving back into the water for the airline  Monarch’s online magazine ‘Passport’. It made me realise what beautiful shapes their flukes make.

Working on the Natural History Museum job,  I was a tiny cog in a huge machine in terms of fitting my work into the exhibition production schedule. But at the same time my work had a big part to play and I felt a lot of pressure, especially for the main image used in all the advertising which had to be finished first.

I’m now obsessed with whales and dolphins. I can’t believe how little I knew about them before and how absolutely incredible they are. The exhibition’s aim was to help people make a personal connection to the animals and that’s certainly what happened for me.

Where did the idea of a book aimed at children about emotions come from?

When it came to working on our final major project at university, I was a bit stuck in terms of what to do. I had worked on a character design project for a Salman Rushdie book where I had drawn a lot of bears and I really enjoyed it, so that was in the back of my mind. And the format of a children’s book seemed to be the most basic stripped-back idea of what illustration can be. The topic of animal similes came up in conversation with my mother and that was the beginning.

The project started as a children’s book, then morphed into a more conceptual piece without an ending. Big Picture Press helped me edit it, giving it a beginning, middle and end, and making sure it was suitable for children. I think it works for adults too as some of the ideas have a superficial message easily understood by children but also with something more complex behind them. For example, the spreads about being as hungry as a horse on one level are about sharing food, but on a deeper level are about taking care of everyone in society and not exploiting natural resources.

What was the message you wanted children to take away from ‘Sometimes I Feel…’

I’ve had so many teachers and parents get in touch to share how they’ve used my book in their classrooms which I’ve found extremely moving. Often children are asked to write and illustrate their own similes, or to make their own versions of particular pages like trying to draw what they think birdsong sounds like. My initial hopes were that children would enjoy the high-contrast images, repetition and rhythm, and the familiarity of the similes. It blows my mind that people are really using my book to help children talk about emotions. It’s about as good as it gets.

Tell us about the transition to illustrating for a children’s book

I actually never thought about it in that way… I focused a lot on being playful and bold with the compositions, as well as making sure the animals had strong personalities. Even though I have exaggerated qualities of some of the animals (the ox, fox and bear come to mind) I felt that the animals had enough dynamism and interest in their natural qualities within having to simplify them in a way you’d usually expect for a children’s book.

What do you think about children using your book to learn about emotions?

I’m just so glad that my book is being used as a tool to help children untangle complicated and often conflicting emotions and ideas. It really is a privilege.