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Work Life: Rebecca Cobb, Children's Book Illustrator

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Rebecca Cobb, 31, is a children’s book illustrator. She lives in Falmouth, Cornwall, with her boyfriend Sam, a furniture designer.

"I used to work in a little dress boutique opposite a bookshop. Every week I would go over the road and show the owner my drawings – he was a publisher as well as a bookseller and I hoped I’d eventually win him over.

One day, he relented, and commissioned me to work with Helen Dunmore on some picture books. She took me around Cornwall to see the locations of her books; we spent days climbing over rocks and visiting beaches so I could get inspiration. In the end, her agent was impressed with my work and offered to represent me, too. Since then, I have illustrated children’s books for people such as former children’s laureate Julia Donaldson and director Richard Curtis.

I wake up at about 7.30am. Sam and I recently bought a derelict Cornish cottage and we’ve been living in it while we renovate. We started off with one plug socket and an outdoor tap. Now we’ve got hot running water and a kitchen sink – it’s amazing. I love washing up at the moment.

I eat a banana and some toast while watching the birds from the kitchen window. I often spot goldfinches, blackbirds and wrens.

I work from home but at the moment our bedroom is the only room that’s sorted, so it’s also my office. I have my table, computer, light box and materials set up in there – with paints, coloured pencils, inks and paper dotted all round the place. Sam has a workshop a few miles away but when he works from home we’re both crammed into the bedroom.

At 9am I start my day answering emails and keeping up with Twitter. Illustration can be a bit isolating so it’s comforting to tweet about work and get feedback from other illustrators – it creates a sense of community.

Then, I start drawing. Normally, I’ll have the whole text of the book I’m illustrating in advance. For a picture book, it’s usually 32 pages. So I start by thinking about how the text can be split up over those pages, then I brainstorm illustrations to go with each page. I’ll make a storyboard for the whole book then start drawing full-sized rough illustrations in pencil. I use my light box to trace the image onto another sheet with ink. Then I’ll colour in with pencils, watercolours and ink depending on whether I want a ‘painterly’ effect or a ‘scratchy’ one.

Sometimes an idea comes to you and it just seems right, other times you need to re-work your drawings. I try to blank out the author I’m drawing for because working with some of the world’s best is a bit daunting. I take a lot of inspiration from other illustrators. My favourites are Quentin Blake, John Burningham and I love Brian Wildsmith’s colourful animal designs.

I take my memories from my childhood for inspiration too. I did a lot of drawing back then. I used to make books about animals and re-write fairytales like Rapunzel and Cinderella. I got told off at school because I’d spend all my time illustrating every project and notfocusing on the words. When my mum went to parents’ evening, I’d draw her all my teachers so she’d know who to look out for. Once, I drew one of my male teachers and she said, ‘He can’t possibly look like that, don’t be so cruel.’ But when she got there she knew exactly who he was. It helps to have a powerful imagination as an illustrator. When I’m working, I sometimes try to think like I did as a child. I was a daydreamer back then – I never really knew what was going on. I’m still a bit like that.

I can get easily distracted by the television, Twitter or books. I’m very good at tidying when I’m supposed to be working. But if I’ve got a deadline it helps me focus. I normally have a few projects on the go at once, so will flit between them if my attention span is waning. I listen to BBC Radio 4 a lot but if I’m really trying to concentrate I make sure it’s instrumental music.

I finish drawing at around 7pm and Sam and I will have dinner together. We’ve been eating a lot of pasta because we don’t have a working oven yet. We’ll watch The Wire or Breaking Bad before bed at 10pm.”

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, is out now (£6.99, Macmillan Children’s Books); paperdollsworldrecord.com

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