Johanna Basford's story is an inspirational one. Starting out as a humble illustrator, a simple idea to bring her work together to form an adult colouring book has recently propelled her and her beautifully intricate work into the limelight. Now the author of two bestselling adult colouring books Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest, Basford has always known what path her career would take.
"From the age of about two – ever since I could grasp a crayon – I've had my heart set on a creative career," she tells us. "I just love drawing, always have and, I expect, always will."
And boy, has her passion for drawing paid off! Basford's first adult colouring book Secret Garden has sold over a million copies, Enchanted Forest sold out and with her third book Lost Ocean looking set to do the same, she remains firmly at the helm of the adult colouring book phenomenon.
- Download this free Secret Garden illustration (opens in new tab) courtesy of Johanna Basford and Laurence King Publishing
Every bit as charming as the as the gorgeous illustrations that grace the pages of her books, here Basford reveals all about her inky adventure.
How did the idea for Secret Garden come about?
A few years ago I created a series of illustrations, which I put on my website for people to download as desktop wallpapers for free. I was working as a commercial illustrator at the time and always looking for interesting ways to increase my profile and connect with potential new clients.
One of the people who downloaded my 'Owls in a Tree' illustration was my soon-to-be editor at Laurence King. She got in touch and asked if I would like to create a children's colouring book. I pitched the idea of an adult colouring in book – my signature style of illustration was super intricate, hand drawn, black and white work and for years my clients have been telling me that they wanted to colour in my drawings.
This was four years ago, before the worldwide trend for adult colouring kicked off, so you can imagine how quiet my editor went. They weren't sure if colouring in for grown ups was silly and if there would be any demand for books like this. I sat in my studio and drew the first five pages, then emailed them to my editor. They got back to me that day and said to go for it! And with that, the inky adventure began!
What's the inspiration behind your illustrations?
The books take their inspiration from my childhood holidays spent on the Isle of Arran on the west coast of Scotland. My grandfather was the head gardener at Brodick Castle gardens there and we would visit him and my grandmother for summer and Christmas holidays.
The gardens were an amazing place for a child with a big imagination to be allowed to roam free and play. There was a formal walled garden, complete with precision planted flowers beds, honeysuckle-clad pergolas and a beautiful sundial at its centre.
Much of the inspiration for Secret Garden came from those early days I spent playing in the gardens and helping my grandfather at his work. Whilst the gardens influenced my first book, the sprawling forestry and woodlands which surround them and creep up the mountainside of Goatfell (an extinct volcano studded with crystals!) is where my second book, Enchanted Forest has its roots. The woodlands were dark, mysterious places with lots of fallen trees to climb and curious little leafy hiding places for beasts of the real or imagined variety.
When my grandfather passed away I inherited his library of botanical reference books. These are an invaluable source as they detail so many weird and wonderful species – many of which I'd never see growing here in Scotland. I often take a leaf from one plant, a petal from another and perhaps a seed pod from a third and combine them in a drawing to create an imaginative botanical hybrid. This type of fanciful horticulture ensures I always have plenty to draw!
How long, on average, does an illustration take?
Anything from a day to a week. It all depends how detailed the illustration is and how quickly it comes to life. Just as writers sometimes get writer's block, I sometimes just can't seem to get the picture in my head down on the paper.
I'll often rip the page up and start again if it's not working. There's something quite cathartic about that. I can't imagine hitting delete on the computer gives quite the same level of satisfaction as scrunching up the page and throwing it in the recycling bucket!
Do you ever feel intimidated by a blank canvas?
Not intimidated, but sometimes I can feel a bit empty of ideas. I know they are all in there, they just sometimes need help being teased out of my head!
I find the best thing to do is not to sit and stare at the blank page in desperation, but to move onto another task, even if it's just organizing receipts or tidying up my pen collection. Often an idea or a solution to a problem materializes when I'm busy with something completely unrelated.
What do you think it is that's driving the adult colouring book trend?
In terms of why I think people are embracing the colouring craze, I think there's been an underground adult colouring-in movement for years, it's just more recently that it's come to light and become socially acceptable. I get emails from people saying until my books came out that they used to wait till the kids went to bed, then got their books out and had a sneaky colouring session!
More seriously though, I think colouring has three main reasons it appeals to adults: firstly it's a great way to de-stress. That notion of being 'in flow' and completely absorbed in a task – particularly an analogue task that doesn't involve a screen – is just so soothing.
Everyone's lives are now so busy and so digital, I think colouring offers a welcome opportunity to unplug and allow yourself to be completely immersed in a task without the constant chatter of Twitter or the lure of Facebook. This is how I feel when I'm drawing, blissfully submerged!
Secondly, I think everyone has a creative spark, they just need the opportunity and encouragement to allow it to flourish. An empty sheet of paper can be daunting, but a colouring book offers a gentle buffer to those with blank canvas anxiety! I think of the books as a collaboration, I draw the outlines then the owner of the book brings the colour. They don't need to worry about composition or layout, only colour palette.
And finally, there's the nostalgia factor. Chances are, the last time most people did a spot of colouring-in they didn't have a mortgage, a mean boss or worries about the fiscal debt. Colouring gives hard working grown ups the opportunity to play and to indulge themselves in an activity which likely reminds them of more carefree days.
In terms of the appeal of the books being trend driven, I think we have to see past the recent flurry of interest and look at the bigger picture. The books themselves are just a vehicle for people to express their creativity and indulge in a bit of digital detox. I think the charm and appeal of this has unbound longevity.
Just as sketch books and diaries have been embraced as staples in our analogue and creative lives, I think so too will the colouring book. The creative content or format will doubtless evolve, but I think the colouring book is here to stay!
Do you test your illustrations on members of the public before publishing?
No. I'm entirely selfish. I just draw pictures that I think are beautiful and that I myself would like to colour and embellish. I often post work-in-progress photos on social media, but this is more to share the creative process with my audience as opposed to guage their reaction.
If I wasn't 100 per cent happy with an illustration, it wouldn't make it into the book. It sounds self-centered, but I truly believe that keeping this level of honesty to my books and staying true to my original mission (to make books of beauty that I myself would love to own) then I'll continue to deliver something that others will embrace.
What's it like colouring in your own designs?
In all honesty, I don't actually get that much time to colour my work! I'm usually more focused on drawing the illustrations for the next book. When I do colour, it's usually to test a paper stock or some pens and pencils. I find it odd as I always imagine the artwork in black and white, never colour.
For me the books are collaboration. I create the pen and ink outlines, then whoever buys the book brings the colour, thus completing the artwork. I almost feel that when I do colour the illustrations, the natural order of things is being distrupted!
Why you choose a hand drawn method over digital?
For me, the hand drawn line is the best medium to capture the beauty of organic shapes and natural form. To try and draw a blossom in vectors just seems so counterintuitive.
The computer comes in handy for erasing tea spillages and wobbles where the dog has bumped my leg, also for rotating the odd butterfly or making an image symmetrical, but essentially, I like to champion the imperfect circle and smudgy fingerprint!
Tell us about your preference for black and white…
Initially I worked this way in art school because I was broke! As a silk screen printer, the most cost effective way to print is in single colour. Each additional colour takes longer and costs more. Necessity is the mother of invention. I figured if I was going to have a monochrome degree show collection, I needed to compensate for the lack of colour with some really complex imagery. And so my signature style was born!
My artwork now is all super intricate. I feel that to add colour to this, would confuse things and make the images overly complex. I like the bold, graphic nature of monochrome and I think once you strip out colour, you can focus on the actual composition and detail. I also like being known for a very specific style of work.
Some people have told me over the years that I'd get more work if my portfolio was more commercial, showed a range of styles and had colour. I couldn't disagree more. I like being a one trick pony, it makes me special and memorable and helps me to get more work. I want people to see a black and white illustration and wonder if it's mine.
What three pieces of advice would you give to aspiring artists?
- WORK HARD. There is no short cuts or magic formula, you just need to put the hours in. Hone your craft, be clever with your marketing, do your research.
- Be determined. Everyone has set backs and rough times, the important thing is to bounce back quick, learn lessons and don't make the same mistake twice. The quicker you can do this, the better.
- Be nice. This industry is small and word gets round. Be professional, be honest and be a good person to work with.
How do you feel about the success of your books?
Surprised! So surprised in fact that we've totally sold out of copies of both Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest! My publishers are having to source huge amounts of paper in the US and Europe to do additional print runs and my inbox is crammed with people upset at what they call the 'worldwide shortage' of my books! It's crazy!
I had no idea how the book would be received, in fact I was quite tentative about the book deal and almost backed out at the last minute. It was a big risk doing something so different. We didn't realise there would be a worldwide demand for books like this, we weren't even sure if adults would want to colour in!
My ambition was always though to just create a beautiful book that I myself would love to own and colour, then hope a few other people would feel the same and buy it. It didn't cross my mind that the books would become bestsellers in so many countries, I'm more surprised (and delighted!) than anyone!
Secret Garden (opens in new tab) and Enchanted Forest (published by Laurence King Publishing) are out now and the Lost Ocean (published by Penguin Random House) will be out in late October.