Interview with Millie Marotta

Interview with Millie Marotta

March 03, 2020

Millie Marotta is a freelance Illustrator working from her studio by the sea in a little corner of West Wales. A fascination with the natural world, a love of decorative design and a keen eye for detail are at the core of Millie’s work.

In 2014 Millie released Animal Kingdom - A Colouring Book Aventure, which went on to become a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. Since then she has created a further five colouring books, loved by fans the world over. Her most recent book A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals (Published by Penguin Random House UK) sees Millie delve into working in full colour alongside writing about a subject very close to her heart. Above all else her intention is to create beautiful and captivating work, which both celebrates and raises awareness of the natural world.

We were absolutely delighted to announce Millie as our newest Patron in December 2019. Having now announced the Festival Theme for 2020 - The Big Green Draw: A Climate of Change - we have been itching to speak with Millie more about her work, and the many links that can be drawn with this year's theme!

Interview: Matilda Barratt in conversation with Millie Marotta.


Hi Millie! Could you start by telling us a bit about your work, and perhaps give us some insight into your creative process? 

All my work is nature based, focusing on wild animals and the habitats they live in.

My process usually begins with quite a bit of research, both visual and factual. Because my work is normally based on real species, research has become a natural part of my process. It goes deeper than just finding out what an animal looks like, I always need to know a bit about their habitat, perhaps what they eat, where they can be found, their behavior - certainly my research for ‘A Wild Child’s Guide To Endangered Animals’ was a huge undertaking, but it was so interesting for me to learn so much along the way. In that sense I love how my work feels like it spans both art and science.

Each illustration begins as a very scruffy, tiny thumbnail and then a full-size rough pencil sketch. I like to have the image thoroughly planned out before I think about moving on to final artwork, so this is an important stage of the process. Once happy with the sketch I redraw it in black ink using a technical pen. If the artwork is to exist only in black and white then this is pretty much it, save for scanning. With the artwork for ‘Wild Child’ the drawings were then scanned and coloured digitally, which for someone who previously had worked predominantly in just black and white, combined with being possibly the most indecisive person on the planet, took an absolute age.

How did the natural world become such a dominant theme in your work?

I’ve always had an inherent fascination with the natural world, as far back as I can remember, so it’s not really a case of ‘how’ it became the dominant theme in my work, it’s more that it’s always been a dominant theme in my life. At the root of it is simply a love for animals and a connection with nature. And then of course the richness, vibrancy and diversity of the animal kingdom just makes for the best subject matter!

[Sketch by Millie from the workings for 'A Wild Child's Guide To Endangered Animals']

I understand you studied Wildlife Illustration at Carmarthenshire College. It must have been wonderful studying a subject that combined two of your greatest passions!

It was wonderful, when I discovered that I could combine the two and actually study wildlife illustration it just seemed the perfect fit for me. Looking back on my wildlife illustration course, I appreciate what an extraordinary and often bizarre experience it was. The course was run out of part of an old mansion, set within the grounds of a country park in rural mid-Wales. We had a Victorian arboretum on our doorstep, wild deer, peacocks, rescued birds of prey and a whole host of unusual creatures, such as skinks, axolotls, and hissing cockroaches, all kept and cared for by our lecturers. We even had an adorable rescued pole cat, named Honey, who would dart around our feet in the studio while we worked at our desks. I was in my element.

That sounds incredible. I think I could have done with a little furry-friend darting around my feet at University! How did you get into illustrating colouring books?

My publisher initially approached me with the idea of working on a colouring book. From the very get-go I thought it would be a great project to work on and felt the style of my work, with its detail and intricate lines, lent itself perfectly to offering illustrations suited for adults to colour. At that point colouring books for adults really weren’t the ‘phenomenon’ that they have become, but as someone who has always used creative activities as a way to unwind and relax myself, the idea of creating beautiful and sophisticated illustrations for grown-ups to colour felt like an idea very much worth exploring.

[Page from 'Beautiful Birds and Treetop Treasures' coloured by Cherry Lee]

And why do you think it has become so popular amongst adults? What is it about colouring-in that is so appealing?

In childhood, most of us will have enjoyed colouring as a fun activity and a way to be creative. But as we grow up, we tend to have less time or inclination to allow for this type of activity. That's not to say that we don't enjoy it anymore; I don’t think the desire to be creative, which is so strong in childhood, ever really leaves us, it just gets buried as we grow up and other things in our lives become more prominent. For many, a huge part of the appeal is in the books offering a really simple and accessible way for people to engage, once more, in a creative task. 

The other thing of course, is that colouring can be a fantastic ‘de-stressor’. These days we lead such busy, fast-paced lives; we seem to be constantly multi-tasking and trying to cram as much as we can into one day and people find colouring a really good way to relax and ‘switch off'.

Aside from the enjoyment and satisfaction we as humans get from making/creating something, people are now understanding how these types of activities can be beneficial to our well-being. It’s proven that these types of creative activities, where we are focusing the mind and working with our hands, can actually reduce levels of anxiety and help relieve stress. Colouring encourages you to focus the mind and concentrate on ‘the here and now’, offering a much-needed distraction from all those things in the grown-up world which may be causing worry or tension.

Lastly, I think the books offer a great opportunity for those people who would like to be artistic but perhaps lack the confidence to start from scratch. A blank page can be quite a daunting thing, so having an image there ready to start working on can be very encouraging for those who otherwise might not have any kind of creative outlet in their lives.

Outside of your own work, do you spend much time drawing and colouring in?

To be completely honest, since my first colouring book was published, I haven’t really had a great deal of time on my hands for drawing that isn’t work. I guess I’m lucky that my work doesn’t feel like work and is how I would be spending my time if I wasn’t working.

Do you have a favourite - and indeed, least favourite - subject to draw?

Favourite is a toughie, if REALLY pushed I’d probably say birds. As for least favourite, humans. In particular faces, hands and feet, so… pretty much all of the human. 

[Interior spread from 'A Wild Child's Guide To Endangered Animals']

As you mentioned earlier, in your newest book, A Wild Child's Guide to Endangered Animals, you moved away from black and white colouring books and into colour work. How did you find it working on something that was so different from your previous books? And how did this influence or change your creative process, if at all?

A Wild Child’s Guide To Endangered Animals is a full colour book – a first for me, as was the writing - both of those things did make it a vastly different project to my colouring books. But at the same time, because of the animal theme, it didn’t feel a million miles away. 

The first big difference was timing - I’ve made enough colouring books now to know exactly how long I need to complete a book. With Wild Child however, as so much of it was unchartered territory for me, I wildly underestimated how long it would take. The research alone, before I even started any of the writing, took months. And then there was the writing itself, which I absolutely loved doing, but again took quite some time as I worked my way through, learning ‘on the job’, under the expert guidance of the team at Penguin. And then there was creating the artwork itself. The early stages weren’t too dissimilar from how I create my drawings for the colouring books; thumbnails, pencil roughs and then inking up the final drawings and scanning. This is where my process for a colouring book normally ends, but to get my drawings to this stage for ‘Wild Child’ felt like only the beginning. 

Working in full colour was a big jump for me and early on I didn’t really know how, exactly, I would ‘execute’ the colour. I wondered if I should colour it by hand, use paint, perhaps some collage. But none of those things really seemed to fit with the vision I had in my mind. My drawings are very crisp and neat, clean and quite graphic in themselves, so in the end it made perfect sense for me to colour them digitally.

A Wild Child's Guide to Endangered Animals shines a light on the increasing threat that global warming poses on the animal kingdom; through your illustrations of these incredible species, you demonstrate just a fraction of everything that we stand to lose if we continue down this path. Why do you think that art is so good at engaging people in important and often difficult topics like this?

I wanted the book to not just tell the stories of these animals and the risks they face but to also showcase and celebrate them as individual species. Using illustrations, which are semi-realistic but with lots of vibrant colour and pattern, allowed me to create visuals which help to tell the story, educate and capture the reader’s imagination all at once. I think for kids especially, an illustration is often something they can engage with a little bit more easily than a photograph or a film.

Also, when you come across a book that you really love, it can have a big impact. Aside from being a beautiful object to treasure and revisit time again, it can inform, inspire, educate and empower you. And I think for children especially, as their reading skills are still developing, the visuals in a book can be equally as powerful as the words, if not more. Over time, when the words may have faded from memory, often the images will be etched into the mind’s eye.

We are so thrilled to have you as our newest Patron! How do you feel about joining the team?

I’m absolutely delighted! I’ve long admired The Big Draw and am really excited to get to know the team, joining the existing Patrons will certainly put me in wonderful company. Drawing has always been a big part of my life so coming on board as a Patron, to help champion and celebrate drawing, in all its guises, is a huge honour.

[Interior spread from 'A Wild Child's Guide To Endangered Animals']

This year’s theme for The Big Draw Festival is ‘The Big Green Draw; A Climate of Change’. We feel it is important to highlight the way that we live today, and the relationship between people and our living environments and ecosystems. It being our 20th anniversary, we wanted to mark and capture this pivotal moment in our society. How do you think this theme resonates with your own work, and why do you think it is so important?

It couldn’t resonate more if it tried! With my illustrations my aim, above anything else, is to create captivating work which celebrates and raises awareness of the natural world; with that in mind, this year’s theme couldn’t be a better fit.

I think it’s so important that people, children especially, have a connection with nature and an appreciation of the natural world and the animals that live in it – sadly, these days that also means learning about what we stand to lose as more and more species disappear. Humanity is at a crossroads, there are things that we can all do to make a difference for the better. Highlighting the way we live today and the impact we have on the natural world, and acting on that, is essential for safeguarding the future for wildlife and the environment. 

What do you find most rewarding, as well as most challenging, about being an illustrator? What would your advice be to all of the young aspiring creatives out there?

First, I should say that the rewards FAR outweigh any challenges. I get to do something I love as my job, I get to combine my two great passions and work doesn’t feel like work. One huge but quite unexpected reward in creating the colouring books is how it opened up a way for me to engage with my audience on such a huge scale, and that has been a hugely rewarding experience for me – seeing all the different ways that people work with my drawings and hearing from fans about their own experiences has become such a heart-warming part of creating the books.

I think the challenges are probably much the same as those for any Illustrator working from home. It’s not for everyone, if you’re going to work alone in a room all day long you definitely need to be happy in your own company! 

My advice for aspiring creatives would be to really consider what you enjoy making, how you like to work, what sort of style comes naturally to you and where your strengths lie. The best thing I did in the early days of my Illustration career was to give myself time to explore and experiment with process and technique, which ultimately led me to my ‘signature’ style.

It’s easy to get caught in the trap of looking around at what other artists are doing and wondering whether you should be working in ‘this’ style or ‘that’ style. With the industry being so competitive and with so many people out there trying to find their place in it, it’s crucial to stand out from the crowd. Work hard to find your own style, once you’ve cracked that bit, people will start to remember you for the work that you create.

Also, be resilient. You need to be prepared for criticism and knock-backs; just take it all on the chin and persevere, and where good advice is offered, take it. And more important than anything else, you need to have passion for what you do.