In her hands

Could the key to happiness be drawing? Illustrator Marion Deuchars believes it might be. Which is why her new book asks us all to get our hands dirty and make some great art.

Can you draw the Mona Lisa’s smile? from Marion Deuchars on Vimeo.

Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” The Picasso quote that introduces Let’s Make Some Great Art, the forthcoming book by illustrator Marion Deuchars, neatly encapsulates her intentions, enticing readers to get messy with a range of art-based activities while sneaking in some art history and (literally) pen portraits of major artists along the way. It’s an activity book, but one with ambition.

“I agreed to do it on the basis that I could put more emphasis on art,” she says of the 224-page, A4 book. “Without being pretentious, I wanted it to be a bit more intellectual, to have real content and to be for kids as well as adults.”
So, as well as invitations to draw a skeleton or colour in a rainbow, the book features spreads on how pigments such as Lapis Lazuli or Yellow Ochre were traditionally made as well as short biographies of the likes of Matisse and Mondrian.

No such thing as a bad drawing

Deuchars says that the idea for the book came when she was contemplating a shift from the commercial work that had sustained her earlier, highly successful illustration career. “When you have kids [she has two] you read lots and lots of children’s books so it went from a subject I knew nothing about before to something I suddenly felt I knew a lot about. But it’s a lot harder than you think and I kept stalling.” Deuchars is married to Pentagram partner Angus Hyland. As we reported last month, he acts as a consultant to the Cass Art chain of art shops. “Angus was bored of hearing me moaning,” Deuchars says. “Cass was thinking of opening up a kids section so he asked me to do an activity book as an R&D project. It was a good starting point, there was no pressure and [in Hyland] I was working with an art director I trusted. The publisher Laurence King saw the potential in it and asked me to do a fuller version.”

Deuchars hopes that the book will encourage readers of all ages to get drawing, no matter what their ability. “What I’m really trying to get across is that there is no such thing as a bad drawing. The book is about bringing in that element of play, so it’s not about drawing the perfect face. Kids go through that stage where they want everything to be realistic which then convinces a lot of them that they can’t draw and they give up. It would be great if people could just keep drawing, people would be a lot happier,” she says.

Deuchars studied printmaking and illustration at Duncan of Jordanstone in her native Scotland before going on to the RCA to do her MA. Moving to London was, she says, inevitable at the time. “If you wanted to work in illustration you had to come to London, there was no other choice. I think that’s changed a lot now: it’s about your presence and your presence now is not very physical. I rarely meet clients now or send stuff physically. If you have that web presence that’s all that matters, maybe with a few physical appearances at private views or talks to prove you exist.”

After graduating in 1989, Deuchars made her presence felt the old-fashioned way, by printing postcards and sending them to a list of 500 art directors and designers. “You might get one or two jobs from that and it would be enough to start but it’s not an industry to go into if you want to be rich, you do it as a labour of love.”

Is it more difficult now for a young illustrator, with so much competition? “It’s always been difficult, I remember people trying to put me off, saying there’s not enough work, not enough money, but I didn’t feel I had any other choice. This was what I was good at. And I had self-belief. I always had a lot of self-confidence, I don’t know where I get it from but I need it to get out of bed and work. I have doubts and days when I think I have no talent but you have to believe in yourself, especially because the work I do is quite simple. It might look like it only took five seconds but I would have done 25 versions to get to that point.”

Or perhaps, these days, even more: “People always ask for revisions,” she says. “Your artwork used to consist of one page, paint on paper, and I probably did ten versions to get one image. It was very labour intensive. Early on I realised that the people who asked for the most changes were people in editorial and they were the ones who paid the least, had the shortest deadlines and were the most demanding! So I very quickly sussed that was an area I didn’t want to spend much time in, the numbers didn’t stack up, whereas I had a lot more freedom as an artist on commercial work and they were a lot more respectful. Changes were made for genuine reasons and they generally paid a lot more. It’s a less glamorous area in some respects but I had a lot of freedom, there’s a kind of trust there. It’s also the kind of work I enjoyed the most. I believed I could make a beautiful and arresting piece of artwork from anything people could throw at me and it was always a challenge I enjoyed. I liked the problem-solving. What illustration should do is illuminate text and the text was always very difficult to penetrate. These images allowed you to read something you might otherwise skip over.”

Work for those you respect

What does she look for in the designers and art directors she works with? “I need them to be good! Illustration relies so much on the designer. It took me a while to realise I should only work for good designers, everything else was a waste of time. The work I did for Fernando Gutiérrez [book covers] and Vince Frost [D&AD annual report] stands out because they allowed me space and understood I wasn’t just a box-filler. I try a lot harder when I really like the designer too! Milton Glaser said ‘Only work for people you love’. I remember thinking ‘that’s fine and dandy for you’. My interpretation is ‘only work for people you respect’. When I look back at my work, the only work I like has been done for those I respect. I should have learned from that initially.”

Deuchars became known especially for her work on annual reports, book covers and, latterly packaging. In particular, her use of handwritten text became much admired – and copied. Initially, she says, she found her lettering being copied “quite upsetting”. With the support of her agent, Heart, she has pursued some cases but “it’s a big wake-up call when you realise you are not protected by the law. The judge is not going to be visually literate, even when we were showing the lawyer the lettering [that they alleged had been copied] they didn’t have the terminology to describe what had happened. You have to take a huge risk to go to court, but usually you just pay a lawyer a lot of money to say that it’s not worth it.”

These days, she says, she is more sanguine about it, particularly as her lettering is less close to her than her images. “I’d be a lot more upset if it was my images, as they come from my deeper psyche – my lettering is just my lettering.” Instead, she says, she’ll just name and shame the culprits and anyway it may not be much of a concern for the future as, although it is still in demand, she feels it is time to move on, or at least be more selective about where she applies it.

This question of how illustrators manage their careers, how they choose which jobs to accept and which to turn down was something we explored in our June issue. “I used to take on all jobs when I could work 24 hours,” Deuchars says, “but in the last five years that’s changed a lot. I try to be more selective, because I’ve been trying to wind down the corporate work.”

The price of motherhood

Part of that change in outlook has been prompted by motherhood: was she worried about the impact having kids would have on her career? “I don’t think I thought about it like that,” she says. “I’m very lucky to have had kids, I could have missed it by being too focused on work so I’m very thankful not to have missed that opportunity, but it does come at a price.”

That price includes the drop in profile that comes with not being available to attend industry events as frequently as before. To combat that, Deuchars took a high-profile job creating all the illustrations for The Guardian’s Saturday newspaper. “The Guardian job kept my profile up,” she says. “Women often almost work for free so that they don’t fall back in the workplace: the Guardian job was a bit like that. I thought ‘I’ll do this high profile job, but I’ll barely have time for anything else’. Angus quite often found me crying on the kitchen table because it was so difficult at times but, as a lot of women do, you get through it.”

Working on books, she believes, will provide a better way to balance the competing demands on her time (a second activity book is on the way plus she has been developing characters for another one): “The deadlines are longer, so I feel I have more energy and time now. I feel like I’m at the beginning of something new and I’m quite excited. I feel like I’ve reinvented myself [and] … adjusted my practice to suit my lifestyle.”

Crucially, she has always maintained her studio rather than attempting to work at home. “It’s like a lifeline,” she says. “I don’t even try to work when the kids are in the house, even if they weren’t there’s always something to do. Going to the studio has always been a tonic, I can talk to adults and actually have lunch!” It’s not just because of motherhood that Deuchars has placed importance on having a studio, though. For many years she has shared a large multidisciplinary space which currently includes architects, a photographer and web designers, enjoying the company and energy that the mix of people provides. “I realised before I left college that I couldn’t be the artist in the garret working alone. In a studio your work’s always visible, there’s always someone peering over your shoulder, so you do work differently. You can tap into it when you need that support. At other times it can be very cringey if you are struggling with something, to have your work visible, so I think it strengthens you.”

“The thing that’s crucial in our studio,” she continues, “is that we have a big communal table and we all eat lunch there, we don’t eat at our desks.
I think it’s something that a lot of people are giving up in favour of munching a sandwich alone but there is a lot of cross-fertilisation that takes place. It’s a bit like a college environment and it’s really healthy to work in. I feel like I’m going to play every day rather than going to work.”

With her work/life balance resolved and a promising new direction to her career, Deuchars has every reason to be upbeat, but she is aware that it is an enviable position to be in. “I’ve always felt that it’s a privilege to make a living from art,” she says. “It’s never ever been a job to me. The kids think that mum and dad just colour in and draw all day and I feel proud to say ‘yes, that’s what I do’.”

Let’s Make Some Great Art by Marion Deuchars is published by Laurence King, £12.95, See also Marion Deuchars is represented by Heart, More work at



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