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Posted on September 14, 2020

Q&A with Nikki Miles illustrator of Be Kind, Be Cool, Be You!

Illustrator Nikki Miles sat down with her editor, Victoria England, and designer, Holly Phillips, to discuss Be Kind, Be Cool, Be You: Inspiring Words to Live Your Life By – a chunky little book packed with positive messages, wise words, and pick-me-ups.

We’d love to find out about your journey to becoming an illustrator…

My journey to becoming an illustrator started when I was at university about 10 years ago, while I was studying graphic design & illustration. I always loved drawing and painting, but I didn’t know that you could do it as a job. So as soon as I started to study illustration, I knew that this was the perfect career for me. I mean, who wouldn’t want to draw every day and get paid for it.

When I graduated, it soon hit me that being a freelance illustrator wasn’t a straightforward career. At the time the UK was in a recession, and with the illustration industry being so competitive, I struggled to earn a wage as an illustrator. I eventually got a job as a graphic designer which I really enjoyed, but I never let go of my dream of becoming an illustrator, to the point where I was thinking about it all of the time!

So, while I was working full-time as a graphic designer, I used all of my spare time to carry on illustrating and I ran a small online shop selling my art on greetings cards and prints. One day in 2016 a publisher contacted me and asked if they could stock some of my card designs in Paperchase. Having my cards stocked in a high street retailer gave me a confidence boost. And this kept me going until two years ago, when I decided to leave my job and become a full-time illustrator.

Now I spend my days creating commercial artwork for things like advertising, products, magazines and books. I am proud to say I’ve worked with global brands like Apple, Coca Cola, Penguin and Snapchat. And of course, my book Be Kind, Be Cool, Be YOU! is being published in October which I am beyond excited about!

Your work is packed with so many positive messages. What gave you the idea to create your #100DaysOfIllustrationForGood project?

Last year I found out about a free online art project called #the100dayproject that anybody can join in with. It takes place every spring, you just create a project and make a piece of art for it every day, for 100 days and share it on Instagram with the hashtag. At the time I was feeling a bit tired of seeing so much negativity in the news and online, and I thought that maybe other people felt the same as me. This inspired me to do #100DaysOfIllustrationForGood where I created 100 illustrations sharing positive and reassuring messages for anybody who needed to see it.

Even though I didn’t finish it within 100 days, I still completed the 100 pieces of artwork. I think I kept going because I had such an amazing response from people, who sent me messages and comments about how much my work helps and reassures them in some way. Lots of people shared my work on their own social media accounts, and this really inspired me to keep going because it meant that my work could reach and help even more people.

What advice would you give to any young artists hoping to challenge themselves to 100 days of illustrating?

Here are a few tips that I learned along the way:

  • I would say give yourself a head start and create artwork for your project before the 100 days begin. Just so you have a few extra pieces to post when you’re busy or too tired to work on your project (we all get those days)
  • Write a list and make rough sketches of what you’re going to draw. Always keep adding to it so you never run out of inspiration and ideas.
  • Set aside an hour or two to work on your project each day, at a time that works for you. For me, it’s early morning before work starts or on the weekend.
  • I worked on 5 or 10 designs all at the same time in batches. I find doing this really helpful to bounce off my own ideas and see how my illustrations and colour palettes are working together.
  • Don’t put yourself under loads of pressure to work on your project and post on Instagram every day. Remember that no one is going to notice if you miss a day here and there! It’s supposed to be fun and not a chore, so be gentle with yourself and go at your own pace.

We’re incredibly proud to publish Be Kind, Be Cool, Be You because it’s your first ever book. Huge congratulations! What did you enjoy the most about creating it?

I am so excited to be publishing my first ever book! It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, but I didn’t think it would actually come true! The whole book was an absolute joy to work on and knowing that it’s going to help others and inspire kindness around the world makes me feel really proud. If I had to choose my favourite part of the process, it would be digitising my paintings and adding colour. I really enjoy working on illustration layouts and thinking of all of those colour combinations.

Every page of the book is like an explosion of colour and texture. How did you create the artwork??

All of my artwork is a mixture of traditional painting and digital magic. I paint the lettering, illustration elements and textures by hand with black inks, pens and pencils. Then I put it all together digitally on my Mac and add colour. Sometimes I draw digitally as well with my Wacom tablet or iPad and mix it in with my traditional paintings. I know I could easily draw everything fully digital but I am a very hands-on kind of person and I enjoy making a mess with all of my art supplies! Also, I just love the beautiful imperfections and unexpected results you get from working by hand.

Holly and I found it impossible to be stressed out while we working on this! Did you come across any challenges and if so how did you overcome them?

I was working on the book throughout the pandemic and a lockdown in the UK. Like lots of people, I found it unsettling and stressful at times, with some unexpected personal situations to deal with. Some days I found it impossible to focus and be productive because of the worry and uncertainty. At the time I think I was probably watching the news and using social media a bit too much, and it was making me anxious. So, I had a bit of a digital detox (while still staying informed) which really helped me stay positive and it meant I could continue to focus on our amazing book! I was actually very grateful to have such an optimistic colourful project to focus on while the world turned upside down.

It’s so hard to pick a favourite page from the book because they’re all important, but we’ve given it a go! Victoria likes “Everyone is on their own journey” and Holly’s favourite is “Throw kindness around like confetti”. Is there a message that feels particularly special to you?

Yes, it’s quite difficult to choose a favourite, there are so many good ones! Ok so if I have to pick one it would be “You don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful” this page always stands out in my mind, and I think it’s because the message really resonates with me. It’s comforting to know that I’m allowed to be imperfect, messy and make mistakes while still being wonderful J

We love creating books that children will treasure forever. What was your favourite children’s book growing up and why?

This is another hard question because there are so many beautiful children’s books that I love! I think out of all of them my favourite book as a child that I still treasure is The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I know it’s probably lots of people’s favourite, as it’s such an iconic picture book! As a child, I found the book was a feast for my eyes! It was really engaging and relatable; from the colourful collaged illustrations to the caterpillar’s eaten holes through the pages. And not forgetting the big butterfly surprise at the end. Even now, I still love the book and I think Eric Carle’s collages are just beautiful.

And finally, we’re nosy crows, after all, so please could you tell us about a typical workday and maybe give us a peek inside your studio…

My working day typically starts around 9am with a coffee at my desk in my cosy home studio. I normally catch up with emails and get any boring admin stuff out of the way in the morning, so I can start working on my creative projects. Next, I will get my notebook out and organise the day. I always write a to-do list so I can stay on track! I enjoy working on client commissions throughout the day along with making illustrations for Instagram and designing new products for my little online shop; where I sell my art on cards, prints and stickers. I do really get into my work, so I often eat lunch at my desk.

When I need a screen break in the afternoon, I pack up any new shop orders. My cat Luna loves to get involved, by knocking pens off the desk and playing with my packing supplies, which keeps me on my toes. I’m lucky enough to live in Epping Forest so I try to get out for a walk in the woods most days, but it doesn’t always happen when the weather is bad or if I have a lot of deadlines. My working day ends around 6pm although I can lose track of time and end up working later!

Thank you, Nikki. What a lovely home studio!

You can take a look inside the book below:

Pre-order the book.

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