Emily MacKenzie


We had a chat with Edinburgh-based artist Emily MacKenzie about Scotland, illustrations and growing up just a little bit wild. Check out issue 2, out in March, to learn more about this lovely creative and the joys of Scotland. Emily MacKenzie

Can you tell me a little about your training and artistic background?

I come from quite creative family of graphic designers, illustrators, photographers, animators and artists so for as long as I can remember my need to create and my interest in children's books has always been there and encouraged. I have very fond memories of taking over my parents studio and making use of their paper samples and materials to make all manner of weird paper creations! Drawing and making has always been in my blood, I don't ever remember thinking I would be interested in anything other than a creative career.

I grew up in rural Northumberland so when I left school I completed an Art Foundation year in Newcastle where I tried lots of different disciplines on rotation, which was brilliant though illustration wasn't something we could specialise in at that time. I joined the course thinking I wanted to be a fashion or shoe designer or perhaps a fine artist, but it was graphic design that captured my interest in the end and I moved up to Scotland in 2001 to study Graphic Design at Edinburgh College of Art.

After graduating I designed book covers in house at one of Scotland's largest publishing houses, Mainstream Publishing, but I continued developing my illustration and started printmaking in my own time. I designed non-fiction book covers for seven years before realising that I was happiest when I was drawing and so I decided to take the plunge to go full-time freelance in order to pursue my dream of becoming a children's illustrator, working on my own personal projects and selling prints of my work through local shops and galleries and online. My first children's picture book Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar has just been published by Bloomsbury and I've just had great fun completing artwork for my second book, to be published in 2016.

Emily MacKenzie

How would you define your style?

I'd say my work is mostly character based, quite spontaneous, colourful, inky and humorous. I enjoy getting jokes into my work or expressions that make people smile. I also love screen-printing and get a kick out of bringing my characters to life in the form of screen-printed, embroidered 3D plushes and soft sculptures which I sell online.

What inspires your work?

The house I grew up in in Northumberland borders a pine forest so I've always been drawn to foresty creatures! I have quite an active imagination which I think in part is down to all that drawing, reading and forest exploring when I was young so I am influenced by my childhood but also odd things I observe every day here walking around Edinburgh too.

Emily MacKenzie

What do you love about your job?

I love the diversity! Each day a new illustration project brings new challenges and surprises and the flexibility means if I'm having difficulty getting stuck into a project I can go for a thinking-swim, walk around the Botanics, draw in The Museum of Scotland or do some printing to get my cogs working again.

I also love seeing how people react to my work, it's a great feeling watching kids respond positively to my characters and I'll never get tired of watching people laugh or smile at something I've drawn.

There is a certain innocence to your work - is this intentional and where does this come from?

It's not intentional but I suppose I'm aware that the majority of my work is created with children in mind so I tend to be drawn to creating work that I know I would have enjoyed looking at when I was little. That being said, I find it an exciting challenge to get humour into my illustrations that will appeal to children and adults on different levels, so I try and make my picture book work enjoyable and interesting with funny jokes and scenarios for 'grown-ups' too.

Does Scotland influence your work in any way?

Absolutely! I've lived here for 13 years now and am really inspired by the landscape and wildlife here as well as scottish words and phrases I come across. Last year I designed a colour chart poster titled '50 Shades of Scotland' celebrating the hues of some of my favourite scottish things (Nessie, Haggis, Thistle, Smoked Salmon, Loch etc...) and a series of postcard prints based around Edinburgh's beloved Greyfriar's Bobby statue, so I definitely feel that my work is connected to Scotland and my life here.

Emily MacKenzie

Do you feel that there is a creative community in Edinburgh?

Definitely, there are lots of creative studio buildings around the city. I share a studio space at Edinburgh Contemporary Crafts and also print work at Edinburgh Printmakers where I've got to know other illustrators, craftspeople and printmakers. There's also a great craft market scene here which is fun to be part of when I have time.

Has there been a project (past, present or future) that you’ve particularly enjoyed?

Although they haven't been without their challenges, I've loved the experience of writing stories and bringing my characters to life in both my books, particularly the second which will be published next year. The character who features in my second book has been alive in my head for years now so it's been a dream come true to bring him into the world and I can't wait to see him in print, but I know I'll always have a soft spot for Ralfy too!

What advice do you have for aspiring illustrators?

It's a very competitive industry so persistence and believing in yourself and your work is really important. It's quite easy to get a confidence knock if you're turned down for a job or a commission you really want to do and I've lost hours comparing myself to other illustrators online afterwards which can be really self destructive! Think about what it is you like about your own work and what you think makes your work unique and write it down, that way you can refer back to it if you lose your way a little. I find this technique can help me to refocus and start working on a job again with a fresh perspective. I also find working in a shared studio really inspiring as I enjoy having other creatives around me I can bounce new ideas ideas off.

Emily MacKenzie

Emily MacKenzie

Emily MacKenzie