Q & A with Adult Colouring Book Illustrator Johanna Basford

Posted on 20th October 2015 by Johanna Basford
Illustrator Johanna Basford is the artist behind the hugely successful adult colouring books, Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest. Here, she talks about the life of a colouring book artist.

Colouring fanatics and lovers of Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest, here comes your new favourite book: Lost Ocean: An Inky Adventure and Colouring Book is released today.

We are lucky enough to have some questions answered by its illustrator, Johanna Basford.


You’ve featured gardens, forests, and now the ocean in your work. Why does drawing nature appeal to you? Where did you come up with the idea to go underwater?

My childhood home was a fish farm in rural Scotland and from an early age my parents dissuaded my sister and I from watching TV and playing computer games. We had a very “organic” childhood and spent all our playtime outside making dens, paddling in the little streams, and exploring the countryside the surrounded our house. I think this type of imaginative play cultivated in me a love for all things wild, which has fed through into my artwork.

After Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest, Lost Ocean seemed the natural next book. My parents were both marine biologists so I’ve grown up visiting scientific aquariums and research vessels – there’s always something beautiful to look at under the waves! Then when I was in my 20’s I met my now husband. He was from a little fishing village up the coast from where I grew up and worked on a fishing boat in the Scottish fleet. It seems I was destined to create a fishy themed book!

What about colouring do you think is so therapeutic?

I think it’s a great chance to unplug and indulge in a bit of a digital detox. We’re all glued to screens, be it our laptops, ipads, or TV’s, so to have the opportunity to lose yourself for a little while in something analogue and creative is often a welcome retreat. There’s no ping of a tweet or an email or the interruption of a new message to read—you can just spend some time focused on the task at hand and ignite your inner creative spark.

Who is your favourite artist? Favourite author?

This changes constantly! At the moment I’m reading Think Like an Artist by Will Gompertz. I love a non-fiction book like this. There is always lots of great little nuggets that I like to highlight, then write down on Post-its and stick on my studio wall.

I definitely couldn’t pick one single artist! Also, I like the work of so many different creative people across lots of disciplines. At the moment I’m loving the work of jeweler Ruth Tomlinson. She has a collection of work called ‘Encrustations,’ which features jewels that look as though they’ve been rescued from the depths of a sunken treasure chest, all barnacle encrusted and twinkly! I love her work, it’s so unique.

You’ve spoken about not being accepted to a post grad program. What about your life do you think would be different if you had gotten in? What are the benefits of a “real world” education as opposed to formal post-graduate programs?

To be fair, I applied to do a post grad at the Royal College of Art in London because I didn’t know what else to do after Art School. It wasn’t the best reason to continue in education and I’m lucky they rejected me! Instead of spending 2 more (expensive!) years in education, I just got stuck into work. I did some internships, then set-up my own studio. I made a ton of mistakes, but I learned from them all. I think there’s only so much you can learn within the bubble of Art School, sooner or later you have to go out into the real world, find your clients, your voice, your style of work, and just start living!

Do you color in your own books?

Not as much as you would think! I often test pens and paper samples by colouring in small sections of the drawings, but I tend to think of the books as collaborations. I create the artwork and draw the outlines, then it’s up to whoever buys the book to bring the color and make their mark. My job is the black-and-white line work, then I hand creative control over to audience. I think perhaps if I started colouring the books it would disrupt the natural order of things!

In your bio you’re described as an “ink evangelist.” What does that mean to you?

I prefer pens and pencils to pixels. I use the computer right at the end of my creative process to rotate butterflies, erase tea spillages ,and perhaps flip some symmetry. I absolutely don’t use the computer to create. I think the natural world needs to be captured by hand, it seems counterintuitive to try and recreate the beauty of a jelly fish or a coral reef in little square pixels! I rejoice in the wobbly lines, imperfect circles, and the odd smudgy finger print – they prove that the artwork was lovingly crafted by a real person and not just generated on a screen.

Your colouring books, Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest, have been huge successes. Were you surprised by that? What in your life has been different since the books took off?

I was HUGELY surprised! When I approached my publisher in 2011 with the idea of a colouring book for grown-ups they were understandably skeptical! But they allowed me to pursue my dream project and create a book that I myself would love to own. We tentatively printed 13,000 copies and I feared my Mum was going to have to buy a lot! To my utter delight and amazement, people loved the book and the chance to indulge their inner child and reclaim colouring as a grown-up pursuit! We’ve now sold over 3.5million copies of Secret Garden worldwide, a fact that melts my brain a little!

Life has changed completely over the last year, but not due to colouring books… I had a daughter, Evie, in 2014, which has turned my work (and our home!) upside down! She’s the absolute joy of my life, but boy is motherhood tiring! And being a working mum has taken some getting used to!

I still work from a little studio at home and continue to count myself extremely lucky to have a job that I adore. My aim has always been to just make beautiful books, my very best work, and to share my passion for illustration with the world. I may juggle this mission with trips to the playground and bedtime stories, but essentially, it’s business as usual!

If you could pick one of your environments to inhabit as one of its critters or creatures, which would it be? Why?

Oh I’d love to be a bee in Secret Garden! I just love bumble bees!


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