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How I got into illustration

As someone who is slightly intimidated by the idea of writing an Instagram caption, I’d like you all to wish be the very best of luck in this blogging endeavour. The hardest part of starting anything is always the actual starting part, so I thought I’d jump in and tell you a bit about myself, and how I got here.

I had decided on my life plan when I was about five years old (correct me if I’m wrong, mom!). Obviously the details are a little fuzzy to me, but I’ve been told it went a bit like this: My mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I proudly presented that I was going to be a baker. However, being the age that I was, and not having thought my career choice through thoroughly, it didn’t take much to put me off. She only had to highlight the hour bakers have to get up at every morning, before I quickly announced that “Ok. Then I will be an artist.”

childhood tiny Anna has becided to become an artist.

I drew a lot when I was little, like most children. My mom is an artist, and I have other artists in the family as well, so I am very grateful to have had accept and encouragement from home, always. I was obsessed with cars, busses, hammerhead sharks and mermaids. I even had a drawing I made or Ariel from The Little Mermaid, published in the newspaper at the age of 5 (My prudest moment! The mispelling of my last name still haunts me).

It was probably when I was about 15 or 16 that I started become a bit obsessed with drawing. I would spend hours in my room, listening to Taylor Swift’s Fearless on repeat, drawing fan art of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and trying my best at realistic pencil portraits. It was also at about this age that I started to put my drawings online on a tumblr blog (please don’t dig that up!). Looking back at the work I produced 10 years ago, there is such a disconnect between the different approaches I had to drawing. I would either draw fan art and cartoon-like characters with finaliser and markers, very heavily influenced by Disney and Tim Burton (but awfully anatomically incorrect), or I would spend hours perfecting the reflection in eyes, or the shine of hair in pencil portraiture. I just hadn’t figured out how to connect them yet. I did fill a lot of sketchbooks trying though!

After I finished school, I took a gap year at a folkehøgskole in Oslo, a foundation course of sorts in Art & Design. It was a year of no grades, and full freedom to be creative 24/7. I was given almost complete flexibility, and introduced to new practices (some new to me, others not) like life-drawing, costume design, drypoint, still life painting (not my favourite!), set decoration and sketchbooking. But more than the lessons themselves, it was having the time to draw, and draw, and draw that was the most beneficial, and confirmed to me that this is what I wanted to do.

In 2014 I moved to Portsmouth. I started a degree in illustration on the south coast of England. I had never thought of illustration as a career option before I started researching universities. It felt as if I had given myself permission to see drawing as a real job. I definitely don’t think that you have to go to art school in order to become a creative professional, but it did speed up the leaning process a lot. I spent days and days in the print room, experimenting, testing new things and playing with images and materials. When do you get the chance to do that full time?

I did a lot of strange things while figuring this all out. I made a life size moose head out of papier-mache and brought it on the bus, I painted eye balls on rocks and put them in a jar and I inked up tracing paper until it was so warped it was impossible to scan. It was not my finest work, but it took be where I needed to go.

My work evolved from single media to a mixed media approach. Instead of working with pencil, ink, screenprinting, lino, monoprint and watercolour separately, I started to combine them through the magic that is Photoshop.

I was excited to dip my toes in the professional world, but I didn’t feel quite ready to risk the full dive. After exhibiting my work at New Designers in London, I did an internship at Hallmark and moved to Cambridge to take an MA in Children’s Book Illustration.

Such an amazing group of people from all backrounds, and from all over the world. Blessed with the calm of Cambridge and only an hours train ride into London, I spent much of my time in the Botanic Garden, museums and pubs drawing strangers and petting dogs. Unconsiously though, I think I felt like I needed to do what everyone else was doing - using bright colours and stylized character design to appeal to young children and picturebook audiences. I spent longer than I'd like to admit in this mindset, before one of my tutors sat me down and said "If you like drawing with pencil. Draw with pencil."

It's amazing how much clearer that becomes when someone else says it to you. Something clicked. I realized that it was illustrated chapter books, non-fiction and book covers that I love. And that I don't have to be a master of colour pencils, acrylic paints or toddler litterature (but maybe one day, who knows). If you can put together a 24 page picturebook storyboard you have my greatest respect. It made me tear my hair out. I'm going to stick to semi-realism and illustrations for humans that are a little older for now.

The last year and a half has maybe been the strangest in my life so far. After having travelled Asia for a few months (pre-pandemic), I now live in Hanoi, and I’ve been here for about a year. For the most part it has been covid-free while I’ve been here, and watching what was happening at home and in the rest of the world whilst my everyday life was relatively normal, was completely surreal. I’ve barely had to face the pandemic day to day, but I’ve still felt isolated. I’m in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, I don’t have any family, and I didn’t know anyone. Mundane things like buying groceries or a bus ticket were suddenly challenging. Not to mention, after a full year I still haven’t found a half-decent sketchbook, and it frustrates me endlessly!

The slowing down of life has presented me with a whole new set of challenges. But it has given me time to process. Being far away from friends and the structure of education has forced me to evaluate my own work and practice, without the constant input from other people. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I can’t wait for life to pick up it’s speed again.

Thank you for being here.

Anna Tromop

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