October 28, 2015

Step into an inky and intricate world filled with hooting owls, flitting dragonflies, wily foxes, overgrown tangles of wild flowers and enchanted castles lost in endless forestry.

Johanna Basford’s adult colouring book, Enchanted Forest is a magical haven offering a little slice of calm for those tangled up in hectic schedules and city living. Having spent many a summer in the Isle of Arran on the West Coast of Scotland with her grandparents, Johanna’s love for nature blossomed while running amok in the Brodick Castle grounds where her grandfather was the head gardener. From giant lily pads and walled gardens with blossoming rhododendrons to sprawling woodlands and fallen trees, her ink drawings are bursting full of creatures from the natural world. We caught up with Johanna on her childhood spent fighting imaginary monsters and building dens, the appeal of colouring for adults and her preference for a good old fashioned pencil and pen.

UO: What inspired you to dive into the world of colouring for adults?

A few years ago I created a series of illustrations which I put on my website for people to download as desktop wallpapers for free. I was working as a commercial illustrator at the time and was on the look out for interesting ways to increase my profile and connect with new clients.

One of the people who downloaded my ‘Owls in a Tree’ illustration was my soon to be editor at Laurence King. She got in touch and asked if I would like to create a children’s colouring book. I pitched the idea of an adult colouring book – my signature style of illustration was super intricate, hand drawn, black and white work and for years my clients have been telling me that they wanted to colour in my drawings. This was four years ago, before the worldwide trend for adult colouring kicked off, so you can imagine how quiet my editor went. They weren’t sure if colouring in for grown ups was silly or if there would even be any demand for this kind of thing.

I sat in my studio and drew the first five pages, then emailed them to my editor. They got back to me that day and said to go for it! And with that, the inky adventure began!

UO: Why do you think adults are going so crazy for colouring in?

I think there’s been an underground adult colouring in movement for years, it’s just more recently that it’s come to light and become socially acceptable! I get emails from people saying until my books came out that they used to wait till the kids went to bed, then got their books out and had a sneaky colouring session.

More seriously though, I think colouring has 3 main reasons it appeals to adults:

Firstly, it’s a great way to relax. That notion of being ‘in flow’ and completely absorbed in a task – particularly an analogue task that doesn’t involve a screen – is just so soothing. Everyone’s lives are so digital, I think colouring offers a welcome opportunity to unplug and allow yourself to be completely immersed in a task without the constant chatter of Twitter or the lure of Facebook. This is how I feel when I’m drawing, blissfully submerged!

Secondly I think everyone has a creative spark, they just need the opportunity and encouragement to allow it to flourish. An empty sheet of paper can be daunting, but a colouring book offers a gentle buffer to those with blank canvas anxiety. They don’t need to worry about composition or layout, only colouring in.

And finally, there’s the nostalgia factor. Chances are, the last time most people did a spot of colouring in they didn’t have a mortgage, a mean boss or worries about the fiscal debt. Colouring gives grown ups the opportunity to play and to indulge themselves in something which reminds them of more carefree days.

UO: What inspired Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest?

The books take their inspiration from my childhood holidays spent on the Isle of Arran on the West Coast of Scotland. My grandfather was the head gardener at Brodick Castle gardens there and we would visit him and my grandmother for summer and Christmas holidays.

The gardens were an amazing place for me to roam free and play. There was a formal walled garden, complete with precision planted flowers beds, honeysuckle clad pergolas and a beautiful sundial at its centre. I have a vague recollection that there were beehives hidden in gaps in the walls, but I can’t remember if this is fact or just the imaginings of a bee curious child! Outside the walled garden lay acres and acres of forest peppered with blossoming rhododendrons, ponds with lily pads big enough to stand on, a half-hidden summer house lined with pinecones and row upon row of humid greenhouses where the ‘behind the scenes’ work went on – trays and trays of seedlings, seed pods in little paper bags and mountains of plant pots! Much of the inspiration for Secret Garden came from those early days I spent playing in the gardens.

Whilst the gardens influenced my first book, the sprawling forest and woodlands which surround them and creep up the mountainside of Goatfell (an extinct volcano studded with crystals) is where my second book, Enchanted Forest has its roots. The woodlands were dark, mysterious places with lots of fallen trees to climb and curious little leafy hiding places for beasts of the real or imagined variety.

When my grandfather passed away I inherited his library of botanical reference books. These are an invaluable source as they detail so many weird and wonderful species – many of which I’d never see growing here in Scotland. I often take a leaf from one plant, a petal from another and perhaps a seed pod from a third and combine them in a drawing to create an imaginative botanical hybrid. This type of fanciful horticulture ensures I always have plenty to draw.

UO: What inspires you both personally and professionally?

This is the question I get asked most often, yet it’s the trickiest to answer! I think most creative people will agree that you tend to not seek out inspiration in specific places, more that you come across dozens of little snap shots of ideas every day which you file away in your subconscious to be called upon at a later date. It’s this imaginary filing cabinet of images, lyrics, ideas, sounds and even sometimes tastes that mingle together to form inspiration.

I think your natural curiosity and inclination towards certain themes do lead you down certain paths, for example I love botanicals and will often flick through vintage seed catalogues, my grandfather’s horticultural encyclopaedias or wander through a beautiful botanical garden. But sometimes the best ideas come from a leaf I found stuck to the dog’s collar after his morning walk! Also, I’ve got a very overactive imagination. I put this down to my parents’ strict ‘No TV’ rule when I was growing up. We weren’t allowed to stay indoors staring at a screen and instead were encouraged to get outdoors and play. This kind of ‘free range’ childhood; building dens, inventing monsters to slay and castles to conquer all helped to cultivate a wild sense of imagination and narrative that I think play a big part in my work.

UO: Why do you prefer working with pencil and pen as opposed to digitally?

I have a lot of contemporaries who produce amazing work digitally, but for me personally, I just love the imperfect circle and a slightly crooked line. I think there is something natural and soulful about the little intricacies which are evident in a hand crafted illustration. Vector artwork is so precise, almost clinical in its make-up, whereas something created by the human hand has character and depth (and wobbly bits!). I’ve always felt this way, perhaps in part to my inability to use a computer, but also because so much of my work is nature inspired. It seems jarring to try and capture the beauty of nature using a machine.