Dawn Cooper is a freelance illustrator living and working in Bristol. Her beautifully stylised and detailed work is inspired by natural history and botanical illustrations, and includes non-fiction wildlife books for children, book covers, maps and packaging. We caught up with Dawn to learn more about her journey into illustration, her creative process and her current and upcoming projects.
For people who are not yet familiar with your work – who is Dawn Cooper?
I am a freelance illustrator, whose work includes non-fiction wildlife books for kids, book covers, maps and packaging, all heavily inspired by the natural world and its many creatures! I hand draw everything before colouring and adding texture digitally in Photoshop. I’ve lived in my beloved Bristol for eight years and I feel most like myself when I’m with my young daughter, my partner or with a pen in my hand.
What is your fondest childhood memory?
I think the magic of family holidays would have to top my list! I have very fond memories of cold autumns spent in old French houses with woodworm making Kinder egg models, and indulging my dad’s interest in ancient burial chambers in Menorca.
How did you get into illustration? What are the milestones of your journey?
There was a teacher at college who suggested I might make quite a good illustrator. I’m not even sure I was aware it was a job before then, but I became enchanted by the idea. I actually failed to get onto my illustration course the first time I applied, and I just managed to scrape a place the second time, but I would say I thrived at university, once I realised just how hard I had to work. That tireless work ethic has stayed with me ever since. A little after finishing uni, I joined the Drawn in Bristol studio at Hamilton House, which changed my life. I was there for nearly six years, and met the most incredible people. I feel a little heartbroken when I remember that I’ll never occupy that seat again. I stuck with illustration through the financial challenges and difficult part-time jobs, and after a few years of toil, was lucky to be taken on by my agency, The Artworks. I owe many of my successes to them!
What are your major sources of inspiration?
The natural world, plant life, wildlife, my talented friends, picture books, natural history books, being outdoors.
How do you go about developing an idea for a new work? How do you prepare for it?
Putting pencil to paper! Drawing lots of individual pencil layers, and shuffling them into a nice composition. Or scribbling terrible thumbnails and attempting to turn them into something beguiling. If I have the luxury of time, I like to snoop around bookshops for inspiration, but often I rely on the web or my reference books for imagery.
How would you describe your style?
Decorative, detailed, stylised but semi-realistic, leafy, folksy, contemporary.
What would you like a viewer to walk away with from your work?
I’d love it if they’d found their own stories in my imagery, or an emotional connection. Or if they learned something through my drawings.
What is your approach to finding work and retaining clients?
Luckily for me, my agent sources most of my work so I can concentrate on being creative, but I like to be as friendly and accommodating with my clients as I can, and I always send a Christmas card! For aspiring illustrators, I think it’s really important to send beautiful physical artefacts to potential clients to command their attention, rather than just sending a generic email.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Don’t try to do what’s popular to please your audience. If you do the work that feels right for you, other people will respond in kind and it’ll stand the test of time.
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in Bristol?
I’m spoilt for choice for beautiful nature reserves and outdoor spaces on my doorstep. I love Troopers Hill, Magpie Bottom and Conham River Park. I love being in the city, but it’s also nice to escape to a quiet idyl of green and birdsong. My hangout spots have probably changed a little since becoming a mum, so you’ll often find me at my local library, the museum or the aquarium. I also love spending Mondays knuckling down, chatting and tea drinking at my studio in Montpelier.
How do you engage with the local creative community?
I work in a shared studio with nine creative friends, which keeps me in touch with the outside artistic world. I’ve worked on community map projects to get families using Bristol’s invaluable resource of beautiful green spaces. The east Bristol map was so effective, at least for me, that I moved to the area to take advantage of them. I also like taking my daughter to local theatre groups, and visiting exhibitions, zine fairs and gigs when I get the chance.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Currently, this is one of them!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a lift-the-flaps book about plants. It’s a bit of a mammoth project (lots of detail!), but very enjoyable. I’m learning a lot about edible plants, medicinal plants, carnivorous plants and trees, and drawing busy rainforest scenes and delectable fruits. I’m also working on some more book covers for Hilary McKay, who won last year’s Costa Children’s Book Award for her beautiful novel, The Skylarks’ War. She’s a very inspiring and kind person with a background in zoology and botany, so I’m really pleased to be representing her writing with my illustrations.
Finally, what are you dreams and aspirations for the future?
In truth, I’m really quite worried and anxious about the future, and how climate breakdown might affect day to day living, particularly for our youngest folk. It is deeply upsetting seeing what’s happening to our planet and its wildlife. I’d quite like to use my skills to raise awareness or target the government in some way, but I haven’t had a lightbulb idea yet. I’m open to collaboration! I’d also quite like to develop a children’s picture book idea. There are so many brilliant children’s book creators who have left this amazing legacy to young and old people alike; books that shape our imaginations and experiences growing up. We read so many books with my daughter and can really see how much they delight and inspire her. So I’d quite like to co-author a book with my partner one day, and leave our mark on the world with a beautiful children’s book.