Sophie Blackall

Posted in Visual Arts on Nov 13, 2009


There’s so much buzz about Sophie Blackall’s “Missed Connections” work that I felt compelled to find out more about her.  How hilarious and brilliant to concept illustration around those “Missed Connections” ads on Craigslist (ads placed by someone seeking the person they’ve seen in passing – e.g., they made eye contact on the bus but didn’t actually meet.)  Are the ads romantic or spooky?  No matter, Sophie, a transplanted New Yorker by-way-of Australia, saw an opportunity to convert the ads from words to pictures and infuse them with her unique and wonderful sensibility.  She showcases them on her blog where they’re gaining a loyal following and being recognized by New York magazine and many others.   SophieBlackallphoto

You’ll probably realize you know Sophie’s award-winning work when you see it.  If you’ve ever picked up a Wall Street Journal, Gourmet (RIP) or Real Simple, it’s likely you’ve encountered one of Sophie’s illustrations. It’s also very possible that her work is living in your child’s bedroom — to the delight of kids everywhere, she has illustrated nearly 20 children’s books.

She’s also collaborated with one of my favorite new musicians, MIKA, professionally as well as personally on a fun project based on a surrealist art game called “exquisite corpse” — and by the way, call a friend because when you find out what it is, it’s going to become your favorite new leisure activity and you’ll need a partner (and a cocktail…it might enhance the results.)  Anyway, more on their intriguing exchange and the resulting work in the q&a.

You’ll love her work and you’ll love her sense of humor. In addition to what you’ll learn and see here, Sophie has lots of work to escape into at her website.



What was your path to becoming a professional illustrator?

I grew up by the sea, drawing in the sand with sticks, which was very bad for my sense of perspective, but my canvas was huge. From there I graduated to butcher’s paper, and would give the butcher 15 cents for a wad of sheets, which makes it sound as though I was a child in the Great Depression.

I always loved illustrated books and would stare right into Beatrix Potter’s tiny pages trying to figure out how she created such animated worlds, or wonder how E.H. Shepard brought such endearing creatures to life with such simple lines. When I was twelve I appropriated the covers of my father’s collection of New Yorker magazines, without asking, I’m obliged to add, and papered my bedroom wall with the images. I would lie in bed staring at the pictures and I think it was in that dreamy state that I decided to become an illustrator.

It still wasn’t a direct path, there were jobs in between at a shoe store, a robot factory and ghost writing annual reports about coal. Or shale. Or something else equally dull. I painted price signs for a grocery, and a mural for a photo shoot, and I held the hot glue gun for a tv celebrity on a home makeover show. This was all before I was 24. In between, I did little bits of illustration for magazines, and slowly, slowly I did less of the hot glue gun holding.

In 2000, I moved from Sydney to New York and traipsed the streets taking my portfolio to editors. Then a generous friend introduced me to her agent, who shared some of the traipsing, and after a slow start and when we were down to our last eight dollars, the work started to trickle in.


sophie's 1st illustration after moving to NY; it accompanied a NY Times article about caviar

Did your style of illustration evolve over the years or did your art always have the kind of signature look we see on your website?

I hope my work has evolved, it would be embarrassing it it hadn’t, but at the same time, I think there’s something constant in all of it. The main influences on my style have always been and still are, Asian graphic art (firecrackers and candy wrappers and Chinese poster design and Japanese woodcuts), Victorian advertising illustrations, anatomical diagrams and old photographs. I have meddled in different media, including collage and gouache, but I eventually fell in love with watercolor and my technique is better now.

One obvious thing which has had enormous impact as a reference tool is the internet. I almost can’t remember what life was like before, but now I can pull up an image of anything under the sun, and I’m sure my work has changed for the better because of it.  Once, in the old days, I had to do an illustration of billiard balls. I couldn’t remember  exactly how they were arranged in the triangle, and the only way to find out was to go to the pub. I had a lot more time back then.

What medium do you work in?

I use Chinese ink and watercolor. I’m sure I’m not the first person to develop this combination, but I stumbled across it by accident. Don’t tell anyone.

How did you break into book illustration?

Chronicle books were looking for an illustrator for the manuscript Ruby’s Wish. I had sent them lots of samples and, as an afterthought, had added a drawing of a Chinese boy. That’s the one they pulled from the pile. They had three illustrators in mind and they organized a sort of bake off. I was utterly surprised when I got the job; I can’t believe I’m going to say this, cynical Australian that I am, but it really did feel like a wish come true.

How does an aspiring illustrator get noticed by a publisher?

Hard work, persistence and luck.

You’ve worked on about 20 published books (and a few more that are not out yet) — do you have a favorite?

Oh dear, it’s a bit like choosing between your children. I think Ruby’s Wish is a really special book. I won the Ezra Jack Keats award for it, as did Shirin Yim Bridges, the author, and that was such an extraordinary vote of confidence. It’s always a wonderful book to read in schools, too; everyone gets all tingly at the end. The Ivy and Bean books just about illustrate themselves, those girls are so full of life, and I love the letters and emails I get about them. Wombat Walkabout was great fun because I got to dream I was wandering about in the Australian bush while I was painting gum trees and billabongs, and I’m very fond of Jumpy Jack and Googily. It’s my favorite book to read aloud. I love all of Meg Rosoff’s books, and we laugh so much when we’re working together, it’s not really work at all. Just as well, we don’t really get paid for it.

You are both author and illustrator for your book, Are You Awake? Is this your first author/illustrator children’s book? What is the book about?  sophieareyouawake

Are You Awake? will be out sometime next year I think. I’m never sure, when I can illustrate the entire thing in three months, why it takes so long to print it. I think someone’s taking long tea breaks. No, of course, it’s really about marketing and publisher’s lists and the economy and Obama.

This is the first book I’ve written, as well as illustrated, and I wrote it when my now ten year old son was a three year old insomniac. He was determined to convince everyone in the house that it was morning, despite being pitch black and 3am, and the book is really just the circular conversation of his toddler logic and my desperate attempt to stay half asleep and ignore his incessant prattling. Not much has changed.

It must be so different when you do both the words and pictures for a book — do you think visually and then put words to it?

The words came first, and then much to my surprise I was practically paralyzed with indecision about the pictures. There were so many different choices, I couldn’t even settle on a trim size! The book began as a large, square picture book, and has ended up as an intimate little book, Edward Gorey size, almost like a board book.

You also do commercial illustration for many companies — does your creative process differ when you’re doing something for a company vs when you illustrate a book or another kind of project?

Illustrating a picture book is a long process; it involves character development and designing an entire world in which those characters exist, whereas most editorial illustrations have a quick turn over –  they use a different part of the brain. My drawings for magazines tend to be more conceptual and I can experiment with styles and palettes.

for a Real Simple magazine article

for a Real Simple magazine article

I’ve also illustrated animated television commercials, which was an entirely different experience, and recently I’ve been collaborating with the singer MIKA on some artwork for his album, as well as a project we did together just for fun. The latter was a version of the drawing game ‘exquisite corpse,’ where you pass a drawing back and forth and add onto the last person’s addition. He was in London and I was in Brooklyn, and the painting, which became enormous by the end, was sent back and forth via FedEx. It was always such a surprise to open it and see what the other had done, and was part story, part squabble, part conversation.

sophie and Mika's "exquisite corpse" art project

Sophie and MIKA's "exquisite corpse" art project

You’ve been getting so much attention for your “Missed Connections” illustrations which appear on your blog…it’s such a funny concept. Can you talk about how and when these pictures began?

The Missed Connections project was an attempt to fulfill the need to do my “own” work alongside the books or editorial work. I have great freedom with most book projects but I’m still drawing to a brief, and even with my own book, there was a defined audience, and a publisher who had a say in whether a black cover would be likely or unlikely to sell many copies.

I was looking for an idea to stretch out and one where I could do exactly as I pleased. I had been collecting various forms of what I think of as accidental poetry for a while; everything from other people’s shopping lists, to lost pet posters, to a stranger’s diaries found at flea markets.

When I stumbled on the Missed Connections posts on Craigslist I felt as though I’d struck gold.

a missed connection piece

a missed connection piece

I began trying to illustrate one post a day, but that quickly became unrealistic. I put them on a blog as a form of discipline; if I thought even one person was looking at them, it would provide the incentive to do another, (which wasn’t always easy, as I was doing them around midnight after I’d put the children to bed and finished my quota of other work for the day.)The response to the project has been overwhelming and enormously moving. It’s also just thrilling to do something so personal and rewarding and FUN and to have other people react to it so warmly.

Name some of the illustrated books on your shelves.

Little Nemo – Winsor McCay, Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak, The Doubtful Guest – Edward Gorey, You Are Here, Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination – Katharine Harmon, Changing Faces – George Tscherny, Loretta Lux photographs

On your website you say you weren’t a good artist as a child — is this really true? If so, who encouraged you to continue or guided you to keep at it?

No, it’s completely true. I was really self conscious. My mother kept all my drawings, or at least a ton of them, and while I joke about it, (because it’s really excruciating to see how bad they are), I’m sure that her thinking they were valuable encouraged me to keep making them. Besides which I just loved doing it.

I also had a really wonderful art teacher at high school, Jim Cowley. He died a few years ago and I was sad I’d never told him what an important influence he’d been.

Are you a self-taught or school-trained artist? Do you think making art is nature or nurture — in other words, does everyone have the potential to tap some artistic ability? How can we help our kids reach their artistic potential?

I taught myself, really. I did go to university to study design but we didn’t learn to draw, we learned to think. Which was probably more useful, although we grumbled about it at the time. We were all craving some actual skills to support all the high falutin’ conceptual stuff.  I think the same is true of children today. The theory seems to be to gently guide and inspire and encourage, which is all great, but I’m with kids a lot and more than anything they’re just desperate to know how to draw sitting down legs, or how to make noses look like noses and not peanuts. As for helping kids to reach their artistic potential, I think it’s a careful balance of encouragement, freedom and seductive art materials.

Proust Questionnaire for Sophie Blackall:

My favorite snack is: toast. When I arrive at my friend Meg’s house in London, off the red eye flight from NewYork, there is always a mountain of toast to greet me. There’s nothing quite so welcoming as toast.

Don’t ask me to: an Irish step dance performance.

I would put in a time capsule: my children. I don’t really mean that, because they couldn’t breathe. And it’s not that I don’t want them to grow up, there’s nothing more exciting and fascinating. There’s just a strong desire to preserve them in their various delightful forms –  as toddlers, small children, preteens….

My favorite place is: Secret Beach in Australia. I can’t tell you exactly where it is because it’s secret.

When I have a creative block I: go on Ebay.

My favorite mantra is: Life is short. Make each day count.

  • One response to "Sophie Blackall"

  • Daphne
    13th November 2009 at 9:46

    I believe that I am in love all over again… this time with Sophie Blackall’s illustrations. I have got to show my children. Lenore, I really appreciate you introducing Ms. Blackall to my life. I know that others will appreciate her work as I do, and perhaps they did not make the connection between the books they buy for their children and the artist herself. I very much enjoy the insight you provide on your website, and I so look forward to next week’s culture fix. Thanks!!!