Written by Colleen Jones, Regional Advisor
As a child, Aga Grandowicz always wanted to be a vet or an ichthyologist (a scientist who studies fish), but changed her plans one year before college and became an award-winning art director and graphic designer instead.
Her first book, created together with Rob Maguire, Dr. Hibernica Finch’s Compelling Compendium of Irish Animals, and published by Little Island, has been shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards 2018 in the Best Irish-Published category, and for the Children’s Books Ireland’s Book of the Year Award 2019.
Photo: Aga Grandowicz by Rafal Kostrzewa
I was thrilled to be able to ask Aga some questions so that we could learn more about her and her work.
SCBWI: Tell us a bit about yourself and your training in illustration and art. What prompted you to change your career plans?
Aga: I just love creating! I’m equally happy to design, illustrate, and draw, and I need all these three activities to feel creativelly fullfilled. For the past 13 years (since I moved to Ireland), I’ve been focusing mostly on graphic design-related work, but since the publication of Dr Hibernica Finch’s Compelling Compendium of Irish Animals, I decided to dedicate more of my time to work on nature-inspired artwork. I’d also like to create demand for realistic zoological illustration and to produce promotional materials aimed at raising awareness about wildlife and endangered species. In fact, to my huge delight, I’ve been already involved in working on two biodiversity-related projects—and I hope for more!
SCBWI: How did you get started in art direction and graphic design after college? How did that morph into a second career as an illustrator creating images for a picture book?
Aga: I’ve been always very proactive and ambitious. I started applying my skills in a work environment very early, while still studying in the college. It felt good to be able to work with a computer while other students could barely use it at that time! (Computers were not as common 20 years ago as they are now, at least in my home country!). Plus I was making a really good pocket money out of it. I worked with various businesses and publishing houses on websites and book covers. It seems I always needed a wide range of projects to work on to feel happy and stimulated!
While living in Poland I was involved in quite a bit of illustration work. I illustrated many publications for a medical publisher (I loved working with them), a children’s book for the Polish refinery (I had full creative freedom and that was great), and I designed a number of book covers for other publishers. I also illustrated for leading Polish fashion, lifestyle, and psychology magazines. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t have these opportunities when I moved to Ireland, so I focused on graphic design work instead and gave myself a break as an illustrator. This has been great too as I’ve been working for a large variety of businesses—small, medium, and large multinationals.
Examples of Aga’s early artwork from about 20 years ago.
SCBWI: How did you find your style? Has it changed since you started?
Aga: For many years, I haven’t really had my own fixed style, I think I always preferred to explore different creative possibilities, simply to not get predictable and to be a flexible designer, able to work on a wide variety of projects, always developing, always challenged. I like change and fluidity. I like simplicity, which I show in my graphic art, but I also like detailed drawings. Recently, I started combining both, and I’m looking forward to exploring this more.
SCBWI: Can you briefly explain your creative process, mediums, and so on? What is your favourite medium?
Aga: A good concept and good planning are the most important things to me. I spend a lot of time on thinking, reflecting, researching, and sketching before I start working on the final artwork or design. I like exploring and combining different mediums; what I use really depends on the subject, the target audience, and what the product is about. For example one cannot design and illustrate a book for children in the same way as for adults. Recently, I’ve been drawing a lot with a standard ballpoint pen; it suits me very well.
SCBWI: You are originally from Poland. When did you move to Ireland? How are the illustration styles the same and different between Poland and Ireland?
Aga: I moved to Ireland in May 2006. My plan was to stay here for one year and then move somewhere else; explore the world and see what it has to offer. As a kid, I loved reading adventurous books about sailors and other explorers of the world (Robinson Crusoe was my favourite), and I wanted my life to be like that. But somehow, I got very comfortable in Ireland!
Poland has amazing, with very creative and artistically brave illustrators. In my opinion, Polish children’s books are amongst the best in the world. There’s of course a lot of bad ones too, same as anywhere else. The scale is different. Poland is a much bigger country than Ireland, and there’s many more books published, so the competition is larger. This pushes designers, illustrators, and publishers to create more innovative work in order to get noticed and to sell. What’s typical for Polish illustration and graphic art is the huge importance of concept, that’s followed by a well-crafted visualisation. Thinking outside the box, looking for unusual composition or smart visual simplifications. Anyone who is interested in poster art knows how great and unique Polish posters have been.
In Ireland, I know only a small handful of illustrators—some of them are ingenious and extremely skilled and creative.
SCBWI: Who are your influences, mentors, or inspirational role models for illustration?
Aga: I love the work of Alan Clarke, an Irish illustrator. He’s so skilled and versatile, he can work with any medium and in a variety of styles (he recently moved towards sculpture). I had to stop going to his exhibitions as I was getting broke!
Chris Haughton—how incredibly creative, and what a brilliant colour palette! He’ll be running a workshop for kids on May 26th in Dublin, shortly before my workshop (part of the International Literature Festival Dublin) and I’m really looking forward to joining it with my son.
Janusz Grabiański is a Polish illustrator I remember from my childhood. His illustrations are so light—they look like they were done with no effort, which is, of course, something that only very experienced and skilled artists can achieve.
Paulina Ziarnik is another Polish genius of illustration – check out her Instagram profile!
SCBWI: What are some of your favourite picture books?
Aga: Books by Chris Haughton and Jon Klassen. Simple but so well crafted stories and illustrations. Well designed. Well published. I’d have no problem reading them even every day. I’m not up to date with Polish children’s picture books, but every time I come back from my home country, my suitcase weights a few kilograms more – I just can’t resist buying them!
SCBWI: How did you and Rob Maguire end up creating the non-fiction children’s book, Dr. Hibernica Finch’s Compelling Compendium of Irish Animals? Was it a commission?
Aga: I always loved animals and always wanted to work with them, originally as a vet, then as an ichthyologist. But literally one year before my leaving cert, I changed my plans and decided to study graphic design and fine arts instead—because I also was into art and design. For the past 21 years, I’ve worked successfully as a designer and an occasional illustrator (I used to work with publishing houses on a regular basis in Poland but not since I moved to Ireland).
A few years ago I bought myself a set of lovely black and grey markers and started drawing animals—until I filled my entire sketchbook. Then I thought, as a child, I loved reference books about animals, so what about creating my own? Those I saw currently in book stores were badly designed, and full of unskilfully clipped photographs, with rather mediocre written content.
I started sketching, planning, and writing. And I got stuck with the writing part as I’m not a writer (yet!). I knew what I wanted to achieve—I wanted my book to be funny, witty, and smart—but I just couldn’t write it in this way. Luckily, soon enough, I met a great copywriter through working on a big project for an ad agency. Rob Maguire’s writing style was exactly what I was looking for, so I asked him if he’d like to be involved in working on the book. To my delight, he said yes! We prepared a sample spread, and I called the publisher of my choice (Little Island) to set up a meeting. They loved the project, they bought it, and after two years of hard teamwork, our book was published. It has been receiving an amazing amount of great reviews and other mentions, so we can call it a success!
SCBWI: How do you come up with new ideas? Do you have a process?
Aga: When I work on a paid project, I gather all the information I can in a given time, analyse it bit by bit, make visual and semantic connections, and then briefly explore various options. I tend to stick only with one, the strongest option.
I’m not as strict with my own projects, the ideas come to me in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes an object reminds me something; this feeds my imagination and leads to new artwork.
SCBWI: Do you ever have creative slumps? What do you do then?
Aga: Yes, of course. When it happens, I just go for a long walk and think or do something completely unrelated, just to clear my mind and have a fresh approach when I’m back to my desk. Physical activity is pivotal to my process—I simply cannot concentrate on work if I’m not physically active for at least 2.5 hours each day; I’m addicted to being fit.
SCBWI: Because you have a full-time career as an art director and graphic designer, how do you make time to develop your other illustrations?
Aga: Working as a freelance talent makes it easier—I take only the jobs I’m interested in, I work only for the clients I like. This wouldn’t be possible if I had a full-time office job—I’d be occasionally forced to do what I’m not comfortable with and what would be against my integrity. Taking only two or three bigger jobs a month gives me a bit of time to develop my personal projects and to try new things. It’s not as much time as I’d like to spend on my craft, but hopefully I still have a good number of years left in my life to practice and improve whatever I wish.
SCBWI: What is the worst or most difficult aspect of being an illustrator?
Aga: I would say working for a bad client/publisher—I had one like that in the past, when I wasn’t experienced enough to do a proper research on their activity before I commited to the job. These days, I tend to do a background check, read reviews and opinions on almost anyone I plan to work with. Luckily it’s so much easier these days when we have the Internet!
SCBWI: What steps do you recommend for illustrators who are just starting out?
Aga: Search for work as an illustrator while you’re still refining your style. Approach a wide number of publishers and businesses—you never know who might need your services. Reading stimulates your imagination, so read more and watch less movies. Go to your local library for inspiration; it provides less distraction than an online search.
SCBWI: Do you have an agent? If yes, what impact has having an agent had on your career?
Aga: No, I don’t have an agent. I’m happy to look for work myself, it’s worked well for as long as I’ve been in business. I’m very independent and proactive, and I don’t need more than a few jobs a month.
SCBWI: How has being nominated for two awards impacted your career as a picture book illustrator?
Aga: It feels quite surreal to have Dr Hibernica Finch’s Compelling Compendium of Irish Animals (which is our first ‘real’ book!) shortlisted for two major Irish book awards. It’s hard to measure its impact on my career. I’m getting many requests from various book festivals and libraries to run workshops for children and participate in other events, but it’s really hard to say if it’s thanks to being shortlisted or thanks to the general publicity the book is getting.
SCBWI: Do you plan to write as well as illustrate any picture books or other books?
Aga: I’d love to do that, to be fully independent, but I’m not there yet with my storytelling skills. I feel I’m good with starting a story, but I never know how to end it in a good, not predictable, and truly unique way! Probably I’m not creative enough. Or maybe too ambitious. Or both!
SCBWI: What book projects are you planning or working on at the moment? Do you have any events coming up such as workshops or exhibitions?
Aga: I need to work on three book proposals, but I still haven’t had time to do it. My plan is to work only on one more client project that’s coming next week and then take a 2-to 3-month break to focus on my illustration work only. During this break, I’ll also be working on a biodiversity-related project that I got a grant for from my local county council. I’m really looking forward to it.
I’ve many events for children coming up this year. The current ones are in the Zoological Museum in TCD, as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin, then May 26th in St. Patrick’s Park, also in Dublin. There will be seven events in June, one or two in August, and a bit of break until the October event. I will gradually post all the workshop-related information on my Facebook page for those who’d like to attend.
I’m still having an exhibition, of some of the drawings featured in the Compendium, at the Airfield Estate in Dundrum, in their Overends Kitchen restaurant. The prints are on sale and are doing pretty well!
SCBWI: Thanks so much for giving us a glimpse into your creative life, Aga!
Aga: Thank you for having me, Colleen!
Photo: Aga Grandowicz with Compendium by Giorgio Carta
Aga Grandowicz finds a source of comfort in drawing furry animals and old trees, and in designing theatre posters or corporate identity. Aga’s also the owner of a boutique graphic design agency in Dublin (agrand.ie) helping various businesses communicate their offerings.