Interview with Author/Illustrator Paddy Donnelly

Paddy Donnelly is an Irish picture book author/illustrator who lives in Belgium. Today, we had the opportunity to speak with Paddy about his inspiration for books as well as receive a preview of his debut author illustrated picture book THE VANISHING LAKE! It’ll be published first in Chinese by Yeehoo Press.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer/illustrator?

I’ve always loved drawing, and I can remember creating stories and characters as a kid. I had a love for picture books when I was younger, and as an adult, I’ve had a renewed appreciation for them. I worked for many years as a graphic designer and then more recently as an illustrator. After working on kids’ iPhone apps for a while, I slowly transitioned into illustrating picture books and absolutely love it.

How many books have you created? Which is your favorite?

At the moment I have 5 books that have been published, with another 4 completed and due to be published in the upcoming months. One of the upcoming ones is my first author illustrated book, The Vanishing Lake. As well as these I’ve got a few others which are in various stages of completion. It’s very tough to pick a favorite, but I do have a soft spot for The Vanishing Lake, as having full control over both the words and the illustrations was something pretty special.

How do you start a book project? When do you know it is ready and finished?

When I’m illustrating someone else’s story, I always start by reading and rereading the story, again and again. I let a few days pass, and then I read it again. I get as familiar as I can with the author’s characters, forming images in my head about what they could look like, what their preferences are, what their world looks like. I sketch out a ton of rough ideas and then proceed on to thumbnails and detailed sketches of each spread. Having an art director’s and the publisher’s input on the story is quite essential to the process, as you can get too close to the artwork, so it’s great to get their opinion on the bigger picture.

What comes first, the story or artworks?

If I’m illustrating a story for another author, then their words have been refined and refined before it gets to me. When it comes to creating my own author illustrated stories, I tend to have both the images and words appearing in my head at once. Often one single illustration I’ve created, or even just a rough sketch of something can spark an entire story idea, and then I start writing and sketching in tandem. It’s a messy process! Sometimes, I’ll have an idea for a certain scene, situation, or character that I’d love to draw and I try to work that into my story if it fits.

What do you like most about being a writer and/or an artist?

I do really enjoy the first stages of a project, where the artwork can go in any direction. It’s an exciting time, full of possibilities, but can also be quite an overwhelming part of the process. Holding a physical book that you’ve worked on is really special too, but perhaps the best feeling of all is hearing that a child has really enjoyed a book that you’ve created. You can’t beat that feeling.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I think I always wanted to either work with animals, draw for a living, or do something in space. I sort of get to do all three in my day job now, especially if I work on a book about animals in space, so I think my younger self would be very pleased at where I’m at right now.

What inspires you to create THE VANISHING LAKE? How is the creative process? Are there any difficulties you met and how did you overcome them during the process?

The Vanishing Lake is about a little girl called Meara who goes to visit her Grandad who lives by this lake which disappears and reappears for no apparent reason. She constantly asks her Grandad why it happens and each time he has a more extravagant and unbelievable reason for it. Meara won’t believe any of his stories, but then eventually she may discover the ‘real’ reason.

The story is actually based on a real place, close to where I grew up in Ballycastle in Ireland. It’s a lake called Loughareema which actually does disappear and reappear every few days, depending on the weather. Growing up in Ireland, storytelling is an important part of life, so I was surrounded by myths and legends from a young age and I think that’s had a big influence on what stories I like to write about.

I didn’t really encounter many difficulties in this particular book. Perhaps it was because I was creating both the story and the illustrations, I could solve any issues quite quickly. The landscape plays a particularly important role in this story, so I did have to sketch out maps of the whole lake to make sure I got it right when illustrating the scenes from different angles.

Do you have multiple books you’re working on at the same time? If so, how do you handle different projects simultaneously? 

Yeah, I do work on multiple books at once. I usually have two or three in various stages of production at any one time. I’ve always enjoyed working on different projects at once, rather than just one project for a long period of time. This has been true for my illustration work, but also web and app design work before that.

I find it so refreshing to be able to take a break from one thing and focus on something completely different, however, all the while the other books are still filtering away in the back of my mind. I find I’m able to solve issues with illustrations faster if I’ve focused elsewhere for a while and then returned.

Do you have any suggestions to help fellow artists become better writer-illustrator? If so, what are they? 

You need to just keep writing, writing, writing and drawing, drawing, drawing. There aren’t any real shortcuts. It’s so vital to keep up the practice and eventually things will fall into place if you stay committed. Creating children’s books really is a dream job, but there is so much work that goes into it that nobody sees. If it really is your dream to become an author-illustrator, you need to dedicate so much time and effort into it. 

As well as writing a lot, you need to read, read, read. Read lots of picture books and figure out what works especially well in them. Take notes on how the book is structured, how the story grabs you, what details the illustrator has woven into the artwork. It’s important to get really familiar with the picture book world before you can start creating your own stories.

Don’t worry too much about finding that one specific style for yourself. I love working in lots of different styles, and I think it’s actually a strength to be able to be flexible. I get to work on a variety of different types of projects, which helps my creativity. Of course, lots of artists are very successful in sticking to one style, so if that’s what you prefer then that’s great. However as artists, we should always be pushing ourselves, so never get comfortable.

Paddy Donnelly is represented by the Bright Agency.

Visit Paddy Donnelly at

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