TALENTED artist and children’s book illustrator Kirsty Oxley is proof that dreams do come true.
As a shy student, lacking in confidence when she was at RGS, she loved her time in the art department and dreamed of stepping into the role she enjoys today.
Her popular children’s books are published all over the world, with her story Slow Mo - a twist on the classic tale of The Hare and the Tortoise, set in the Amazon Rainforest - shortlisted for the prestigious Kelpies Illustration Prize in 2019.
Inspired by the famous artists she studied at RGS, she looks back on her time at school with fondness: “Mr Duckworth, the art teacher, always encouraged me, and this gave me the confidence to continue in art! He was also really funny!
“Miss Henson was also very encouraging and my first art teacher in first year. I had so much fun doing to Aborigine-inspired artwork and making clay sculptures, it made a big impression on me.
“And my geography teacher Miss Murray always complimented and encouraged my illustrations of rivers and volcanoes.”
Kirsty took A-levels in art, product design and geography and left RGS in 2013 to study illustration at the Edinburgh College of Art.
She immediately fell in love with the country and its beautiful landscapes and, after graduating in 2017, continued to live and work in the city as a freelance illustrator.
When she was at school, she says, she wishes she had been able to be more confident and just be herself: “I was quite shy.”
The greatest challenge she faced after leaving university was, she says, having to put her name out there and getting writers and publishers to notice her as she tried to drum up work.
What helped was the most important lesson she learnt at RGS: “If you work hard, you can achieve your goals,” she says.
She illustrated her first book, Corrie’s Capers: The Westie Fest, about a West Highland terrier from Arran, shortly after graduating and has gone on to release several more books in 2021 and 2022, with yet more releases scheduled for 2023.
She advises RGS students interested in a similar career to build up a portfolio of the type of work they’d like to illustrate: “Once you’ve done that, apply to lots of agents and publishers. But don’t be put off if they say no or don’t reply, just adapt, and keep going!
“I got rejected by many publishers and don’t have an agent but eventually started getting regular work.”
Currently working on a new book with a publisher from America, Kirsty outlines a typical day: “I begin with feeding my dog, Pablo, and taking him out for a short walk. Once that’s over and I’ve had my breakfast, I begin drawing or designing, depending on where I am in a project.
“I either start sketching the compositions for a book I’ve begun working on or do digital colour illustrations on my laptop (where I draw directly onto the screen as it is touchscreen). Some books are done with traditional methods which involve painting, drawing in coloured pencil or watercolour, which I scan in before adding the text in Photoshop.”
She is inspired by nature and the surrounding Scottish landscapes, as well as pop culture, film and listening to music and has a passion for animals - particularly her Boston terrier, Pablo - which feature in her stories and in the cards and products she sells in her online shop.
The best bit of her job, she says, is that she gets to spend all day drawing cute characters and animals: "They are all so unique and I have always had a passion for animals and the importance of protecting their environments.
"I really enjoy drawing children's illustration as I love creating happy, colourful illustrations.
“The worst bit about the job is having to put together a contract and go over all the terms and conditions before starting the project with a client, especially as sometimes they have questions that we have to discuss over Zoom.
“It is also difficult pricing a project as it can be awkward to negotiate, and you don’t want to price too low as it all takes a lot of time, but also not too high so that they are put off!”
The highlight of her career to date was being shortlisted for Kelpies Illustration Prize: “I got to attend an exciting event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and meet lots of publishers. I always go to the Book Festival every year, so to be invited to a special event was very exciting!”
As well as continuing enjoy painting wildlife, she hopes to illustrate for larger publishers such as Penguin and Macmillan, and has recently achieved her dream of setting up her own publishing business: “I want to publish other writers and illustrators, as well as my own books,” she explains.
Through her own company, Anxious Canvas Publishing, she recently released her book, Pablo goes to Portobello, and Hobbity Bobbity - A Stumpy Story, by artist Louise Ogilvy.
Although she loves her life in Edinburgh, she misses the fields and woodland of Yorkshire: “And I still drink Yorkshire Tea!”
For more information, visit: https://www.kirstyoxley.com/
Top: Kirsty with Pablo, and also pictured in her sixth form work space. Below, with Mr Duckworth and friends in fifth form
With Miss Henson and classmates in the sixth form art studio