V&A Illustration Awards: In Conversation with Grace Helmer (Student Illustrator of the Year 2013)

December 6, 2019

Grace Helmer won the award for Student Illustrator of the Year 2013 for her illustrations for Primo Levi’s short story ‘The Fugitive’. Since then she has blossomed into her practice, establishing a strong visual identity with her clean, vibrant, painterly images which skillfully create and capture both mood and sense of place. I contacted Grace to hear more about her work and to share some of her latest illustrations with you.

Jim Naoshima

What made you want to become an illustrator?

There wasn’t a specific moment or reason that made me want to pursue Illustration. I’ve always loved drawing, but as I was growing up I had no idea what illustration really was, or that it was possible to have a job where people paid you to draw. I never really imagined that would be possible. When I did an Art Foundation course and found out more about what illustration it was, it seemed too good to be true. It still does to be honest.

Have you ever felt discouraged, if so how did you overcome that feeling? 

When I graduated from university I struggled a lot with confidence in my work, and felt very lost, especially in the first year. What really helped me to carry on making work and trying to improve was the group of friends I had around me.

We got a studio space together after graduation, where we spent time working on projects together and helping each other in between numerous part-time jobs. This gave me the momentum to keep going.

How did it feel to win the V&A Illustration Awards? 

The award for ’Student Illustrator of the Year’ came at a time when I was considering giving up on the idea of becoming an illustrator. I was super broke, working all the time, and creatively frustrated.

Having people suddenly say that the work I produced was worthwhile meant so much to me, and gave me that push to carry on.

The prize money also helped me to crawl out of my bank overdraft and start investing more time into my work going forward.

What projects and commissions have you been working on recently? 

Ways of Travelling

This year I’ve been really lucky to have worked with Magma and Laurence King Publishing on a project called ‘Ways of Travelling’, a set of cards to inspire you on your travels. I produced 50 illustrations to accompany different tips on ways to travel in a more interesting way. I was also lucky enough to go to Sao Paulo, Brazil earlier this year to take part in a residency and workshops related to mapping part of the city. Alongside these I often work on smaller editorial commissions and have been branching out into designs for children’s clothing

How do you overcome creative blocks?

Creative blocks can come at the most inconvenient time. For me, I always get most of the ideas for my personal work as a way of distracting myself from more pressing tasks. When I have lots of commissions on, I am desperate to work on my own ideas, but then when I have time to do that I can’t remember any of them. So I try to plan for that now. I jot down lots of little ideas and thoughts that I want to pursue, but don’t have time to at that moment. Then when I do have time, or am feeling a bit of a block, I refer back to these and try to find that spark again. But it’s not possible to be productive all of the time. Sitting down at a desk and getting frustrated isn’t going to generate anything exciting. Sometimes it’s best to just give in that you don’t feel like it just then and go for a walk, and you might end up rushing back to the studio full of new ideas by what you’ve seen or thought about.


Which of your projects has been an important factor in developing your personal style?

The project from my final year at university where I illustrated three short stories by Primo Levi – and which I won the V&A Student Illustrator award for – confirmed to me that painting was a good way forward for me. It felt natural to paint and the easiest way I could capture what was in my head.

There was also a trip to Japan I went on a few years ago with my friend and studio-mate Charlotte Mei. We treated it as a travelling residency, where we would explore during the day then paint in the evening. I continued working on these images when I came back and produced a body of work just for me, that felt more loose and natural than the work I was making for commercial briefs. This way of working then directly informed everything I’ve worked on since.

Shinrin Yoku

Why should illustrators enter the V&A Illustration Awards?

Because it’s free to enter, and you never know!

The process of selecting work you’re proud of is a good way to reflect on things you’ve achieved, regardless of if you win a prize. Then if you do win a prize, even better!

What is the most poignant piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

It takes time to get to where you would like to be.

My tutor told me probably about ten years. So I’ve still got time… haha!


See more of Grace Helmer’s work at www.gracehelmer.co.uk   and her instagram @grrrrace1


The V&A Illustration Awards are open to entries until Monday 16 December at 14:00. Published and student illustrators can enter for free at https://vam.awardsplatform.com  

A short history of the V&A Illustration Awards and a complete list of past winners can be found on our website at https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/va-illustration-awards 

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