V&A Illustration Awards: In conversation with Sophie Burrows (Student Illustrator of the Year 2019)

National Art Library
July 26, 2019

Sophie Burrows’s tender illustrations in graphic novel format are both darkly amusing and wryly observed. 

Suzanne Dean, Judge of V&A Illustration Awards 2019 Student Category 


Sophie Burrows’s award-winning wordless graphic novel explores feelings of loneliness and the interactions and misunderstandings that arise in crowded public spaces. The reader is guided through the story by the delicately rendered character studies and the stolen glances between individual characters, each drawn from observational sketches captured in London.

Sophie Burrows, Development Sketches for Crushing, 2018
Sophie Burrows, Development Sketches for Crushing, 2018


The judges were charmed by Sophie’s clever use of just two colours to draw the reader’s focus to the main plot, evoke the loneliness of the central character and conjure a dreamlike atmosphere.

Sophie Burrows, Development Sketches for Crushing, 2018


Sophie Burrows’s work shows an extremely well developed and thoughtful approach, everything is placed on the page with the upmost delicacy and care.

Cat O’Neil , Judge of V&A Illustration Awards 2019 Student Category


Crushing was developed in response to the ‘Sequential Image’ module on Sophie’s MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. The module invited students to create a visual sequence using a self-selected theme as a starting point. Sophie’s proposal was ‘Crowded Spaces: A study of places and the stories they tell’; how people in these spaces interact with one another, and the interwoven stories that each busy place might hold.

It is the fourth year in a row that the Student Illustrator of the Year Award has gone to a student at the University and Sophie’s success featured on the BBC news. We caught up with Sophie to find out more about Crushing and her current projects.

Congratulations on winning the V&A Illustration Awards 2019! Crushing developed from observational sketches that you took in London, including at the V&A Museum. Can you tell us more about this project?

Thank you! This project started from a lot of observational drawing I had been doing around London. I found myself drawn to crowded places; I did a lot of sketching at museums, and then moved to busy streets and stations. I love to sit and draw this hectic environment where everyone is moving and, in a hurry, and you can only capture a few elements of people at a time. I think I enjoy it because you make that leap from observation to imagination straight away, as you are building this image of a crowd of people that didn’t really exist together in that space, and your imagination fills in the gaps- it’s creatively stimulating.

I began to think about the characters in these crowds, and how their stories might intertwine. The seed for the main character came from a memory of an old friend. She used to check the ‘Rush Hour Crush’ lonely hearts column every day, just in case someone had seen her on the tube and fallen in love with her, and she simply hadn’t noticed. So the idea was this girl who was always on the lookout for that connection.


Illustration from Crushing, 2018


As she was alone, it felt right to create a wordless narrative. I wanted to get across this sense of loneliness in a huge, populated place like London. I had never done any form of comics or graphic novels before, so I wanted to discover how I could use the panel format to hone in on these moments of her journey. I experimented with several different palettes, but I knew from the beginning that I wanted to explore using red symbolically- its a colour that’s evocative of so many emotions, and it was really fun playing with that throughout the project and seeing how it could move the narrative forward.

Our judges admired your ability to convey emotional depth through delicate pencil markings and a limited colour palette. What is your working process? Do you use both traditional and digital techniques?

For this project, I started by developing my observational drawings into scribbled comics in my sketchbook. I worked on them as a series of little moments in the character’s life, then strung them together to form a journey. I decided to use full bleed spreads for the key moments in the book, and I spent a lot of time editing the page layouts in the rough stage. I really wanted the panels in between the double spreads to complement and build up to the key moments where we zoom out.


Sophie Burrows, Development Sketches for Crushing, 2018


I didn’t have a particular material that I wanted to use, so I played with a few until I settled on coloured pencils. They seemed like a natural fit for the story, because I could get this wide range of markmaking- it could be soft, but also bold enough to convey humour in places through linework and hand lettering.

Before this project, I relied a lot on Photoshop to compose and edit images, but the first module on the MA in Children’s Book Illustration encouraged me to let go of technology a little, trust my own drawing process and embrace mistakes more often. I drew each panel of the artwork for Crushing in my sketchbook, with three pencils- only using the computer to arrange the panels into the book and for subtle elements like boosting the colours or overlaying hand drawn type. I found it freeing to work this way, and the finished result was a lot more satisfying for me.

Illustration from Crushing, 2018


What or who inspired you to become an illustrator?

My mum is an amazing artist with a deep love for drawing, and both her and my dad were always really encouraging of me doing creative things. I have loved drawing for as long as I can remember!

I adored Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics as a kid, then later found huge inspiration in illustrated fiction. Throughout school, I studied fine art, but I always wanted my paintings and drawings to have this clarity of ideas, without having to explain their meaning to anyone. They often leaned into illustrative realms, so choosing an illustration degree was a natural fit for me. I loved the narrative capability of illustration, and saw it as an opportunity to create work that could tell stories and communicate concepts in an accessible way.


Has winning the V&A Illustration Awards effected your practice? What are your future plans?

Yes, for sure- winning the V&A Illustration Awards has garnered lots of interest in my work, which is so lovely, and its opened up new possibilities for directions to take my work next. My debut picture book, Ig Pig & Og Frog is out next year with David Fickling Books, and I’m beginning work on my second picture book with them too. Winning the award has really encouraged me to continue pursuing graphic novels, and I hope to develop Crushing into something more long-form in the future


V&A Illustration Award 2019 winners, photograph by Manqiao Fang


See Crushing at the V&A Illustration Awards 2019 display, on until Sunday 25 August 2019 in Gallery 88a. 

The V&A Illustration Awards is the UK’s most prestigious annual illustration competition. Free to enter, the 2020 awards will open later this year.

Sophie Burrows’s Website. 

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