Johanna Basford

Johanna Basford is an illustrator and ink evangelist who prefers pens and pencils to pixels. She grew up on a fish farm in rural Aberdeenshire, Scotland where with her little sister, she had a very ‘free range’ childhood. In 2005, after graduating from Textile Design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, she interned for a while before making the move to set-up her own studio. Initially she made hand printed wallpaper and small collections of home accessories, but the recession hit. Business was tricky and it forced her to realise her heart wasn’t in manufacturing and selling, it was in drawing. She shut the studio, sold all her equipment and set-up as a freelance Illustrator from a little desk in the corner of a 1 bedroom flat. She worked 2 part time jobs to pay the bills and drew the rest of the time. She took the overnight bus to London on her days off to trawl round the offices of Art Directors and Commissioning Editors with her portfolio. She called these her ‘Commission Missions’. She ignored advice to ‘diversify’ her portfolio. Her signature style of hand drawn, black and white artwork paid off and earned her a list of freelance clients ranging from Nike to Absolut Vodka and Smart Car to Chipotle. In late 2011 she was approached by a publisher to make a colouring book for children. She loved the colouring book idea, but wanted to do something a bit different. Her pitch for a sophisticated, grown up colouring book seemed a little odd at that time, but she drew up the first 5 pages, sent them over and got the thumbs up. In spring 2013 Secret Garden was launched. 4 years later, she has sold over 21 million books worldwide in over 40 countries. These days she spends her time in the studio flitting between creating artwork for her books, dreaming up ideas for new products to be emblazoned with her black and white artwork and of course, organising all those pens and pencils!

3 words to describe Nature?

Beautiful. Inspiring. Soothing

3 things Nature taught you?

Weeds are just wildflowers in unexpected places.

Seasons and weather come and go, you just have to dress appropriately! 

Delight in imperfections!

3 most treasured Nature spots?

The Forest at the foot of Goatfell on Isle of Arran

Bennachie – our highest peak in Aberdeenshire, surrounded by beautiful woodlands

The Bluebell Woods near my childhood home – their exact location is secret (!) but in the spring time the carpet of blue blooms and the heavenly scent they create is a treasure!

When you look at the ocean, it makes you feel...?

Overwhelmed. It’s so vast! My husband was a North Atlantic Fisherman when we met 13 years ago and would spend weeks out at sea. When I saw big waves, I knew to be anxious!

When you see a forest, it makes you feel...?

Curious! I grew up puddling about in the woods near our home and found them to be fertile ground for a child with a wild imagination! As a mother, I now take my own kids to the woods to play – we search for treasures, make dens, look out for fairies and build dams in the small burns that run through the trees. A forest is a glorious playground for the imagination!

When you see a volcano, it makes you feel...?

Scared! I’m a bit of a wimp and massively risk adverse. I wouldn’t be able to see a volcano without having flashbacks to school lessons about Pompeii! I can’t imagine ever being inclined to see an active one in person…!

When you see a sunrise or sunset, it makes you feel...?

So, so calm. I love that hour at the start and end of the day when the air is still and quiet. It feels so magical. We live in the countryside and at certain times of the year we get huge groups of starlings swarming over the fields around our house at dusk. It’s truly spectacular. 

When you hear thunder, it makes you feel...?

Excited! I’ve always loved thunder and lightning, even as a child! I lie in bed counting the seconds between the rumbles and flashes. My Gran told me this tells you how far away the storm is… I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate, but I still do it!

When you hear the wind howling, it makes you feel...?

Fresh! I’m a big fan of the ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing’ line of thought. If I’m outside in a howling gale you can bet I’m well wrapped up, cosy and waterproof! But I love the feeling of being buffeted along by the wind and having it blasting in your face - it makes me feel alive in the very best kind of way.

Are you an Ocean, Mountain, Forest, or Desert person?

Forest. Without a doubt.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is Nature to your well-being?

11. It’s my reset button. When life is chaotic, pausing to be in the garden, walk in the woods, stare up at the moon – these are the ways I recalibrate and recharge. Living in cities has never appealed to me. A country girl through and through, I find my wellbeing and mental health suffers when I spend long periods of time away from green, wild places with natural beautiful and fresh air.

Share with us a childhood nature memory?

I grew up on a fish farm in rural Aberdeenshire and had a very ‘free range’ childhood. My sister and I would spend long summer evenings playing in the woods that surrounded our home whilst our parents worked on the farm. 

Those hazy nights, when the air was thick with the coconut scent of gorse flowers were magical. We’d ride our bikes through the trails, then spend hours building imaginary farms, houses and gardens amongst the broom. We didn’t need toys, we built props from the things we found – stones, leaves, twigs, pinecones. I distinctly remember building a chicken shed for my imaginary flock of hens. 

That kind of untethered, imaginative play is something I dearly hope my own children are lucky enough to experience as I know it’s the place where so much joy and curiosity in my own life is rooted.