We take another look behind the scenes of Arena Illustration and this week we focus on Tamlyn Francis, Company Director since 2000 and the driving force behind the continued success of the agency.

Tamlyn has worked at Arena since 1995 and her interest in Children's illustrated books greatly influenced the agency's focus on children's publishing and visual storytelling. In this interview we find out what attracted her to becoming an agent, her favourite projects and what advice she has for newly emerging illustrators.


Which piece of advice did you receive while training as an illustrator that you have found invaluable later in your career as an agent?  

I had an inspirational tutor at Norwich School of Art called Susan Aldworth who was also an art director and fine art printmaker and I found her opinions refreshing and open minded, she allowed me to think that I could achieve creative goals without becoming a freelance illustrator and that was OK. Creativity can be applied to many different careers, I explored different possibilities in the third year of my degree course and after a week of work experience at Arena, I found that a job as an illustrators' agent was a perfect fit for me. I landed a proper job with the Arena team in 1995 and I’ve been here ever since, I had already learned the ropes prevoiusly working as an assisitant at an illustration agency after leaving college. I took on the role of Director in 2000 from my predecessor and colleague Alison Eldred

What is the most enjoyable part of the creative process for you as an agent?  

I really enjoy working as part of a team on a book project. Seeing an artists initial vision for a book turn into reality, watching all the changes along the way with the input of editors and art directors, whose comments shape the project into a more commercial proposition. That is exactly what we need them to do, whilst we try to retain the artist’s personality and creativity in the work. It’s really exciting to see an actual book come through the letterbox on publication day and they always surprise and delight me and make me very proud of the work we do and the part we play in the book making process.

What are the three key indicators of a well briefed creative project?  

Give as much information to the artist as possible, if it’s a book cover, it sounds obvious but supply a layout with bleed and crop marks indicated with type placement etc. The artist will also be better informed if they can read the manuscript, or maybe the editor can supply character descriptions.

How will the images be used, are they for print? In which case the artwork needs to be delivered in CMYK or for online use in RGB, what dpi do you need them provided in.

On a large project a briefing meeting is vital, the designer and illustrator will need to build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect for each others roles on the project. Communication is key and feedback crucial.

And of course please supply copies of the final job which the illustrator can be proud of.

How do you think the industry has changed following lock down and how do you see it evolving in the near future?  

We were very lucky to be working in the publishing industry during the pandemic. We were still busy fulfilling contracts and video calls made work-life easier to carry on with meeting our colleagues in the industry as they were working from home too. Many illustrators were already used to working at home, so it wasn’t too much of a wrench for them. We also had time to develop a new website with the great team at Whitespace. Going forward we have embraced working remotely but it’s still important to meet face to face and talk to the people that we work with.

How has running an agency changed since you first worked at Arena?  

It’s changed so much in the 30 years that I’ve been doing this. I remember faxing roughs to clients and taking huge portfolios out on the tube. Delivering artworks on 5x4 transparencies, scanning artworks and delivering them on a CD Rom. Changes happen gradually over the years and we encompass each new revolution with open arms. We are lucky to learn so much from our artists both the newbies and our old guard.

Is there a standout project which you have worked on that you are most proud of?  

So many! A lot of firsts; Adam Stower’s first picture book, Jonny Duddle winning the Waterstones Prize, Alex T Smith’s success in the animation industry, to name just a few. I am genuinely most proud of the relationships that we have built up over the years, the mutual respect that we have for one another and the feeling of family that has grown with us.

What are your thoughts on the potential impact of AI on the illustration industry? 

That's a big question. I think that it will become easier for publishers to create imagery in-house possibly taking jobs from freelance illustrators but the results will lack the personality of a human hand and mind. I can tell an AI generated image from a mile off! Although they can be beautiful on the surface there’s something quite generic and bland about them. One tell-tale sign will be odd looking fingers but computers may learn to overcome how hard it is to draw hands. Our reaction to AI will need to be ever more creative and true to artistic vision, keeping the traits of an illustrators visual language and ensuring that our work is never generic or bland but full of personality and real-life force, which cannot be emulated.

Regarding illustrators creating submission portfolios to join agencies are there any top tips?  

Oh my gosh, we see so many fabulous illustrators and we simply can’t represent them all, there are not enough hours in the day. But a good tip is that you only need to show 10 - 20 consisitant pieces. We don’t like to represent artists who are too similar to some-one we already represent. We like to see amazing drawing and characterisation, styles can adapt over the years but what underpins all of our work is drawing, drawing, drawing.