Sarah Darby, Taking Up the Mantle of Illustrator for Joss Stirling

Sarah Darby, Taking Up the Mantle of Illustrator for Joss Stirling

Sarah Darby possesses a multitude of talents. From designer to art director, to Illustrator and photographer. Here in her own words, Darby details for Spine how she used her skills to step up as illustrator for the extremely successful Joss Stirling book series for Oxford University Press.

What do you do when an illustrator you’ve worked with on a successful series becomes too busy and successful to continue? This was the dilemma we faced here at OUP [Oxford University Press] with the Joss Stirling YA book series.

Way back in 2009 our in-house design department at OUPChildrens commissioned the cover Finding Sky by Joss Stirling, the first in a new teenage fiction series to the Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford. The commissioning designer at the time, had seen her intricate pen and ink work on display in an art gallery here in Oxford and loved the highly original style so much that she was keen to use her for the cover. Already back then Johanna was a successful illustrator and had worked with many leading brands but as I recall, had never illustrated a book cover before.


Design: Johanna Basford


Over the next few years, as the series grew and became a huge hit with teenage girl readers, we continued to work with Johanna on the new covers. But it was around early June in 2015 when I had taken over the art direction and was looking to commission a further two books when sadly, Johanna who was in the middle of illustrating the first of her, now hugely successful colouring books—Secret Garden had too many deadlines to hit, and said she couldn’t continue with the series.

For us as a publisher, it was important to continue with the same ‘look and feel’ and not start over as the established brand was proving successful. Instead, I asked Johanna if she might allow me to do the covers, and do them in a similar style to what she had started. Happily, for us she readily said yes!


Design: Sarah Darby


Both the in-house team and Johanna were sorry that this collaboration came to end but I on the other hand was super excited for the opportunity it gave me—a book designer/art director for fifteen years but who rarely got the chance to have a go at the illustration as well.

At first it was a little daunting following in the footsteps of an amazing illustrator, so I researched and read up on the techniques and processes via Johanna’s own blog.


The first stage involved sketching a basic shape in pencil ensuring the design fitted with the page furniture. After the concept got approval, I would do a more refined drawing, filling in the outline with patterns and shapes in keeping to the books theme. After another round of approvals, I’d start inking up the drawing using Staedtler pigment liner pens in various thicknesses on a fresh piece of paper over a lightbox. During the inking stages, it was imperative to keep a steady hand and avoid caffeine, although any slip could always be corrected later digitally. I also felt I could concentrate and remain calm away from a busy studio environment so I mainly drew these at home or outside in the garden with only Radio 4 and my inquisitive hen for company. It was a strangely therapeutic and almost meditative experience and I often thought what it must be like for Johanna to illustrate like this on a daily basis! Once the artwork was complete, I’d make a scan and tidy up any messy edges, before finally tweaking the levels to improve the contrast in photoshop.


Design: Sarah Darby


By finishing off the Joss Stirling series, it gave me the confidence to believe in my capabilities and where appropriate, to not only design the covers but if I can, to illustrate them as well. Johanna Basford has rightly earned herself an OBE with her astonishingly successful colouring books which have sold millions, it’s possible you could find a copy in almost every household in the UK and beyond. As for me, I’m happy I finally got my name credited on the back of a cover having designed hundreds over the years!

Design Editor, Painter, Designer, Lifelong bibliophile.