Dapo Adeola is an award-winning illustrator and designer who creates characters and images that challenge expectations around race and gender in a fun and upbeat way. He is the co-creator and illustrator of bestselling picture book Look Up! – winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the number one debut picture book of 2019. Dapo is also illustrator of Clean Up!, the Versify fiction series The Last Last Day of Summer, along with My Dad Is A Grizzly Bear and Space Detectives, both of which will be released next year.
Over a two hour conversation, we had an in-depth look at his career so far, the many changes we would like to see in publishing and what he hopes the next few years will bring.
How did you get into illustration?
Not in the conventional way. I have been drawing since I was seven. I used to draw characters from my favourite video games with my best friend. Then came my love of comic books. I wanted to design my own characters and tell my own stories. It was never serious, we were kids and so it was always fun.
I took Art for my GCSEs and A levels. I sucked at coursework but I could draw. My saving grace were my tutors, they were great. I ended up taking a foundation course where we studied fine art, graphic design and photography. They were giving us a taste of the things so we could pick for our final exam and future degree.
I went into graphic design and advertising because it was the only art job that sounded like a ‘proper’ job to me at the time. It was all about advertising and had nothing to do with drawing. We created promotional campaigns. I spent three years tailoring every single brief I received to allow me to illustrate. It was my way of doing what I really wanted to do. I coasted through the first two years. In my final year, I wrote my dissertation on how you can teach children to count, read and spell using picture books. For my end of year project, I did a retelling of the tortoise and the hare. I was so proud of my work. During my third and final critique, the lecturer told me that I would not pass the course but asked if I had considered doing an illustration degree. I was twenty-two at the time and completely disillusioned and exhausted by this. One of my lecturers, who is now a good friend, said to me, ‘whatever you do, do not stop drawing.’ I took those words on board.
I went into full-time employment, in a good job, making decent money, but I couldn’t stop drawing. I decided to take a risk, work part-time and become an illustrator. I’ll fast forward a decade of trying, taking good steps forwards, a few steps sideways and, luckily, no steps back. In 2015, Nathan Byron, the author of Look Up! approached me and asked me to do some designs for the book, which I did. He took them to the publishing arm of his agency, Milburn Browning, and I signed with literary agent Sallyanne Sweeney, my agent for the last four years. Everything started to take off after that.
How has this unconventional route benefited your career?
It has completely informed my experience. Publishers came to us and were chasing us for a book deal. That has given me an amount of freedom to be very vocal. I’m not obligated to a particular publisher in any way beyond creating the books that I am contracted to. This allows me to be vocal about how I see this industry.
Why is creating so important to you?
This is the most sane outlet I have for self expression. I get to create characters and worlds. I evoke emotions, make people feel good and highlight important and global issues. It’s amazing! This is such a rewarding job. I can’t imagine an existence where I’m not doing this. I was happily drawing before publishing and I will always continue to draw, regardless of where my career goes.
What does every new illustrator need to know?
You are the asset! It’s easy for new illustrators to think that the company and industry are doing them a favour, not realising that they are the key. I’m not saying be arrogant, but have some sense of agency. Without you, there is no illustration. It’s not just about reminding companies and corporations that you are the asset, you need to remind and treat yourself like the asset that you are too. Keep your skills sharp. Respect yourself. Be kind to yourself. Value yourself.
Tell me about your project, Black British Illustrator Meet Up.
It’s an ongoing project that will be around for as long as it’s needed. The focal point is to make Black British illustrators industry-ready. It’s a closed Facebook page where we share resources and opportunities. I also set monthly challenges for us where submit and critique each other’s work. It’s such an important environment. For anyone who wants to join us, send us a request on Facebook. There are three questions that I require everyone answers. This group is only available to Black British illustrators and you must be willing to contribute. If we are all contributing, we are all gaining.
I also hold regular Instagram live sessions with people in and around the industry. I want us to strip down all the things that are holding us back, whether it’s things coming from us, or things coming from the industry. I also want people to know that there are alternative art-based options in publishing other than illustration. I am constantly being asked the same questions. How can someone as inexperienced as I am, be the one to answer all these questions? Those who are equipped to answer them are those who work in the industry. Yet, for some reason, they are not transparent. The lack of transparency in this industry has been a problem for decades. I am using these Instagram lives to further demystify the industry and to strip it right down.
What immediate changes do you want to see happen within the industry?
Publishers need to start talking to their non-white talent. They need to have actual discourse with us. Don’t presume to know the obstacles we face. Talk to us. It’s really not hard and it’s the most humane thing to do. Of all the publishers I have worked with, the ones who have done this are the ones I plan to keep working with.
Where do you see your career in the next few years?
It’s no secret that I plan to be an author-illustrator. I want to work on my own content: books I’m writing and illustrating myself, books written by other writers that I’m illustrating and books that I’m writing for some of my favourite artists to illustrate.