An Interview with Pen and Ink master, Julia Hill

March 13, 2019 by Hugo Seijas
An Interview with Pen and Ink master, Julia Hill

Julia Hill is a self-professed “doodle addict” in Devon, England. Working primarily in black and white using pen and ink, her artwork reflects her clear love for the natural world and the flora and fauna that inhabit it with her signature intensity of detail. While much of her work deals with feasts of flowers and foliage, my favorite pieces of Hill’s are those that take the animal kingdom as their subject.

Black and White ink on paper of a cat

Providing a direct window into the breadth of Julia Hill’s talent, her exquisitely detailed drawings of animals bring me immense joy. Here, her art exists on a fine line between realism and fantasy. They marry the worlds of photorealistic renderings of things that exist in the real world, existing in a fantastic way. This is perfectly illustrated by comparing her pieces, ‘Gentleman Cat’ and ‘Lucky’. ‘Lucky’, provides us with an illustration of a cat so real it feels like you can push your fingers into the furrows of Lucky’s neck fur. It calls out for contemplative pets with its relaxed eyes so real you can almost hear it purr. Hill brings that same level of detail to ‘Gentleman Cat’, an illustration that draws layers of inspiration from the past. The gentleman in question is based on an old Victorian painting of a gentleman while the cat posing as the gentleman is modeled after one of Hill’s own family cats. We see the cat dressed in posh, stately clothing with a monocle over one of its cat eyes while it holds its eyeglasses in its very human hand. Far from being bizarre, it feels natural and makes me wish I could meet some gentleman cats on my daily walks.

Ink drawing of a flamingo

The realism of Hill’s work makes a more magical world feel closer to the viewer and I’ve never heard of anyone asking for less magic in their life.

Interview with Julia Hill

You seem to gravitate more towards ink on paper. What made you choose this medium? What do you find makes this medium or style fun/exciting?

When I was at school (I can just about remember that) I was constantly being told off for doodling on my books. I drew on everything, even my pencil cases with my biro. I think it must have stemmed from there. I have ventured into other mediums, but this one is my default setting. I just love the starkness of the black on white and how it just jumps off the page. I am constantly looking at ways I can tackle texture, depth, and contrast just using a black pen and the background paper, its like a brand new adventure on paper every time I start something. Nothing is ever the same and I love it.

What are some of your favorite brands of pens and sketchbooks to use when you are creating your art? What do you like about them?

I think I have a bit of a fine liner fetish. I can’t help buying them and finding new ones to try. I got really excited when I came across some Copic Fine liners in Sepia, they are gorgeous. The Uni Pin Fine Liners are my favourites, they last a lot longer than some of the others and the nibs stay stable as well. I use really tiny ones either 0.005 or 1.00. They are water and fade proof too so the image lasts longer. I draw all my illustrations on textured paper as well, usually Daler Rowney watercolour paper.  I love the effect it gives the finished illustration, it softens the lines and you don’t get such a harsh overall look. Its not as easy as working on smooth paper though and you have to allow for the bumps and ridges changing the way the pen moves on the paper but thats how I like it.

Black and White drawing of a house

What are some challenges you faced in your art or art career and how did you overcome them?

Blimey! This is a tough one, how long have you got. There has always been challenges, still are and always will be I expect. Thats how it goes being an ‘artist’. The institution is never far from being booked.  I’ve had to re-invent the way I use the black and white line over the years to try and keep up with the trends of the time. I spent years drawing in a wood cut style in the 80’s and then back to a more classic style in the 90's when I worked for the Devon Wildlife Trust. (Best job ever that was!) I then moved away from pen and ink for a while because it just wasn’t trendy and nobody wanted it anymore.  I moved into other areas with colour and a looser cartoon style but pen and ink is where my heart lies and I ventured into it again a few years ago, quite by accident actually. I had to put my career on hold when I had my children so went into education for nearly 20 years, still drawing and doing the odd commission, selling work etc. to keep my hand in otherwise I’d have gone mad.

2016 was a massive challenge. After many years out of the industry and at 48 I went back to uni to do a degree in Illustration to re-assossiate myself with it and catch up with industry standards. Degrees in illustration didn’t exist in the 80s so I had to do HND (neither did computers). I learned typesetting by hand and printing on an old printing press. I still have a fascination with the old metal and wooden type (No, I didn’t know Noah and his arc).

I had a real challenge a few yeas ago as I developed trigger finger and my 2nd digit on my right hand locked through drawing. I had to strap it flat and rest the pen on it to be able to draw until I had an op to fix it. Its not brilliant now but I manage. I've had challenges with my health after I was diagnosed with a rare condition in my head (most people don’t notice as I'm a bit bonkers anyway). I managed OK until a few years ago when it started to get progressively worse. I'm I still trying to work round it, but it causes me have times when I cannot draw. I am though extremely thankful that I still can. It's who I am really so if I couldn’t draw any more I don’t know what I'd do. Probably be the mad woman that dances in supermarkets embarrassing her kids who are all grown up and still don’t find it funny.

I don’t think I have ever deliberately overcome the challenges in life, I just work with them, or around them if that makes sense. A stupid sense of humour helps too.

Julia Hill Drawing in black and white ink


What are some suggestions you'd have for someone that is looking to up their ink game? What are some basic tips and maybe an advance tip you've learned.

Ooh tips? Take regular finger breaks or you’ll end up with locked digits. My work is very detailed and small so it takes hours and hours sometimes. I think it is so important to follow your heart and draw how you feel most comfortable. It took me years to realise that. Illustration is based on individual approach and thats what you need to hang on to, your way of interpreting. If you asked 100 people to draw a tree, they would all be different. Just because one looks more ‘real’ or that person’s image is more popular, doesn’t mean you have to draw your tree like theirs.

Draw. Don’t ever be afraid and avoid what you ’think’ you can’t do, it's usually because it didn’t come as easy and so you avoid it. Try new things. LOOK at things. Look at how the lines of objects and people work with their own angles. Map it out first with guidelines to follow before you start. I could never draw people! It took me years of ‘looking’ at how the clothes fell over the bodies before I got it. Everyone has a skeleton so the rules are the same for all people pictures. Once you got how the skeleton sits you can add the rest around it. Worked for me. Working with a single colour (black for me) isn’t a case of Black lines ON white paper. The white is the second colour and just as important so experiment with ways in which you can use it to enhance your image and to your advantage.

My personal sneaky trick…. (I'm just thinking wether I should share this or no!) OK! It works best on textured paper, but if I'm doing something with fine highlights, for example cat whiskers, get a good hard pencil, 2H or harder, and draw them in firmly before you start. You’ll find that when you ink over them the pen goes over the top so when you rub it away to have the clean white line underneath. Tah Dah! Give it a go! I do it with masking fluid sometimes if I want a softer edge.

Finally, experiment. Try different pens, sizes, paper etc and play with them. If it doesn’t work then you’ve learnt something. Nothing is perfect first time and as you go along you’ll learn new techniques. Think outside the box, experiment with perspective to make your black and white images look more visually interesting, mess about with depth and scale.


Which artists on Doodle Addicts do you recommend everyone follow?

I just love Jim Bradshaw. I think the loose style he has and the ingenious way he puts images together is just brilliant. Ive tried in the past but I can’t do it… Junkyard Sam is another one for me. Brilliantly colourful, detailed and stylised images. I also love the work of Mary Ann Halon, the beautiful little simple but totally gorgeous lcharacters she produces are just so delightfully lovely.

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