Interview: Angela Oliver, Author & Illustrator

Today I’m interviewing the extremely talented Angela Oliver. And guess what? Angela and I went to the same High School, in a galaxy far far away—But I digress. Ahem.

Angela Oliver is both an illustrator and writer, with a long list of publications which include several children’s books and a unique tarot deck picturing the flora and fauna of New Zealand.

Last year she released Fellowship of the Ringtails an adult high fantasy novel set in Madagascar and starring lemur characters. She is a member of SpecficNZ and the ChristchurchWriters Guild. Angela was recently nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards for 2014 in the category of Best New Talent.

New Zealand Illustrator Angela Oliver
Angela Oliver holds a copy of her novel Fellowship of the Ringtails
Angela, when did you know you could draw?

There was never a time in my life when I thought I could not draw. There were, of course, times when I could not draw well, but from the start my parents always encouraged my brother and I to engage in as many creative projects as we so desired. I do remember being disappointed that his pictures were always better than mine, and it was not until early this century that I realised I was actually getting quite good at it, but I've always known I could draw – from obsessively drawing birds in my primary years, to doodling down the margins and on my subject dividers in High School and finally graduating to actual sketch books.

Who has encouraged/inspired/supported you the most with regards to your artwork?

My parents have always encouraged it, however it was probably the internet that truly got me hooked, beginning with online communities around 2001 in which art trades of characters were prevalent and I found myself offering to draw all manner of strange people and creatures for other people. I also began several Art Exchange communities: one competitive one (where everyone drew the previous winner's character) and then we voted on the best and one “secret santa” style one where whom you were drawing for was randomly assigned. My two spawned quite a number of other ones, some of which are still active today, although I gave up on them in 2005 when I discovered Artist Trading Cards.

Do you think being able to draw is a talent one is born with, or can anyone can learn given enough time?

I think it is a bit of both, although more the latter than the former. I think the main inherant bit is the desire to draw, and I suppose you have to have a vague eye for proportions. The rest is learned and practise, hours and hours of practise. I have a few people say to me “you're so talented, I wish I could draw like you” to which I reply “do you draw?” And they will inevidly reply “not since I was a child.”

Well, here's an example of something I drew as a child (age unknown, but could have been as old as 11 or 12, I was a late artistic bloomer):

 As you can see, I could not draw especially well as a child either, what it takes is practise, a lot of practise and encouragement instead of discouragement. 

You’re a creator of ATC (Art Trading Cards), can you briefly explain what ATCs are and how you became involved.

Artist Trading Cards are miniature pieces of art. There are only two rules when creating ATCs : 1. They must measure 2.5 x 3.5 inches (about 64 x 89 mm) and 2. They must be traded, not sold. Those that are made for sale are referred to as ACEOs, which stands for Art Cards Editions and Originals, if I recall correctly. There are numerous for sale on Ebay and Etsy.

I first discovered them in 2005, when I stumbled upon a forum site dedicated to their creation. That site closed a few years later due to poor management, but a new site sprung up in its wake. That site is ATCs for All – AFA as we call it and is probably the best organised, friendliest and most navigateable Art Card exchange site I have ever found. It is open to all comers, provided you are of appropriate age, no matter your skill levels. A lot of the members draw or paint their ATCs, collage and mixed media is also extremely popular, and you also see cross-stitch, origami and other techniques, provided it is within the specified size above.

My first ATCs were nothing to write home about, and I experimented with a mix of my art and collage (mainly shredded paper) with mixed results.

Here is one of my very early mixed media cards:

ATC by Angela Oliver
ATC by Angela Oliver

Finding people to trade with was never too much of a problem – most were willing to trade with even a complete novice and I have made numerous cards specifically for their new owners. I have now traded over 3000 cards (and assorted other pieces of mail art) and have managed to send my art into over 80 countries, including Madagascar, Guatemala and Luxemburg.

However, collage and scrapping leads to a certain amount of untidiness and overload of supplies, and I gave up on the collage and layered cards a few years ago to concentrate exclusively on my drawing.

ATCs are a great way to improve your artistic skills: they are small, quick and relatively easy to make, extremely easy to store (I have numerous binders of them) and if they are unsuccessful then it does not feel like you have wasted too much time on them. However, the size does limit what you can do. Overly complicated images are all but impossible, and it can be hard to force some subjects into the rectangular format.

Other forms of mail art I have engaged in are: 4' x 4' (sometimes called “chunkies” as they are supposed to be 3-d), 6' x 6', 8' x 8', postcards (6x4 inches), twinchies (2' x 2') inchies (1'x1') and various other projects, most of which are designed to fit into the regular sized mailing envelopes for ease of posting.

Who is your favourite ATC creator?

As I am very active in the ATC circuits, I cannot name a favourite creator, for fear of overlooking someone, or hurting someone's feelings. For the most part, I collect hand drawn and hand painted cards, and I have acquired some real beauties over the years. One of my favourite challenges is asking people to draw Hemlock, the goblin hero from A Midsummer Knight's Quest based entirely on a description.

Many of the highly skilled ATC creators can be found on this site: 
It is a closed and juried forum, but the gallery is open for public admiration, if you do a search for “Hemlock” or “Lemur” you will probaby find a number of cards now residing in my collection.

Which Illustrators past or present do you admire the most? 

One of my favourite New Zealand illustrators is Dave Gunson whose footsteps I wish I could follow in! He has done postage stamps, picture book illustrations, wildlife posters and non-fiction books, all focusing around things that are dear to my own heart – our native wildlife.

Another favourite is Ursula Vernon, an American artist and writer with a zoological/scientific leanings (like me) and a really wacky sense of humour.

Tell us about your latest project, what are you working on the moment?

I am somewhat in the middle of several projects – as is usually the case! – but the major one is my Animal-A-Day project. On October 15th, 2013 I started working my way, alphabetically, through an animal encyclopedia and releasing a piece of animal art (with information) every day via social media, specifically twitter, tumblr and blogspot. I have recently passed day #200 and am still on the Es, so it is predicted that it will take me at least 3 years to complete. Each letter is being turned into a little hardcover book (printed via ArtsCow) and I intend there to eventually be an App and possibly a card/board game (once I have figured out the game play).

Illustration by Angela Oliver
Angela Oliver: Animal-A-Day project

Each image is an Art Card, measuring the specified 2.5 x 3.5 inches and done in the same style. Individual cards can be purchased for $10, although I will trade them as well. Requests of future animals can also be made (F and onwards).

The project's “official” home is on tumblr HERE

The second project is, of course, the second book in my lemur series: Tail of Two Scions. I am currently in the stage of having the first draft roughly finished and going through it with a butchering knife to work on into a more concise, more fluent plot. It is proving to be something of a struggle.

A third project, which is almost reaching fruition, is an anthology for the Christchurch Writers' Guild. It is entitled Reflections and should, with any luck, be available via Amazon in late June or early July. It is a collection of poetry and prose from our members, and contains some excellent pieces from independent, up-and-coming authors.

What has been your favourite illustration project to date?
Probably my tarot cards, which are based on New Zealand Ecology. Not only was it fun to come up with images to suit the card definitions, but it has also proved to be my most profitable project to date. Decks are available via The Game Crafter:  or if you live in New Zealand, you can purchase them directly from me (NZ$30 + shipping) and I'll autograph the Signature card too.

Ecology tarot cards by New Zealand illustrator Angela Oliver
tarot cards, which are based on New Zealand Ecology

Which is your favourite animal to draw?
I do not really have a set favourite persay. I love a bit of variety in my wildlife art, and challenges can be fun! However, my top favourite subjects would probably be birds and lemurs. I love the colours of birds, and since I have been more-or-less obsessed with birds as long as I can remember, I can almost draw them in my sleep (although some species are trickier than others).

Bittern Illustration by Angela Oliver
And, of course, there are lemurs.

My passion for lemurs began later in life, when I did volunteer work at Orana Park and fell in love with the cheeky, pixie-faced ringtail lemurs. This passion led me (and my husband) on an amazing and eye-opening expedition to Madagascar in 2007 and also, finally, into the creation of the Lemurs Saga.
Someone has challenged me to draw a lemur for every letter of the alphabet, and with around 100 species, I shall certainly make a good effort at it! Here is one of my interior illustrations from Fellowship of the Ringtails.

Ringtailed Lemur Illustration by Angela Oliver
Ringtailed Lemur

Can you explain your preferred illustration method?

I begin with a pencil sketch. For my Animal-A-Day project I use an A5 sized pad in which I have already ruled up the approximate size of the Art Card (I can fit four per page). I use reference material extensively, usually via google image search, but also my copious piles of animal books and bird calendars. Generally I will seek 2-3 sources, so as not to make my final piece resemble the original photograph too closely. With few exceptions, I work off photographs. For imaginery (including Pokemon) or extinct animals I will use creatures that bear similarities to the intended creation. I generally use an HB or 2B mechanical pencil for this purpose. I hate blunt pencils, so mechanical is the way to go!

After laying down the pencil sketch, I then ink it. For this I use an array of fibre-tipped pens, UniPin is my favourite, but I also have Artline, Staedtler and Tombow pens ranging in tip thickness from 0.05 to 0.8 mm. The fine tipped pens – 0.05 and 0.1 – are used for the fine detailing such as fur, feathers, shading and scales.

After that, I add in the background, which can range from heavily detailed to very lightly indicated, depending on the size of the subject. I do not wish my image to look too cluttered, especially since I work on such a small canvas. For my animals I will make it as close to their natural environment as I can find – again using reference images of the habitat.

Finally, colouring, which is the most time consuming part. I use colouring pencils extensively. My preferred brand is the American prismacolor, but these have very delicate leads and sometimes do not sharpen well. They are a wax-based pencil with very smooth consistency and great for blending. My second favourite, and what I used before I acquired my first set of prismas, are Fabercastell's Polychromos. These are oil-based and have a harder tip, but definitely lay on more colour than cheap-brand colouring pencils. I occasionally use markers to smooth over colours and blend it more fully.

Gel pens are then used for adding highlights. I am particularly fond of the Signo White gel pen.

illustration colouring process, before and after
illustration colouring process, before and after
Do you work entirely on the computer, or by hand, or a combination of the two?

The art piece itself is entirely traditional media, although I do use the computer – and a very dated version of Paint Shop Pro – to “clean-up” the image before it gets printed. 

Do you take commissions?

Yes, selectively. As you can see, I have quite a few of my own projects on the go at present, so am unwilling to engage into anything too time-consuming and complicated, but am definitely keen on small art commissions – I prefer working on sizes between Art Card size and the NZ standard A4. If you are interested in having an Animal-A-Day card drawn specifically for you, then please notify me – preferably before I pass the appropriate letter! Prices range from $15-$100 for non-commercial pieces, depending on size and complexity, and turn-around is from 1 week to 2-3 months, depending on communication (if you respond to my emails fast, then changes can be made and your piece will be finished sooner). 

If you wish to purchase my art or skills for commercial purposes (including book covers, interior illustrations, luggage tags, labels etc) then a royalty scheme may be discussed.

Thank you so much for answering my questions and giving everyone an insight into your lovely artwork.

You are very welcome! Thank you for wanting to interview me.

For Readers looking for more of Angela's work, please check out these sites:

5 Rules for Designing a Retro Sci-fi Cover

I was just reading about the trope of the 'mysterious hooded figure' HERE that graces fantasy covers (a design of which I am a fan) and it got me thinking about when I had to design a retro sci-fi cover for Tropic of Skorpeo

So you also can learn the key elements that made pulp cover art so freaking awesome today I'm going over the 5 Rules for Designing a Retro Sci-fi Cover which I discovered while working on that fun project.
Kura Carpenter's 5 Rules for Designing a Retro Sci-fi Cover
Kura Carpenter's 5 Rules for Designing a Retro Sci-fi Cover
Do let me know if you use my rules when creating your own retro sci-fi cover, I would love to see what you come up with!