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The 30-year journey from The Scotsman’s doorstep to becoming one of the UK’s leading illustrators

The art school graduate was so determined to get a career as an illustrator off the ground that she took her portfolio on ‘cold’ trips around town in the free time of two part-time jobs.

However, it was The Scotsman that was to give him a crucial break that would lead to Calder working for some of the biggest names in publishing and becoming one of Britain’s leading illustrators.

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Illustrator Jill Calder at the new career exhibition at Callendar House in Falkirk. Photo: Michael Gillen

His regular visits to the office of the then North Bridge newspaper were rewarded with an order to accompany an article on dyslexia.

Now this illustration and the page it adorned are part of the exhibits of the first major retrospective of Calder’s work, born in Dundee, as an illustrator and calligrapher, which took her all over the world.

The free exhibition at Callendar House, Falkirk explores a career that has involved working for magazines, campaigning for drinks brands, accompanying the work of poets and authors and, more recently, publishing picture books for children.

Now based in Upper Largo, Fife, Calder can trace her own interest in illustration back to her childhood in Dundee.

Jill Calder has created artwork for a new children’s unit at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London.

She said: “I still have books that I love, like the poetry collection Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, which had those lovely black and white line drawings by illustrator Tomi Ungerer, and books from the American author and illustrator Richard Scarry.

“My father joined one of these book clubs. All these art books were coming home. Some of them were weird and wonderful, but to this day I still have those nice big books on Van Gogh and the Impressionists. I loved watching them.

“I didn’t think I was good enough to get into art school in Scotland – I didn’t even bother to apply. I ended up going to Carlisle, but very quickly had to decide what to do. I wanted to specialize. I was everywhere For a moment, I wanted to do theatrical design, then fashion.

“It was a tutor from Carlisle who told me ‘you are good at telling stories through your work, you should consider doing illustration’.”

Illustrator Jill Calder with her very first paid commission, which she got from The Scotsman. Photo: Michael Gillen

Calder returned to Scotland to the art schools of Edinburgh, then Glasgow.

She said: “When I left, my goal was to try to find work in newspapers and magazines. Lots of artwork was being ordered at the time and I thought if I could get a few a week it would be fine.

“But it was a struggle. We were going through a recession. I had two part-time jobs, lived with my sister and was just trying to make ends meet.

“But I was determined to get work as an illustrator. It was the days of cold calling. I shopped around to design and ad agencies, and everywhere I thought I was ordering artwork. If you walked in the door, you literally had five minutes to show them your work. It was absolutely brutal. I developed thick skin, but it was quite demoralizing.

Kissy Kissy, one of the illustrations Jill Calder created for Scottish model Honor Fraser’s column in Scotland on Sunday. .

“I was determined to harass The Scotsman. I would go up to the art department in the North Bridge office. I was always greeted with ‘this is great, we love your work, keep coming back to us’. About a year after I graduated from Glasgow, I got a call to illustrate an article for the main newspaper.

“I remember thinking I made it to be commissioned from a real newspaper. I was about three days old. I remember doing about three different versions and going into a blind panic thinking it wasn’t not good enough. I tore it up the day it was supposed to be handed in, started over, rushed to the office and delivered before the deadline. It was a fantastic feeling to see it in the paper the next day.

Calder gradually became a regular illustrator for The Scotsman and its sister title Scotland on Sunday, where her work accompanied a weekly column by Scottish model Honor Fraser.

Calder sought work in London, landing commissions from The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, then from Condé Nast Traveller, Elle and The New Yorker.

However, a “game changer” came with Garden Detectives, a summer exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2009.

She said: “It was about encouraging children to reconnect with nature. From the start, they said some of my work was going to be very large scale.

Jill Calder collaborated with James Robertson on a Robert the Bruce picture book.

“Most of my work had been for the front page. It was an amazing experience working with a huge team of people and was transformational as it really allowed me to focus on working for younger audiences.

Calder would then receive another very different order – facilities for a new children’s unit at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London.

She remembers: “I started by doing workshops, asking the children to make little books and draw pictures about entering the hospital.

“We got brilliant content from them, everything was so imaginative and positive. Everything became a lot more inclusive, everything was created with kids for kids.”

Calder, who has been invited to stage her new exhibition by the Falkirk Council, has increasingly focused on children’s picture books since an approach to work on a Robert the Bruce with writer James Robertson .

She said: “I wasn’t sure – all I really knew was the story of the spider and Bannockburn.

“I hadn’t illustrated a book before either, but James was absolutely wonderful to work with. It was fantastic to illustrate the way he interpreted the story.

“It was a labor of love. I was there for about a year and a half, but all of a sudden I was asked to do book festivals and school events. It became a bit Revolutionary Non-fiction picture books are huge in publishing now.

Jill Calder is an award-winning illustrator and calligrapher, based in Upper Largo in Fife. Photo: Michael Gillen
Illustrator Jill Calder got her chance after walking through the door of The Scotsman. Photo: Michael Gillen
Illustration by Jill Calder of a young Robert the Bruce, with his wife and baby in their castle at Turnberry.
Jill Calder collaborated with James Robertson on a Robert the Bruce picture book.

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