Meet the Essex children's book illustrator who designed a colourful mural of Colchester history

Illustration of Mersea Island

Tom's hometown of Mersea - Credit: Tom Knight

Illustrator Tom Knight has lent his artistic talents to many children’s books, with brilliant titles such as You Can’t Stop the Big Bad Bogey and When Cucumber Lost His Cool. But it was when I saw his vibrant mural depicting the history of Colchester on the ceiling of Lion Walk Shopping Centre that I first became aware of his work. I caught up with Tom to find out how the county has influenced his work and if being a children’s book illustrator is just as fun as it sounds.  

The Packing Shed, Mersea Island poster

The Packing Shed, Mersea Island - Credit: Tom Knight

Tell us about your childhood in Essex. How does the county influence your work? 

I grew up on Mersea Island, and had such a lovely childhood that I came back when we had children. Essex has influenced my work hugely – especially the coastline. I love the big skies and the bleak saltmarsh, and the way the landscape is constantly changing.  

When you’re juggling deadlines, it’s easy to just get your head down and spend all day in the studio, but a walk along the seawall is a really important part of my process. It clears the head and makes everything seem more manageable. 

 
When did you realise that art was for you, and what was your first big break? 

It’s a cliche, but I’ve loved drawing since I could hold a pencil. I always knew I’d end up with some sort of career in art, but it wasn’t until David Bennett from Boxer Books took a punt on me and commissioned me to do a series of books about mermaids in 2011 that I realised I was meant to be an illustrator. It’s been full steam ahead since then. 
 

Mersea Mick book cover

Tom's latest work, commissioned by Mersea Island Tales - Credit: Tom Knight / Mersea Island Tales

Is illustrating for children as fun as it sounds? Where does your inspiration come from? 
It really is as fun as it sounds! Illustrating books for children is just a wonderful job. You have to put the hours in, and managing schedules can be a challenge, but it is hugely rewarding in all sorts of ways. I’m always excited about my work, and I feel like I’m on a constant journey with it.  

Inspiration is everywhere, so it’s important to keep your eyes open. I used to get a lot of ideas from my kids, but they’re super-cool teenagers now and are mostly inscrutable. These days, the natural world inspires me more than anything. I love the shifts in rhythm across the seasons and the busyness of nature. Something is always going on! 
 

Colourful mural in Lion Walk Colchester

The mural features people and stories from Colchester's rich history - Credit: Optic Matter

How did it feel to be asked to create a mural at Lion Walk Shopping Centre? 
It felt like a bit of an honour. Colchester has always been ‘my town’, so it felt good to be able to add something to it. Hopefully, the artwork will engage children to be more curious about Colchester's history and some of the interesting people that have lived and worked there. 

We’ve all had a turbulent few years, so I wanted the artwork to be as colourful and positive as possible. It was great to do something so local! The whole project was really helped along by Art Eat (a social enterprise dedicated to producing vibrant art projects and events), who were great to work with. 

Illustration of boats near Mersea Island Essex

Saltmarsh safari - Credit: Tom Knight / Mersea Island Tales

What has been your career highlight so far? And what's next for you? 
Every time my agent tells me that someone wants to pay me to draw a children’s book, it feels like a career highlight to be honest! After more than a decade of illustrating full time, it still feels crazy to me. I’m just looking forward to carrying on my journey and to many more calls from my agent. 

Tom Knight Essex illustrator

Tom Knight - Credit: Tom Knight

To see more of Tom's work, visit tomknightillustration.co.uk and mersea-island-tales.co.uk