How Lizzie Cullen created an urban-themed colouring-in book for Penguin

Illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen reveals how she came to create a colouring book for adults for Penguin – and how she conceived and drew it.

Lizzie Mary Cullen is the latest professional illustrator to be brought into the phenomenally popular world of colouring books for adults. Here she's following in the footsteps of other long-term Digital Arts collaborators including Ollie Munden – creator of The Tattoo Colouring Book – and the genre's biggest artist, Johanna Basford. Read our interview with Johanna Basford about how she sold over a million copies of her colouring books.

The popularity of colouring books for grownups means that bookshops are awash with cheaply produced cash-ins full of twee, crude or poorly considered works - and many near-direct copies of the bestsellers. The best – like Ollie, Johanna and Lizzie's – draw on their distinct style of illustration. For Lizzie this is is a whirling, almost-psychedelic vision of the urban world based on psychogeography: representations of places that encapsulate their 'soul' - combining their cultural heritage and place within wider culture, society, history, architecture, relationship with other places and with the country as a whole (and even the rest of the world).

This approach to illustration has seen Lizzie commissioned for the likes of Zizzi and HTC - as well as creating a series of live art projects for clients including Oxfam  (projects which include the actual artworks and are usually filmed to build digital campaigns around).

>> Read on for the interview

Lizzie's colouring book for adults, The Magical City, is published by Penguin and is out now. I sat down with Lizzie to find out how she conceived and created the drawings, how she adapted her style for colouring-in, and what she makes of Penguin's cover design for the book – which is near identical in composition (and even the choice of font) to Johanna's Secret Garden, a design that has copied by many colouring books for adults since Secret Garden became a bestseller.

Neil Bennett: What's different about your book from the other colouring-books-for-grown-ups that are all across my local Waterstones?

Lizzie Cullen: "The beautiful thing about this trend is it's about something pure – the simple joy of zoning out and committing a couple of hours of your day to getting in a creative zone. So in that respect – absolutely nothing!

"On the other hand, I think the book shows my love of urban space. Old, new, ancient, modern - winding cities and places. It's my understanding that people who love colouring-in love it so much because they experience the same joy that I get when I'm drawing. I think that loves comes out in the book."

NB: How did you come to work with Penguin?

LC: "Pure luck really. I was at a hen do in Paris, talking to a friend about a book contract I was worried about. She offered to hook me up with a buddy who is a literary agent at Greene and Heaton [called] Chris Wellbelove. The other book fell through, but Chris suggested that we pitch an urban colouring-in book to Penguin, in the spirit of my psychogeographic process. And that was that.

"But one thing I want to say is my Penguin deal would never have come about without the trailblazers that are Johanna Basford and Millie Marotta. They've given this industry a huge lift, and I would never have got this deal without their awesomeness. I think it all comes down to supporting each other in this tough industry. Their success is a gift to all of us, and I love and respect them for it."

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NB: Who did you have in mind as a person doing the colouring-in when you were working on the book?

LC: "I thought about people I knew who are using them. One of the things that comes up a lot when I see reviews of colouring-in books is that people use them for so many reasons. Lots of people use them in times of great personal hardship or loss. It's a way of tapping in to your inner self, and bypassing your whirring mind. I thought about that when I made the book, every page had to be perfect for them.  

"People also use them for the pure pleasure of creating something real with their hands. I forget sometimes that many people refuse to draw, either for fear of being mocked or the belief that they can't. These books give people confidence – and that's brilliant. It's like [current Children's Laureate] Chris Riddell says, 'Everyone can draw!'"

NB: How does psychogeography work in the context of a colouring book?

LC: "I've really gotten into urban exploration in a big way this year. I've become good friends with Dr Bradley Garrett, the author of Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. He's constantly exploring what it means to live in an urban environment, and make it ours. I'm illustrating the next book he's compiling with Prestel, and we've been seeing London from different angles, different heights.

"It's shaken up how I see this ridiculously complicated, beautiful, wild city. So, that helped a lot in making The Magical City. There are places in the book that are real places: London, Paris, New York, Japan. But there are others that are amalgams of cities, mashed together, warped, fused and blended. So, without my psychogeographic background, I could not have made this book."

NB: Did you have to adapt your usual style much to allow for colouring in?

LC: "Not really, [though] I made the artwork less mad-looking. A lot of my work looks like I'm on some kind of drug, so I've reigned it in a bit. It's been a helpful process, but a difficult one to get right.

"I've also been working on my solo show next year with the Serena Morton gallery, and I've been exploring some dark themes in my work. It was slightly tricky keeping that out of The Magical City, but I think it's about being able to switch between projects and being able to immerse myself fully in whatever is in on the desk."

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NB: How do you feel about the cover? When working on a book, do you just have to accept that the layout and type designed by the publisher will likely follow that of whatever the current bestseller in that field is?

LC: "This book came together so quickly, I was pretty strung out when the cover came through. I was actually on a stage at OFFF Barcelona giving a talk when my phone binged with an email showing me the cover. I was exhausted, mentally and psychically and it was hard to let go and let them do their thing.

"I've learned so much about the publishing process this year – ultimately making a book is a collaborative process. I know the drawing, and Penguin know how to sell it. My editor Fi Crosby was amazing in allowing me input, and ultimately they're Penguin. Penguin!! They're the dream, and it's pretty thrilling to hold the book in my hands and think, 'yes – we made this.'

NB: What's next?

LC: "Next book with Penguin! Working on it now."

Buy The Magical City here.