Interview with illustrator Phoebe Morris

Phoebe Morris is the illustrator of a series of acclaimed picture book biographies written by David Hill, which have included the stories of New Zealanders Jean Batten, Burt Munro, Edmund Hillary and most recently Hero of the Sea: Sir Peter Blake’s Mighty Ocean Quests (Penguin Random House NZ). She talks here with her friend, Ekor Bookshop owner, Niki Ward.

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Illustrator Phoebe Morris

Why are you an artist?

I don’t think anybody has ever asked me that so directly. I know that making things is something I have always done and needed to do. I haven’t really felt a need to understand it more than that just yet.

‘Self-portrait with full licence’

Can you explain your use of realistic versus stylised character design in your illustrations?

I work in a mix of illustration styles, and it is always interesting figuring out which style is most appropriate to use for a given project. Each story demands a degree of realism or stylisation depending on the tone, subject matter and audience. I think omitting detail can often be as important as including it, too.

In the series of biographical picture books I created with David Hill, each famous New Zealander is drawn as a simplified, stylised character. This allows me to inject some more fantastical, metaphorical, or exaggerated elements into the storytelling – like the shadow of a bird under Jean Batten’s plane in Sky High.

There was a fair amount of back and forth to get Sir Peter Blake’s iconic moustache just right for Hero of the Sea, which came out in October.

What artistic style inspires you?

Heaps of different stuff. Traditional picture book illustrators (I once set off an alarm at a gallery in Munich because I got too close to an original Beatrix Potter). Anime, manga and graphic novels (Studio Ghibli, Katsuhiro Otomo). Contemporary artists and illustrators (Jillian Tamaki, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan), and sculptors (Isamu Noguchi, Brancusi, Louise Bourgeois).

Where do you see New Zealand illustration going? Is it sustainable within New Zealand’s industry?

This is hard to answer because whenever I think about anything in the future now, all I think about is climate change. I worry about it every day. David Attenborough just told us that we’re cooked, and you know when Davey says it that shit is getting serious.

I regularly work on projects for local conservation groups to stave off the guilt and sense of impending doom. That said, I am really looking forward to VR tech kicking off in a big way. I think that it is creating interesting new job roles for anyone working in visual arts and design.

What work are you most proud of? What gave you the most growth?

This is also hard to answer because usually I finish a project and want to get as far away from it as possible, and on to the next one.

I’m proud of the books I’ve worked on so far, and I think finally taking some time to work on my own art has given me the most growth. It’s mainly consisted of a series of black and white ink drawings, one-page stories, and lots of lions for some reason. The style I’ve developed for those pieces has been feeding back into my picture book work too. I’ve been posting all of it on Instagram (@febe_m).

Who would you like to collab with?

Haruki Murakami. Patti Smith. Sza. Bill Murray. Katya Zamolodchikova. David Attenborough – I’m choosing people who are not illustrators so I don’t get even more intimidated by working with them. Unless it’s Lisa Hanawalt. Love you, Lisa. Also, if I could illustrate something for Flying Eye Books or the New Yorker I’d die a happy lady.

What is your favourite music to listen to when you work?

Music made by pals is the best music – mixes by K2K, DJ Kush Boogie, Aw B and albums by local artists like Womb, Secret Knives and Mermaidens. My Spotify Premium account just expired – it’s been a dark time.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of making books like Hero of the Sea?

For this series, I have to determine which parts of the text are illustrated, why, and how. This involves a lot of careful decision-making and planning, maybe a lot more than people realise. These books are also non-fiction, so there is heaps of research involved. I spend a good chunk of time trawling the internet and city library for reference photos while I’m working on the drafts. Then I have to draw and draw for weeks and weeks.

For our upcoming book about paleontologist Joan Wiffen, I’ve been reading heaps of books about prehistoric New Zealand. I’m thinking of sneaking Sam Neill into one of the spreads in homage to ‘Jurassic Park’.

What do you want to be doing in five years?

I’ve got lots of my own ideas for picture books, and have already started working on a couple. They are mostly for younger readers. Ideally, in five years I’ll be working on more of those, getting them published, and maybe I’ll finally own a dog. A big wolfy one that looks like it could be an extra in ‘Game of Thrones’.

I’d also be keen to work on more conservation projects, and in other roles like art direction. This all assumes that we are not underwater thanks to climate change, in which case I’ll be illustrating instruction manuals about boating.

View more of Phoebe’s illustrations at

Niki Ward

Niki Ward is the owner of Ekor Bookshop and Cafe in Wellington.