Creativity at home with Art Director, Illustrator and mother Jilly Topping

16th June 2020

London based Art Director and Illustrator Jilly Topping has worked across most fields, from food to fashion, children to art, to botanical illustration. We spoke to Jilly about working with Joe Wicks, balancing parenting and studio time during lockdown and how to inspire kids to get creative. 

Can you talk a little about your background and how you go into Art Direction and Design?

I started my career in the mail order industry when the internet was young and printed catalogues were the main way of marketing products. After a few years in ‘big book’ mail order fashion in the north of England I took a role at Innovations and McCord catalogue, London. As Head of Design and Print I was responsible for the creative look of the catalogues. This was in need of a huge update so I attended every shoot to ensure we created beautiful aspiration shots with a great team of photographers and stylists. This became my favourite part of the role and I decided to start a design agency with my partner Martin, where I could be a fulltime art director and he did the graphic design. We called ourselves ‘ome design and for 12 years we designed and art directed books, catalogues and branding for amazing clients including David Beckham!

First off, as I know lots of people will want to know, what exactly is the role of an art director on a shoot?

An art director of photography (it’s different in other industries) is the person who comes up with the creative vision for the project. How the shoot should look, the vibe, the location, the colours and the image we should portray for the client. This is usually shown to the client via a mood board with images, words and graphics. Once this is approved by the client, the art director will either put together a photography team to suit the project or maybe join an existing team. They will brief the photographer, stylist and hair and make-up artist on what we want to achieve. The art direct, either alone or with the photographer will then attend the location for a ‘recce’. This is to choose some good areas to shoot in, the angles we want to use and get a feel for the place whether this is a location house we have hired, a street, a park or any other location.

When the shoot starts the art director will attend each day with a list of shots they want to achieve. They will ensure all shots are taken and that each shot fits with the creative look of the mood boards and ensure it fits the media where it’s going to be used. They will also approve the styling and wardrobe if a model is involved.

One of the main roles however is to make sure everyone is happy and working well together and that the model or celebrity is comfortable in the shots.

You have worked on some exciting cookbook shoots including working with the now British hero Joe Wicks! What is the process of deciding on the storyboards/overall vision of a shoot like that and how does it come together?

I usually research the client and their business before I create the mood board. There may be a certain route the book is taking. For example; I work on Joe Wick’s cook books, my first was ‘Cooking for Friends and Family’, so we knew we needed dining shots with large groups of his guests. The second book I worked on with Joe was ‘30 Minute Meals’. So we wanted to shoot in the kitchen, with ingredients to show how quick, easy and fun his recipes are to make. Once the mood boards are created I present them to the publishing team and Joe himself. If everyone agrees they like the look and feel of the shoot, then we can go ahead and start the process.

We have been doing PE with Joe each morning during lockdown. I am totally hooked and it makes you feel uplifted and ready to start the day.

What would people be surprised to learn about cookbook photoshoots? I once heard that they used water to cut bread perfectly!

I have not heard that one but I once painted an uncooked chicken to look like a roast chicken! However, this was for an advertising shoot for a cook book. You may be surprised to hear that the food in cook books is created using the freshest ingredients and cooked following the exact recipe. The food is so good we often eat it or at least try it after each shot. Providing its not been sat out for too long!

You're also a wonderful illustrator, we love your natural botanicals, have you always drawn? What inspires this work in everyday life? 

I have always loved drawing especially flowers and plants. I did train many years ago to be a botanical illustrator which is mainly using watercolours, inks and pencil. Botanical work is part scientific because the plant must be botanically correct, therefore you don’t have as much creative freedom. I have longed for the creative freedom I see when I teach children art, so in 2019 I decided to embark on a BA in Fine Art at London Metropolitain University. It’s been a long held dream and I am close to end of year 1 (it’s a 3 year course). I am loving every minute of it.

I am inspired to create art by many things, nostalgia seems to be a common theme, making sense of feelings through art, vintage finds, ceramics, print and since lockdown my garden seems to be inspiring most of my work!

How have you experienced balancing parenting and creativity/work at home recently?

I feel I have found a solution which seems only right and fair. If I am creating art I let my children join in. They create their own version, for example when I am doing lino cutting, my 10 year old daughter creates her own using soft touch lino (easier to cut for children) and my 8 year old uses the foam square version to do her print making. I can’t really make them to school work sheets while I am having fun in the studio!

Do you have any tips for homeschooling and encouraging artistic activities with small children? What approach do you take?

I don’t feel like have mastered home schooling yet! But I can say I am learning every day. I am not getting stressed if they don’t do all their school work, as long as they are doing something which is not screen based. It could be making something out of recycling or Lego, drawing and colouring, rearranging their bedrooms, gardening or baking. All in return for some screen time later in the day of course.

My best tip for keeping children creative is… leave the pens and paper out. Never put them away. If they are there in view the children will use them on a daily basis. The minute you put them away even the most arty children will draw less. I also keep any good pieces of recycling in a bag, so they can create something out of nothing whenever they fancy.

I teach Art part time in Primary Schools so I am always on the look-out for new projects I can do with my classes. I make sure they are tried and tested by my daughters first. Pinterest is a great source for finding projects to do with children.

During this strange time for all of us- what are you most happy about accomplishing at the end of each day? 

If I have managed to get the children to do some school work or something creative and I have done some of my work too, then that is an amazing day. However, as long as there is not too much arguing and everyone is feeling well then it’s a good day in my book.

Thanks Jilly!

You can see more of Jilly's work at or follow her on @jigsaligs

For inspiration for children's art projects check out @leopoldlovesart