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Meet the illustrator: Francesca Protopapa

January 31, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

What is it like to illustrate a book series? Creating characters for graded readers is an exciting creative process that you and your students can discuss in class. We talked to Francesca Protopapa, who illustrated The Time Detectives, our six-part series for teens written by Martyn Hobbs. Francesca told us about her creative process and inspiration. We hope you and your students enjoy reading and talking about it.

Francesca has also illustrated three more Helbling Readers: To the Lighthouse, Daisy Miller and The Albatross.

Visit her website to see more of her work: Pistrice.

The interview

How did you get into illustration?

While I was studying History of Art at university, I became passionate about children's books and illustration. I am self-taught and, over the years, have experimented lots of different techniques, and taken part in many contests and creative projects which transformed my passion into a profession.

When an illustrator approaches a book, they know they will have to create a coherent set of characters and contexts. In The Time Detectives series you go one step further, following the two main characters through different worlds and ages in different situations. The mood of the stories keeps changing. How is it different to illustrate a series?

Creating the character design for a series undoubtedly takes more time than creating an independent book. When I get the brief from the editor, I start drawing and sketching the characters in a variety of different positions and with various expressions. The choice of clothes and hairstyles is always quite simple, so that they will work in all sorts of situations from the more adventurous to the meditative. Moreover, at the beginning I still don’t know if accessories or details will be added to the characters in the books that will follow, so my priority is to make each one immediately recognizable but neither too eccentric nor too basic!

How do you prepare for illustrating stories which are both historical and science-fiction? Each book has a very particular look and feel which immediately helps us understand where we are. Where do you find inspiration for your palette? Plus, some of the stories have dream-like sequences that illustrate past or supernatural events. How do you approach these?

Before I start drawing, I spend several days studying the publisher's creative brief and the indications I receive about the new story. Then I try to identify the historical and geographical context but also the narrative atmosphere, and only after that do I begin my own research. I typically look on the internet but also in old books and prints that hint to the landscape and architecture included in the illustrations. Regarding palette, I work intuitively trying to convey emotions through the colours I choose. Each book has its own specific look and feel, but I try to maintain coherence in the graphic effects throughout the series in order to underline the continuity of the storyline despite the different time and geographical settings.

In the more dream-like illustrations, those representing visions or memories, I work on palettes with surreal and unreal chromatic tones. Sometimes I also add a white frame which increases the extraneous effect of the image.


The Golden Man p47
Illustration from The Golden Man. ©Helbling Languages

When you are working on a long project, it might be hard to find the way back to the mood and keep up the momentum. What is your strategy?

I think it’s different from illustrator to illustrator, for some I think it's easier than for me. In my case, working with "emotional" colour palettes, I have to be careful not to stray too far from the atmospheres that I’ve already used. One simple technique I use is to slowly leaf through all the previous books and soak up their colours and "poetry" before launching into the new project. It is a challenge that I always undertake with pleasure.

Did you have a favourite book in the series?

I especially loved the books that gave me the opportunity to draw elements of nature and animals. Perhaps my favourite was The Golden Man, but I also loved drawing Out Of the Maze with its magical atmosphere of ancient Greece.

Out of the Maze p40
Illustration from Out of the Maze. ©Helbling Languages


And which one was the most challenging to illustrate?

Without doubt The Last Voyage, I never thought I'd draw science-fiction! I had to do a lot of research to come up with ideas - both for the technological elements and for the 1920s-style decoration!

Have you ever thought about writing your own stories?

In the past I wrote some stories for children, one of which was published in Italy several years ago. I am not sure if I have a talent for written storytelling, but if I am inspired again I won’t hesitate to do it. If I ever write anything again it will be a picture book and not a novel.

Where can people see your work?

I have a website ( that collects a lot of my work, mainly editorial and communication/advertising. But on Instagram (@ilpistrice) I publish more frequently and the stuff I put up can vary a lot of inspiration. I also like to publish photos of places or situations that have moved me or that are part of my daily life and that leave traces in my dreams as well as in my creations.

Thank you for the interview!

Check out the six titles in The Time Detectives series: