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The charity shop approach to creativity

How is shopping for clothes in your local Sue Ryder or British Heart Foundation like creating an illustration? Writing about the process of making this spread, I realised that my approach to illustration is a lot like charity shop clothes shopping.

picture book spread illustration of a smiling woman in black holding up a colourful troll jumper on a surprised child. they are in a charity shop.

Throughout my life, I’d estimate 75% of my clothes have been second hand, mostly from charity shops after the first few years of hand-me-downs.

When I was younger I was quite embarrassed by that, but this began to change once I was a student living on my own. I didn’t have the money to buy new, and charity shops became hugely fashionable for a while around that time too. It was almost chic to announce that a dress you were wearing was £3.50 from Oxfam.

sketchy sketch

I’ve always felt comfortable in charity shops. They’re generally small and friendly places. In my early 20’s touring the charity shops of Bradford or Keighley before a pub lunch became a regular weekend activity with not just my mum, but my granddad, and later my aunties.

My aunties were charity shop professionals. They would go several times a week, taking the bus to a different town each day. They would know everything that was in those shops and be on the look out to snap up new stock as soon as it came in. Often they would have a particular thing they were hunting for – toys for a new nephew, books by a certain author to complete a series. My auntie Linda collected green glass vases and ornaments for a while. Her eye was trained to find the specific shade of green she was after for her windowsill.

some tell-tale charity shop features – random shoes, bargain baskets, and stylish older ladies

It would definitely be much quicker and easier to buy exactly what you wanted from a regular shop, or online. A quick google search would bring up enough green glass to fill your living room in a few clicks. But that would defeat the entire point of it. Where’s the fun in a collection delivered complete to your doorstep in 2 to 3 working days? The fun part is the hunt.

The joy is in the searching not the owning.

line drawing. the basket in the bottom left is very scruffy because I knew none of those lines were being kept.

When high-street shopping for clothes, you first need to choose a brand to match your age / style / body shape / budget / sensibilities. Essentially, who are you? Can you find a shop where the clothes fit you well, the price is right, the styles / colours are to your taste, the ethics of the shop match your world view?

This is a difficult task.

I can see why some people always go back to the same shops throughout their life once they find one they like. Online clothes shopping is big now since the logistics improved during lockdown. But choosing clothes from literally anything in the entire world is overwhelming (at least for me!)

patterns and colours emerging

What’s all this got to do with illustration?

Sitting down with a blank piece of paper and thinking you can create literally anything doesn’t get you very far. Create what? Quick! decide your subject, media, colours, scale, characters, setting, composition, mood, and message before you begin.


I’d never even start if that’s how illustrating worked. Some people find a style and subject they like and stick to that. Maybe cat portraits in pencil. And that’s great, but just like picking one high street brand, it’s not the approach for me.

illustrating using ‘found’ patterns and textures

I like to start with a sense of discovery and exploration, experimenting putting things together, but working from a small and manageable selection of options. Just like shopping for clothes in a charity shop. They have a small eclectic mix of everything from all the other high street and online shops. A colourful slice of the world right now in a friendly package. It’s also very low stakes. The low prices mean you can buy a bunch of things and when you decide a few week’s later that those leopard print trousers aren’t really your style you can send them back to be bought by someone else without any huge feeling of regret or waste of money.

If you follow me on Instagram then you might have seen that I do a lot of painting and drawing with my toddler and it’s a wonderful way to experiment with colour and texture. I often scan and take photos of the results for possible later use. The newest batch above, from left to right, are from ice painting, pouring ‘unicorn paint’, and layering primary paint sticks. Using these for the various charity shop fabrics was a great low stakes way to start building up the illustration. From there, decisions about colours and values have something to relate to. And if it’s not working then it’s not a big deal to start again.

I find this method fun. I’m searching for something that clicks, for that specific shade of green.

adding pencil textures and negative space shapes
picture book spread illustration of a smiling woman in black holding up a colourful troll jumper on a surprised child. they are in a charity shop.
final illustration

The details are from real life memories

Maybe you’re wondering why the mum in this illustration is wearing head to foot black when everything else is so colourful? Well, she’s based on my mum, who I remember always wearing black and dark purple. And yet she chose the most crazy colourful things for me.

The Troll jumper is a real jumper I had as a kid. The body of the Troll was printed / embroidered, but the hair was real Troll hair. All 3D and fluffy everywhere. I got it for Christmas one year and I think it was actually not from a charity shop, but it was the perfect crazy item of clothing to use as the subject for this illustration.

Nicola Schofield on a school trip to York
My style has not changed much from this to be honest…

Another example

Here you can see an original collaboration between me and the toddler and then using that as a starting point for my illustration of a girl catching falling stars. The choice of blue line work was as a contrast to the red, pink, and yellow. Starting from a blank page with just the idea of the girl, it’s very unlikely I would have ended up with this colour palette.

quack quack

How do you approach the problem of overwhelming possibilities in your work?

I love to see other artist’s processes and inspirations. If you’d like to share yours then do leave a comment or drop me an email about how you overcome your blank page.

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