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Emotional Storytelling

An Interview with Illustrator Zareena Ayoub

Illustrator Zareena Ayoub discusses her creative process, the significance of sketching, exploration, and how creating a diverse body of work influences her style.

(Let your wanderlust guide you to new adventures, embracing the beauty of nature along the way! Guide to Walking magazine cover.)

“Sketching is the heartbeat of my process—it's where ideas take shape and evolve. Sketching allows me to play and connect with the essence of a concept.”


Hi Zareena, please tell us about yourself. What do you do and what is your background?

Hello! I'm Zareena Ayoub, a self-taught Illustrator & Visual Storyteller from England. My artistic journey has been a fusion of curiosity and experimentation. I strive to evoke emotions and spark imagination through my illustrations, always aiming for a touch of whimsy. 

I'm passionate about freelance projects, offering my skills in picture books and bespoke illustrations, adding depth and diversity to my artistic endeavors.


Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? Where do you find inspiration?  What excites you the most about the creative process, and how do you feel sketching plays a role in it?

My creative process is deeply rooted in exploration. Inspiration often strikes from the world around me, be it nature, emotions, or everyday life. The excitement lies in the unpredictability of the creative journey. 

In general, I start on paper with rough basic thumbnails, it's faster for me to get ideas down. I often use Palomino Blackwing pencils for sketching.

Concepts for sketch iterations - for iterating and refining. Sketching is the heartbeat of my process—it's where ideas take shape and evolve. Sketching allows me to play and connect with the essence of a concept.

(A Black-and-White Coloring book page features a person cradling a bouquet of flowers, a timeless symbol of love and beauty.)

Can you walk us through your process for an illustration? When you get a commission or start a new project, what are the steps you take, from the moment you get the brief, until it’s ready to be delivered?

Sure, here’s how I’d tackle a typical editorial or book cover project.

1. Laying the Groundwork

Brief, Mood Board, Research  
I kick off by diving deep into the project brief from the client. This document is my roadmap, detailing goals, art direction, and key messages. Clarifying any uncertainties upfront ensures I'm aligned with the project vision from the get-go.

Warming Up  
I don't jump straight into drawing. First, I let the idea simmer. I start with thorough research, jotting down keywords, reading, and soaking in visual references. 

Understanding the context and audience is crucial. When the topic is tough, word associations can be a lifesaver, sparking creative connections.

  • Mood Board Creation: I create a mood board with references, images, and color palettes. This helps set a visual direction that's in sync with the client's vision.
  • Emotion References and Keywords: I gather emotional cues and draft keywords, aiming to find unique angles that will make the illustrations pop.
  • Mind Mapping: Using mind maps, I link keywords to visual elements, laying the groundwork for unique concepts.

2. Turning Ideas into Illustrations

Concept Sketching and Initial Feedback  
With keywords sparking ideas, I start sketching. I work on all sketches in one go to ensure they’re cohesive and balanced, especially when creating a series.

Let’s Dance  
Armed with a cheap pen, paper, a solid playlist, and my keywords, I dive into sketching. This phase is my favorite—letting ideas flow freely. 

  • Thumbnail Sketches: I draw quick thumbnails to explore different layouts and compositions. This step is all about visualizing and selecting the best ideas to develop further.
  • Concept Selection: I choose the most promising thumbnails to expand into detailed sketches.

After getting a batch of ideas out, I seek the first round of feedback. We narrow down the concepts, and I polish the details.

  • Detailed Sketches: I refine the selected concepts into detailed sketches.
  • Client Presentation: I present two to three solid concepts to the client, explaining the creative thought behind each one.
  • Feedback Incorporation: I gather feedback and tweak the sketches accordingly.

3. Polishing the Gem

Refinement and Color Palette  
Feedback in hand, I refine the sketches, focusing on character details and composition. Introducing the color palette brings the illustrations to life.

Digital Process  
My digital workflow mirrors my traditional one. Starting with pencil sketches, I outline the subjects and composition, then finalize the lines with ink. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Pencil Sketch to Digital Outline: I start with a pencil outline, then use a bolder tool like an ink pen.
  • Layering and Texturing: I digitally build up layers from light to dark, adding textures for depth and interest.
  • Final Adjustments: I fine-tune every detail to ensure a harmonious final piece.

Final Delivery
With final approval, I prep the illustrations for delivery. This means making sure all files meet technical specs and are ready for print or digital publication.

  • Technical Specifications: I ensure the final illustrations meet all technical requirements.
  • File Preparation: I organize and format the files for delivery.
  • Client Handoff: I deliver the final artwork, ensuring the client has everything they need.

(Children's Picturebook cover - This lion is not just king of the jungle but also king of gardening! Embracing the wild side with a touch of green. Paws up if you love a fierce feline with a green thumb!)

You have such a diverse body of work from illustrations to icons, how do you develop a style and how does creating different types of illustrations influence your style?

Thank you for noticing the diversity in my work! Developing a style is an ongoing journey for me. I find inspiration from various sources, allowing my interests and experiences to shape my artistic voice. 

Creating different types of illustrations is like exploring different paths in a forest – each one leads to new discoveries and influences my style in subtle yet meaningful ways. Whether I'm crafting detailed illustrations or minimalist icons, I strive to maintain coherence through elements like line quality, color palette, and storytelling approach, ensuring that each piece reflects my unique perspective while also pushing the boundaries of my creativity. 

Each type of illustration adds a layer to my artistic identity, it's a very dynamic approach to visual storytelling.

(Sharing knowledge is key! Educating others on lettering principles.)

What type of work do you enjoy creating the most? What is your dream project?

I find joy in creating intricate illustrations that convey emotion and tell a story. My dream project would involve working with book or magazine publishers on editorial and children's picture books.


You’re creating hand lettering and icon Object packs for Concepts and some icon packs for Notion. What led you to start creating icons and digital assets for people to use?

It all started when I was tinkering around, creating Notion-styled avatars just for fun. I love making things that people can actually use, whether it's a sleek planner, a nifty set of brushes, or cool icons. So, I whipped up my first Notion Avatar and tossed it up on Twitter (or X, as it's now known).

Boom! My notifications blew up. Turns out, people were hungry for custom avatars, and I was suddenly in high demand. Custom orders poured in like I'd unlocked some secret door to a hidden Notion fandom.

But I didn't stop there. I realized that while Notion was fantastic for organizing life, it was missing some aesthetic flair. I wanted my workspace to look good – like, really good. So, I dove into creating templates with a personal touch.

Then came the eureka moment. Notion had a serious icon gap — there weren't any! So, I grabbed my trusty iPad, fired up Procreate, and started drawing. My icons were different — they had a specific size tailored for Notion and a distinctive hand-drawn look that stood out from the crowd. No more boring, generic icons.

These icons became my signature. Notion users loved them, and I found myself at the intersection of creativity and community service. What started as a chance post on social media had turned into a full-blown adventure in design, all because I wanted to make Notion as beautiful as it was useful.

Now, I'm the go-to person for anyone looking to spruce up their Notion space with some unique, hand-drawn flair, from avatars to Icons. Who knew a simple tweet could lead to this much fun and creativity?


(Zareena’s Icons Volume 1 Object Pack)

How has technology changed the way you approach creativity? 

Technology has been transformative, offering many possibilities. It has empowered me to break free from traditional constraints and explore new dimensions in my art. The accessibility of digital tools has amplified my creative reach. With the ability to seamlessly experiment, iterate, and collaborate, I can push the boundaries of my creativity further than ever before.

(Book cover design. Lost in the lush green jungle, a woman navigates with a basket in hand, ready to discover hidden treasures.)

How does Concepts fit into your workflow and how do you use the app? (Which tablet and stylus do you use?)

Concepts is a vital part of my creative process & workflow. I use the app on my iPad Pro, paired with an Apple Pencil, which provides a seamless and intuitive drawing experience. Whether I'm brainstorming for a new project, sketching a book cover, or finalizing intricate illustrations, Concepts provides the flexibility and precision I need to bring my vision to life.

Its array of tools and customizable features allow me to adapt my workflow to suit the unique requirements of each project, ensuring that I can express myself freely and efficiently at every stage of the creative process. Its vector-based approach aligns perfectly with my need for adaptability. Concepts becomes my canvas for ideation, sketching, and refining concepts seamlessly.

(She is blessed book cover - Let your imagination soar with this captivating woman wearing a luminous moon as a crown, symbolizing strength and feminine power.)

What is your favorite Concepts feature? How do you prefer to apply this tool or feature to your illustration work?

Just one? That is tough! Thereal-time path smoothing in Concepts is a game-changer for me. It allows for strokes that are both dynamic and graceful. I leverage this feature to create intricate linework, ensuring a harmonious balance between precision and expressiveness in my illustrations.

(Motivational Poster - Handlettered Let's Slay.)

Do you have any thoughts or advice for creators like yourself who are looking to excel in their own illustration process?

Embrace the journey of self-discovery. Be open to experimentation, find joy in the process, and let your unique voice shine through. Stay adaptable, continuously learn, and above all, trust in your creative instincts.


(Campaign graphic for Let's save our feathered friends!)

Is there anything else you would like us to know or share about you or your work?

I am passionate about fostering creativity in others and believe in the power of art to connect and inspire. Each piece of my work is a testament to the diverse narratives that art can convey.

(Majestic bird gracefully rests on a blooming flower, creating a harmonious blend of nature's beauty and artistic brilliance.)

Zareena Ayoub is an illustrator & visual storyteller based in England. Being self taught has cultivated skills and developed a unique style that reflects her journey in creating meaningful illustrations and products. 

In her spare time, she loves travelling, nature walks, and relaxing with friends, finding inspiration in every moment.

Follow Zareena on: Instagram and Threads
Website coming soon:


Cover Photo - Campaign graphic for Let's save our feathered friends! by Zareena Ayoub
Interview by Annelise Sandberg


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