Since her arrival in Sligo almost 30 years ago, illustrator Annie West has been a creative force in bringing Sligo and its culture to audiences worldwide. Widely known for her tongue in cheek take on WB Yeats, in more recent times she has also worked as a key member of the Sligo Walks team, designing and developing illustrations for pocket maps which help guide walkers on walks all over the county.
“I think we’re up at 17 maps now,” she says, of her colourful illustrations of places like Benbulben Forest Walk, the Queen Maeve Trail, and many others that are dotted around the county. As for the work she does to highlight the walks, she says “I very much enjoy turning it into something visual, because a walk is just a walk until you see it as something else.”
As anyone who has picked up one of these pocket maps will attest to, Annie’s maps are part information, part entertainment. She ensures that the parameters of each walk are accurate and complement the trail head content elsewhere on the sign, but she also adds touches that are quirky and very much part of the Annie West signature. So, you might see a serpent appearing in Lough Gill, or a regatta taking place in Mullaghmore, all light touches which enhance the artwork.
“I think that’s the key – the humour and the character of the thing. And the fact that we have so much going on here. Like the whole Queen Maeve thing is hilarious. Not a lot of people know about all of the husbands she murdered, these stories need to be given more oxygen, I think,” she adds, tongue in cheek.
Of her method of designing and outlining the trail before she begins the illustrations, she says that it’s not straightforward, but that she has her system and usually gets there in the end.
“I have to do the walk several times over to see what it’s like, and the character of it, and bits and pieces that I can put in. I go out with a camera and a clipboard with a paper and pencil, and a couple of coloured markers, and I have my own kind of code for twists and turns, mark this, and put this in. And then I bring it back to the office and none of it makes any sense at all!”
She refers to Google Maps to get the general outline of the walk in place. Then a pencil drawing will sketch out the main features, in particular the trail itself, and she decides at this point what angle she will provide the viewer of the walk, honing in on what best captures the trail, as well as the main landscape features.
Once she begins to illustrate, the process is done with fine watercolour paper and ink, and Annie works with these traditional methods rather than with computer software. This means that the process can be a long and often challenging one, where mistakes can mean that hours of work can go to waste and mean starting off again.
“The secret, of course, is knowing when to stop, because if you overdo it, you can chuck it in the bin, because you’re not going to be able to do anything with it, and that’s happened a good few times. I will sometimes do 10-12 layers of colour, just to build it up. I then have to let it dry before adding in the detail. I go over everything in outline, then shading, hatching, a few lines, shadow under the sheep, finish up my monsters. And when we have all that done, the pathways are added in the same colour yellow every time, so that you have that uniformity with all of them. When you put all the maps together, they look like a series.”
The maps that Annie has illustrated represent walks all over the county. Since she first met with Michael Carty and Ray O’Grady of Sligo Walks, they have worked together to design walks that are county-wide. So, from Aughris to Tubbercurry, Ballymote to Mullaghmore, you’ll find trail head maps and pocket-map versions of each of these, all with similarities in terms of layout, an important part of branding Sligo Walks.
And what feedback does Annie, an avid walker herself, get to her work? “Most of the responses that we’ve got have been ‘Oh that’s a bit different.’ The pocket maps, when they first came out, were very popular, because, no sooner had they been printed that they were gone. As soon as they landed up at the various places, they were snapped up straight away. People like to come here and get a map and stick it on the fridge when they get back home to Tokyo or New York, to remind them of where they were.”
In the coming years, we look forward to Annie continuing to design maps for Sligo Walks. There have been discussions about designing an ‘all of Sligo’ walking map which is a big undertaking and will require a lot of planning. But for now, Annie is justifiably proud of her work and the impact that these free pocket maps have had in developing walking awareness for visitors and locals alike.
“Over time, I think that they’ve become part of the furniture of Sligo. These work well, they inform as well as enhance, I hope. The brief for an illustrator is show what a walk looks and feels like. Sometimes with a walk, it is just hit and miss, you don’t know what you’re getting into. These make it interesting. And if you’re 7, you’re going ‘Oh Mum, not another walk!’ But if you can see it first, you might go … oh … ok. Fun can be had, everything doesn’t have to be serious, you know.”