Creatives across borders: Selom Sunu

Adebayo Adegbembo (Baba Funke)
Creatives Across Borders
9 min readMar 27, 2024

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Selom Sunu
Listen to the full interview with Selom Sunu on Spotify

Selom Sunu is a British-Ghanaian character designer and illustrator whose works include the Google Doodle of Andrew Watson, CBeebies JoJo and Gran Gran show, and Children’s books by publishers like Penguin and Harper Collins. In this interview, Selom talks about his business and marketing background, the late start to his illustration and animation career, the story behind his mentorship with an experienced Disney character designer, positioning using LinkedIn, influences, workshops, passion for adult education, work-life balance as a father and husband.

Upbringing and early influences

Selom was born and raised in London. Besides 3 years spent living in Ghana when he was 11, he’s lived in the UK most of his life. Selom describes himself as an easy-going, friendly, fun-loving, quite tenacious and stubborn guy. Brought up in the Christian faith, he’s grown to accept faith as central to all he does.

His artistic inspiration comes from the cartoons he watched growing up in the 90s and early 2000s. These include cartoons from Disney, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Selom loves drawing and preferably, on paper because that’s where he feels the most freedom to express his creativity. He considers himself a slow artist because he likes to take his time when drawing.

Journey into Arts

Selom loved drawing as a kid. Though his parents didn’t think he was good at drawing, they still encouraged him. Encouraged by that support, he’d write his own stories and try to illustrate them. Despite taking arts classes at A-levels, he ended up studying business and marketing at university. At the time, he wasn’t yet clear about his future career path but figured the degree could set him up for a good job. He hardly drew for the next 8 years of university and working after graduation.

What brought him back to art was when he went away to Ghana. While he was in Ghana, he wrote a children’s story and when he tried to illustrate it, his rustiness was obvious having not drawn or developed his drawing skills in 8 years.

When he returned to London, he enrolled for an eight-week course taught by former Disney animator Vincent Woodcock — Character Design for Animation — at University of the Arts London: Central Saint Martins. As well as trying to improve his drawing skills, he was working 9 to 5 in finance, and he’d also been studying to be an accountant as he still hadn’t quite figured out his career path.

That course was the decisive moment on character design as his preferred career and that’s when he said bye to accounting!

After his 8-week course, he unsuccessfully applied for a Masters In Arts degree program at the same university. However, the application process had involved creating a portfolio that he’d put a lot of hard work into. And the verdict was that he should draw every day for a year and then reapply. Selom did exactly that and got accepted for a Masters program in Character Animation the next year. Since then, he’s been straddling between the animation and book publishing industry as a character designer and illustrator.

Career highlights

The biggest impact to date was Disney getting in touch with him. It’s a memorable one because that was at a time he was working for a science company as an illustrator and freelancing on the side. He got an email from Disney and decided to quit his job to fully pursue the opportunity.

Selom remembers vividly the immediate aftermath of announcing that he was working for Disney. He’d been with them for about a month before posting about it on LinkedIn. The result was astounding! He got loads of messages asking if he could jump on different opportunities.

Another was the Google doodle project which came about after someone had seen his work in Hey You!, a book by Dapo Adeola and a host of illustrators including Selom. His LinkedIn post about his processes garnered around 1.5 million views!

Speaking of which, for Selom, LinkedIn stands out as a professional platform for making useful connections that translate to work opportunities.

Selom Sunu’s Google Doodle Celebrating Andrew Watson

Influences: British Ghanaian heritage and Christian faith

As one who’s very proud of his Ghanaian roots, he incorporates it into his works. The signature features include characters wearing the kente design, items (umbrella) with the Ghanaian symbol (Gye Nyame). That inspiration he says comes from a fellow Ghanaian artist, Awuradwoa Afful , an illustrator based in Canada.

He goes on to cite a sample of his works which incorporate his heritage such as a barbershop quartet in Kente waistcoat that a lot of people resonated with; this encouraged him to keep being authentic and to be himself.

Being British and a longtime resident of London, he’s naturally influenced by its diversity and likes to draw all races, shapes and sizes reflecting that.

Selom’s faith plays a huge part in what kinds of project he takes on. He prefers to take on projects aligned with his Christian values so he’s very careful about what he says yes to. Selom attributes the huge opportunities that have come his way to his faith. He has a deep conviction that this is his chosen path; ordained by God. In his words, “Most of those opportunities, I literally was sitting at home and I just got an email.”

Selom Sunu’s barbershop quartet

Fatherhood

Fatherhood has had a significant impact on his life. He describes his life before having his daughter as selfish, where he’d put his career first. One example he cites is a decision to quit his then job to pursue arts fulltime shortly after his daughter was born. It wasn’t without a reason though as adds the following context.

One of the reasons (I quit my job) was because I knew that once my daughter arrived, things would change so I was like, I need to, I don’t want to be stuck in a job that I don’t like and then end up resenting the fact that I’m a father. So there was a reason I did it but it was still selfish.

That’s changed now as he’s matured through the years and consults with his wife on any project, weighing the impact on their time, kids and other resources.

Fatherhood has also impacted the kinds of projects he takes on. He cites an example of Jojo and Gran Gran as one. His daughter was already watching it so it was really cool working on a latter season knowing it’s one she loves watching.

Jojo & Gran Gran. Photo Credits: CBeebies by BBC Studios Kids & Family Productions

Mentorship

Selom had been following David Perez, a character designer at Disney TV, for some time on Instagram. He says David was very helpful sharing advice for artists in general. Selom found that inspiring and at some point, he reached out to commend him for his works. Then he followed up with a question and David kindly responded. Afterwards, they bonded over a hacking experience! Selom’s IG had previously been hacked but he managed to get his account back. Then David’s IG account got hacked and Selom reached out offering advice on the steps he’d taken to fix his. David was very appreciative of that.

Following their growing engagement, Selom decided to bring up the question of mentorship asking David if he’d be willing to mentor him. David found that bold and agreed to it.

Mentorship Process

It started off with David giving him an assignment to draw a line-up of characters that work in a restaurant. And then he would keep giving Selom notes after every submission. David mentioned that it was something his own mentor had done with him. This was followed by an online chat where they met proper and got to interact more. From time to time, they chat, discuss their upcoming projects, Selom asks questions and gets feedback etc.

Workshops & courses for self-development

Selom recommends CGMA. He took a course on CGMA called character design for animation taught by Nate Wragg from DreamWorks animation when he was starting out. Though pricy, it was well worth it and he prefers this structured approach because it offers invaluable one-to-one feedback from tutors on his works.

He also mentions a few others such as:

  • Schoolism which is similar to CGMA
  • Living Lines Library (free) where you get access to animated model sheets and concept arts so you can see the work in progress of some films by Disney and DreamWorks. This is one that Selom keeps going back to for continuous development.
  • Line of Action — a reference site where you can do figure drawing of humans and animals

Service Offerings

Selom offers workshops on drawing for kids and adults. The CBBC feature last Christmas offers a glimpse into his creative approach to teaching drawing.

It’s one of his favourite things to do because it involves his love for passing on his knowledge to kids or adults. He adds that he’s very passionate about adult learning; something he attributes to his own experience as a late starter in his illustration career.

He’s done a few of these workshops in schools and for organizations like SCBWI. He mentions one he did with a publishing company Little Box of Books at Stamford Bridge, London, with lots of kids.

On the side, he also does family portraits, book illustrations, courses, character design and general commissions.

Hey You by Dapo Adeola with illustrations from Selom Sunu

Current and future projects

Selom’s currently working on a tv show for Blink Industries, an animation studio in London. Though he can’t say much about it (NDA!) for now, it’s one he’d been wanting to do for a while because it involves working on the production side. He explains as follows.

So, sometimes I design characters and you don’t know if the show is even going to get made. It’s kind of like just providing some visual appetite, trying to pitch it to whoever they’re pitching it to but, this (current project) is one that’s actually going ahead. So I’m actually working on the episode; I’ve been wanting to do that for a while so t’s really cool.

Besides his fulltime job in animation, Selom is also working on a financial literacy children’s book called “The Ultimate Guide to Money” by Emmanuel Asuquo.

He recently completed a children’s book dedicated to the memory of Billy Boston, a former rugby player of Welsh and Sierra Leonean origin.

On other projects, Selom would like to create a hub for Christian animators where he can shine a spotlight on them.

Collaboration wishlist

Selom wishes to work with Swapna Haddow, author of “My dad is a grizzly bear” if the opportunity comes up. He likes her writings and has a copy of the book.

Animation-wise, Selom would like to work for all the big studios — DreamWorks, Pixar etc.! Nickelodeon holds a special place in his heart because growing up, he’d watched it from the first time it aired and grew through a lot of its shows.

Working with Selom

Selom is currently not represented by any agent, hence he can be reached directly via Instagram, LinkedIn and his website.

Tips for aspiring artists

Selom shares a number of tips as follows:

  • It’s a journey so be patient with yourself. Treat it as an investment and dedicate time, effort and possibly money to it.
  • Don’t shy away from posting your work, even where you are right now.
  • Get in touch with people you admire, either on Instagram or wherever and ask them specific questions.
  • If you want to be a children’s book illustrator, buy children’s books. Look at them and see what you can learn from them.
  • Also, — this is a hard one to say because it’s something I struggle with myself — but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have a style. Don’t be in a rush to find a style. Just make work that makes you happy. That’s the most important thing. Draw the things that you like.

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Adebayo Adegbembo (Baba Funke)
Creatives Across Borders

Writer, Backend & Interactive Story App Developer (Unity3d/.Net). Building a library for Funke one resource (books and apps) at a time.