How We Work: An Interview with Three Top Illustrators

Taking part in the Bookbug Picture Book Prize voting is a fantastic way to get your pupils immersed in discussions about books from a young age. With three brilliant picture books on the shortlist, pupils can delight in three very different illustration styles too! This year, all of the shortlisted authors illustrated their own books, so we thought we'd catch up with them to chat about how they approach illustration.

 

There's a Bear on My Chair cover
Ross Collins, author and illustrator of There's a Bear on my Chair

Your illustration is really versatile: something like Dear Vampa, for instance, is quite different to There’s a Bear on My Chair in terms of the level of detail and the kind of textures used. Before you start illustrating a book, what kind of things are you thinking about as you try and settle on an approach for that particular book?

Each new text I write or receive tends to have different themes, tones and moods to the last one. I try and reflect those as best as I can in the style I use for my illustrations.

Dear Vampa took a wry look at a gothic world, so I had to reflect that gothic character in the images. A lot of scratchy detail seemed right.

There's a Bear on my Chair is all about one relationship and anything extraneous just got in the way so I simplified everything down to as little as I could get away with - right down to the number of pencil strokes I needed.

I do occasionally worry that my style isn't perfectly consistent, but I know that most people can still see that it's me and I like to stretch myself and try new things.

How did your illustration style develop when you were beginning to illustrate books – were there any strong influences on your style?

I was all over the place when I left art school and had to illustrate my first book. I was still trying to work out who I was and trying to unlearn a lot of the stuff that I felt the art school wanted me to be that I really wasn't. It took me quite a long time to do work that I thought was really 'me'.

I've always had influences: Edward Gorey, Satoshi Kitamura, Windsor McCay to name a few. The trick has always been to be inspired by the people you love, learn from what they do so well but not to just copy them - make the work your own.

Do you have any tips for aspiring illustrators to help them develop their craft?

Everyone finds their own way, so I'm loathe to ever say, 'This is how you should do things'.

One thing that works for me is how to use reference material. I find that it's always best for me to draw things out of my head first. Sometimes they don't look right, so I get reference and see just how horrifically off I was. I then draw from reference - which doesn't look right either, and THEN I find a happy medium between what is right and what is me. That way I get the right feel of the thing I'm drawing, but it's all mine, if you get my drift.

Some people just know instinctively how a horse's legs look, but we're not all that gifted...

Watch Ross reading There's a Bear on My Chair in full.

 

Cover of Shark in the Park on a Windy Day
Nick Sharratt, author and illustrator of Shark in the Park on a Windy Day!

Can you tell us about how your illustration style developed when you began illustrating children’s books? Why did you settle on the particular style which has now become your signature one?

The way I draw now is very similar to the way I drew as a boy. If you look the pictures I've managed to keep from my primary school days you'll see the same kind of line quality and stylization, the same use of bright colour and the same emphasis on humour. In my art school days I did a huge amount of objective life and location drawing and I also worked hard on developing a much looser illustration style, but once I began my career I quickly returned to what felt most natural, and to creating the kind of images that would have appealed most strongly to the younger me.

What’s it like working on your own as author and illustrator, rather than being part of an author-illustrator team? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

It is amazing to have the opportunity to illustrate for the incredible writers with whom I collaborate, but I can't deny there is that extra element of satisfaction and sense of achievement in being the sole creator of a book. Of course there's an awful lot more work involved too, and I honestly don't think I could do it all the time, so I feel extremely lucky to be able to work in the two different ways.

Watch Nick reading Shark in the Park on a Windy Day! in full.

 

Hare and Tortoise cover
Alison Murray, author and illustrator of Hare and Tortoise

Can you tell us about how you arrived at a particular ‘signature’ style when you were beginning to illustrate books?

I’m not sure I have arrived at a signature style - I think I have a way of drawing things but I hope that as I continue to practice illustration and try out different things that my work will evolve. Some things might work and some that might not - but it’s a process. I don’t think you can develop as an illustrator, or as anything, really, if you don’t push at the boundaries of what you can do.

Your illustration style in Hare and Tortoise is subtly different to the style you’ve adopted in books like Apple Pie ABC and The House that Zac Built. What kind of things do you think about before you decide how you’re going to approach an illustration project?

In Hare and Tortoise, although the end result may look quite different, my way of working was really much the same. I made textures with a wet paint brush rather than a dry one and included a lot more free hand marks. There are so many different approaches you can take when using powerful digital illustration tools - it seems wrong to limit yourself to only some possibilities even at the risk of deviating from what might be considered your style. The great thing about the technology we have now is it allows you the freedom to play without having to commit - of course this has it’s drawbacks too.

What advice would you have for people who want to be illustrators, to help them develop their style and technique?

There is so much to learn. The most important thing, I think, is to dive in and don’t be afraid to try things out. Give yourself a license to make mistakes. You can’t make a picture book without spilling some ink, literal and metaphorical. Quite often the unintended happy accidents turn out to be the best bits.

Watch Alison reading Hare and Tortoise in full.

Want to explore illustration with your pupils? Have a browse through all of our illustration resources.

Nick Sharratt, Ross Collins, Alison Murray

Alison, Nick and Ross are all on the shortlist for this year's Bookbug Picture Book Prize. You can register your class of pupils aged 3-7 right up to the voting deadline on December 9 2017 - find out more here.