What's this illustration for?
This illustration was created as a demonstration while I was manning a market stall. I run a couple of stalls a month. I seem to be obsessed with this kind of character at the moment. She changes a little from picture to picture but she is always the same age. I was thinking of what would be the perfect place to hang out. I remember spending a lot of time in trees as a kid - I loved the feeling of being alone, adventurous, hidden yet watching everything around me. And that different perspective on the world - a bird's eye view. In this picture there are a few more elements to make it even more perfect - a basket of provisions (food and books), and a couple of friends hiding in the branches. I have been selling this image as a print and it's been fascinating to find how many other women see this as a link to their own childhood, or at least how they would like to remember it.
Do you have to wait for a flash of inspiration - how do you start?
I've been letting myself 'play' a lot lately. It's easy to get so tangled up in illustrating specific projects that we don't get time to just draw for fun any more. When I started to set time aside for that I found all sorts of characters and situations popping out onto the page. I start with just a small detail in a sketchbook - perhaps something I can see like a street corner or a child walking past (I'm often in cafes for my playtime), or I might want to draw an animal. I'll pencil that in and start to ink it while I think "What's next?". When I know the next part of the picture, I keep drawing. When I'm stuck I flip to an old drawing or a new part of the sketchbook to begin another one. There's no pressure, no time limits, no expectations and no planning. It's lovely! I have stories coming from these pictures now that are becoming their own books. The most important thing is that working like this accesses a different part of my brain - the ideas I have when I'm playing just don't come out if I sit down to forcefully create a story.
How did you get your start as an illustrator?
Funnily enough my first job came from doodling in an archaeology lecture at uni. My books have always been covered in drawings and I was in my Viking and Celtic phase just then. Someone behind me tapped me on my shoulder and said they knew someone who needed an illustrator. This was back in 1996, I think. My first two books were about... you guessed it... Vikings and Celtic Kings. I love telling kids that doodling all over my school-work got me a job. After that it was harder. I decided to try illustration as a full-time profession. I had to find work and didn't know how to do that very well. It was a long learning curve of getting more art skills, drawing figures in an illustration style and doing any work I could get for experience. I remember how much courage it took to ring publishers back then! Lots of greeting cards and packaging at the start, then educational work and finally my own trade picture books.
Who or what has influenced your work?
I grew up with lots of traditional art all over the place (my family are mainly artists) so I'm really drawn to tonal realism, old impressionist artists, and etchings. At the beginning it was all about aspiring to good likenesses like John Singer Sargent or stunning lines like the Lindsays. The deep sediments of Dulac's watercolours have always inspired me too. Now I'm drawn to spontaneous lines and vivacious work to remind me to loosen up - so hard to do! I still find Quentin Blake too messy (sacrilegious I know) but I completely respect his lines and what he's able to achieve.
What's your favourite media for creating pictures?
At the moment it is pen. I'm back where I began - doodling in pen, building up fine cross-hatching and letting simple lines do the talking. A little spot colour to pick out one detail (in watercolour) is gorgeous too. But each book demands something different. Heavy texts I love to do in oils, watercolour is brilliant for lyrical or sunny books, and charcoal and light lines capture movement when the story is one that races and skips. I like being able to do whatever I think the story has to have, in whatever style the story needs.
Do you experience illustrator's block - if so, what do you do about it?
The most awful times have been when I'm working on my own books. When the distance in time is too great between when I conceived the story and had it commissioned - and when I finally get time to work on it properly. Occasionally the ideas have become so stale that I have to completely reinvent the story and start from scratch. That hurts. Being an illustrator is a juggling act a lot of the time - working on an initial idea for one book, conceptual sketches for another and final art for something else - all at the same time. I'd love the time to do a book from start to finish, uninterrupted. But then again - maybe that wouldn't work for me! The variety is exciting, if challenging.
What's the worst thing about being a freelancer?
At the beginning it was the pressure of finding jobs in time to pay the bills. Now, I think it is seeing books I've created go out of print and not being able to stop it. I'm happy to manage my own time, look for work and come up with my own books. And you can thwart the solitude. But the point when I hand over my finished artwork is when I lose all control. If a publisher chooses not to support it much, or doesn't let me check proofs to make sure there are no mistakes or weird colours, or sends out bad teacher's notes with it - there's not much I can do, no matter how much I offer to help. It's a lot of work to see just fade away. I'm actually looking forward to electronic books in the hope that the ones that people love will continue to be found and read, and the importance of shop-space and shelf time will be diminished. Here's hoping anyway!
And the best?
Getting to draw all the time. Especially being in the middle of a book that is working well, where you know what you're doing and the mechanical drawing is just so much fun. My favourite time was with the Night Garden. The hours were extraordinary and exhausting but then... I'd be working late at night with music playing, dark outside, bright inside, everything set up perfectly, and feeling just so energised by what was coming out of the pen! There are times when everything just falls into a rhythm. That's joyous.
What are you working on at the moment?
In the next couple of months there are quite a few things: a picture book for Windy Hollow called "My Boots", illustrating a novel for Harper Collins "Sarindi and the Earthquake", and my graphic novel textless epic called "The Protector" - all pen work and watercolour washes, traversing worlds, full of high adventure and a lot of crazy big scenes. Very exciting! That's for Omnibus. Oh and my first solo exhibition of big oil paintings for March. Lots of storytelling in each picture, but no accompanying stories so the viewers can make up their own.
Where can we see more of your work?
I have a website and a blog and you can visit me at my markets too if you're looking for an outing in Melbourne :-)