What’s this illustration for?
This is an illustration which appears in my latest picture book, “Fox and Fine Feathers” (Omnibus/Scholastic 2009) and is also used on the cover of the book.
Do you have to wait for a flash of inspiration – how do you start?
When I begin planning a storyboard for a picture book, I usually have some of the images already in mind and the words for those steps of the story just fit around them. Other illustrations are worked out when I see the step of the story that has to be explained and I start thinking about how I can best show that step.
Going back before that stage – to getting the actual idea for a story in the first place – I see that whole process as the filling in of a jigsaw. For months or years I may be walking around with bits of ideas in my head, gradually assembling them until I think I have enough for a story. If I suddenly read something or see a picture which helps fill in part of the puzzle, then I will keep it in a file.
How did you get your start as an illustrator?
I studied children’s literature, and design and print-making at teachers’ college in the late 70’s – which first piqued my interest in the whole area. Later, when I taught at the Qld School for the Deaf , I read hundreds of picture books to my students and we constructed our own picture books constantly, often using their pet animals as characters which we photographed.
I did a 2 week picture book illustration course with author-illustrator Irena Sibley, and we had to front up with a text we had written. I completed the illustrations to go with that text over the next 3 years while I continued to work part-time as a teacher of hearing impaired students. I submitted the text and illustrations to a publisher who gave me a contract for it. (Leaf Tail, 1989)
Who or what has influenced your work?
A few influences have been: the lecturer I had in Children’s Literature – Joan Zahnleiter – who revealed the wonderful role that illustrations can have in telling a story, and of course, Irena Sibley who helped me to see that illustrating could be a career. In addition, my work has been heavily influenced by an interest in biology, animal adaptation and evolutionary theory coupled with being married to an environmental scientist. My initial drive to write and illustrate a picture book came from visiting many national parks and seeing the array of interesting animals which fit perfectly into their habitats, yet never appear in children’s picture books as characters. I thought it would be great if there were picture books which were set in some Australian habitats and did not feature the usual cast of rabbits, ducks, elephants and hippos. I could see the story potential in some of the brilliant ways Australian animals camouflage or hide in their surroundings. I also admire the work of many other illustrators and I especially enjoy the illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg, such as those in his book, “Two Bad Ants” where the words present such a different point of view to the pictures , and the illustrations are at such clever angles.
What’s your favourite media for creating pictures?
I love printmaking of all kinds, but I have used linocut prints or linocut rubbings as the basis of all my illustrations. I am drawn to the bold, “random” outlines and the patterns and textures which can be achieved with lino – and I also enjoy the physical act of carving it. I like the idea of having a block or plate as an intermediate stage from which I can do multiple prints, and experiment with them – adding other media such as watercolour, pencil, pastel or even 3D collage items, or cutting them up or whatever. In my book, Home, I used softer pencil linocut rubbings to portray two falcons and collaged them onto hand-coloured digital photos of cityscapes. I would like to experiment further with collage using linoprint as part of the design.
Do you experience illustrator’s block – if so, what do you do about it?
Generally not. Because it takes me quite a while to complete one image, I have usually been thinking enough about the next one to know what I will do with it.
What’s the worst thing about being a freelancer?
Like some other small businesses, the money does not come in evenly through the year, and I find it difficult to balance out the highs and lows. I find it tricky to balance the amount of talking and promotional work I might do with actually getting on and doing the illustrations. Deadlines help of course. And the amount of time needed to make a living in the field sometimes does not sit well with time needed to raise a family.
To sum up: never enough time and not enough money! (ie. if you have a mortgage and children to support)
And the best?
I am actually doing work which is also my passion. And I do feel a sense of achievement in that I have been able to make a living in an area of the arts in Australia .
What are you working on at the moment?
A book for early childhood readers which features birds (surprise!), very little text, and hopefully will be a little humorous. I am experimenting with collage for this one.
Where can we see more of your work?
On my website, www.narelleoliver.com If you are in Brisbane, you might like to check out the Brisbane Square library (children’s library) in the city. The design of this library features illustrations from my book “Home” which was commissioned by the Brisbane City Council for this purpose.