From a very early age, I developed a taste for children’s books that has carried on into adulthood. To my they are magical little treasure boxes to be enjoyed by all ages. So it was with great pleasure that I was joined by the multi-talented Joel Stewart for a wee chat.
Joel is known internationally for his Dexter Blexley picture books as well as doing illustrations for Julia Donaldson, Carol Ann Duffy, Hans Christian Anderson and Lewis Carroll. In 2008 he was selected as one of the ten best illustrators of the last decade.
What is your writing/ illustration process like? What comes first for you, the text or the images?
I wish I had a consistent process. Drawing and writing stuff down whenever I can, with optimistic bursts of gathering stuff together into something that might be more than scribbles, is about the neatest description. I’m more or less re-learning how to be a picture book maker at the moment, having had my brain scrambled by making television for three and a half years. Long term I hope it’s a helpful scramble, but I do feel a bit like I’m starting from scratch, but maybe I’ll always feel like that (the fact that I always have is perhaps a clue).
Do you have a favourite place to work or tools that you use?
That’s hard because I’m just about to move house. I really need more space, but at the moment I have a view out over treetops and about fifteen messy but wild-ish north London gardens. There’s a lot of wildlife to watch and the buds are just appearing on the trees. The sight of the buds each year for the last three, especially when they glow out against the wet bark and lichen on the trunks and branches of the trees, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve tried to paint it quite a few times, with varying degrees of success. The main tree is a variegated Maple which is actually quite ugly when it’s finally in full leaf, so I’ll use that to make me feel better about leaving it. Also there’s a massive Chestnut that is, like many in the UK, in the process of dying from simultaneous fungal and insect attack (or that’s my conclusion from what I’ve read) so that’s sad to watch. The most hopeful time is the spring and I’ll be around for some of that.
Less romantically the tool is my computer most of the time. I paint things for myself and experiment with paper and real-world tools all the time, but the realities of illustration work are held at bay a little easier with a computer (last minute fixes, getting colour and consistency just so etc). I do enjoy the process of finding ways to work with the computer and am pretty seriously geeky about it. I’m not fond of a lot of work done on computers however, but I try to let that inform how I work with them.
Do you harbour any creative superstitions?
I don’t think so. It’s hard enough as it is! Maybe I could use some to get me going sometimes.
How long does a picture book idea take to write and illustrate?
It varies. An awful lot. From an ideal three months (which would have to involve no publisher or editorial input and therefore never happens) to a year or more. Much of it is waiting around, not so much for inspiration but usually for the realisation that something I already came up with is worth the legwork to make it into a real thing. Or for publishers to get back to me…
There are a lot of musical references in your work (ie Ukulele in the Wenlocks/ the bagpipes in the Blue Beastie, Toby Dog and his melodeon). Where did your love of music come from? Does music influence your writing/illustration process?
It came from childhood I guess, my father plays traditional music of various kinds, and we have close family friends who do also and I heard probably a wider range of music from my mother’s record collection too. When I was quite young I was taken to a festival in central France which is a meeting place for makers of weird traditional instruments and I think that planted the seeds of an obsession (though I didn’t water it for a lot of years). Making instruments is something I could imagine doing other than making stories.
I think my interest sometimes actually hinders my work process though, because I get distracted by learning and tinkering with instruments. I often can’t work while listening to music because I am too actively interested in how the music works. I’ve tried more soundscapey type music, but I can’t find much that I really like. I seem to remember that I was listening to a lot of Tin Hat Trio when writing the Stanley books. That was a good mixture of soundtrack-like music and things that kept me interested (also it’s too complex for me to be able to try learning it myself).
What are the highs/lows of being an illustrator/writer?
The general high-low process is a low. Over the years I’ve got used to the fact that I will more or less completely lose confidence in my work every few months, but this realisation only helps a little when I’m at the bottom of one those dips. It is sort of positive, because I think it’s born out of pushing myself forward. The high is drawing and losing myself in the making, and the fleeting feeling that something is going to turn out great.
When commissioned to illustrate another writer’s work how do you translate their words into your images?
It depends entirely on the text. Sometimes the pictures will form in my head immediately, other times I’ll need to draw and research and perhaps think about something else entirely to find a way to compliment the text. I actually prefer to work with other people’s text, rather than my own. But I don’t get sent enough good things to be able to make a living, and that is how I got started as a writer. I think I enjoy the process of finding a way to look at someone else’s story more. With my own I feel like I know where everything comes from sometimes and that there are less surprises. I try to get a distance from my own stories so that I can approach the illustrations as though I hadn’t written the text myself even when I am the writer. Often by putting the text away for a while and working on something else. I’m talking about this as though I have a fixed working process and I really don’t.
As being the creator of animated series Abney and Teal, how does the picture book process translate to animation? What did you enjoy most about seeing your characters come to life?
I think what I enjoyed was the very fact that they soon weren’t just my characters, but that the other writers, and later the animators, built on what I’d started, and also we collaborated as we went. The stories and characters felt so much more than I’m capable of on my own. To someone who spent the previous decade in control of every mark and word letting go was not the easiest thing however.
How did the idea for two dolls living on their fantastic island come about?
Originally they weren’t dolls, and in a sense that is still ambiguous in the show. But really they came from drawing. I had drawn a feisty big-haired girl character (who at that time constantly carried a camera) and I was drawing, not very successfully, boy characters as possible companions when I found an old cartoon strip I’d done years before featuring a cat-like figure that was basically Abney and I substituted him in because he just seemed to make sense. I had these two and all the others except Bop in my sketchbooks and was looking around for a setting and while walking through Victoria Park in East London, and staring out at the island in the middle of the lake there, I realised that here was a complete setting with just the balance of otherworldliness mixed with modern reality that I was grasping for. Bop came later when Anne Wood suggested some sort of character was needed that would give a sense of parenthood or safety to the setting. He was a bear made of stones, then of bubbles, and then a tiny Water Vole that inflated, before he ended up as the nonsense bubble-blowing tea-drinking seal-manatee thing that he is now.
As a child what were the books that captured your imagination?
Comet in Moominland, Flat Stanley, Where the Wild Things Are, and Italo Calvino’s collection of Italian Folktales are all things that I still remember responding strongly to, amongst others.
What three books do you feel have influenced your writing and illustration?
The books I mentioned above obviously have. And Lisbeth Zwerger’s Wizard of Oz had a huge impact on me when I discovered it while still studying illustration at college, That book made me think hard about illustration for children and go back to look at other work I remembered from childhood with different eyes.
If you could fall inside a picture book for a day, which one would you choose and why?
It would be a Moomin book. Though a novel rather than a picture book (though they are all picture books, in that the b&w drawings are so important). Perhaps not Moominpappa at Sea or Moominland in November as it’s hard times in Moominvalley during those two. Although it still seems to be a pretty perfect world to inhabit even then. I think I would find it hard to leave after a day.
What are you writing now/next?
I’m hanging around waiting for the go ahead on one picture book that I didn’t write. I’ve done a lot of samples for it but I’m not sure if the text will go ahead for reasons over which I have no control. The recession has made an already slow process even more mind numbingly slow. I’ve also submitted a few picture book ideas of my own, along with artwork samples, to another publisher and am again waiting to see what will come of them. I’ve a massive list of beginnings of things, both picture books and longer stories, (all in a very maybe sort of state) and perhaps it’s time to look at some of those again while I wait.
I love Abney – he is cute, fixes things, cleans, sings, can dance, is imaginative and has a the sweetest little house. Any chance of a visit to his place soon?
I live a little bit that way, but in a perfectly ordinary London flat. When I was making the show, and staying away from home in B&Bs and later in a big but empty apartment, I dreamt a lot about finding or even building a space of my own maybe a little like Abney’s. Now I’m back working from home in London this dream seems less possible than it did then. It takes a lot of creative energy to start living a different way. If I do ever find a way to live like Abney’s. Now I’m back wokring from home in London this dream seems less possible than it did then. It takes a lot of creative energy to start living a different way. If I do ever find a way to live like Abney, your’e welcome to visit.