Michael McMahon on creating illustrations for Two Rainbows

My latest picture book, Two Rainbows, illustrated by the wonderful Michael McMahon, came out this month with Little Hare and to celebrate I asked Michael to share his creation process for the book, which he’s done in this very interesting post. Enjoy!

I was first given a draft of Sophie’s Two Rainbows by my publisher Little Hare and was asked to imagine this little world of words becoming illustrations. When reading the story for the first time there were two things that I was struck by. One was the stories unique look at colour, and the other was Sophie’s original choice of words.

Stepping through the colours of a rainbow the reader follows a little girl as she begins to notice all of the colourful differences between the city where she lives and the memories of her home in the countryside. Sophie’s words give life to a simple story that highlights both the obvious and the subtle. Comparing the vibrance of the farm meadows to a muted bus-stop poster gives the story both a realistic and idealistic twist.

Illustrations are often simply coloured in, either to express emotion or create emphasis, but it’s rare for colour to sit at the forefront of a narrative. In that sense it was a nice change of pace to wonder how colour could be used in each scene. I often sketch and then start to put together each illustration, with colour naturally following on from this somewhere near to the end of the process. However, it was interesting that colour was now going to be considered first before touching pen to paper.

 

After reading each page, I would very quickly draw the first things that came to my mind, not thinking it through too much. I would then read the next part of the story and do the same. I like the spontaneity of this. After considering each page separately, I’d then start to sketch the story again and consider it as a whole – crossing things out and moving things around until it starts to form something I feel is working well.

This is how the messy sketches begin…

 

 

After the initial sketches, I find it important to start each book with a little bit of research. In a way, I feel it’s good for storytellers to know and imagine the world of their characters, a sort of ‘reading-before-the-lines’ not just between them. I imagined the little girl in the book growing up and spending her childhood in the countryside and then suddenly having to pick up everything and shift into the heart of a very far away city. I took my time photographing the inner suburbs of my own city to get a sense of where the little girl might live. I also went through troves of old photos of famous cities to create a kind of made up metropolis. I took inspiration from a lot of different places.

This is how the sketches start to take on a little more shape…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the sketches are finished and placed alongside the text, I then start to put together the illustrations by adding more details and slowly refining each one until we have the finished book.

 

 

Five Favourites 19: Yvonne Low

 

Today Yvonne Low is presenting her five favourites.

 

 

The Little White Horse
Author: Elizabeth Goudge
Illustrator: C Walter Hodges
Orphan Maria Merryweather arrives with her governess Miss Heliotrope at Moonacre Manor to learn she must resolve an age-old feud. I loved the beautiful illustrations and
period fantasy which includes a castle, a secret home cut into a rock-face and unusual characters such as a mysterious white horse, an enormous lion ‘dog’, the menacing Monsieur Cocq de Noir, an unconventional fiddle-playing parson and a cook whose best friend Zachariah the Cat communicates by drawing with his paw.
A wonderful mix of courageous humans and animals helping each other.

Doctor Dolittle (series)

Author/Illustrator: Hugh Lofting
Doctor Dolittle’s many adventures with his trusty family of two and four-legged animals
including Dab-Dab the Duck, Jip the Dog, Polynesia the Parrot and Tommy Stubbins.
I especially enjoyed the tales from the Rat and Mouse Club and the Home for Crossbred
Dogs and longed to be able to communicate with animals just like the Doctor.


Chronicles of Narnia
Author: CS Lewis
Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
The magical world conjured up by Lewis, with all his memorable characters, a favourite
being Mr Tumnus the Faun. The evocative and detailed black and white illustrations
completed the enchantment of the series for me.

Le Petit Prince
Author/Illustrator: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Part of my passion for all things French, starting with school-girl French lessons and the
gentle anarchy of Le Petit Nicolas (Goscinny/Sempé), leading onto the subtle reflections
on life from Le Petit Prince. A foreign contemplative world created in both story and
pictures.


The World’s Best Fairytales (A Reader’s Digest Anthology)
Grimm/Andersen/Perrault and others
Illustrator: Fritz Kredel
I loved this Anthology, which has a wonderful collection of 69 fairytales, both famous and
little known. Amongst my favourites, The Princess on the Glass Hill, The Nightingale,
The Frog Prince and with my passion for ballet, Twelve Dancing Princesses.
The illustrations of medieval ladies with tall conical headdresses and peasant boys
becoming princes no doubt encouraged my love of history and all things medieval.

Five Favourites 16: Ingrid Kallick

 

Today Ingrid Kallick recalls her five favourites.

 

 

Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak. Who doesn’t love this story? Great children’s books often have a seditious element. Sendak almost always delivered that. The art, the adventure, the folkloric quality and the eventual safe return of the child all stand out. Most of all, the art influenced my work at a pre-verbal level.

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew. Dr Seuss. This is one of my favorite kids’ books. The artwork is fun and inventive, but not as surprising as the plot. In this story, the main character goes on an arduous journey to get to a place  “where they never have troubles / at least very few”. The one trouble he discovers upon arrival is that he can’t get in, so he gets a baseball bat and returns home to defend himself from the troubles he originally had. Ha! No deus ex machina in this story.

Bambi, a Life in the Woods. Felix Salten. I still have the copy I read as a child. I always had a fascination with deer and woodland wildlife, so I decided to read it. The realism and loss are hard to forget. After reading it, it took many years for me to understand why people hunt. I did like the simple black & white illustrations. When I saw the animated version, it was my first experience of the disconnect between how I envisioned a story and how it was portrayed on film.

A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. I don’t think we owned this book, as it was already a much older edition when I was young. The soft colors and dreamy images by Jessie Willcox Smith are the ones I remember. These, too had a deep influence on my work.

Last, but definitely not least…
The Dragons of Blueland and My Father’s Dragon. Ruth Stiles Gannett. Illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett. Even though these illustrations are more geometric and colorful that I usually do, I remember poring over them and marveling at the diamonds and stripes. I don’t remember the stories as much as the art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But wait…there’s more! Bonus:
Millions of Cats. Wanda Gag. This is a very dark, old style tale that feels like Grimm. Wanda Gag’s Illustrations were so full of movement, as emotive as German Expressionist woodcuts, and narratively direct. I liked it as a child, but I really adore it as an adult.

Five Favourites 12: Liz Anelli

 

 

Today Liz Anelli writes about her five favourites.

 

 

Sweethallow Valley by Elleston Trevor (1951) is a bit like Wind in the Willows but with less happening. A group of animal friends live in cosy houses nestled within an English wood. A book I loved because it smelt of my grandparents’ house. I read it so many times they eventually gave me the copy to keep and I still have it, complete with its hot chocolate drink stains and biscuit crumbs.

Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome (written back in1933) is my favourite of all the Swallows and Amazons series for its magic balance of everyday-life believability and audacious mis-adventure. Three families make friends during a Christmas holiday in the English Lake District. The weather prevents their usual camping and sailing activities but they throw themselves into astronomy and skating instead, culminating in a mistimed re-enactment of a famous North polar expedition. Determined that being stuck in bed with mumps throughout the book will not ruin the fun for the rest of the group, natural leader, Nancy Blackett shows her strengths and weaknesses to such an extent that it actually makes me cry every time.

Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan (1968). I know most of these funny poems by heart. They make me laugh but also have a strong dash of his black comedy and sense of the bizarre, plus his fantastic illustrations. I remember buying this through my UK Primary School’s Scholastic Book Club back in the early 1970’s and can remember how exciting it was to order books myself from a catalogue.

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (1957). Tove Jansson’s world was so real to me as a child that I could not limit myself to just one from the Moomin series. This book is full of the passions and loneliness of being the only one awake in your family … for the whole winter… and trying to make friends with that you do not know – both living creatures and nature.

The Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson (1950) I was recently fascinated by reading the revised version of this (Moominpappa’s Memoirs – published 1968). I love this book because it’s all about fathers, their blunder, pomposity and their fragility. You get to know the dads of all the main characters’ from the other books too, and at the end they all meet each other … for the very first time.

Across the Tasman 6: Sarah Davis

unnamedToday in my New Zealand series, I’m delighted to be publishing an interview with the wonderful illustrator Sarah Davis. Sarah began illustrating picture books in 2008, and is now, as she puts it,  ‘ruined for any other career.’ She has an honours degree in literature, and her love of language and narrative underpins her illustration work – as a self-taught artist, she is constantly experimenting with new ways to tell stories visually. She has illustrated more than 37 books with major publishers and been shortlisted for about the same number of awards in Australia and New Zealand. Sarah is an ambassador for Room to Read, and the Illustrator Coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (Australia East/NZ) Sarah is represented by the Gallt Zacker Agency in the USA and Frances Plumpton Literary Agency in New Zealand.

Sarah, you’ve said you are now spoiled for any other career other than illustration! Can you tell us about how that career started? What first drew you to illustration? And who were your main artistic influences?fearlesscover-copy

I think I’ve always been heading towards illustration, actually, but I got temporarily derailed by Life. I actually majored in English literature and creative writing at uni, and haven’t had much art training, and had my son when I was only 20, so went into teaching English at secondary school because it was something i felt passionate about and the hours were also good to fit around being a sole parent. I’d always drawn for fun and wanted to do more with it, but couldn’t really find the time.  I started dabbling in art a bit more seriously when I was about 26, but had our two lovely daughters in 2001 and 2003, and was still working part time, so it was hard to fit it in! When we moved to Sydney in 2004, I took time off work and that’s when illustration started to take off for me. I decided I’d go with the “fake it till you make it!’ philosophy, and set up a profile on some online freelancing sites, and got a bunch of jobs that way which taught me how it all worked and helped me start to build a portfolio. Then I decided to have a go at picture book illustration. I applied to the Stylefile with some truly horrible art samples, and they very sensibly and very kindly rejected me. Their rejection was accompanied by an A4 page of incredibly constructive criticism, and I took all their advice on board and built a much better portfolio, which i took to a critique at a SCBWI conference, and it all took off from there, thanks in a large part to my fairy godmother Susanne Gervay, who was incredibly kind and supportive and enthusiastically made connections and opportunities appear for me.soundsspooky_cover_hbk

What draws me to illustration is the opportunity it provides for narrative – I’m a sucker for story. My artistic influences are pretty varied, I think – I spend a lot of time online gazing at the awe-inspiring work of superior beings. I don’t think I really have a style, and seem to shift my approach based on the demands of the text, which I suppose is why the people whose work I admire also cover a broad spectrum of styles and periods.

You’ve become one of NZ’s busiest illustrators, with many books published, and lots more on the go. How do you manage your time with all the different projects?

Very badly! I call my system “surfing the tidal wave” – that feeling where you’re performing a very tricky balancing act, only just staying afloat, and there’s a weight of thundering chaos surging at your heels waiting to crash down on you. So far I haven’t totally wiped out and I’m still juuuust ahead of the wave. I’ve illustrated 37 trade picture and chapter books since 2008, as well as taking on commercial projects, books for educational publishers such as Cengage, and speaking at between 20-40 schools a year. Balancing that and family time has been very hectic – we’ve got three kids and 6 months ago we acquired a lovely extra teenager. There were quite a few occasions over the last few years when I had a deadline looming and I didn’t sleep at all for days in a row. I wouldn’t recommend it! I’m much better at achieving work/life balance now. I’m being very selective about what I take on, and trying to be much more disciplined with planning ahead. My son actually introduced me to bullet journalling this year, which is actually a wonderful way to be mindful and deliberate about how you spend your days. (http://bulletjournal.com/)

hippoWhat ‘sells’ you into agreeing to illustrating a text? What sorts of things do you look for? And do you have contact with authors at any stage during the process of creating the illustrations?

The text has to come to life in my head and make me feel something – it has to make me laugh or cry. I like texts that feel unusual and a little unhinged, or that feel as though they haven’t been done before. Vivid, evocative language and appealing characters. To be honest, a lot of the books I’ve done have been sequels – so I’ve initially signed on for one book, and then ended up locked in to doing 3 or 4, which is a brilliant problem to have, but also a little frustrating. I feel like it’s forced me to mark time a bit and cover old ground, when I really want to be moving on and trying something new. But I think I’m just coming to the end of that now!

I usually don’t have a lot of contact with the authors through the process – the publisher usually liases with them, shows them the roughs, processes any feedback for me. It’s a bit odd, because that’s how it works even with authors I know quite well! Me and Juliette MacIver are a bit naughty though and we often have quite long consultations in which the publishers aren’t included, usually involving bottles of wine and ukeleles. (actually, we should include the publishers – they’re all great people and  good fun and can probably also drink wine and play the ukelele.)toucan-can-f-cvr-300dpi

You’ve illustrated both picture books and chapter books. What do you prefer doing? And how does the process differ between the two styles of books?

I much prefer picture books – there’s a lot more leeway for the illustrator to tell a story. Illustrating for chapter books is quite prescribed and proscribed – you basically get told what to draw and given a space in which to draw it on each page. It feels a lot more like  you’re just decorating the text. When you’re illustrating a picture book text you really have a huge interpretive role, and you have to bring the characters to life, draw out and enhance the themes of the text, work out how the action of the plot will play out visually. It’s much more challenging and fun. You can also subvert the text, add unexpected twists and turns and layers – then it becomes a wonderful sort of alchemy where the contributions of two creators meet and mix and create a new level of meaning.mdcc_hbk

You are published both in New Zealand and Australia, and your books have won awards in both countries. Do you see any differences between the two countries in terms of reception of books, and reader responses?

I’m not sure, really!  To be honest, I try not to think too much about how my books are being received, because it scares me! Best to keep my head down and just get on with it. Obviously, awards are always lovely – my favourite kind of award to get are the Children’s Choice awards. Kids are very wise and also really tough judges. As far as differences between the 2 countries go… um…. The Marmaduke Duck series became a really big hit in New Zealand and is a bit of a household name over there, but never really took off here. The quirky kiwi sense of humour might have something to do with that. I mean, it’s an entire 4 book series about a duck who makes jam! Doesn’t get much weirder than that…

mmd_wide-blue-seasDoes being a New Zealander impact on or influence your work? If so, in what way?

Well, I think it must, in the way that everyone’s childhood influences their work! I moved from England to Aotearoa when I was 6, and grew up mainly in Christchurch. The land had a huge effect on me. The mountains and bush and sea of Aotearoa have an really powerful presence – this brooding sense that the land is living, and aware of you.

I think for a little country it really punches above its weight creatively, and as a kid I remember there being a lot of emphasis in school on art and creative writing. I read voraciously, and a lot of my favourite authors were NZ writers. Gavin Bishop actually came to visit my school when I was about 9 or 10, and I remember he was working on Mrs McGinty’s Bizarre Plant, and showed us all his rough sketches – I was transfixed! (I actually wrote a blog post about it: http://sarah-davis.org/blog/2015/7/20/l0ef49s6lr8u1vcxogmnuqer1ommrd)

I should also mention my fabulous NZ publishers: Gecko Press and Scholastic NZ. Both extraordinary powerhouses of creativity and absolutely delightful to work with, and tireless in promoting their books and trying to get them out into the wider world, which is a necessity for NZ publishers since the local market is so small. An extra shout out must go to Julia Marshall at Gecko, who has built the company from the ground up and really does produce the most extraordinarily beautiful books.

What are you working on now?hoth

I’m working on a sequel to Be Brave Pink Piglet, published by Hachette, and a super-secret (and exciting!) project for Penguin, which is due in January. I also have a couple of educational titles on the go so that I can pay the bills. I’m working on a couple of series of paintings, too, and hoping to have an exhibition next year. But what I’m most excited about is that I’ve finally finished writing a picture book of my own, and am also going to be illustrating another that my son wrote. They’re both with a publisher now, going to acquisitions soon I hope!

Cover reveal for Two Rainbows!

Drum-roll: very happy to be able to reveal the gorgeous cover of Two Rainbows, the second of my two picture books to appear next year with Little Hare. With strikingly atmospheric pictures by fantastic new illustrator Michael McMahon, it’s an exploration of colour and the very different ways it’s found in city and country life, seen through the eyes of a little girl.The book comes out in July 2017.

two-rainbows-front-cover

Across the Tasman 4: Gavin Bishop

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Photo of Gavin Bishop by Shar Devine.

Author-illustrator Gavin Bishop’s long and very successful career has made him one of New Zealand’s most well-known creators of children’s books, both nationally and internationally. He has published more than 70 books, been translated into eight languages and won many awards. Yet he has also stayed close to his New Zealand roots, with a double Maori and European heritage which continues to inspire him. In this fascinating interview, he talks about how he started, his influences, process–and leaves us with an intriguing mystery about what he might be publishing next!

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Gavin, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent author-illustrators, winning many awards both in your home country and internationally.  Can you tell us something about how you started? Who were your influences, in terms of both illustration and writing?

In 1978, I met someone who asked if I had ever thought of writing and illustrating a book for children. She had heard that Oxford University Press, in Wellington at that time, was intending to establish a children’s book list with a strong NZ flavour. A big bright light switched on in my head. It felt right. It was something I should do. So that very night I sat down and started to write BIDIBIDI a book about a South Island high country sheep who wanted more from life. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I was writing a picture book but I ended up with far too much text. After quite a lot of time I sent my efforts to OUP and to cut a long story short, they liked it. It was in need of a lot of work and that is where Wendy Harrex came in. She had

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

Bidibidi in English and Maori editions

recently returned from England and she became my editor. After a lot of rewriting and false starts the book was finally published in 1982 after another book of mine, MRS McGINTY AND THE BIZARRE PLANT had already been published.

What impact does being a New Zealander have on your work? Do you think there is a distinctively New Zealand literary/artistic atmosphere?

Being a New Zealander and living here is everything to me. It entirely shapes who I am and the work I produce. Knowing both my Maori and European whakapapa (Sophie’s note: this is a Maori term meaning genealogy, family history) and the attached family stories is a constant source of inspiration. I believe I have an obligation as a writer for children in this country, to kiwimoon_th-1mirror what I see and know of this place. NZ children reading a NZ book should be able to recognize landscapes, places and our stories that they can relate to and feel are important.

You have illustrated other authors’ texts as well as creating and illustrating your own. How do you go about each process? Which do you enjoy most?

Ultimately, writing your own story to illustrate is the most important thing you can do as a picture book creator. You are in complete control then; you can speak to your readers through the text as well as the pictures. It is a challenge to come up with original material more than it is to illustrate someone else’s text or to retell an existing story.

Many of your books have been based around traditional stories–Maori myths, European fairy tales, nursery rhymes. Why do you find them inspirational? And how important do you think they are in terms of children’s reading?

As a child I read a lot fairy stories and folk tales. As I grew older, as an adolescent, I graduated to horror stories and horror movies which are of course firmly rooted in fairy stories. I think it is very important for children to be familiar with nursery rhymes and fairy stories from an early age because they provide examples of traditional story structures and archetypal characters. I would include Bible stories here as well for no other reason than a knowledge of these is needed to understand and appreciate a huge amount of European literature, art and music throughout history. 

Nursery rhymes introduce us to language and ideas that can often be mysterious yet intriguing. I love the way a small child will often listen to a nursery rhyme with no idea of what it means. The rhythm and the succinctness of the words is enough, and they never forget them. A couple of hearings and a child has that rhyme for life. maori-myths-bishop

Our children should also be familiar with the stories told for centuries by Maori. Too few New Zealanders realise that the huge collection of Maori myths and legends are as complex, subtle and as encompassing as any of the Greek myths and legends that many of us were brought up on.  

I was fascinated to read that you’ve also been commissioned to write and design several successful ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Can you tell us more about that?

In 1985 I was commissioned by the Artistic Director, Harry Haythorne, of the Royal NZ Ballet Company to produce an original story and designs for a children’s ballet for their schools’ programme. They were interested in a story that reflected NZ. I thought about it, then remembered the time I ran away from home when I was two. I was going to a park to see an aviary of birds some blocks away from my grandmother’s house in Invercargill. I used this incident as the basis of the story of TERRIBLE TOM and later when the ballet was performed it was a great thrill to see dancers like Sir Jon Trimmer dancing out the story of my life. I learned a lot too. It was a bit of shock to realise that I couldn’t use any dialogue and the stage had to be empty so the dancers could dance. A second ballet was commissioned because the success of the first. I called it, TE MAIA AND THE SEA DEVIL. Set on the West Coast, it told of a brave young Maori girl who went to the bottom of the sea to save her mother who had been turned into a sea horse by Taipo, a sea devil.

These ballets were produced from scratch. While I did the libretto and designs, Philip Norman wrote the music and Russell Kerr did the choreography. They were the first original ballets produced for children in NZ.

You are also prominent in advancing the profile of New Zealand authors and illustrators for children, such as being involved in curating the marvellous exhibition of New Zealand illustration at the recent IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) Conference in Auckland, which showcased NZ illustrators to an international audience. How important do you think it is for creators to be involved in the promotion of a literary culture? And how do you see the situation for authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

I have been involved in the promotion of children’s literature from the early 1980s. I’ve attended hundreds of literary events here and overseas. Through the NZ Book Council’s Writers in Schools Scheme I have visited thousands of schools throughout NZ. It is an important part of being a children’s writer.

teddy-one-eyeChildren’s literature is misunderstood by many, and especially by other writers who write for adults. Writing for children is critically discriminated against. And illustration is, in particular, regarded with scorn. I come from a time when at the School of Fine Arts in the 1960s, the word “illustration” was used like a swear word. Again, I think it is through a big misunderstanding of the role of illustration. I see it as a storytelling process and in a way, a form of writing.

In 2006, a group of like-minded enthusiasts in Christchurch, and I was one of them, established the TE TAI TAMARIKI Charitable NZ Children’s Literature Preservation Trust. That was a bit of mouthful to say, so we now have a work-a-day name, PAINTED STORIES. Originally we set out to collect original illustrations and manuscripts of New Zealand children’s books to create a resource for research, exhibitions and events. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 demonstrated that this was not going to be easy. Our small gallery and display space in Victoria Street was demolished as a result of the 22nd February 2011 quake and on another occasion in another exhibition venue, a borrowed illustration fell from the wall and was damaged. So we decided to concentrate for the time being, on setting up national exhibitions of original art from NZ books. 

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

Bruiser, by Gavin Bishop: Taiwanese edition

We have been doing that for 10 years. In the recent 3 shows we have used digital prints on watercolour paper instead of original art. This reduces insurance costs and lighting and conservation issues. It also helps us to emphasise that our main aim is to show how illustration is part of a story telling process and individual illustrations are part of a suite of images that all go together to help make a book. It takes away the expectation that an illustration needs to be considered as a serious piece of art.

Our trust is funded entirely by donations and goodwill and the generosity of the Original Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch and the Millennium Gallery in Blenheim. We have never charged illustrators to be part of our exhibitions. Once our current funds have been exhausted though, we will have to seriously look at fundraising. Follow us on Facebook.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a big project at the moment, one of the biggest things I have ever done. It will be published next year. That is all I can say.