JUST IMAGINE: How did you first get into children’s book illustration?
CHRISTOPHER: I studied illustration at the Royal College of Art in London and most of my work involved travelling and drawing, visiting places I was curious about. Quentin Blake was my tutor for some of the time I was there but I was late in getting involved in children’s book illustration.
I did some illustration work for Walker Books, a story in a collection of Kipling stories: ‘How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin’, a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story by Michel Tournier, ‘Friday and Robinson’ and then I started to get work from other publishers.
I illustrated a selection of the stories from The Arabian Nights and it was then that I really started to enjoy the process of illustrating for children.
Most of the books I work on have a global theme. I’m fascinated by the world we live in and I want to see and experience the world we live in.
JI: You obviously love to travel. Do you take inspiration from your journeys or are these planned with a project in mind?
CC: When I travel I always bring my drawing tools to note down what I see and feel about a place. I usually go to places that I want to get to know better and a sketchbook & paints certainly help.
On my trip to the USA as a student I wanted to see modern architecture and American life. I went to NYC and LA and Chicago and I spent 5 months sketching and travelling and really getting to understand America.
Later I went to India and travelled all over amazed by the colours and vibrancy of the place.
And then I went to China.
I don’t really travel with a set project in mind but always something emerges from my experiences on these journeys.
JI: Your latest book “The Great Race” draws on a well-known traditional Chinese tale. What research did you do for this book & how long was it in the planning?
CC: In 1990 I spent 4 months in China travelling as far and wide as I could, on boats and trains, a few planes and on a bicycle and I drew and collected ephemera and odd things that I found. I worked in Chinese sketchbooks and with Chinese paints & brushes recording everything everywhere. I wasn’t thinking about a book and certainly not the Chinese Zodiac story …this came much later. I have been working with Frances Lincoln Books for about 3 or 4 years and I really enjoy our projects. My first was ‘Deep in the Woods’ a retelling of a Russian folk story ‘Teremok’ , a Russian word that is very hard to translate .It’s about a group of animals in a forest who get together and make a home in an empty house and all is beautiful until a big bear decides he will join them.
My 2nd book, ‘A Year Full of Stories’ is a collection of stories from all over the world.
‘The Great Race’ my new book is a retelling of the Chinese Zodiac story. The book came together very quickly, in about a year in total. I thought about places I’d seen and painted in China and decided to set it in Guelin in Guanxi Province. It’s a wonderfully picturesque region with beautiful hills and mountains with names like Elephant Trunk Hill and Kitten Mountain. The Li River runs through it. It’s the ideal place for an ancient and traditional Chinese story.
JI: We love the vibrant colours in your work. Can you tell us a little about your style? How you approach a project & the tools used?
CC: I thank India for showing me colour in great profusion and wild exuberance. I don’t think I ‘d seen colour before getting off the plane in Bombay in 1986. I’m still reeling from it.
I love folk art and folk stories and they really do inspire me.
Colour is so joyful and uplifting and I love exploring colour and seeing what it can do.
JI: You also manage to fit in tutoring in art at Goldsmith’s University. What advice do you give to your students who might be looking for a career in illustration?
CC: Since leaving the RCA I have taught in an assortment of art schools but always on a part time basis. It makes for a good balance with my studio & travel work.
These days I teach the occasional short course at West Dean College in West Sussex and a few days a year at Goldsmiths in London.
My advice to students who want to illustrate is to draw and paint until you find your level of confidence and self -expression. It’s important to be yourself.
Many thanks to Chris for taking the time to answer our questions.