Jane Ray is an illustrator of more than 70 books for children. Her first book, A Balloon for Grandad, written by Nigel Gray was published in 1988. Other notable books that she has written and illustrated include, Can You Catch a Mermaid? Ahmed and the Feather Girl and The Elephant’s Garden.

Her work often draws on fairy tales, and she has illustrated fairy stories, including Hansel and Gretel, The Happy Prince, The Apple Pip Princess and The Story Collector volumes.

She has illustrated books for Carol Ann Duffy, Sita Brahmachari, Nicola Davies, Saviour Pirotta, Joyce Dunbar and Dianne Hofmeyr, among others.

She was also a nominee for the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava 2017 and the UK nomination for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration in 2018.

In this episode, she talks to Nikki Gamble about her illustration of Dianne Hofmeyr’s text, The Glassmaker’s Daughter and her inspirations for her work.

About The Glassmaker’s Daughter

Daniela, the glassmaker’s daughter, is grumpy and never smiles. Her father promises a beautiful glass palace to anyone who can make her laugh. People come from far and wide to try their luck in amusing Daniela.

But mask makers, lion tamers and magicians cannot raise a smile from the princess only when a young apprentice makes the first looking glass does Daniela learn to smile – at her own grumpy reflection! 

Interview Transcript

Note: This transcript has been edited for the purpose of readability, but it remains true in content and meaning.

Nikki Gamble (00:54):

I have known your work for a long time. I think I first discovered it through some wrapping paper that I was using. Did that come before children’s books?

Jane Ray (01:09):

It was one of the first things I got into from my degree show when I graduated many, many, many moons ago. And I was commissioned to design some greeting cards and wrapping paper. And that’s been a very useful second income stream all my working life, pretty much with Roger la Borde card company. But around the same time, I started doing books as well. I took my portfolio around to many publishers and got lots and lots of refusals. And then suddenly it clicked, and I was commissioned and I’ve been in work ever since. I’ve been very, very lucky.

Nikki Gamble (01:55):

Today we are going to be talking about a wonderful book, The Glassmakers’ Daughter, written by Dianne Hofmeyr. When given a new project like this, does it still remain exciting for you after all the number of books you’ve illustrated?

Jane Ray (02:09):

I have to say that the most exciting moment of any project is when I first get the story, I get the text, sit and read it, and let images flood into my head, and everything is still possible. I haven’t committed anything to paper yet, and it’s all still as perfect as it could be in your imagination. So, that’s a lovely, lovely moment.

This story was the second book I’d done with Dianne Hofmeyr. When we were working on the first one Zeraffa Giraffa she had told me about the Glassmaker’s Daughter and that she really wanted me to do it. So I’d been looking forward to it for a long time.

Nikki Gamble (02:53):

One of the things that strikes me in this and your other books is the art influences. I look at it and see echoes of the early Renaissance, particularly patterning on fabrics and things like that.

Jane Ray (03:23):

You’re right. I love Italian art. I love the art of the Renaissance. I’ve always enjoyed the triptych, the shape of stained glass windows and arches, and the shapes you see in architecture and door frames. That’s often been a framing device I’ve used in my work. And the patterns of painted tiles and carved terracotta and fabrics. I just love it all.

Nikki Gamble (03:59):

You mentioned the architectural framing devices. Because that’s very evident, it was one of the things I was going to pick up, but you’ve mentioned it yourself. We are looking at a page that has the mask makers of Venice, and a wonderful archway frames it.

Jane Ray (04:25):

I mean, that’s a gift for a picture book artist and designer because it naturally frames the page and gives space for the text and the illustration. It’s a very it’s a lovely place to start in a picture.

Nikki Gamble (04:45):

You’ve talked about Italy, and of course, this book seems to be a particular gift as it is set in Venice. I wondered whether there was any particular research that you had to do.

Jane Ray (05:09):

I’ve been to Venice two or three times and, like everybody else, fallen in love with it completely. So I just went with a sketchbook, drew, and took lots and lots of photographs. I’m always drawn to the details of a place. When you go somewhere like Venice, you can be completely overwhelmed by just how much there is. Where do you start drawing? Where do you start taking pictures? So one of the first things I noticed while walking along the canals was the weed flowing with the water in the canal. I’d worked on another book set in Venice called Heart Song with Kevin Crossley Holland a couple of years back. And I used that image in that book. It’s those little details, little carvings of birds and cats, which can humanize a place and make it quite intimate.

Nikki Gamble (06:18):

As we look through the pages of the book, is there anything that strikes you as coming from a particular observation?

Jane Ray (06:26):

Well, I must say that painting a glass palace is incredibly difficult. You’d think by this stage in my career, I would have a bit more of a clue to start drawing a glass palace. How do you draw something that you can’t see, you know, it’s transparent. So that was one of the biggest challenges. And in fact, I spent quite a lot of time in those beautiful glass galleries at the V and A. Diane Hofmeyr and I would have meetings there and just look at 16th-century Venetian glass, which is just jaw-droppingly lovely. I did lots of drawing there. I took those ideas to try and influence the shape of the palace and then just work out how to portray something you can see through.

Nikki Gamble (07:18):

Tell us how you solved that problem.

Jane Ray (07:21):

Well, as with all my paintings, I drew first, and I blocked in the sky.

For the things you could see through the windows and the palace arches, I used a lot of white gel pen to lift the sparkle where the light hits the glass. And I also used that device of making things look wobbly behind glass to try and show what was glass and what wasn’t. There’s a ladder here, which one would expect to be straight, but it’s wobbly. So when you look at the picture, you’ll be able to tell that something behind the glass is inside the palace. So I used little sort of tricks like that.

Nikki Gamble (08:13):

Tell us something about the materials that you use. You’re a painter, but you’ve talked about white gel pen that you put on the top here. So what are your favourite materials?

Jane Ray (08:24):

I throw all sorts of things at it. It’s basically a pencil drawing with a watercolour wash. I use transparent watercolours in little bottles that give a wonderfully intense colour, and you can mix them. But then I’ll also use watercolour pencils, which can be blended, give you subtlety, and put depth into the image. I use collage a lot. So on the first page, a vision of Venice, I’ve used a lot of collage. I might use things torn out of magazines. It might be a bit of old wrapping paper or might be newspaper. But it just somehow gives – I find it difficult to describe – a different sort of dimension.

Nikki Gamble (09:19):

When I look at a book you’ve illustrated, it’s always recognizably Jane Ray. But from your point of view, do you think your work has changed over time? what sorts of things have developed in your illustration from when you first started?

Jane Ray 3 (09:40):

I’m very clear in my own mind that it has developed a lot. When I look at the first books I did, I’m sometimes quite shocked. I think my first books reflected the fact that I studied ceramics. A lot of my degree show was drawing on clay, so sort of in incise line on flat clay surfaces. And I was very interested in Egyptian art and those sideways profile figures. And a lot of my early books are very like that. So I think I’ve sort of loosened up as I’ve become more experienced. I think it’s a bit more fluid and has a bit more life in it. I can still the links, but I do feel that it’s changed quite a lot.

Nikki Gamble (10:39):

Maybe some of those earlier books were more decorative, and I think maybe the narrative is a stronger element in the more recent books,

Jane Ray (10:51):

Yes. I think so.

Nikki Gamble (10:54):

If we were to have a look on your desk in your studio or wherever it is you choose to paint, what colours would we see on your palette? Although the colours are different in different books and on different pages, there’s a tonal range you seem to enjoy working with.

Jane Ray(11:13):

I think there are groups of colours that I love which are seen very clearly in a book about Venice because it’s all those terracottas and greys and creams for buildings And then the aquamarines and turquoises for water. I love blue, so the blue sky. And I’ve always loved that combination of blue and gold – blue with golden stars is very Venetian. And I love it.

Nikki Gamble (11:42):

Thinking about themes that run through your books, inclusivity has always been part of your work. I think it’s evident in The Glassmaker’s Daughter too; for instance, in these crowd scenes, it’s as inclusive as possible. How important is that to you?

Jane Ray (12:15):

I think it’s vital. I suppose I was born and brought up in London. I’ve always lived and worked in London. My children all went to school at local primary schools. I visit schools a lot. The bottom line is I would be embarrassed if I presented work to children and they couldn’t see themselves in it. So it’s always been something that I think is really important, and I enjoy painting different kinds of people, different kinds of faces, different skin colours, different ways of dressing. It just makes things a lot more exciting. It’s one of the reasons I love living in London.

Nikki Gamble (13:04):

I think your work is so exquisite and meticulous and detailed, and wonderful. It would terrify me if I were working on one of these paintings and then I made a mistake. What do you do if you make a mistake because you’re not working digitally? Do you make mistakes?

Jane Ray (13:27):

Oh, yes. I do. I think I’m probably about the last illustrator in the world who’s not working digitally. <Laugh>, I think we’re a diminishing number. Yes, of course, mistakes happen. Surprisingly, nine times out of ten, you can rescue it. I’m very loath to put something to one side and abandon it. I think probably the most dramatic mistake I made was on a book called Can You Catch a Mermaid? I was just finishing, checking it one last time before I delivered the artwork. And I knocked my painting water all over the whole pile of artwork. And, you know, there was this moment of complete panic when I thought, ‘What do I do? I’ve ruined everything’. In fact, it was just the top image, which was the cover, and because it was a story about water, it didn’t matter. And I tapped it and, and dried it, and it was fine, <laugh>. I just thought, sometimes these things can lead you down another path. And, you know you can get too precious about it. Sometimes accidents can open a new possibility, you know?

Nikki Gamble (14:45):

Was there accidents when you were working on this book? Were there any things you wanted to change when you got partway through?

Jane Ray (14:58):

I can’t think of anything other than the glass. And that was a major challenge to work out; how to make it look convincing and maintain that technique for a double-page spread, you know? One of the lovely things was that the publishers added some sparkle in production. There’s a page where the glass palace shatters and falls, tinkling to the ground. So there, there are lots of shards of silver and rainbow foil. I was really pleased with it.

Nikki Gamble (15:38):

That page is quite a key moment, isn’t it, where the glass is broken to smithereens. You have to have something dramatic and momentous on that turn of the page. When illustrating a children’s book, it’s not just about one illustration followed by another. There’s a pace that needs to be considered. How do you go about that planning?

Jane Ray (16:06):

Well, I find it’s quite useful to think in filmic terms. You are sort of panning out and panning in as you would be behind a camera. You don’t want everything to always be at the same pitch. You want to have drama; you want to have quieter moments. You want to have little moments where you dwell on a detail. So that always suggests a pan-in on a face, an expression, or something somebody’s holding. And then pan out to a dramatic panorama or scene. The glass palace falling down is that scene in this book. Yes, adds pace and drama and makes you want to turn the page and see what happens next. If something’s all at one pitch, it gets dull.

Nikki Gamble (17:00):

Another page that I was struck by was these two images in the mirror and how it’s not just expression, which is focusing our emotions on those pictures, but also how you’ve painted and the colour

Jane Ray (17:23):

I love having all these little visual clues that will draw you in. The books I always enjoyed as a child were ones where it didn’t matter how many times you revisited a page; you’d see something else. On the page where the girl is transformed from her miserable self to her happy self, I’ve also reflected that in her clothes. For instance, the hat she is wearing, which we can see the back of, when she’s miserable it has a cloud on it, and when she’s happy, the cloud is moving out of the way and reveals the sunshine. You, you’ll see that in Renaissance paintings. Other little visual stories going on.

Nikki Gamble (18:20):

Is your original artwork this size? I’ve seen some of your paintings, which are tiny – miniatures.

Jane Ray (18:32):

I mainly work in the same size. I’ve experimented sometimes and worked bigger, but it didn’t feel quite comfortable.

I think the pictures you’re referring to are probably little black and whites. They were little scraper boards. Scraperboard is a technique where you scratch into a layer of black ink and reveal a white underlayer. And some of them were postage stamp size. I was doing that through a magnifying glass, and I don’t think my eyesight’s quite recovered

I like to do things same size. There aren’t any surprises then, and you know how it’s going to read and how it will feel when you hold the book in your hands.

Nikki Gamble (19:16):

Obviously, you also work with a designer who helps lay the text out. How do you know what space to leave for the text? Is that all planned out in advance?

Jane Ray(19:27):

Pretty much. Because I need to know how much space I’ve got to fill. I’ve sometimes driven designers mad by forgetting <laugh> and extending my illustration into their space. It’s really important to know the size of the typeface and how much space it will take up. You don’t want to crowd the text. And I think designers are the unsung part of the team in, in making picture books. You know, there’s the author and the illustrator and the designer is hugely important. The

Nikki Gamble (19:58):

Text is as much a part of the visual response to the book, isn’t it? When you open a book and look at a page you see it as a whole, not as text and image separately, but you look at the whole page together. Things like choosing the right font for that story are so important.

Nikki Gamble (20:15):

You brought some sketchbooks with you today. I wonder if we could have a look.

Jane Ray (20:19):

Certainly, my sketchbooks are a funny combination of scrapbook, notebook and sketchbook. So at the beginning of my notes for The Glassmaker’s Daughter, I’ve got some things cut out of magazines and brochures.

Nikki Gamble (20:37):

This is amazing. So we are looking at a picture of a head, on top of which is a headpiece that looks like a tree.

Jane Ray (20:46):

A coral or a tree. It’s absolutely glorious. And the girl’s hair is like a cloud, isn’t it? It’s just beautiful.

Nikki Gamble (20:54):

I have to say; this is one of the tidiest sketchbooks I’ve ever seen. <Laugh>. The handwriting’s beautiful. And the notes are very tidy, Jane,

Jane Ray (21:03):

I like to start each book knowing the size of the page I’m working with and knowing the deadline, and having all that information gathered in one place so that I don’t forget. In my notes, I’ve also put the date that this book is set, so 1520, that sort of period. Just so that I can keep referring to costumes, I can keep that in my head.

Nikki Gamble (21:27):

On this page, you have made notes about reflections and symmetry. Tell us about that.

Jane Ray (21:31):

Well, I thought that since this was a story about glass and about mirrors, that may turn out to be an essential part of the story. In the end, I didn’t use it that much. But it was a key idea that had come into my head. So I was just thinking about how the double page spread in a picture book gives you immediate symmetry. So I was just playing with that idea which I used in one or two places,.

Nikki Gamble (22:00):

Here’s a picture of an exhibit at the V & A that I know very well, Tipu’s Tiger. I was fascinated with that as a child, but it scared me.

Jane Ray (22:08):

It is scary. Very scary. But you know, I quite like scary things.

Nikki Gamble (22:13):

So why does Tpiu’s Tiger appear in a book about Venice?

Jane Ray (22:17):

Well, there’s a page where different people are bringing things to make her laugh. There’s a mask maker and somebody turns up with a trapeze and a tightrope, and then there’s a boat full of all the people. And I suppose I was just thinking of Tipu’s Tiger being made as a gift to amuse some king somewhere, And these ridiculous things have been brought to entertain her. So at this stage, I was just jotting down completely random thoughts, <laugh>

If we turn over the page, I was just thinking about how I might represent glass. So there are some chandeliers, which, again, probably came from the V & A. And then I started experimenting with tracing paper and gel pen, white gel pen and silver on a grey background. So this was very, very early on. I wasn’t even if I was going to paint this book. It might have been all collage.

Nikki Gamble (23:35):

You’ve got some quotations from poetry in here as well.

Jane Ray (23:38):

Yes. Emily Dickinson. I don’t know if it applied to this book particularly. I think I just thought it was beautiful. At one stage, we wanted one of the characters to be of limited stature, and we couldn’t make it work, sadly.

Nikki Gamble (24:00):

When you say couldn’t make it work, was it because it was difficult to do that representation sensitively or because it didn’t work for the story?

Jane Ray (24:08):

I think I wasn’t a good enough artist. I couldn’t do it sensitively enough. I was afraid that it would look awkward and that people wouldn’t understand. It’s an ongoing issue. How do you represent people with different abilities and disabilities? I try really hard to be inclusive, but I couldn’t make this work, you know?

So here are some drawings for Daniella. And here is a photograph of a glass dress. I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if the glassmaker’s daughter wore a glass dress <laugh>? But again, couldn’t quite make it work, <laugh>.

Nikki Gamble (25:06):

No, we don’t want a see-through dress

Jane Ray (25:08):

No, exactly.

Nikki Gamble (25:11):

This is beautiful (looking at a photograph)

Jane Ray (25:13):

This is a black-and-white photograph of water drops on grass. I was still trying to work out, ‘How on earth do I make this work?’ ‘<Laugh>? I tried drawing the glass palace with white gel pen on a grey background which is quite nice, but it wasn’t going to work with the way I was doing the rest of the book.

Here are some images from an earlier sketchbook I’d done in Venice. And I just wanted to remind myself of some window shapes again. The shapes that we were talking about earlier – the architectural framing devices.

Here I was using the white gel pen again. And then I found this grey tissue paper wrapped around some shoes, and I just tried drawing on that. Yeah.

Nikki Gamble (26:14):

Gosh, that’s such a fascinating insight.

I wonder if we could just move on to your next project to give people a flavour of what they’ve got to look forward to. Corey’s Rock is a book that you’ve illustrated for Sita Brahmachari. For this book, we are in a completely different timeframe back into the modern day here. Tell us a little bit about it.

Jane Ray (26:41):

It’s a beautiful poetic novella. It’s about a family with a Nigerian father, a Scottish mother, and their daughter Isla. They have recently lost a little boy who has died, and they’ve come to Orkney to try and rebuild their lives to try and recover with their dog, who’s a huge part of the family. It’s a very sad scenario, and Sita writes so lyrically, so beautifully. It was a real pleasure to illustrate this book.

It’s about so many things. It’s about dreaming, it’s about the refugee experience, it’s about looking out to sea, and it’s about returning to the sea. So Isla keeps seeing her little brother in the seals that surround the island. Her father is an archaeologist involved in the archaeological projects on Orkney.

Nikki Gamble (28:04):

You said it’s a very sad scenario, but the pictures are comforting. So when we look at the jacket illustration, we know we are not going to read a book that is entirely gloomy because the colour is very uplifting. Yeah. So through the illustration, you are helping the reader cope with the sadness.

Jane Ray (28:33):

I hope so. We certainly didn’t want it to be a tragic book or a depressing book. We wanted it to be about life, and about memory and about loss. When you’re surrounded by the natural beauty of a place like the Orkneys, the sky and the sea and the sunrise and the sunset and the beautiful animals and birds, there is huge comfort in nature. It provides a huge reassurance and the sort of feeling that this was all here before we were and will be after we’ve gone, which I always find incredibly comforting.

Nikki Gamble(29:25):

Well, that’s one for us to talk about on another occasion in more depth. And I’m just so appreciative of you coming to meet with me and talk about The Glassmaker’s Daughter. it’s been an absolute pleasure and delight, and I’ve learned so much as well. So thank you.

Speaker 3 (29:42):

Well, thank you very much. I’ve loved every minute of it. Thank you.