Klaus Flugge Prize

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Pam Smy on finding an original voice in illustration

All aspiring children’s book illustrators know that feeling of seeing a stack of beautiful new titles in their local bookstore and yearning to have their book, their illustrations, nestled alongside them on the table top, or face out in ‘staff picks’. The process of sitting at home, drawing, painting or clicking away with a mouse or digital pen, can feel far removed from those glossy books that demand our attention from the bookshelf or pages of book reviews.

All aspiring children’s book illustrators know that feeling of seeing a stack of beautiful new titles in their local bookstore and yearning to have their book, their illustrations, nestled alongside them on the table top, or face out in ‘staff picks’. The process of sitting at home, drawing, painting or clicking away with a mouse or digital pen, can feel far removed from those glossy books that demand our attention from the bookshelf or pages of book reviews.

We all want to be there. We want our illustrations in print. We want them to be read and shared with young people.

That desire can lead us, however subconsciously, to be influenced by those illustrators who have made it. A voice inside us whispers ‘If we do what they do, maybe we can get there too?’ We look at what is successful, and, almost without realising it, try to emulate what is there. This is more prevalent now that we have so much success pinging onto our screens from social media – no longer just the bookshop. It is hard to escape what everyone else is doing, and how they are doing it.

The problem is that this encourages us to look at what is there, what has been done or is being done by others, rather than looking forward to what we want to produce and where we, as illustrators, will go on to next. How can we offer something new and fresh if we are always looking over our shoulders at what others are doing?

One of the things that I think is evident from the Klaus Flugge Prize shortlist this year is how varied the approaches, influences and subject matters are. They all feel different from each other, and are nudging forward what children’s books can do, how they look and what they are for.

As with the illustrators on the shortlist, we all need to have confidence to find our own voice, to tell stories that we care about, not simply produce something because it is in vogue. We need to be aware of trends in publishing and design, but not led by them.

Easier said than done, I hear you cry. So how do illustrators find their own voice?

At the Cambridge School of Art and its MA Children’s Book Illustration, I am one of a team of staff, expertly led by course leader Shelley Jackson, who are all practising illustrators and writers. All of us have a passion for the subject and an enthusiasm for different aspects of making children’s books: humour, print-making, black and white illustration, non-fiction, picturebooks or graphic novels. The staff share a belief in the necessity of traditional drawing skills to underpin illustration and are evangelists for the neglected art of observational drawing. We encourage our students to build on those skills and support them in any path that they want to take as creative individuals – without looking outwardly at the market. This results in enthusiastic artists making work that is fresh, individual and full of personality, based on their own preoccupations and ideas rather than merely responding to industry trends – we like students to be aware of what is happening in the industry, but not led by it. Shelley says, “A large part of the success of our graduates is the authenticity of the process of exploring one’s own passions and discovering new ways of communicating. The books produced are truly original and personal and that’s what makes them feel authentic and appealing to an audience.”

The first thing we tell them is be aware of what you are interested in, what your influences are, what makes you tick. What are your visual influences, and what are your wider passions and interests?  Becoming aware of these – researching yourself – is invaluable.

Maybe this is clearer if I use my own experience as an example? I am a bit of an illustration nerd, and I love all types of illustration for all age groups. I love to see illustrators who exemplify the artform – I am excited to see books by Beatrice Alemagna, Benji Davies and Sydney Smith – I could talk about them for hours and have them in my book collection at home. But the illustrators that influence me and my work are more likely to be mid-century printmakers and painters. I love watching new movies at the cinema, but old black and white Hitchcock movies inspire my work. Nature and a sense of place is important to me, and I build stories around actual places I have been to. I can work in colour, but love black and white more. My illustration and story ideas are a blend of all of these elements, and they are personal to me.

Once you have collected together a list of things that make you tick (Pintrest or an old-fashioned scrapbook is a great way of doing this visually), it’s good to analyse what the links are in that collection. For example, are there colour palettes that you seem drawn to? Is there a particular mood or feeling that links the work you like? Are the images densely populated or minimalist? Does pattern dominate? Understanding what you are responding to will help you determine components of the work you will go on to make.

My final tip on developing voice as an illustrator is to draw from life, as much as possible. In the pub, in the café, at the bus stop, wherever and whenever you can. These drawings are part of a process of teaching yourself to see at a heightened level. The more you draw, the more you see. The more you see, the more information you possess to recall in your brain when working from the imagination. And the more you are responding to the world around you, the less likely you are to be emulating other illustrator’s methods.

When you compare books on the Klaus Flugge shortlist, you will see that Sabina Radeva had a background in science before developing On the Origin of Species. Eva Eland’s sparse, crisply designed When Sadness Comes to Call is very different from Helen Kellock’s inky atmosphere in The Star in the Forest. Both One Fox by Kate Read and Where is your Sister by Puck Koper are funny, but the way the humour works is very different. Each illustrator has something different to say, and a fresh way to say it. There is no formula to follow for any of these titles, they each work in their own right and have grown out of hard work to craft an individual voice.