I have interviewed several children's authors, but now I'm thrilled to feature my first interview with a picture book illustrator. I first came across Vanessa Cabban through her knitting blog, Do You Mind If I Knit
. I quickly became aware of her other highly original creative pursuits, including her beautiful papier mache sculptures. I'm now determined to commission a sculpture from Vanessa should I ever have a book deal worth celebrating!
One of Vanessa's beautiful sculptures
Vanessa also illustrates picture books. Truly, a Rennaissance woman! So I'm delighted to welcome her to my author blog to hear some of her words of wisdom on a topic that is truly mysterious to me and my clumsy fingers: drawing and illustrating. Vanessa's latest picture book is A Secret Worth Sharing
with Walker Books and she kindly agreed to chat about it here.
Welcome, Vanessa! At which point during the telling of the picture book story do you become involved? Are you sent a finished script, or do you have input at the writing stage?
The point I become involved is when the publisher sends me the finished text. I say "finished", but in my experience a text will often change as problems with the pacing or certain words become apparent as I illustrate it. Sometimes text has to be shortened too, which authors hate. In the latest book I'm working on, I came up with the concept, and then it was handed over to the author Jeanne Willis
to write up, that's as far as I've ever been involved at the writing stage.
How do you judge the interpretation of text on each spread? My impression is that you don't literally illustrate the words on the page, but give another view of the scene. For example, there's no sun like a 'bright golden coin' on the first spread. (Though, interestingly, that sun does feature on the previous spread, the title page!)
The very first thing I do when illustrating a text is establish the characters by doing lots of drawings. I like to explore the characters' personalities through drawing and thinking about them. This can take a bit of time, but it's essential, because it will make all the difference in the illustrating of the text. Authors don't give details of the characters personalities in their texts, I have to look at what the characters say and embroider a story for each of them, which I work in to the drawings of each character. When I'm illustrating a text, I don't want to "repeat" the text in the illustrations, I want to say something that relates to the text but doesn't repeat it, I must sum up the flavour of the text, but add something extra that isn't necessarily said in the text. It would be a very boring book if all the illustrations did was to copy exactly what the text was saying.
One of the things that illustrators have to contend with and get around is often the piling up of several disparate factors in a scene. The first spread has the scene set in woodland, but there is also mention of the sun. The way I resolved this was to set the scene with the sun in the sky, in the previous two spreads, and then plunge in to the woodland on the first spread, where the sun is seen in the light glinting through the leaves. This is a perfect example of not illustrating a text in such a way that the words are being copied in pictures, but taking the illustrations to a level where they compliment and enhance the text, and make for a book that is visually interesting.
How did you come to the decision to have spreads with four horizontal panels?
The four horizontal panels is a device that is used in all the mole books, and it is a way to express actions. It also helps to break up the pages of full spreads that run through the book. I think of it in terms of a film, if a whole film was conducted without any close ups or change of viewpoint, it would become quite tedious to look at.
What are Walker like to work with and how did you come to them?
I approached Walker Books
with some images of my work, and was asked for an interview to show my portfolio. There were a few people who crowded round the table, and to be honest, most of them looked thoroughly bored and openly disinterested, EXCEPT for one person alone, Vanessa Clarke, who commissioned me to work on two books I wrote. To this day, I am very thankful that Vanessa Clarke was at that interview; if she hadn't been there I wouldn't be working with Walker Books today.
My experience of working with Walker Books, (who are highly respected, and every author and illustrator wants to work with them), is one where, as a team, we are all striving to produce the best book possible. We all work very hard, and I like this. My best books are the ones I have created with Walker. They never have to encourage me to work harder as I am very passionate about giving my utmost to create a good book. I can honestly say that I love working with the team at Walker Books. I have been working with Julia Thompson and Denise Johnstone Burt for many years, and I hope it carries on that way for a long time.
How does book illustration dovetail with your other artistic pursuits? I know you have a successful career as a papier mache artist and also as a card illustrator, and most recently, a jewellery maker!
Before the recession hit, everything I did outside of book illustration was a hobby. When the recession came along, and started to devastate the publishing industry, I was still getting work as an illustrator, but it was reduced. Whilst this led to a period of great worry, it made me reassess things, I needed to find another avenue to make a living rather than relying solely on illustration, I needed to diversify! I had always wanted to take the sculpture to a level other than it being a hobby but had never had the time to do it, and for the first time, I had the time to do this. I also found a certain freedom in making the sculptures, I wasn't part of a team when making them, it was all my own decision, and I enjoyed this. I actually enjoy working in a team of people when making my books, infact a team is essential to the success of a book, but having a taste of the opposite (working entirely on my own), was also enjoyable. I've found that my background as a commercial artist has worked particularly well with regard to doing commissions, my lack of ego makes me want to do the best I can for a client, I am never thinking about what I want, other than wanting to do the best I can for them.
The jewellery is something I have secretly been working on for many years, in different forms. It started with some very intricate beaded pieces, then developed to very sculptural crochet works. At the moment I am integrating my papier mache work in to my jewellery, with some interesting results. A necklace I made for Fliss, of blog Joshy and Belle
, where she was very descriptive of what she wanted, has actually led to a new direction in my jewellery. I like to think this is proof that laying the ego aside, and being open to suggestion can lead to very interesting developments in work. Fliss commissioned me to make a necklace even though I had no track record of making a necklace like the one I made for her, she was absolutely determined I could do it, had absolute faith in me, so I have to say that is all thanks to Fliss that my jewellery has taken the new path it has taken.
Could you tell us a little bit about the medium you work in?
With regards to my illustration work, I use paper and watercolour paints, two very traditional mediums. I've been asked about working on a computer, but I find that the pencil and watercolours serve me well enough. Maybe if I was exposed to drawing on the computer I would get hooked. I find that there is nothing quite like the simple pencil and brush to work with.
With regards to the sculptures and jewellery, I use a glorious mishmash of materials, but the main components are lots of different types of paper according to the stage I'm at in a sculpture, and I'm increasingly using clay, then out come the fabrics, paints, and embroidery threads. I don't like using found objects or props in my work, I like to make every component. For instance If there is a chair or umbrella or tiny lamp, I have to make it, it all has to have my stamp on it. Once I received a comment on my blog asking where I'd managed to find the spade the Hare I made, was leaning on, that gave me great pleasure, because I made it myself, and the lady had thought the handle was real wood, isn't that marvellous!
Thank you so much, lovely lady! Vanessa is an amazingly talented woman and you can buy her scultptures and cards from her Etsy shop or her latest picture book here. Excitingly, Vanessa has three pieces in an exhibition at the Society of Scottish Artists in Glasgow and later this year will have a solo exhibition at The Mansfield Park Gallery, also in Glasgow. After that? I can't wait to see what she does next!