Nick Sharratt interviewed by Joanna Carey.
Nick Sharratt lives in Brighton. It’s an inspiring, happy place to live, he says. From his street you get a picture book view of the town that includes everything from the sea in the distance to the nearby railway station.
As we enter Sharratt’s studio to talk about his work, his partner Jon appears, bringing news of a plumbing disaster downstairs that requires urgent attention. Unruffled, Sharratt excuses himself and sets off to deal with it. I’m left to look around the studio. There’s a blast of colour from a wall covered with familiar book jacket designs, unruly piles of paper, slithering heaps of padded envelopes, portfolios, and a multitude of books and a dangling mobile celebrating Sharratt’s award winning Pants (with Giles Andreae). The kaleidoscopic chaos of it all is entertainingly at odds with the order and precision of Sharratt’s illustrations (even his roughs, I’m told, are so neat that they get confused with the finished artwork).
Sharratt always knew he would be an artist. Born in 1962, in Bexleyheath on the outskirts of London, he drew compulsively as a child, an activity that set him apart from his younger siblings. That he was always destined to be an illustrator is evident from a collection of work sheets he shows me, from his primary school days. The hand-writing and the layout is impeccable, each subject meticulously illustrated and there are chapter headings with appropriate vignettes. There’s a Home Economics section, and instructions for bread making, with notes on ‘rising times’ and a drawing of a loaf in a tin (food is a recurring theme in his books).
His parents and his primary school teachers recognized his artistic talent, but at his grammar school it wasn’t encouraged and he only managed to squeeze art into his timetable by exchanging it for PE, and creating studio space for himself in the art department stock cupboard. He shows me a drawing from this time – a large, Where’s Wallyish street scene, full of 1970s period detail, crowds of people sporting flares and flat tops – a haircut that has remained popular in Sharratt’s work.
His art foundation year at Manchester polytechnic was ‘fantastic, with an inspiring teacher who, above all, emphasized the importance of objective drawing – life drawing, location drawing, whatever we drew, we were encouraged to look hard, to measure, to get it right, to draw without allowing the imagination to impose itself on the work – that was a very valuable, rewarding period.’
He then did a BA in graphic design at Saint Martins in London, and since then illustrating is the only job he’s ever had. For years he did illustrations for advertising and packaging, educational publications and magazines such as Cosmopolitan – then someone from Oxford University Press saw his folio, and he was offered Noisy Poems, the first of many books for OUP. These early illustrations are notable for their cheerful eccentricity, ingenious composition and their abundance of pattern and child friendly textures – he was working at that time with wax crayon and coloured pencil. And in the again richly patterned My Mum and Dad Make Me Laugh, you can see his idiosyncratic style developing further, particularly in his treatment of figures, as he takes liberties with the human form: the figures are often elongated, with small heads and ‘bendy toy’ arms and legs, with no perceptible knees or elbows.
When the editor David Fickling moved from OUP to Transworld, he suspected that Sharratt might be the person to illustrate Jacqueline Wilson’s first title for Transworld – The Story of Tracy Beaker, an illustration-led story, with a first person narrative that is funny, angry and moving by turns. Wilson hoped this would appeal to the sort of child who does not like reading and, with childhood memories of The Family from One End Street, with its line drawings by Eve Garnett, she particularly wanted lots of black and white illustrations.
Sharratt was happy to oblige. Wilson confesses to having given him a ‘bossy’ list of instructions but she laughs about that now – ‘it wasn’t necessary! He read and reread the text so thoroughly, so sensitively, with such insight, that he quickly got the entire essence of it.’ And with his quirky graphic style and his subtle powers of empathy, he knew exactly how to set about it, and furthermore, says Wilson, ‘he was able to make the drawings look almost as though Tracy Beaker had done them herself.’
‘In a way,’ says Sharratt, ‘it was an opportunity to draw as I did when I was a kid.’ His incredibly popular drawings have not only established a visual identity for Wilson’s books but his work has also revived interest in the traditional use of line drawings in books for this age group. They’ve now done ‘25 or maybe 30’ books together (with sales of 30 million in the UK).
But aside from the Jacqueline Wilson books, Sharratt also has a flourishing parallel career as a picture book artist, with around 150 books to his name (he seems unsure of the exact number) across a wide age range. Fairy tales, board books, novelty books, pop-up books, lift the flap books, split page books (like Ketchup on your Cornflakes) and books that involve mechanical tricks like the ‘milkman’s wallet’.
A lot of picture book artists start off as painters, but Sharratt’s style has not evolved from that tradition, and you don’t find subtle references to the world of fine art. He doesn’t go for a painterly look; his pictures are arresting in their almost schematic simplicity, and he favours strong flat colours. He speaks directly to a young audience – his pictures are easy to read and humour is his first concern.
His own favourite illustrators are Heath Robinson, for his black and white work, and Janet Ahlberg – ‘both total masters at creating real worlds on the page that draw you in completely.’ Ahlberg was one of the greatest exponents of the ‘dots for eyes’ style of illustration, and Sharratt too takes a similarly minimalist approach to facial features.
Eat Your Peas is one of Sharratt’s finest, funniest books. Together with Kes Gray’s comically repetitive text, the audacious economy of Sharratt’s drawing perfectly reflects the intractable defiance of the child. The outline of the child’s face is uncompromisingly simple, almost mechanical, but her features, just dots, lines, and dabs of rouge, are mesmerizingly expressive. So how did Sharratt develop this bold graphic economy? ‘I think it’s probably a result of the kind of graphics that I call The Yellow Submarine style that I saw around me, took notice of and felt most attracted to as a kid, in the late 60s/early 70s.’
His style over the years as a picture book artist has been through some changes, most significantly when he began to use a computer, and he talks about this with enthusiasm. ‘As a youngster I could never get paint, pastels or coloured pencils to do exactly what I wanted, but I was completely hooked on felt tips. I liked the way I could control them, the evenness of their lines, the reliability and the brightness of the colour, their suitability for the graphic style I was aiming for. So Photoshop, for me, is like a magic box of felt tips: unlimited bright clean colours, perfectly controlled “colouring-in”, perfect for precision pattern-creating. Initially I didn’t know much about computers, so I learnt a few basics at a local college, and since then I’ve developed my own technique – with a fair bit of trial and error.’
Sharratt doesn’t draw on the computer. He does that on paper, with a 6B pencil, then scans it in and manipulates the quality of the line as required. At this point he sits down at his computer, and just as an organist might start pulling out stops, prior to a recital, he summons up on the screen the vast palette of ‘personal patterns’ he has created, with which he ‘colours in’ the drawings. Listed on the screen, the names have a bizarre poetry all their own – Toad Skin… T-Rex Skin… Hand-Drawn Hessian… Monster Fur… Crackles… Gravel… Nick’s Houndstooth… School Jumper… Tarmac… Splats… Speckles… Wig hair… Sock wool… the list goes on and on seemingly unending in its possibilities, but it’s bewildering to think that those myriad visual effects and textures, in all their infinite variety, can be summoned up at the touch of a button – it makes me wonder if there’s a future for traditional, time honoured techniques, real, handmade artwork? We’d touched on this earlier and Sharratt had spoken with awe about the luminosity of Michael Foreman’s watercolour washes and the skill and subtlety with which they are applied.
Surely a computer can’t compete with that? Will everything become digital? ‘No,’ says Sharratt. ‘There’ll always be a need for physical picture books – books you can hold and share.’ And as you might deduce from titles like the The Gooey Chewy Rumble Plop Book (yes, it’s about the digestive system) or The Best Pop-Up Magic Book… Ever! (which features a finger guillotining trick), his own books certainly do have a very physical presence.
His latest book, One Fluffy Baa-Lamb, Ten Hairy Caterpillars, is another pop-up extravaganza, absurdly funny and featuring wonderfully robust paper engineering and ever more subtle use of colour and pattern. It’s a counting book really, but it wears its pedagogic mantle lightly and the eponymous baa-lambs and caterpillars have inspired some crazy wordplay – chocolate baa-lambs, strawberry gateau pillars… wear-a-bra lambs, bobble-hatterpillars… and when the whole thing opens up like a marvellous little Art Deco theatre, we get ooh-la-la lambs and acrobatterpillars. But with their wittily observed body language, and their aviator shades, the rock-guitar lambs are the stars of this show.
Humour is Sharratt’s strength, he says, and ‘and my sense of humour does seem to tally with kids across the primary school range. A lot of my books seem capable of working with preschoolers at the same time as with kids up to years 4/5. Which is good! I hate the idea that you have to leave picture books behind once you can read for yourself.’
Joanna Carey is a former Children’s Books Editor of the Guardian.
Photographs by Joanna Carey.
Nick Sharratt’s website: www.nicksharratt.com
The Books – a selection
From Alison Green Books:
One Fluffy Baa-Lamb, Ten Hairy Caterpillars, 978 1 4071 0668 7, £10.99
Moo-Cow, Kung-Fu-Cow, 978 1 4071 1552 8, £6.99
Octopus Socktopus, 978 1 4071 0731 8, £6.99
Elephant Wellyphant, 978 0 439 94444 1, £6.99
From Scholastic Children’s Books:
The Big Book of Magical Mix-Ups (Hilary Robinson), 978 1 4071 1571 9, £7.99
A Cheese and Tomato Spider, 978 0 590 19159 3, £6.99
Don’t Put Your Finger in the Jelly, Nelly!, 978 0 439 95062 6, £5.99
I Went to the Zoopermarket, 978 0 439 95063 3, £5.99
Ketchup on your Cornflakes?, 978 0 439 95064 0, £5.99
Buzz Buzz, Bumble Jelly, 978 0 439 99865 9, £6.99