Catherine Rayner lives in Edinburgh at the top of a four-story staircase in a flat she shares with her husband, baby son and a small family of animals. The front room, overlooking the skewed geometry of the New Town, is the quintessential study-cum-studio of a working artist who is also a lifelong animal lover and bibliophile. Shelves are packed with sketchbooks, children’s literature and natural history texts; a table by the window is loaded with inkbottles and brushes surrounding a savannah scene; a single goldfish in an ornamental bowl represents the menagerie.
On the day I visited, Catherine had just returned from a local school, and the bag she brought in was full of the brightly coloured and richly textured books she has been creating since graduating from art school eight years ago, all of them featuring variously troubled animals who manage to overcome their problems through effort, or comradeship, or luck.
‘I‘ve got strong memories of being read to as a child, and I really enjoyed drawing. My mum loves books, and she shared all the ones she enjoyed when she was a child. I loved Quentin Blake’s pictures of the Enormous Crocodile, and Helen Oxenbury, and Jill Barklem who did the Brambly Hedge series. I remember obsessing for hours over those animal pictures.’
Her literary career started with the rhyming poems she composed for her mum about the family sausage dog, writing and illustrating them with a biro she borrowed from her mum’s handbag, filling exercise books she gave as presents on birthdays, Christmases and mother’s days.
Her mother also supported her love of animals. ‘Mum allowed lots of pets: stick insects, snails, a cat, a dog, guinea pigs, rabbits, eventually even a pony. It was no gift horse though; I had to work every weekend stacking shelves at CostCo to keep it fed.’
A childhood immersed in books and pictures and attentive observations of pets and wildlife led her to art schools in Leeds and the Edinburgh, where she specialised in printmaking and illustration. ‘I didn’t expect to become a children’s illustrator. It was dream, and you don’t expect your dreams to come true.’
A period of depression towards the end of her course contributed to the mood of her first book, Augustus and his Smile, about a melancholy tiger who roams the world in search of his lost happiness. ‘It was originally a story about a hedgehog trying to open a jar of worms, and the tiger comes along to help him. Then I got carried away drawing the tiger. I was using tigers at the Zoo as models, and they always looked miserable in the cold. One of my tutors asked me why my tigers always looked so sad and I said, they’ve lost their smiles, then I thought, here we go, there’s an idea, and I went with that.’
She created the original book as part of her 2004 degree exhibition at the Edinburgh College of Art; it was designed as a single volume gallery of prints, with each page depicting a different technique. A visitor from Little Tiger publishing was so impressed he offered her a contract on the spot, but because of the name of the company, she assumed that he was joking. He wasn’t, and her career has flourished. She has produced approximately one picture book a year since then, with a year’s break when her baby appeared, while continuing to create larger scale screen prints of animals at the Edinburgh Printmakers Gallery just down the road.
She adapted the original text of Augustus and his Smile to suit younger children, but her tiger retains a majestic, Blake like Tygerness. His stripes are great slashes of black ink over smeared layers of orange and ochre pigments. The boldness of this patterning contrasts with the use expressive little specks to represent his eyes, and of thread-like filaments to depict his whiskers and the subtle arc of a mouth that slowly rises through the progress of his journey. The colours and textures of the forests, deserts, oceans and mountain ranges he prowls are densely layered, while their contours provide songlines for the undulating text to follow.
Catherine had told me that she was no good at science at school, but I suggest that these representations of the natural world, which won her the Booktrust’s Best New illustrator Award in 2006, indicate rapt biological observation and appreciation.
‘Yes – a lot of this comes from horse riding; it takes you to places in the landscape where you can’t go on foot, so there’s opportunities for looking at plants and photographing and printing them. And I’m fascinated by the texture of animals and how they move. You have to be able to imagine their bones in order to get your head around how they work. I have to make sure I can draw animals as they are before I turn them into a character.’
The combination of zoology, botany, landscape and storytelling features again in Harris Finds his Feet, the winner of the 2009 Kate Greenaway Medal. This is the story of hare who is troubled by his enormous feet until his grandfather shows him what they are capable of. Here the text and the animals saunter and hop across calm expanses of hilly sward and carefully painted meadow flowers as the hares converse. Then a threatening wolf appears and they hurtle into convincing flight.
This strenuous process of transforming a multi-textured, anatomically informed visions of moving animals into a two dimensional images proved particularly difficult during the creation of Sylvia and Bird, the story of a lonely dragon, the only one of her kind, who befriends a bird and takes off with her on a flight to the moon.
‘The dragon book was tricky, because I didn’t have any model dragons to work from. I did have my dog though, and there’s a bit of my cat in Sylvia as well. In fact, all of my pets feed into my fictional animals.’
This storytelling here employs quiet word-play, in which onomatopoeia and alliteration are used to echo alternating mood of pathos and elation. As in all of her books, space is used to striking effect. The juxtaposed postures of the huge dragon and the tiny bird sculpt their backdrops into protective circles, or dangerous heights and gulfs.
Sylvia may have borrowed genes from Catherine’s dog and cat, but she also seems to have much of the amphibian and the marine mammal in her. I ask about the liquid mottling and marbling of her green skin, flecked with little blobs of pigment which have dried to a raku-crazing. They remind me of patterns of barnacles on living whalehide, so that Sylvia resembles a cross between a huge frog and a rorqual.
‘I got that effect by shaking up the ink until it was full of bubbles, then sucking it up in a pipette and dropping it onto the paper, so the bubbles burst as they dry. The more you can relax and play about with techniques like this, the better you can capture textures. I always remember looking at Eric Carle’s books when I was young, The Very Busy Spider and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The way he used texture, he made you want to touch the page, and I definitely want people to want to do that with my books. The surfaces of the paint and ink on the actual artworks are quite knobbly, and I like the idea that you should want to feel it as well as see it.’
Eric Carle was also an inspiration in the design of the paper engineering which features in Ernest, the story of a mule so immense he can’t possibly fit into the book which bears his name. However, his tiny chipmunk friend comes up with an ingenious idea involving masking tape and a collection of discarded gift-wrap and other scraps of mixed paper. It would be unfair to give the game away, but the book ends with a delightful surprise. The story involves scale, and the background of each page is painstakingly printed graph paper. Ernest himself was scaled up and refigured from drawings of Catherine’s current horse. To avoid copyright problems, she also designed the patterns of each of the pieces of scrap paper that feature in the collage.
This dedication to combining simplicity with the meticulous exploration of techniques also features in Solomon Crocodile, her most recent book, which she had read to a class that morning for the first time. Solomon, like Sylvia, is not based on observations from life, but partakes of the ‘cheekiness’ of her pets as he thrashes about amidst the riverside community making a nuisance of himself. When an angry hippo approaches, it looks as if he is to meet a fate similar to that of Dahl’s enormous crocodile, but Catherine spares the reader from such a brutal dénouement. This was just as well, since one of the children in her audience had reacted with intense sadness to Solomon’s rejection by the other animals, and had been delighted at the cheerful ending.
‘Children inspire me. You watch their faces and see what makes them light up. We do talk about the nature red in tooth and claw aspects, but they come up with the most surprising ideas. We seem to permanently underestimate these little balls of energy.’
Catherine uses these visits to demonstrate her techniques, which she describes as ‘highly visible and doable’, encouraging children to use finger painting, sticks dipped in ink and potato printing to make bold and immediate representations. She wants children to know that art does not require expensive equipment and sophisticated procedures. When I mention the complexity of the colours which speckle Solomon’s body, she replies, ‘I used a really old knackered paintbrush we’d painted window frames with years ago, then flicked it and flicked it flicked it, using old tubs of paint and bits of typex, and even getting some bits of dirt into the mix. I used rolls of toilet paper to mask the page and make the serrations of Solomon’s tail. A lot of Andrex went into these pictures.’
Solomon Crocodile has been shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal. Catherine’s plans for the future include the introduction of people into her books, now that her artist’s gaze includes the daily sight of a growing infant, and his own awed responses to the natural world, and to books and pictures. Towards the end of our conversation she shares two observations which reflect the importance of communication between adults and children of the type which supported her own early artistic efforts. At one of her readings, a man thanked her for bringing him closer to his grandson through their sharing of her books every night. At a visit to another school, she asked the children if any of them had seen a real tiger. One of them raised his hand, and said that he had seen a ‘poorly tiger’. ‘Had he lost his smile?’ Catherine asked. ‘Yes,’ the child replied, ‘and he had spots instead of stripes.’
Augustus and his Smile, Little Tiger Press, 978 1 8450 6282 8, £10.99 hbk
Harris Finds his Feet, Little Tiger Press, 978 1 8450 6590 4, £5.99 pbk
Sylvia and Bird, Little Tiger Press, 978 1 8450 6857 8, £5.99 pbk
Iris and Isaac, Little Tiger Press, 978 1 8489 5092 4, £5.99 pbk
Ernest, Macmillan, 978 0 2307 1255 3, £5.99 pbk
Norris, the Bear Who Shared, Orchard, 978 1 8461 6309 8, £5.99 pbk
Solomon Crocodile, Macmillan, 978 0 2307 5022 7, £5.99 pbk
George Hunt is lecturer in Education at the University of Edinburgh.