On the first day of my first job as a young art school graduate at an advertising agency in Cape Town, the boss’s secretary wandered over to my drawing-board and said, ‘Hello, howzit. So you’re Korky Paul the New Drawer?’
Not, ‘So you’re the New Art Director?’ or even, ‘The New Artist?’
Just, ‘The New Drawer?’
On reflection it was a fair description of what I did then and years later a fair description of what I do now. Draw picture books. I like the word, too. Prefer it to artist or even illustrator. A fair description, but not a full description for someone creating a picture book. Because, I liken a picture book to a movie. As the drawer, you are not only the cinematographer but also the director, the casting agent, the costume designer, set designer and responsible for the locations, lighting, props and continuity!
The text is the soundtrack and it’s that special combination between words and pictures that makes for good storytelling in a picture book. As in a movie, neither can exist properly on their own.
For me a picture book starts with someone else’s manuscript. I am not a writer, I am a drawer, remember?
This means I am constantly searching for new stories which can turn up in a variety of surprising and unlikely ways. Take Winnie the Witch, by Valerie Thomas. At the end of my first meeting with Ron Heapy, the Children’s Book Editor at Oxford University Press, he presented me with a manuscript about a witch who lived in a black house and suggested I attempt two or three drawings. It was early days in my career and at the end of ‘first’ meetings, photocopies are made of your portfolio, pleasantries exchanged and the parting words are inevitably, ‘Don’t ’phone us, we’ll ’phone you…’ I’m extremely grateful to Ron for not going near the photocopier or muttering those dreaded parting words.
Something similar happened with Robin Tzannes (the ‘Tz’ is pronounced as a ‘J’ in English). One hot summer in Greece she saw a doodle I’d scribbled of a mad profesor. ‘Write a story about him,’ I joked. That winter she sent me the wonderful story about Professor Puffendorf and followed it with the fable Sanji and the Baker. Then came the story of a child triumphing over an adult in Mookie Goes Fishing.
What do I look for in a story? The subject matter is irrelevant; I will draw anything. What does appeal to me are stories with an unexpected ending or a neat and clever twist. If on the first reading the story inspires me and fills my head with images I feel confident I will do justice to it. The Dog that Dug by Jonathan Long and The Rascally Cake by Jeanne Willis are two stories that fired my imagination immediately. I will discuss ideas or themes with a writer but choose not to be involved in the writing of rough drafts or final manuscripts. I’ve tried it but without success. Once I had Robin Tzannes yelling at me in her best New York accent, ‘Korky Paul! I don’t tell you how to draw so DON’T tell me how to write!’
I prefer to work from a finished manuscript the writer and perhaps the editor are satisfied with. The majority of picture books contain 32 pages. Pages 1 and 32 are glued to the inside front cover and inside back cover respectively. Pages 2 and 3, and 30 and 31, are the endpapers. Page 4 has the copyright details and page 5 is the title page. This makes a total of 8 pages leaving 24 pages, or 12 ‘double page spreads’ for the text and the illustrations.
Now the fun begins. My first task is to divide up the text and arrange it over the 12 spreads. I firmly believe this is the drawer’s responsibility, as it’s such an integral part of how you design and interpret the story visually. To go back to the analogy with a movie, it’s the drawer taking on the role of director planning out the shooting script. There are no hard or fast rules, but generally the first thing I look for is the beginning, middle and end. Spreads 1 and 2, 6 and 7, and 11 and 12 are pencilled in. This leaves spreads, 3, 4, 5 and 8, 9, 10.
I now look for things happening: an introduction of a new character(s), a change of scene, or a ‘cliff-hanger’ sequence where you have to turn the page to discover the outcome. These are all obvious cues for a new spread. A good tip is to treat each spread as a chapter. Simultaneously, I have to be aware of the pace, the rhythm and the drama of the story and try to reflect that (as well as the style of the writing) in the breakdown of the text.
In most of the picture books I’ve illustrated the writers offer little or no description of the characters’ physical appearances or their clothing. In a picture book it’s redundant. Now the drawer becomes casting director and costume designer. Some characters require hours of doodling and sketching before I feel they’re right. It’s difficult to articulate how you decide on a look or a face, as it’s something that comes from within you. I’d spent hours drawing dopey-looking muts for The Dog that Dug and wasn’t happy with any of them. One day while yakking on the ’phone and doodling away, I inadvertently drew the dog I’d been attempting to sketch for days!
There are those rare occasions when a character is so clear in my mind’s eye after the first reading of a story, that the first sketch is absolutely right. Mr Rufus Skumskin O’Parsley from The Rascally Cake was one such character.
Whether I’m drawing witches, pirates, mad professors or Middle Eastern travellers, there are certain items of clothing (clichéd as they may be) which instantly communicate who or what they are. For example, take head gear. A tall, pointed hat emblazoned with stars; a three-cornered hat with the skull ’n crossbones stitched onto it; the little lamp strapped to a forehead or a flowing silk turban. I’ll exaggerate them, distort them and add little embellishments so they’re no longer clichéd. I bring something of myself, the Korky Paul look, to the appearance of that character. Then I could add other items of clothing with unique details to make them distinctly mine – Winnie with her bright red-and-yellow striped stockings, Cap’n Teachum with his row of medals for plundering and pillaging, Professor Puffendorf’s pockets stuffed with pipettes and test-tubes.
Black stately homes, rotting borer-beetle infested galleons, and exotic domed desert cities are just a few of the sets I’ve been lucky enough to design. As with the costumes, I delight in taking the obvious then imbuing it with that exaggerated and distorted Korky Paul look. In Winnie the Witch, Valerie Thomas used only one adjective to describe our heroine’s home – ‘black’. My initial sketches showed a picturesque cottage complete with thatched roof and exposed timber beams. The results were dull, boring and obvious. ‘What’s the opposite of a cottage?’ I asked myself. ‘Stately home.’ Once I’d hit upon this idea the book opened up for me. All the rooms and paraphernalia of a stately home would serve as a wonderful and dramatic backdrop for Winnie’s antics with her cat, Wilbur. The real challenge lay in illustrating it all in black!
Having decided on the location, built the sets and found the props, resolving the problems of composition, design and layout over 24 pages is a lot easier and clearer. Design and layout is the arrangement of text and illustrations on the page. In a picture book it’s essential these two elements are tightly integrated to tell the story successfully.
I frequently use a comic-book layout, which in turn is rooted in cinema. Close-up shots, long-shots, events happening ‘off camera’ are all cinematic devices used to tell a story effectively and dramatically. An example of this is in Sanji and the Baker on the spread featuring a large picture of Sanji sadly tossing his borrowed five silver coins into a copper bowl. Running down the left-hand side are five small pictures showing the evil Baker. The first picture is a medium-shot of him smirking. In the following four pictures the ‘camera’ zooms in and on the final shot we see him in extreme close-up grinning feverishly. These five shots represent the Baker’s greedy response to the coins as they land in the bowl. He is seen from the judge’s viewpoint (who is off-camera) which underlines or highlights Sanji’s, as well as the reader’s, sense of injustice.
Linking the large picture to the strip of small shots are the onomatopoeic words of money falling into the bowl, printed in a bold, comic-book style typeface. This device tells the reader the two events are happening simultaneously in the same room. The five silver coins are based on the Zimbabwian dollar. I keep one in my wallet for good luck.
Each spread is worked out first in rough form on light-weight cartridge paper. The finished art is executed on a medium weight watercolour paper. All the artwork is done 25% larger than the printed size. On the cartridge paper I draw in all the information I need to plan out and design the spread. Page size, illustration size and spine. On a separate piece of paper I have the typesetting of the text. With a pencil I sketch in my ideas, moving the text around to fit it in with the illustration. When I’m satisfied with the pencil sketch and position of the typesetting I redraw over the pencil lines in black indian ink using a dip-pen, making alterations where necessary. The roughs end up as a collage of drawings done on separate pieces of paper and glued into position. Sometimes a drawing is exactly what I want but is the wrong size. I’ll enlarge or reduce it on a photocopier and glue it into position on the cartridge paper.
I now tape the finished rough onto a light-box. (A light-box is a drawing board with a glass worktop and strip lights beneath the glass.) Over the rough I tape down the watercolour paper, flick on the lights and the rough sketch below shows through. With an HB pencil I lightly trace in the illustration, again marking where necessary. The primary reason for tracing the rough onto the watercolour paper is to position the illustration(s) exactly where I want them. It also helps to avoid drawing too close to the edge of the page, into the area reserved for the type or drawing crucial details over the spine.
I remove the watercolour paper from the light-box and start drawing – not tracing. There’s a great difference between the two. I don’t slavishly follow the pencil lines as this would produce dull and lifeless work. They are there simply as a guide. The ‘trick’ is to recapture the spontaneity and freshness so often found in the rough drawings.
I draw mainly with a dip-pen using black or waterproof coloured inks. The colour work is done with watercolours. Toothbrushes, porcupine quills and wall paint have all been used at some time to achieve certain effects. In the scene where Cap’n Teachum forces his crew to walk the plank, I had great difficulty in getting the stormy sea right. Every colour of blue in my studio was tried, but without success. Then I spied a bottle of Quink Ink. ‘For fountain pens only’ read the label. Ignoring that I splashed it on recklessly. The effect was remarkable, it was exactly what I wanted. I have yet to use it again.
As in a movie, continuity is important. As is making sure the geography of the world you create makes sense to the reader. In Winnie’s home the bathroom in the first spread appears on a different floor in the final spread. Cap’n Teachum has his pegleg strapped to the wrong thigh on two occasions.
The other thing I do is give existing characters walk-on parts in new books, or include them in crowd scenes. In Sanji, Cap’n Teachum appears uninvited in two scenes. It took my daughter, Zoe, aged seven at the time, to spot the mistake the night before I was to deliver the artwork to Ron Heapy. Children spot these mistakes and write to me pointing them out. Initially these were genuine errors in continuity, but now I put them in deliberately and wait for the letters…
The illustrations I leave for last are the endpapers, title page and front cover. The endpapers I use as an opportunity to design a bold graphic statement to express the essence of the book. It’s an enjoyable mental exercise and can prove quite difficult to find a neat, simple solution.
The splashes of colour I used in Winnie is a good example of a bold graphic design giving a flavour of the story. Sometimes I give them a more illustrative treatment as in the endpapers for The Cat that Scratched by Jonathan Long. I drew an extreme close-up of the cat scratching furiously using the comic-book device of lines of force to show the cats actions. In Monster Poems, edited by John Foster, I used drawings done by my wife’s god-daughter, Joanna Mitchell, aged 5½. In Billy Bumps, our daughter, Zoe Paul, contributed the endpapers.
The final illustration is the front cover. The reason for this is that I base it on one, or a combination of illustrations from the book. What I look for is a scene that is a synopsis, a visual shorthand of the story without revealing any twists or surprise endings. It must also clearly show the main protagonist. Look at any of the books I’ve illustrated and you’ll find the front cover buried somewhere within.
The front cover is the most difficult illustration to get right, and I frequently fail the Oxford University Press Front Cover Examination. This finds me scuttling back to my studio a sad and depressed man. I have to admit they’re normally right and my second attempt is a vast improvement. These pass the test.
I enjoy illustrating ideas which are not in the text but are inspired from it. This is all part of enhancing the story. They are embellishments, tales within tales to tempt the reader into the book. If I have a good story that inspires and excites me, it’s a delight. A joy to work on. More importantly I hope children (and adults!) will find it a joy to explore and read. But, that is what we all hope for.
All books mentioned are published by Oxford University Press, unless otherwise stated:
Winnie the Witch, Valerie Thomas, 0 19 279847 2, £6.99; 0 19 272197 6, £2.99 pbk
Professor Puffendorf’s Secret Potions, Robin Tzannes, 0 19 279925 8, £6.95; 0 19 272261 1, £3.99 pbk
Mookie Goes Fishing, Robin Tzannes, 0 19 279978 9, £7.99; 0 19 272290 5, £3.99 pbk
Sanji and the Baker, Robin Tzannes, 0 19 279960 6, £6.99; 0 19 272269 7, £3.99 pbk
The Dog that Dug, Jonathan Long, Bodley Head, 0 370 31652 5, £8.99; Red Fox, 0 09 998610 8, £3.99 pbk
The Rascally Cake, Jeanne Willis, Andersen, 0 86264 477 1, £8.99; Puffin, 0 14 055472 6, £4.99 pbk
Cap’n Teachum’s Buried Treasure, Peter Carter, 0 19 279869 3, £6.95; 0 19 272230 1, £2.95 pbk
The Cat that Scratched, Jonathan Long, Bodley Head, 0 370 31894 3, £8.99
Monster Poems, ed. John Foster, 0 19 276140 4, £7.99; 0 19 276147 1, £3.99 pbk
Billy Bumps Builds a Palace, Korky Paul, 0 19 279972 X, £7.99; 0 19 272245 X, £3.99 pbk