Bob Graham’s witty, deftly expressive pen and wash illustrations interact with his understated texts with admirable economy yet warmth and wit. Here he explains the techniques and thinking behind his recent picture book, Max.
When Max and his Superhero mum and dad flew in through the window and onto my drawing board they presented me, as an author and illustrator, with a unique problem: my previous picture book families had been ordinary in the best sense of the word. The patchwork of small events in their lives made their stories unique; it made them extraordinary. Max, along with Captain Lightning and Madam Thunderbolt were an extraordinary family, a family flying in the Jet Stream, that I was at pains to make just a little bit ordinary.
They also presented me with a wonderful freedom of visual possibilities. Suddenly I could have my family with their bright little capes and boots doing cartwheels at six thousand feet. Heady stuff for me, and fun.
The layouts stopped a bit short of a comic book approach, but were accommodating enough to let the narrative ramble along in a combination of words and pictures. For this I am indebted to Deirdre McDermott at Walker Books.
The pictures were made with pen and ink. I started at school before the Day of the Biro, when pen nibs were dipped into inkwells set in the desk and each child carried a blue ink blob around on a bump on their index finger. I still have my bump and my stain and through them I stay proudly connected to my childhood.
These pen drawings were then coloured with watercolours, inks, crayons, coloured pencils and powdered chalks (a kind of poor man’s air-brush.). If this sounds complicated – it’s not. In fact it is of utmost importance to me that technique is not apparent. I prefer it to sit way in the background, rather than say, ‘look at me, look at me.’ This way, the reader is more aware of the content, rather than how it is achieved.
Far more important to me is the drawing; how people are placed in relation to each other, their body language. And again, I prefer it if this is not readily apparent or obvious. Expressions on faces should need some interpretation. I like to leave it up to the readers to do some of the work – to read the pictures in their own way.
When I am illustrating, I hate leaving my desk for ‘reference’. I like to think of my characters acting in little one-act plays with minimal sets – a lounge chair, a TV set and a dog as props; but to treat these in such a way that they never become boring. There must be a visual surprise with each turn of the page.
When Max eventually went to print, many of these things had been accomplished for me as an author and illustrator, again with help from Walker Books.
Max is published by Walker Books (0 7445 6787 4, £9.99 hbk). The paperback is due in August (0 7445 8905 3, £4.99).
Bob Graham is the author and illustrator of Queenie the Bantam (Highly Commended for the 1998 Kate Greenaway Medal), Buffy (Winner of the 1999 Smarties Book Prize silver award) and Max (Winner of the 2001 Smarties Book Prize gold award). He has three times won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Children’s Book of the Year award. His work is featured in 20th Century Children’s Writers (St James Press), The Oxford Companion to Australian Children’s Literature and The Proof of the Puddin’ by Maurice Saxby (Ashton Scholastic).