Carol Thompson reflects on a unique collaborative experience and describes the technique and thinking behind Looking for Rex, written by Jan Ormerod.
Looking for Rex was written by Jan Ormerod. One day, as I was leaving her house she handed me a manuscript, ‘See what you think…’ This was the beginning of a unique collaboration – over many months and meetings we grew our picturebook together with no outside editorial or art directives.
Jan’s story is drawn from a situation that she’d observed in a family she knew and loved. The family are all looking out for the right dog for Gramps – but which dog and where is he?
A simple story, but full of meaty opportunity for the illustrator – dogginess, silliness, canine capers, and a backcloth of coastal landscape. Yet there was a subtle strand weaving itself through the text: Gramp’s increasing loneliness, coming to terms with physical frailty, a family’s loving concern for Gramps living on his own. I was particularly interested in bringing out this deeper layer without overshadowing the glorious zany humour in the main story. As the storyboard and sketches developed I would regularly meet with Jan, who would then quickly pare away chunks of her text, remove the odd word, switch it around, ‘if you’re showing it – don’t tell!’ I would in turn alter my layouts, my sketches. It was a completely fluid and exciting way of working together.
At the beginning of the book I show Gramps in a series of vignettes going about his everyday life, but with no descriptive text. There are visual clues for the reader, a woman’s shoes, two plates set for breakfast, photos, a basket of knitting – left open to interpretation. The scene is set, there is no explanation until later on.
The large illustration appears in the middle of the book. Gramps is at his weekend caravan, his bolt-hole for when he needs to go and think. He’s been eating chips from the paper and imagining sharing his life with a dog, and how he would never be lonely. It’s dark outside, he’s lying on a small built-in bed, with an odd hinged folding table attached to it. His feet are tucked into thick hand-knitted socks (Granny’s?). He is cocooned in his small untidy space surrounded by collected pebbles, photos – shared memories. His imagined doggy thoughts dance above his head as he thinks how different his life would be if he had a dog of his own.
For this picture I drew the image in pencil on paper and then printed it on my very old photocopier, altering the scale to fit the page, and experimenting with the tone. The printing subtly changes the drawing, adding unexpected half-tones, darkening the lines. The results can be unpredictable but exciting, rather like printmaking. I then have a black and white print to work on in colour. Here, I’ve used water colour and ink. The curtains are collage. Gramps wears his knitted burnt-red pullover, as he does throughout the book. I try not to plan exactly how an image will look – I like to have somewhere to go with the art, and to be hands-on rather than digital. I aim to keep the freshness of the original sketches, which is so hard to do – how do you ever know when an illustration is finished and not be tempted to overwork it?
The last page of the book show a series of small vignettes: Gramps with Rex, gazing out to the horizon, and time passing. There is no text here, the images hold the moment.
While choosing the illustrations for this article, I remembered how Jan and I had dovetailed it all together, how I couldn’t resist holding on to and extending those final moments between Gramps and Rex. We laughed about it, but those small hesitant pictures now feel so poignant. I could never have imagined that 18 months later my dear friend and mentor wouldn’t be around to celebrate the publication of our book.
Jan Ormerod died on 23 January 2013.
Carol Thompson has written and illustrated around 50 books translated into fifteen languages, including two indigenous SIOUX dialects, Dakota and Ojibwe. Her book Daddy, Papa and me won the Stonewall Honour Prize (American Library Association).
Looking for Rex by Jan Ormerod illustrated by Carol Thompson is published by Egmont, ISBN, £6.99 pbk.