Chris Haughton published his first picture book, Little Owl Lost, in 2010, and received a Best New Illustrators Award in 2011. With minimal text, minimalist illustrations, and bold use of colour, his books are original and visually very striking. Here he explains the technique and narrative approach in his new book, Shh! We Have a Plan.
Shh! We Have a Plan is my third picture book. When I was coming up with the story I was looking at the road runner cartoons and I really love the idea of the coyote never quite able to catch roadrunner and all the ways he ends up failing. It seemed it would translate well into the theatre of the picture book where there can be a surprise each time you turn the page. I thought this idea would be a good starting point to tell a story visually. I try to tell all my stories in this way, in fact I see the text really just an additional layer on top of the story which helps to pace it, give prompts and clues to what is going on.
Usually I work with pencil on paper and then work on that digitally, but because Shh! often has 5 characters on each page I was looking for a way of simplifying the images graphically so they can be read easily. I found using paper collage was a much more efficient technique in this book than drawings. It was a way to simplify the characters and it was easier to move them around on the page to match the text.
It was an unusual way for me to work; I didn’t have a table big enough to make these giant spreads so I ended up working on the floor! All the colouring I did digitally, so in order to simplify things I did the paper collage in black, white and grey and left the colour until I scanned it in and then changed it in Photoshop.
In all my books I’ve tried to think of them as they’re being read and make each page-turn as funny as possible; the humour in Shh! comes from the countdown ‘ready one… ready two… ready three…’ when the page is turned the characters always miss the bird they’re trying to catch – this builds up into repetition which can be predicted and hopefully gives it a comic, pantomime effect.
I wanted to tell the story as visually as possible, so I made it with three characters so the text could go above each character mirroring the action in the illustration. Each spread is laid out so that the text lines up with the character in each case and can be read across the page, following the images.
As with all picture books, Shh! Is printed with CMYK colours, with an additional, usually black, text plate. In order to make my books as colourful as possible we use a colour text plate. From the very beginning I imagined this in blue to give a kind of night time, dark forest atmosphere. The shapes of the characters and the blue colour is a nod to one of my favourite artists Tomi Ungerer and his The Three Robbers.
I wanted the bird to contrast with the monochrome forest, it’s relatively small but has to be really clear to be the focus of all the character’s attention – in order to increase its contrast we made it the only thing in the whole book that’s printed with any yellow at all. The rest of the book is only in CMK. Later in the book there’s a gathering of lots of multicoloured birds for a visual punch and we hoped that having this page as the only full colour page would heighten that effect.
Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton is published by Walker Books (978-1406342321) at £11.99 hbk