Winner of the Unesco award for his picture book Something Else and twice winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal (for Pirate Diary and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver) Chris Riddell is also a political cartoonist for the Observer, the Literary Review and the New Statesman . His work is characterised by its distinctive line, clever caricature and fantastical imagination. Here he explains the techniques and thinking behind two illustrations from his latest picture book, The Emperor of Absurdia.
The Emperor of Absurdia is an unashamedly fantastical, not to mention, absurd romp through a dreamlike world of pointy birds, wardrobe monsters and big green dragons. It begins with the emperor, a little boy in blue pyjamas, tumbling out of a flower bed to the hoots of sky fish nibbling umbrella trees. In the opening spread I wanted the rococo forms of the flower beds to dominate against a blue background, with the movement of the emperor tumbling out of bed shown in panels inset on the right hand page. From a sleepy start, the reader tumbles into the story in a suitably absurd way. I use ink and watercolour, drawing out the picture in pencil first, inking it in using a fine-pointed paintbrush and Indian Ink, then applying washes of watercolour. The writing process for a picture book often begins for me with a random sketch or doodle in a notebook. A character or scene might catch my imagination and suggest the beginnings of a story. The Emperor of Absurdia began with a doodle of a little boy sitting up, tousle-haired, in the enfolding petals of a giant flower. I then develop the story by sketching it out in thumbnail pictures with accompanying words. The thirty-two page picture book is a wonderful storytelling form and by visualising a book in miniature, you can work out the pace and picture progression to animate the story. I am always amazed at how complex and intricate this process can be, requiring endless adjustments and reworkings. One of the things I love about picture books is a big surprise. In The Emperor of Absurdia, this is the picture of a big green dragon bursting out of the cave to chase the emperor all the way to the end of the book. The emperor is small and panic stricken in the left hand corner, running full pelt for the safety of the edge of the page. Above him, the big yellow-eyed dragon looms, full of picture book menace, the rest of its body filling the right hand page. The text is set against a warm yellow sky as the sun sets, and is in various point sizes for emphasis, in tune with the rhythm of the pictures. After the initial ink drawing, I stretch the watercolour paper on a drawing board using brown tape. This allows me to lay down broad watercolour washes. I use thinned down watercolour inks to build up a more intense colour, often using washes of complementary colours. When the main colours are down, I work into them in darker watercolour, adding shading and modelling. Soft highlights can be added by lifting off the watercolour in small areas with a wet paintbrush and tissue. Finally, tiny flecks of white gouache provide bright highlights such as the glint in an eye or on a claw.
The beauty of the picture book form for me is the way pictures and text can work together on the page. The composition of an illustration can reflect the cadence of a sentence; the expression on a character’s face can enhance a line of text or act as a counterpoint to it. The size and detail of an illustration can vary the pace at which a page is turned and a single line on a clean white page can stop you in your tracks. All this in the seemingly simple guise of a thirty-two page book for three-year-olds.
Will the dragon catch the emperor? How will he escape? And what’s that hidden in the endpapers? You’ll have to read and look at The Emperor of Absurdia to find out!
The Emperor of Absurdia is published by Macmillan (1 4050 5061 6, £10.99 hbk).