Chris Wormell broke new ground at the beginning of the ’90s with his exquisitely stylish An Alphabet of Animals which won the Bologna graphics prize. Here he explains the techniques and thinking behind two illustrations from his picture book George and the Dragon.
These two pictures are from my book George and the Dragon. The mouse comes after a series of pictures of the dragon, describing how terrible and cruel and mighty and, well, apparently invincible he is – except … he’s terrified of mice!
I tried to make the mouse, George, look timid and innocent and harmless to emphasize the contrast between mouse and dragon. And I put him all alone on a big wide double page spread to make him look really small. The picture, hopefully, comes as a surprise.
The other picture is the ‘climax’ picture of the book – the moment when mouse and dragon meet, and George inadvertently saves the princess. George is making his rather mundane enquiry (altogether untroubled by his surprising neighbour) and we see the startling effect it has.
This sort of picture I always find the most fun to do; something dramatic is happening and there’s lots of expression on the characters’ faces – I particularly enjoyed doing the dragon’s look of horror.
When I’m working on a story, I write down the first draft in a sketchbook and scribble lots of little drawings mixed in with the words. Though these words often change many times, I usually stick to my original picture ideas.
Once the story is roughed out I practise drawing the characters in various different positions. In this way I get to know what they look like and how they move. If I’m lucky the character might come out right in the first drawing I do, but more often I scribble out twenty or thirty drawings before one feels right. Once I think I’ve got to know the characters fairly well I start work on the finished pictures.
The pictures in this book are watercolours. I like the bold, broad washes of watercolour, mixed with tighter more detailed areas. The trouble is it’s hard to achieve bold, broad washes when you have lots of fiddly shapes to paint around – like a dragon’s spiky back or a tiny mouse. So for these pictures I used something called masking fluid, a gluey white substance that dries out to form a waterproof rubbery film. After drawing out the scene on fairly rough watercolour paper, I painted the masking fluid onto my main subjects – the mouse, the dragon, the princess etc, then once the fluid had dried, I could paint the background as broadly and as sloppily as I liked, without the worry of painting around all the fiddly bits. When the background was dry, I just peeled off the rubbery film and was left with some nice white shapes ready to be filled in with mouse or dragon or princess.
A word of warning about masking fluid; don’t paint it on with a paintbrush, not if you value the brush. Once you get this stuff on a brush, you can never get it off! You end up with a nasty rubbery mess. So use something else to apply it!
George and the Dragon is published by Red Fox (0 09 941766 9, £5.99 pbk) and was on the shortlist for the Red House award in 2003. Chris Wormell’s Two Frogs won the 2003 Smarties bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2004. A set of Royal Mail stamps featuring ten farm animals by Chris Wormell is published this month.