Twice winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal for her debut picture book Wolves (2005) and for Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears (2008), Emily Gravett’s distinctively original approach to story is created by the dynamic interplay of text, colour, line and lay-out to dramatic effect. Here she explains the technique and thinking behind two illustrations for her most recent picture book, Dogs.
As a child I desperately wanted a dog, but my mum, understanding the work involved (and being more of a cat person), always said ‘No’. So of course the first thing I did when I left home was get a dog! She was lovable and slightly mad and I adored her. Over the next few years she was joined by two more.
The second was sneaky and very adept at getting her way by fluttering her eyelashes, and the third was exceedingly grumpy and although he wasn’t a big dog, he demanded the personal space of a Great Dane! When he died a few years ago I thought my days as a dog owner were over.
But then I found that instead of concentrating on coming up with ideas for a new book, I was spending hours-days-weeks trawling Internet rescue sites looking longingly at abandoned mutts and doodling my fantasy dogs.
I had just finished working on Spells, which is a book about a frog that longs to become a prince. It was great fun to work on, but was very complex with half cut pages and layers of images, so I had a hankering to make a book with a clean simple feel.
Unfortunately I was having trouble coming up with a good idea. I was far too busy searching for our ‘perfect’ dog! While my daughter looked through dog breed books picking her favourites, I weighed up the merits of small versus big, scruffy versus smooth, and compared every type and temperament imaginable. Somewhere during this process it occurred to me that a collection of these dogs might make a good subject for a book. I was hoping that it would have the same appeal to children as our dog breed book has for my daughter. There’s something irresistible about choosing and comparing favourites. (And of course least favourites!)
The text of Dogs is almost a litany or a list comparing contrasting dogs, whether in size, appearance, or character, but when read through to the end it does tell a simple story.
I tried not to impose too much personality into the text, hoping that the reader would assume it is a human who is narrating, giving the ending a bit of ‘punch’, and also focusing the reader on the images.
For me Dogs is mostly about the drawings, so it was important to get the characters and relationships between them right. I drew and r
e-drew until I was satisfied but tried not to overlabour each drawing. I was trying to capture the spontaneity and emotion that real dogs display. I wanted them to be easy to identify and sympathise with, for a human, but essentially dog-like. A celebration of dogginess!
I kept my backgrounds plain, but warm (I didn’t want the book to feel stark), and props to a minimum. I used oil based pencil and watercolour and assembled the images on my computer in Photoshop. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process, and somewhere during the making of the book our perfect dog came to live with us for real.
His name is Otto, and of course he made it into the book too!
Dogs by Emily Gravett is published by Macmillan Children’s Books (978 0 230 70422 0) at £10.99.