Guy Parker-Rees, the illustrator of many favourite picture books, from Giraffes Can’t Dance to Down by the Cool of the Pool, explains the thinking and technique behind his new series starring Dylan, an exuberant, stripy dog.
The Holy Grail for many illustrators is a free and fluid line. Maybe it’s always been the case: Hokusai talks of ‘keeping the line alive’ and Matisse says, ‘Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence’.
I like the exuberance of colour. I want to be slapped around the chops by strong colours when I open a picture book. But it’s like playing with fire, if you don’t handle strong colours carefully they knock each other out and the emotional meaning is lost.
For a book like Giraffes Can’t Dance, I used a dip pen and ink and let the pen bounce freely along the paper. But I was finding that in my own painting and drawing I was attracted to the emotional value of coloured pencil and oil pastel. I liked the expressive qualities of the crunchier, colourful line.
My Dylan books all evolved from one very loose sketch of a stripy dog character, created on a tablet many years ago.
He kept looking at me from the wall of my studio, demanding I tell his story. I knew that I wanted to use this pencil/oil pastel line to tell it. His story would be about the mini dramas of growing up and getting on with other people.
When I was talking to my genius editor, Alison Green, she suggested making a series of Dylan books. So I had to think of a gang of friends and a whole world that could exist beyond the one book. The characters dash between each other’s houses along a rolling path. It’s probably more than a little inspired by the hills and distant sea glimpses of the South Downs, where I live.
I found that this new line worked well against a white background. Here’s an early sketch of Dylan feeling very important as a teacher.
But I found the line was getting lost when there was colour behind it. With lots of trial and error and much encouragement and support from my rather brilliant art director/midwife, Zoë Tucker, a new style was born.
Once I have a rough drawing of how a page is going to work I loosely trace it onto watercolour paper with Transtrace. This gives me an idea of where everything is going to go. I then build up the coloured pencil and oil pastel line as spontaneously as possible and slop on the watercolours, acrylic inks and watercolour inks – whatever will get me just the right colour. I paint the characters separate from the background. I then get all the elements of the artwork scanned and returned to me. I draw the white cut-out line around each character on a separate layer then put it all together.
I also wanted a contrast in style between the indoor and outdoor spaces. Going outside is a big and important transition for a small child.
So the inside spaces are defined by a graphic line and flat colours whereas for the outside spaces I let rip with more watercolour, pencil and oil pastel backgrounds.
Dylan the Teacher, the third in the series, is out in August, then Dylan the Baker will publish next year. I’m very excited that Brown Bag, the people who made Octonauts are currently producing a series of Dylan animations.
Dylan the Teacher is published by Alison Green Books, 978-1-4071-7174-6, £6.99 pbk.