Helen Hancocks’s debut picture book Penguin in Peril was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal, and shortlisted for numerous awards including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Cambridge Read It Again Award. Her next two books, starring handsome cat William, also won much praise and her work is characterised by its humour, busy scenes depicted in striking compositions and filled with clever details. In her latest book, she has been tempted away from cats and penguins by Kim Sears and a commission to illustrate a book about and narrated by a dog. Here she explains her approach to this challenge.
How to Look After Your Human, my fourth book, is a departure for me. It is the first time I’ve worked on someone else’s text … a dog’s … and my debut into drawing canines (although I have sneaked in a few cats).
At first I was unsure I could capture the spirit of a dog. I am more confident with cats. Dogs, coming in all shapes and sizes, are a real challenge to paint, especially the texture of the fur (I learnt how to use a dry brush for that). Most dogs are brown, grey, white or black so I decided the other elements had to be bright, in contrast, to make the dogs stand out. I always have a handy scrap of paper on my desk and test out paint colours as I go – at the end of a project the sheet is like its own artwork.
I’m really bad at keeping a sketchbook, but I often doodle on scraps of paper. My research consisted of watching dogs pass by the window, meeting friends with dogs, buying a big book on dog breeds and doing many searches on google. I also used research as an excuse to go on daily walks to see people out walking their dogs. This doubled up as exercise away from the desk! It was autumn when I started work and many dogs had little coats on to keep them warm, which was useful to observe when it came to paint the chapter heading for one of my favourite spreads, ‘How to Dress Your Human’. I really enjoyed researching and devising costumes for dogs and their humans, this mainly came from looking on the internet but also looking through books. There are some crazy costumes people make for dogs and In New York they seem to have dog costume parades! I once wanted to be a fashion designer, so enjoy dressing characters – there’s a few of the human outfits I really wish I could wear. My favourite dog from this page is the Dachshund in a hot dog outfit
I really like the way the New Yorker artist Mark Ulriksen paints dogs because they hold so much expression. Quite often it is the eyes that hold the key to an expression. Often I leave the eyes to last, and in some cases have to draw the whole thing out again if, for example, the dog looks angry when it was meant to look excited. At one point in the book, Maggie makes a joke about owners looking like their dogs. I tried to show this through expression and hairstyle. Whilst painting this page I recalled the opening scenes of Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, where all the dogs look similar to their owners. It always makes me laugh. Some owners do match their dogs very well.
I primarily work in gouache paint, it’s like a thicker version of water colour, and I love its opaqueness. I work from my thumbnail sketches and, for this book, I worked up bigger roughs as I went along. I was sent a chapter at a time, so it was a good way to pace out the work. Once everything is settled on I normally pencil everything out then paint on top – occasionally changing things as I go, if something isn’t working, or adding a sneaky cat in somewhere. Then once the work has been scanned, a few tweaks and some cleaning up on photoshop the image is ready.
I really enjoyed working on this book and bringing Maggie’s advice to life, I learned to love dogs but secretly I am still a cat person at heart – just don’t tell Maggie.
How to Look After Your Human by Kim Sears illustrated by Helen Hancocks is published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 978-1-8478-0745-8, £14.99 hbk