Winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1969 for The Quangle Wangle’s Hat (Heinemann) and in 1999 for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Walker), Helen Oxenbury is known for her conceptualised, deliberately childlike iconography, full of freshness and humour. Here Helen Oxenbury explains the thinking and techniques behind her illustration.
I have illustrated all sorts of books – board books at the baby end of the market, Alice in Wonderland among the classics and so many comedies and romances and adventures in between. Each book calls for its own imaginative approach, and an appropriate medium and technique.
It’s been 30 years since I first thought about making board books. Emily, my third child, was about 3-4 months old and I began to notice there were no books for babies. My daughter loved looking at advertisements and catalogues of nursery equipment: high chairs, cots, strollers, potties, every style and shade of baby clothes; and best of all actual babies wearing the clothes or using the equipment. I looked for books like this, to no avail. So I decided to do a series myself. Books about babies, for babies – this was something new.
It took a lot of trial and error to develop a way of drawing babies that was simplified but not a caricature, babies to believe in. Simplicity was the key – a single figure on the page, conveying real emotion with the minimum of line. On the left-hand page I tried putting an object from the baby’s world – a ball, a dog, shoes, a hat. On the right-hand page the baby interacted with the object. It was the inspirational publisher Sebastian Walker who thought to produce the books on board and his brilliant art-director Amelia Edwards who pulled everything together. The books turned out to be touching and funny for babies and almost everyone else in the family.
Later I invented another kind of board book – the Big Baby Board Books – which had so many babies of all shapes and colours on every page that they seemed to be leaping and rolling and wriggling right out of the book. The books have just been reissued and have lost none of their original energy.
The medium I use to paint in depends on the nature of the book, the story and the characters. For the first series of board books I used soft pencil for the outline and watercolour. I judged that this technique would be too pale for the rumbustious multi-cultural board books. So these babies were rendered in strong primary colours in gouache. The shapes were large and flat – the pages could not contain them. Happiness exploded all around.
So the years went sneaking by with one book following another, and often I thought as I worked how much I would like to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s Alice. But I never knew how I could. Then a television company asked me to create a new Alice and all the wonderful characters she meets for an animated film. This was the challenge. Alice is so much loved by so many people and has been illustrated by such great illustrators – Tenniel being the first and the most admired and remembered. But the process began, the intuitive search, the technical experiments, and in due course I knew I was looking for a very modern Alice, a young girl of our time, whose body language would be confident and relaxed, who would wear simple clothes. And when at last she came onto my drawing board, I knew everything else was possible. I chose watercolour for the medium, for its Englishness. The film never happened, but the book did, which was what I had always wanted.
With all my books I produce a huge number of rough drawings before I come to the image I see in my head. I do not use photographs or models. I spend a lot of time watching people (and animals) interacting. From time to time I attend life drawing classes, but not as often as I should. I find it helps if my good roughs are put in a dummy book, then it is possible to see if the pace of the book is working out, and how the text should be set.
When illustrating someone else’s text, I tend not to talk to the author about their words. They may have their own ideas about the story and how it should look, but I would find it impossible to illustrate someone else’s vision. It’s hard enough to express what is in my own head. I often meet the author later, when the book is finished… and so far all has been well.
The illustrations are taken from Helen’s latest picture book, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox (Walker, 978 1 4063 1592 9, £10.99 hbk) which is also featured on the cover of this issue of BfK, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Walker, 978 0 7445 8267 3, £9.99 pbk).