John Broadley was one of five debut picture book illustrators shortlisted for the 2021 Klaus Flugge Prize for most exciting newcomer to picturebook illustration. He uses intricate, detailed pen and ink illustrations, alive with texture and detail and with echoes of Eric Ravilious. In this article, John describes his approach and his overnight success.
I got into children’s illustration quite recently, having originally graduated from university in the 1990s. I’d been illustrating in my spare time whilst holding down a full-time job working a nightshift for a media monitoring company. When I left the job in 2019, after over twenty years, the same week Pavilion contacted me to enquire if I would be interested in illustrating a book about people who worked nights – a happy coincidence which seemed fated!
When I saw Mick Jackson’s manuscript for the book which would become While You’re Sleeping, I was instantly inspired. It reminded me of WH Auden’s commentary on the GPO documentary, Night Mail, and I was already seeing images in my head of people at work in the sorting office, or baking bread, or delivering items.
My work is very detailed and also quite naive in its style. I deliberately flatten perspectives or use exaggerated viewpoints. Looking back on books I used to enjoy as a child, I remembered staring into drawings by Tolkien, following the roads he drew into the distance and observing the detail, and I wanted to bring some of the same appeal into my own drawings.
I work almost exclusively in black and white ink on paper. I use cheap A4 lined paper which I glue together to form bigger sheets, rather than buying drawing paper. There are many advantages of working like this; being thinner, I like the way the paper absorbs the ink, and the lines provide a guide which helps with both scale and keeping the horizontal constant. I use a dip pen but only after I have drawn out straight lines and curves with rulers and stencils using a sharpie or rollerball. I like the contrast between hand-made marks and straight edges or industrially created pattern. There is a lot of pattern in my drawings which is mixed between being hand-rendered and collaged. For collage elements, such as brickwork, foliage in trees, tarmac, I create sheets of texture by ’sampling’ marks found in newspapers and magazines (like rows of dots, woodgrain etc) and repeating them onto A4 pages which are printed out and then cut into the drawings. If I’m really in a rush to complete a job I can do this digitally, but I prefer to have a physical original drawing, even though the end result becomes digitised.
My original drawings are usually too big to fit on my A3 scanner, meaning that they have to be scanned in several pieces and be painstakingly fitted together in Photoshop, a very awkward task especially on detailed drawings. From the scan I make a completely black line art file and I then add layers of colour underneath. I sometimes cut out elements of the line and colour the drawing itself if I want to create a softer effect for trees or water.
I worked closely with the team at Pavilion Books throughout the process, particularly on the covers of the two books. The first book featured a boy asleep in his bed as it flies over a night-time town. For the second book, we decided to keep an aerial view, but this time, there are children in a hot air balloon who are looking all around at the view around them. I’d learned a few tricks since doing the first cover, which required quite a lot of re-drawing to get the layout correct, so for this image I drew the balloon with the children separately to the landscape, to allow me to reposition it as needed. The publishers liked the way I had disguised the barcode on the first book (by putting it on the side of a delivery truck) and so this time I incorporated both the code and logo on the side of a lighthouse which appears in the foreground on the back cover.
One of the nicest things about making books for children has been in seeing a positive response online, especially when people have posted photographs of their children copying my pictures – high praise indeed!