Leo Timmers’ style is characterised by humour, form and colour, which make his illustrations leap off the page. He likes to tell stories visually with a minimum of words, and his books inluding Elephant Island, Who’s Driving? and Kind Crocodile have been hits in the UK and across the world. He was the first Flemish illustrator to have a book included in the New York Times’ ten best books of the year. He describes his technique and approach in this special feature.
As a picture book maker, I love to tell stories through pictures. For me, sketching is the only way to find a story. I try to be as spontaneous as possible, open to wherever my hand and pencil will take me. It’s pretty magical.
I chose this illustration because a rough version of this picture became the starting point of my story. I stumbled upon a horizontal, long crocodile with a big mouth, and then I filled his back with all kinds of animals (much more than in the final picture). The image triggered my imagination, and that’s what I’m always looking for: one image that sparks a whole story.
This time the story came very quickly (I wish that was always the case!). It’s about animals finding shelter on the crocodile’s long back, while his big teeth scare their enemies away. I felt this story carried enough interesting ideas and themes to make a book. I liked the idea of a good, kind-hearted crocodile as a protagonist. It goes against the cliché of most crocodiles being mean. The story also emphasises the importance of the oppressed joining forces. They can be very strong if they work together. But there’s a flipside to that idea: overconfidence!
The look of the crocodile grew out of the story. He needed a long back to fit all the animals, and a big mouth with lots of teeth to scare away all the enemies. But I also gave him long, narrow legs. If you look closely at the illustration, you’ll see the crocodile looks very tired. With every animal that jumps on his back, he sinks closer to the ground. In this illustration he’s already on his knees, about to collapse under the increasing weight. (And the rhino hasn’t even arrived yet!) The only way to show the weight increasing was to put him on long legs. It took me quite a while to figure that out.
All my illustrations are painted with acrylics, without the help of photoshop or collage.
To paint the fluffy dust clouds – a visual motif throughout the book – I used an airbrush for the first time. That was fun! The dust also helped me to suggest speed and acceleration which was very important for this dynamic story.
Because the story is so visual, I wanted a spare, simple text. In early versions I had the crocodile saying much more, but with every new version I cut out more and more, until only ‘Grrrr!’ remained.
The ‘GRRR!’ becomes gradually bigger and longer throughout the book as the crocodile needs to put in more effort to scare away the bad animals. The last ‘GRRR!’ of the book is enormous! Whenever I do readings, it is so much fun to let the children shout ‘GRRRRRRRRR!’ as loud as they can! They love it!
The Kind Crocodile is published by Gecko Press, 978-1776574704.