Michael Foreman is one of the UK’s greatest children’s illustrators, with an achievement which Michael Morpurgo describes as ‘mountainous in scale and scope’. His devotion to drawing and especially to painting, began in childhood, and has continued undiminished to this day. Here he discusses his approach and technique.
Most of my illustrations are water-colours. A pencil line first then, building up the colour from the back, first the sky, then middle ground, foreground, people, animals, monsters etc. Like constructing a stage set – backdrop, scenery, then actors.
For added contrast, texture (or to cover mistakes) I sometimes add pastel. Water-colour has the reputation of being ‘unforgiving’ – it is difficult to control, wonderfully fluid, sometimes with a mind of its own, and it is difficult to rectify or conceal mistakes.
However, it is this willful, unpredictable quality which is part of the magic. One colour flowing into another, changing, transforming, pleasing then upsetting, like a child you love being a bit naughty. A challenge, an adventure, a daily dip into a world of colour and imagination.
Accidents happen. A smudge, a spill. Once a ladybird landed on a still-wet painting of a flower. Thumbelina was
quite shocked. I had almost finished a painting of ‘The Ogre’, one of Terry Jones’ Fairy Tales, when I spilled my mug of coffee over the top half of the picture. Fortunately, the ogre was in a dark cave and the coffee made a wonderful rocky texture in the wet water-colour. Grabbing the coffee jar, I sprinkled more coffee grains here and there to add to the effect.
I have done a number of books with the wonderful Terry and, when travelling through France together researching The Knight and the Squire, we stopped for a meal at a village bar. While waiting for Terry to pay the bill (it was his turn) I did a sketch of the garden across the street.
The garden didn’t appear in our book but, a couple of years later, it seemed the perfect location for the Angel to appear to the young Joan of Arc, as written by Michael Morpurgo. This often happens, fortunately, particularly with ‘the other Michael.’ While travelling and researching one book, ideas suggest themselves for future books.
I remember Michael sitting in Sherwood Forest, making notes while I sketched trees – the kind of trees I liked climbing as a boy, the kind of trees I thought the Outlaws would climb and ambush the Sheriff of Nottingham. The ‘other Michael’ looked up.
“This is fun,” he said. “What shall we do next?”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve always wanted to do a book about football.”
“Later, maybe,” the ‘other one’ said. “We’ve done King Arthur. Now we’re doing Robin Hood. I think we should do a girl next – what about Joan of Arc?” So, it was off to France for local colour and local wine.
After Joan, I got my way and we did the football book – Billy the Kid. In the ‘other Michael’s’ hands it became much more than a football book.
Going to the actual locations, the real landscape of the stories is important to both of us.
I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to travel and draw in many parts of the world, researching books and stumbling upon locations and characters which inspire future stories. From my first day at Saturday morning Art School (aged 12) observing and drawing the real world has been a joy and at the heart of everything.
Pictures of ‘The Ogre’ (author: Terry Jones) and ‘The Angel appearing to Joan of Arc’ (author: Michael Morpurgo) are in Michael Foreman’s new autobiography A Life in Pictures, published by Pavilion, 978-1843652991, £25.00