Neal Layton’s trademark scribbly line combines with collage, crayon and computer generated images to produce illustrations that create a distinctive world in a way that is both boldly witty and confidently dramatic. Here he explains the techniques and thinking behind two illustrations from his latest picture book, Emily Brown and the THING.
Emily Brown and the THING, written by Cressida Cowell, was a text that really allowed my imagination to get fired up. Amongst other things the book deals with ideas of fantasy and reality and working on this book reminded me of all the hours I used to spend as a child immersed in the imaginary worlds I was creating on paper. It also perfectly conjured up the anxiety that can be felt as night falls and everything begins to look a little different…
In this sequel to That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, Emily and her stalwart rabbit companion Stanley have a series of nocturnal adventures after meeting a strange character called the THING. In the first illustration I’ve selected the THING has appeared in the kitchen asking Emily Brown to go fetch him his bedtime milk to help him sleep. The open fridge has become a portal to a cold mountainous world.
I used collage to help root the illustration in reality and contrast with the more expressive hand drawn marks, layering the image up in much the same way as a printmaker would – in fact I tend to think of my illustrations as CMYK prints on paper. CMYK is how books are printed – with four colour inks Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black – so when I’m working on my illustrations I’ll think of them as ink on paper, choosing the colours as CMYK mixes. In the final stages of a book I’ll liaise very closely with the designer and the printer to make sure all the colours and plates knit together nicely.
Stanley is collaged from a scan of my (now rather elderly and threadbare) teddy bear. Although nobody else will be able to unlock a reference like this, I think it can give illustrations an extra tacit power whilst also helping me to engage with it in a more personal way.
There are other incidentals in this picture, like the knocked over mug tree, the discarded burger wrappers and apple core. Picture books are meant to be read more than once so adding sub narratives can broaden the story out and make re-reading a book a more satisfying experience. When I’m working on a book I’ll often imagine I’m reading it to a child and think of what things I might pick out in a picture for them to look for and think about. I find children are very observant readers!
As you turn the page the next illustration shows Emily and Stanley far out in the Wild and whirling wastes battling with polar bears as they try and fetch the THING his hot milk.
I used cold blue colours and grainy icy textures in the image. I also made the THING really tiny standing by the door back to reality, to give the picture a lot of depth, so it feels like Emily and Stanley have made a long and intrepid journey from the safety of the kitchen. I have enjoyed illustrating frozen landscapes before in the series of Oscar and Arabella books, so I had lots of reference and techniques to hand. All the collaged photographs of mountains are from holidays to the French Alps – another hidden personal touch!
Working on many layers allows me to make lots of drawings and try out different ideas, backgrounds and approaches to a piece. The computer files are enormous by the time it is finished, but I’m really happy if the finished results look spontaneous and fresh.
Emily Brown and the THING by Cressida Cowell is published by Orchard Books (978 1 84616 693 8, £10.99 hbk).
Neal Layton won the Nestlé Smarties Gold Award in 2006 for That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown and the Bronze Medal for Oscar and Arabella in 2002 and for Bartholomew and the Boy in 2004. He won the Stockport, Portsmouth and Sheffield Children’s Books Awards for Jennifer Jones Won’t Leave Me Alone.