What it Means to be an Illustrator
Whenever I’m asked what I do for a living I’ll say, “I’m an illustrator.” There’s inevitably a pause and a quizzical look and so I’ll go on to elaborate further. This usually clarifies things, but not always. Illustrating is one of those professions that often slips under the radar. And although everyone has read a children’s book, we don’t often consider by whom or how they are created.
Illustrating for me always felt like a natural fit. That’s not to say that I necessarily find it easy. But I do enjoy it. I’ve always liked drawing and making things. I tell kids that when I was little I wanted to be a pilot and fly aeroplanes. But I soon realised that I enjoyed drawing them more. So first and foremost, illustrating is something that I enjoy doing. And to be able to share that with others is just as pleasurable.
There’s also the excitement of what I call ‘the possibility of what could be’. That’s the feeling that you get when you first sit down to a new project and imagine what is possible, what you could potentially create. Like a sculptor with a block of stone, imagining the form that lies within.
I think all creators of children’s books strive to make something for kids to get lost in, something that will feed their imagination. Ron Brooks describes the picture-book as like a kind of theatre, where a world is opened up there in front of the reader. So an illustrator has to do more than just copy what they see, or copy what the text says. Your metaphorical block of stone holds more than just a form, it contains a narrative. Illustrations should be telling us something. And this is what both excites and terrifies me – how best to tell the story? You want to be true to the text while adding another layer to the reading, and at times leaving room for the reader to add something for themselves. Getting it just right, that golden mean, lies somewhere between that initial flutter of excitement and labouring over an idea. The hard part is recognising when it’s just right.
One of my favourite illustrators is Ezra Jack Keats. I still have his book ‘Goggles’ from when I was about 5. His use of collage and paint helped to bring to life the gritty urban environments of his stories. It’s the freshness and ease of his images that inspires me. And that’s where I am right now – learning to free things up, making marks in the moment and hopefully spilling some paint along the way – remembering first and foremost to enjoy what I’m doing.