Finalist Interview: The illustration of The Three Bears…Sort of, by Donovan Bixley

If you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out.

We have asked our fantastic finalists for the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand Young Adults all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses.

The Three Bears…Sort of, by Yvonne Morrison and illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic NZ) is a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the awards.

Thank you to illustrator Donovan Bixley for his generous responses:

1. What was your approach to illustrating this book?
Actually I didn’t know what to make of it at first. A very daunting proposition, as usually I have at least a few clear visions in my head and start working out from those. This led to a rather different approach than I usually take.

2. Tell us a bit about the journey from storyboards to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in illustrating this book?
Three Bears was a particularly interesting project. Scholastic had a very funny manuscript but they didn’t know how on earth it could be illustrated, or who could illustrate it. When they offered it to me, I fell about laughing and immediately ran inside to read to my family. But I could see that it was going to be very difficult to illustrate.

cv_the_three_bears_sort_ofThis book was most unusual for me in the fact that I didn’t do any roughs or storyboards. Instead I did some very vague stick figure drawings and sent Scholastic a long letter about what I was THINKING I might do with this very funny post-modern text. The challenge was, interpreting the ever-changing voices in the text – which I envisaged as many different styles of illustration.

As often happens with good ideas, turning them into reality is often much harder than the vague foggy picture in your head. Normally I work out a whole book in advance, get those roughs approved, then the final illustrations are just a matter of knuckling down and making it happen – which can be a mainly technical process. For Three Bears, I had a tremendous amount of fun the whole way through the process, because each page was trying to figure out a new style, technique, composition and way of making it fit the text AND make it fit together with the previous pages. All that problem solving is the most fun part of my work. I had plenty of moments of self doubt – wondering if the whole thing was just going to be a huge mish-mash of styles and disparate ideas as I tried to visualise this journey from traditional storybook bears to realistic non-fiction bears and everything in-between.

3. How closely were you able to collaborate with the writer? Do you prefer to work this way?
In all of the picture books I’ve illustrated, I’ve never had much correspondence with the author. In some cases none at all. Funnily enough, I really love working this way. I like not being influenced by any preconceived ideas that the author (or publisher) might have. It requires a lot of sensitivity and understanding on part of the illustrator – and it could all go horribly wrong. But it also requires a lot of trust – that the publisher has chosen the right person to bring this particular text to life. I like that both creators are entrusted to contribute our artistic speciality – and maybe, just maybe, it might just have that strange alchemy that no one can predict (thank goodness, otherwise we’d all be replaced by robots!) and then the finished book becomes something magical and not some middling design-by-committee production.

4. Can you recommend any illustrators whose work you find yourself particularly influenced by?
As a kid of my generation it was hard not to be a fan of Dr Seuss. cv_the_weather_machingThe Lorax is one of my all-time favourite books – it was responsible for my desire to become an illustrator and an inspiration for my 2013 book The Weather Machine (right). I was also a big fan of Guillermo Mordillo and later discovered Graham Oakley’s Churchmice series – the influence of both can be seen in my work like The Looky Book and Dashing Dog, with all the background hidden images and in-jokes and layers that are there to be discovered or understood on subsequent readings. When I went to art school I discovered comics and became a big fan of this new young comic writer called Neil Gaiman and his long time illustration collaborator Dave McKean (the Picasso of comics). As well as those above, my favourite artists include Norman Rockwell, Edgar Degas, John Howe, Edmund Dulac, Bill Peet, Shawn Tan, Gennady Spirin and Chris Riddell.

5. What was your favourite thing to draw when you were at primary school – did you have a “party trick”?
Mum read me The Lord of the Rings when I was seven. I spent years obsessed with bringing Tolkien’s world to life, until about 16 when I discovered John Howe’s illustrations (which are just perfect) and I’ve never done a Middle Earth picture since.

don martinMy best friend (also one of the top drawers at school) and I were into recreating the big nosed Mordillo cartoons and Don Martin’s characters from MAD Magazine (pictured left, copyright Don Martin and MAD Magazine). Our projects were always dotted with colourful characters and elaborate hand-lettered fonts. We could get away with anything at primary school with work like that. Unfortunately in those days everyone used to get beaten up at least a few times a week by one bully or other. Luckily for me, I discovered that drawing trucks was a good way to keep the school bully on side. Funnily enough (just writing this now), I realise that I’ve always hated drawing cars and trucks. I’m much more into people and animals.

6. Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
This past summer at my parent’s bach at Ohiwa,cv_cloud_atlas just south of Ohope, I spent a few days sitting under the trees, with a soundtrack of native birds as I FINALLY got round to reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It really moved me, and I was glad that I could just sit there for hours afterwards in the cooling late afternoon and absorb it all (going through and reading passages entire again) – then spending hours talking about it all with all my family over dinner. My daughters went on to watch the movie and my eldest read the book (her first foray into serious literary fiction – and she loved it). It’s got a 5 star rating in my Book Book, along with Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Straight after that I read another long term ‘must read’ – William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. This was given to me by my eldest daughter, who is always bringing books for me to read. She’s great at predicting what I might like and both of us are big fans of Charlie Higgson’s The Enemy zombie apocalypse series.