INTERVIEW FOR COMPUTER ARTS MAGAZINE.
ILLUSTRATING CHILDREN'S BOOKS
The Patrician's Office from 'Where's my Cow'
What is your background? Did your education prepare you for a career in children's book illustration, or did you get into the industry via some
From the very beginning of school life I found myself with top marks in art. I don’t know why, it just seemed to happened. Maybe somebody was kind to me. From the age of twelve I attended art school part time and full time from sixteen to eighteen. Then I dropped out. My art school education did not prepare me for anything really; it just let me be in that environment. What it did give me was encouragement and the re-enforcement of myself. The children’s book interest probably came from creating characters and telling stories about them to my younger brother and sister.
Why did you choose a career partly or wholly based around children's
I did not choose to have a career in children’s books alone and I don’t. My artistic ability is very versatile and I have done work ranging from cute to horrific. Fantasy is my anchor point, and that can go anywhere. Take a look at my website www.melgrant.com and you will see some of the work I’ve done and the range it covers.
How difficult is it to get into this industry? What's been your biggest
success so far, and how was it achieved?
I have no idea how difficult starting is now. I started sometime back and it was a different world then and I just, sort of, fell into it anyway. I’d planned to write and make movies.
Every painting I am happy with, I count as a success, and I enjoy painting. But commercial successes, I would say, the Ugly Duckling poster I did many years ago, which then also became a top selling printed mirror, Iron Maiden album covers and an illustrated book written by Terry Pratchett.
The Ugly Duckling.
What techniques do you use, and what materials/hardware/software, and why?
For many years I worked in oil paints and I loved the feel and smell of that stuff, but now I mostly paint digitally. I use Photoshop 7 on a Mac G4, but I shall shortly be upgrading to a Dual G5. I’ve used PCs, but I personally prefer Macs. In the past I have used Painter, which would seem the more obvious choice of program, but I always come back to Photoshop as it’s more straightforward and reliable and is the industry printing standard. It would be nice if there were available a ‘Painter style’ plugin for Photoshop, but I don’t know of any at this time. There are ways of getting round this if you use some creative thinking. For instant, if you want to use impasto in Photoshop, just make a duplicate layer above the area you want impasto, bevel it and smolch it around with the smudge tool. When you’re done, merge the layers. And there you go, instant impasto in Photoshop.
I do not use 3D or vector-based programs or do any ‘computer generated’ work. I paint by hand using a tablet and I try to keep it as close to the way I worked with oil paints as I can. Painting digitally is quicker and cleaner, but I still use all the skills I developed using traditional media. The computer does not do the work for me, but sometimes when I’m still at it late into the night, I wish it did.
What/who influences your work in this field?
I think the fear of poverty and the pleasure of painting influences me most. If I didn’t need to earn a living, I’d sit and do very large oil paintings about very strange subjects.
Why do you think someone should look for a career in illustrating children's books? What's on offer? Can you make any money out of it? Do you need to do other work, or can you make a living solely from children's illustration?
I wouldn’t advise anyone to look for a career in illustration of any type if they have a choice and want a normal life. Illustration is hard work and you can throw your social life out of the window for a start. You’d have to be prepared to work all night sometimes, weekends, bank holidays, over Christmas, New Year and any other time you don’t want to and everyone else isn’t. Its called meeting deadlines. You worry when you don’t have work and you worry when you do. And when you’ve finished the job, you know how it should have been done. Sometimes you’re on a real high and there is cash in the bank and then you are so down… But if all that appeals to you… then by all means, go for it. Money can be made, but it can be a turbulent ride.
How do you keep your clients/publishers happy?
Clients are happiest when the job goes smoothly and successfully. They do not like complications, like late deadlines, or anything that makes their lives difficult. Inspiring work is good if you can do it. You are only as good as your last painting. I’d like to say also a cheerful personality, but it’s more to do with the client’s products selling. You will be the first blamed if they don’t and the client will go elsewhere next time.
Is this an industry where you get a lot or repeat business? Why?
As in everything, you will get repeat business if the first is successful.
How is working on children's book illustration different from other fields? Are there more restrictions? Is there a kind of "style" that's favoured or frowned upon, and are such things changing over time? Is it easier or harder to create illustrations for children? Are you more often targeting the children or the parents who buy the books?
Artwork for children’s books is no different from any other except for the obvious restrictions of what is considered correct for children at that time. Style can be anything the publisher likes and usually includes a large dose of cuteness. Also colour fads come and go (whatever the publisher thinks will sell best). You target the Publisher, who targets the parents (they have the money), who think they know what the kids want and the kids nag the hell out of the parents because they want something different. You and the Publisher also try to target the kids to put more pressure on the parents. Being a parent seems harder than illustrating kid’s books.
How are new illustrators discovered? How do you think new talent can better get themselves noticed? How do you pitch this kind of work to publishers? Is it a very competitive field where many rivalries exist, or is it fairly relaxed? Is the industry in growth or decline?
I’ve never heard of illustrators being ‘discovered’. Illustration is a business like any other. However good your artwork is, it is at least fifty percent business and an illustrator must be as good at the business, sales and promotion as you are at the artwork… maybe better. You need a thick skin too. There is no room for a fluffy-headed approach. It is a hard world out there and it seems to be getting harder. First get your work to a professional standard (you can see the standard of professional illustrators at www.artistpartners.com ). Get your plan of action. Prepare a good portfolio and go show it to people.
What's in store for the future of children's book design and illustration? Do you think it will follow the design work, leading to "flat" vector-based artwork or the animation world, leading to 3D modelling becoming more common, or will more traditional-looking images remain?
I’ve no idea what’s in store for the future, things change all the time. Anything can happen. It’s the creative human side that keeps art alive and exciting, whatever media or tools the artists use. ‘Program generated’ has its place, but it always moves on and always comes back to the artist in the end.
What is your ONE NUGGET OF GOLDEN INFORMATION "top tip" for anyone who either wants to work in this industry, or who already works in this industry and wants to improve their game?
First learn to draw well and then have fun.
IF YOU HAVE AN AGENT: Are they worth it? How much extra work do they bring in? What cut will they take? Who should you choose and how do you make that decision?
In the past I have represented myself with some clients and used agents both in London and New York for others. Now all my commissions are dealt solely through my London agent Artist Partners, and having an agent is well worth it. But you need to make sure you have a good one. However good you are at what you do, your agent must be equally as good at what they do. A bad agent will not get you much work, which will only depress and discourage you. When you find an agent that you are happy with, then back them up; keep your portfolio fresh, you work together. It is a partnership. The agent is getting your next job, while you are working on the present one.
Some time back (a long time, I believe), an agent’s cut was about 10% of the fee paid by the client, but now it can be between 30 – 35%. If this seems a lot, think what it would cost you to maintain an office and reps in London, while you live and work from anywhere in the country.
IMAGE: cover for ‘WHERE’S MY COW’
The software/hardware/materials used:
Photoshop 7.0.1. Mac G4. 1.5gig ram. Wacom A4+ tablet.
The title of the book it was used for:
‘WHERE’S MY COW’ by Terry Pratchett
The book's price
This cover was a joint effort between myself and Lizzy Laczynska art director of Transworld, who I worked closely with on this project. I was part way through the interior artwork and we needed a cover. As the book was called ‘Where’s My Cow’ and there was no actual cow in the book, Lizzy suggested we put the cow on the cover, chewing a bit of cud and wandering down a track towards the distant city. So I did the painting, Lizzy did the rest… and Terry Pratchett supplied the Librarian’s OOK! award medal.