Thursday, December 14, 2006

Another old friend

Having a distinctive illustration style can be either an asset or a hindrance. If potential clients picture your work when they're assembling the brief, then that's good. But if you then become too closely associated with one particular style you may find yourself overlooked when said style goes out of fashion.

I've survived by being a bit of jack-of-all-trades. Most of my work is 'cartooney', in that I tend to draw an outline of some sort and then colour it in. I used to keep the above illustration of a baby blackbird in my folder, just to demonstrate to agencies that I wasn't a one trick pony and that I could work in other styles if required.

Monday, December 11, 2006


On those days when you can't seem to write or draw for nuts, it's not a bad idea to revisit old friends and seek some reassurance.

I liked Bump. He wasn't my idea, but he was my visualisation of an idea put in front of me. Dennis Hooper, who at the time was the editor of a BBC kids comic, sent a note out to a number of illustrators asking them to draw him a baby elephant. The elephant was supposed to be clumsy, accident prone. He had a friend, smaller but wiser, called Birdie. The brief wasn't much more than that. I did a quick sketch, and came up with the above drawing: an elephant with a piece of sticking plaster on his forehead, and a bird.

Then, as can sometimes be the way with these things, that rough sketch took over my life. About five years of drawing very little else, as I recall. I did books, I did animation, and I did music.

The books came first - simple stories written by Dennis under the pseudonym Christopher James. Then came the idea of an animated TV seres. I'd been working with a company called CMTB in Bristol (big centre for animation, including Aardman, home of Wallace and Grommit). CMTB had produced 'Trap Door', a great claymation series with Willie Rushton doing the voiceover, and I recommended those guys to Dennis. (For those who are really into the Brit animation scene, there's a wonderful dedicated site, full of the most amazing history and detail: Toonhound)

So the BBC commissioned 26 animated episodes, for which I did all the artwork. God knows how many drawings in total. When the animation was finished, I was sent a pre final cut tape from CMTB. Right at the end was a little private joke for me, a two second clip put together by Steve Box - now Nick Parks' partner in Aardman. Steve's hand comes across the screen and neatly cuts off Birdie's head with a razor blade. The End. Well, it made me laugh...

It was a good time. I had fun, I got paid for it - but best of all I got the music. Things weren't so tightly sewn up in those days. I said I could do the music for the series and so they just sort of let me. I wrote the song, put down the tracks, got a mate of mine and his daughter to come into the recording studio and sing it for us, and that was it.

Bump never made any of us rich, but I think that owning the music has probably made me more in the long run than producing the artwork ever did. I continue to get little royalty payments coming in here and there. Both series still play on the satellite channels, and the Christmas episode turns up on terrestrial occasionally. What has been even more rewarding is the fact that the programmes were made when my own daughters were young. They were the right age for it at the time, and so now they still occasionally meet contemporaries who remember Bump. What, that was your dad....?

Kind of cool for me. Horribly embarrassing for them, poor darlings.

Monday, December 04, 2006


This is a pencil rough for a piece of paper-engineering. It's a type of lever mechanism, and unusual in that it's constructed of card that is thick enough for the pieces to mesh - as gears would, or as a spanner (wrench) would against a nut. The sketch is one small detail from an upcoming project that aims to re-jig an earlier book of mine, Tractor Factory (see below). The idea is to do TF as a 'moving picture board book', rather than as a pop-up book, so that by sliding various parts around on the surface of the page the picture can be changed, whilst hidden mechanisms bring other elements into play.

I'm sometimes struck by how the bits that are never seen - ie the mechanisms beneath or between the pages - are often just as interesting as those that comprise the artwork. I like the idea of someday producing an 'inside out' pop-up book, where all the inner workings are visible - or perhaps a book of pointless but entertaining mechanisms, just in white card with no pictures. Adults would probably get it, but for children it would all be a bit arty-pretentious I guess.

As always, it's good to push the chosen medium around a bit. See what it'll do and what it won't, and then come up with something beyond reader expectations. Board books are traditionally very simple, maybe a lift-the-flap, or a basic to-and-fro slide. I've never seen anybody use geared mechanisms, so there's a little challenge. Seems worthwhile.