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Interview with Nicola L. Robinson, illustrator turned author and the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a change of hats!
First off, HEARTY CONGRATULATIONS on the release of “The Monster Machine” with Pavilion Children’s Books – a sort of mad inventor meets Granny’s knitted nightmares joy of a book!
Have you always had a strong visual sense of story?
Yes I have, I’ve always loved drawing (like all illustrators I should imagine!) but particularly loved drawing pictures with something happening in them, be it a big thing chasing a small thing or any kind of interaction between my creations. As a child I’d name the characters and make up stories around them..
I grew up and went to university and did a degree in Fine Art, which was fantastic, but I realised my work was more illustration and less ‘Fine Art’. I have always looked for the story in the picture, and love adding narrative details to things, be it a little mouse hiding behind a teapot or something more sinister watching through a crack in the curtain... I am a visual thinker, but at this point I didn’t consider writing the actual words down to go with the illustrations.
What were your favourite storybook images as a child and how did they influence you as an illustrator and the style you adopted as ‘you’?
I didn’t have many traditional picture books, I did however pour over photos of crocodiles and snakes from a really old book on ‘The Animal Kingdom’. One of my favourite storybooks was a book of Greek Myths which had a lot of colour plates inside of the various mythological beasts and some nice black and white ink illustrations, fairly traditional in style. My favourites were always the ones I could imagine myself being in, something with some perspective, or one where you can see inside an open door or window. I also loved the Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, with Smaug the dragon. I have drawn many dragons since then and continue to do so today.
I have always loved the traditional fairytale illustrators like Arthur Rackham and others like Aubrey Beardsley and more recently Edward Gorey. Black and white ink illustrations in particular have always appealed to me, as has the sinister so I expect I have absorbed a little of their influence into my current working style. I certainly hope so!
Do you have a favourite among your previous illustrative projects? Would you tell us something of the creative process involved in bringing the images to light?
My favourites change all the time, but I am still very attached to a detailed illustration from last year titled ‘Downtown’
It started off like so many drawings as a few scribbles on the page, I could see a cityscape of sorts in my head… I often write lists of words and ideas to include in a piece, little descriptions like ‘Dark alleys’ and ‘Iron Bridges’ just as little word pictures, alongside thumbnails which I find very helpful.
From here it gets its structure and is drawn out. If I’m going to be working in colour I usually stretch some paper at this point before transferring the idea to it.
I work up the details in pencil…
Before going back in with a fine nibbed pen using black waterproof ink to make an underdrawing…
and here I decided I needed to add some life into the scene, I knew the city itself was alive and alert, but it had to be interacting with something, so I re introduced the tiny little figures on the bottom right.
I then add my colour and shading using various materials including pencils, watercolour acrylics and other coloured inks before transferring to Photoshop where I make the final enhancements…
I love collaborating on picture books! Have you been able to collaborate with authors or have the books you have worked on been more a case of the traditional ‘publishers keeping at least an ocean between author and illustrator’? What are your thoughts on collaborating as opposed to working on a project entirely on your own?
I have had a fairly traditional experience so far as an illustrator and have not had much contact with the authors whose work I have illustrated, although there are a few who have connected with me through twitter which has been great. You do wonder whether the author likes what you’ve drawn, and you hope they do, so it is lovely to hear it from them!
I think collaborating is a wonderful way to work the creative process, and a way to bring more creative ideas and experience to the table, being able to communicate directly and discuss ideas with one another has to be a good way to work. Providing you get on well and have harmonious ideas of course!
That being said I can’t deny enjoying being both the author and illustrator for my picture book, for me I found it saved time with regards to putting the book together in that I was the one who could edit both text and pictures simultaneously, which was handy.
When and why did you decide to go it alone as author/illustrator?
I have been illustrating for a good few years now but had not had the opportunity to be considered for a picture book, and I had always wanted to illustrate one, they always look like so much fun. However I hadn’t tailored my portfolio towards this with my work being geared towards an older audience, so I wrote one for myself.
I honestly wasn’t sure how people would take to it though, I had my illustrator hat well and truly screwed onto my head, so it was a bit alien to think of myself as an author too.
Did you do the traditional storyboard for your book?
I did, I had a look at other existing picture books and also had a look online to find out the right format. Square seemed like a good shape, and already suited my machine drawings, and I started drawing lots of little rectangles into my notebook… [see storyboard left] before working out the page breaks and what images I wanted to put on each page with lots of crude little thumbnails like these –
Honestly, how did you find the journey from inspiration to publication? I’m sure other illustrators will be fascinated to get a belated peek over your shoulder into the whole process.
Patience is a virtue, as the journey is not a quick one!
After the initial inspiration had set in and I knew my subject matter, I tackled the words. I knew it was also important to have a book which would read well out loud, so kept rereading it until I was happy.
I then took this along with my thumbnails and rough storyboard and I set about drawing up fairly detailed pencil spreads, and a cover. I picked out a couple of the spreads and worked them up in colour to give the publishers a flavour of how the book would look. I then put it all together into an A4 sized mailer. There is quite a lot of work involved in putting together a manuscript idea to pitch, particularly, when you’re doing the illustrations too.
I researched likely publishers, which I thought may be interested in my work, spent a lot of money on stamps and envelopes and sent them out into the universe. I also discovered the post box on my road has a really small letterbox that day so I had to walk a few miles to the nearest post office to send them off. Lesson learned.
Then came the waiting….
It did cross my mind that as both Author and Illustrator I was in a sense putting all my eggs in one basket. What if the publisher liked my illustrations but hated the story? Or worse, as an illustrator, what if they liked my story but hated my illustrations? Would I have wanted someone else to illustrate it? Probably not…
Fortunately, it wasn’t too long until my publisher contacted me saying they were interested in my work and invited me down to London, which was a wonderful experience, and such a relief to think that someone else likes the idea, something which I have written! After some more waiting, I was finally given the go ahead and contracts were signed. (It is very important to fully understand any contract you go into, if you aren’t sure get some legal advice to make sure you’re absolutely happy with the terms, read all the small print!)
The actual writing and illustrating of the book was the quickest part, I was lucky that I did not need to make too many major changes and I just set about working my way through the book. I submitted all the work ahead of deadline, which was nice, and also gave me some time to work out little extras for the fly pages and a This Book Belongs to page etc.
For me the longest part has been waiting for the actual book to come out, and be ‘published’ which happens a good few months after all the artwork is signed off. I did get my advance copies in the interim which was wonderful! They looked great, and I was really pleased with them. You rarely get your name on the cover unless you’re the author so it was really nice to see it there for once!
One of the most frustrating things has been friends and family and those not in the publishing universe constantly asking about ‘the book’ and other than being able to say ‘it’s on its way’ I haven’t been able to give a satisfactory response yet. But now it’s actually out which is nice! 🙂 Now they can see for themselves.
I’ve been tempted, from time to time, to illustrate my own book but feel I am a learner artist, not an illustrator of story. It is quite a different skill. I have, on occasion, used illustrator friend’s orphan images to create the story hiding in the image – a sort of collaboration in reverse – a different kind of challenge and creative pleasure. Did you get the image inspiration first or the ‘story’ inspiration? Can you tell us about the evolution of your ‘story’?
Chicken or egg? In this case it was the Machine. I can pinpoint the beginning of the story itself from the day I sat down and sketched a machine.
I love machines so this isn’t unusual for me. I was thinking about the machine and it crossed my mind that the machine would be a machine that makes something, monsters…. it really went from there. I worked backwards from the machine and then forwards from it creating the monsters.
Something which I have enjoyed, which has come from being both author and illustrator is the fact that I can write about things I love to draw, which is great. I love monsters and I love machines. Obviously you hope a good editor will match a manuscript with the perfect illustrator who will love the subject and themes it requires, but in my experience, there is no surer way than writing it yourself.
Finally – what next? Have you anything else ‘on the drawing board’ yet?
There’s always something on ‘the drawing board’ it is a matter of getting the time to coax it out to its full potential! Indeed what next?! I’m currently working on a pop-up book project which is great fun, and getting some ideas for more picture books! I’d love to do another one.
Thank you very much for having me Jennifer!
The Monster Machine has its own website to match the book- www.monstermachine.co.uk
Nicola’s website www.nlrobinson.co.uk
By happy accident, I discovered the way to travel interstate, overseas, inter-culturally and explore the ambience of remote towns, cities, country lanes and outback outposts. Air tickets – well that’s the ideal, but no, I used Google Earth.
It started with my trying to locate a lovely country home in West Hougham, Kent, England. It was featured in Country Life for September 7th, 2000, and was the
inspiration for my story “The Dolls’ House in the Forest”. I was fascinated by the quaintness of the architecture compared to anything out here in Oz and the size of the immense, almost regal trees forming a perfect backdrop to the house. I tried to relocate the house by doing a ‘street view’ saunter down English lanes in the vicinity. I located the area on the map and zeroed in from aerial to ‘here I am virtually walking down this street on the other side of the world the environs of which I just happen to need to explore.’
I didn’t find the house, but I had the most wonderfully inspiring time wandering down country lanes that were little more than wagon tracks, great boughs canopying overhead and wildflowers dotted in the fields…
Now, if I need to capture something of the ‘feel’ of an area. I seek out an address. Real estate notices for sale/auction/for rent are a good source, then go explore in Google Earth. Wander around that area, exploring the architecture, streetscapes, lifestyles evidenced in things as random as street art, verge gardens, bus stops, signage, graffiti, shop window decor, fences or lack of, litter, strays and the bystanders to my wanderings. Don’t forget YouTube – Example – Dingle, and with Celtic song overlay Dingle
I have also found that exploring the Realtor advertisements in the area I am exploring gives insight into the lifestyle and inhabitants of the town. Many homes give a slideshow or even a video tour online. This helps you pick up on details of life – home decor, layout, from wall hangings to cushions, scatter rugs to artwork, the placement of chairs to take in a much loved outlook, the windows and their views out, the garden. Example.
Perhaps this sounds a little bit the voyeur. It is not the intention, far from, it is seeking faithfulness in recreating a ‘feeling’ for place. It is gathering the elements of story , setting the stage, arranging a convincing backdrop to the action!
Lovely example of a virtual tour – 1893 mansion, St Georges Road, Toorak.
Another lovely virtual tour – historic “Douglas”, built in 1881, in Birchgrove, Sydney.
The tips above, of course, are beneficial to illustrators as well. Not many can afford to jet around the world on location research for images. Other ways to ‘get in the setting’ for free include YouTube clips. This is even a Youtube video clip on West Hougham, Kent. Sadly, it doesn’t feature that house…
Other ways to ‘get in the setting’ for free, besides YouTube clips, are Flickr and photographic collections held in State Libraries and on places like Pinterst. Jeff Faria recently sent me a great link to early circus posters – fascinating. Little did he know I am currently writing a story which involves Civil War period circuses in the US.
If your story requires an historical setting, you are in luck! Heritage listings in Australia and the UK are excellent.
Below are some very useful research sites for historic buildings in Australia –
Federation style dwellings lists many excellent buildings, of which Alister Brae, Pymble is an outstanding example.
Additional links are given for some residences, as in the case of “Venice”, Randwick.
The NSW Heritage database also gives excellent information. TIP: Put in the street name and the suburb to narrow your search for a particular building. Just putting in the suburb will bring all heritage listed buildings in that suburb. Putting in the street number and street will draw a blank. Putting in the property name will sometimes bring up additional material otherwise unaccessed, e.g., “Glen Rhoda”, a gothic residence in Woollahra. Using the name in the search brings up information on the existing residential property, No.71, and and an additional link to the listing for, No.67, property formerly part of the original “Glen Rhoda”.
For anyone researching Kew, Camberwell or Hawthorn buildings [mainly but not only residences] from 1860s through to 1969, this site is a must. Other Councils will have similar sites.
Open Gardens, Australia has links to various of its most notable gardens. Windyridge shows the garden in all four seasons in a map based virtual tour.
International settings – the virtual tour
Aside from a drop in to street level via Google Earth, many online sites feature virtual tours of historic settings, buildings, rambles around towns, cities and country areas. A few examples –
Eilean Donan, the iconic Scottish Castle featured on innumerable calendars, tourist brochures and used as a location in numbers of feature films [you need Java 7 to see the virtual tour on the official website] can be viewed in Youtube Clips.
The best clip of Eilean Donan, features a commentary on the Castle’s history and shows the exterior, surrounds and interior in much more detail.
Neuschwanstein [Castle that inspired the Disney fairytale castle] – site tour;
Virtual Tour of Neuschwanstein with commentary in English subtitles;
Virtual sight-seeing – contemporary and historical
A walk around Paris by video [sadly not signposted but gives a good overview of everyday life];
Tuileries, Paris surrounds, exterior, interior in brief;
Whatever the historic building or the town, you are quite likely to find a youtube clip or at least flicker photos, then there is always Google earth! Have fun!
1. CHILDREN’S ANTHOLOGY – Collaboration opportunity for writers and illustrators
An opportunity for children’s writers and illustrators to collaborate in an anthology of humorous stories has been created by bloggist Lyn Midnight [Violeta Nedkova]
2. POETRY ANTHOLOGY, Illustrated
Poets Corner is calling for submissions from poets and interest from artists for an anthology of illustrated verse to be called “Musings; A Mosaic”.
===CALL FOR SUBMISSION===
from poets around the world !
“Poets Corner” is coming up with an anthology of English original poems complemented with illustrative sketches, real soon.
Title of the Book:
Musings : A Mosaic
About the Book:
Out of the entire submission best 45-50 poem will be selected and each one of them will be illustrated with a sketch by an artist .
Submission Date :
April-13-2012 – April-20-2012
Send to :
firstname.lastname@example.org (Subject of the mail should be MUSINGS-YOUR NAME, Poems should be in the body of email as no attachment will be entertained)
Editor (Poetry) :
Editor (Art) :
Please send ONE poem, of not more than 25 lines, and a brief note on the theme of the poem for the benefit of the artist. Please note that submission does not guarantee publication as the best 45-50 will be selected.
It’s official, my design plus Anil Tortop’s brilliant execution [the ‘Q’ as the wave was a stroke of genius] = the new SCBWI Blog Logo.
We both had a ball playing with ideas.
I did some amateurish sketches of my original idea and then a clipart mockup. Anil took it from there and evolved her final brilliant image:
Jennifer Poulter: My design symbolises the joyous spirit of creativity! The pelican represents authors and illustrators catching ideas, surfing waves of inspiration. It also symbolises Queensland with its long, long coastline and the pelican, one of our most prolific water-birds, which is found on the coast and on inland lakes. Water symbolises growth, nourishing, renewal – a great symbol for the dissemination of knowledge and the generation of ideas, the stimulation of imagination. It also captures the joy of playing in water, which all children love whether it is in the bath on the beach, river or lakeside, in the pool or under the hose!
Anil executed the design and – a stroke of genius – incorporated the Q for Queensland in the wave!
The link to the official announcement: Our new SCBWI (QLD) blog logo.
Julie breaks the ice and gets us in the water with this great blog on creating a kid’s book app!
Open Plea to Bloggers: Kick CAPTCHA’s, Word Verification to the Curb. [Link reposted from Julie Hedlund’s blog.]
I tried to join a writing site today – twelve, yes, a whole dozen tries later I gave up…. This is the wwworst but I commonly have to try two or three times. I just don’t have time to persist with a system that is clearly flawed.
Those of you who use CAPTCHA on your sites might want to look at removing it. You are loosing potential members and a whole swag of comments.
Can’t remember when I’ve had so much creative fun with such a fantastic group of multitalented folk! 13th to 16th January we arrived in from all over – WA, NT, Vic and ‘locals’ Christian and self. We were housed in the Gatton Motel, a leg stretch away from the main venue, not that we needed to walk. We were chauffeur driven everywhere by local Minibus/taxi owner Sue.
This is the door to my room, the non-existent No. 13, on 13th January, a Friday, how lucky can you get! Interesting how many places omit room 13, floor 13 etc etc. Do folk really think we are so bound by superstition and hangovers from the dark ages that we will eschew a room or a whole floor just because of a place in a numeric sequence? Evidently it is so.
Craig and I had joint sessions with small groups of ardent attendees in a series of workshops. All interacted with us freely and kept us on our toes with their questions.
We started with a draft of my story about the cow that swam the Brisbane river during the January 2011 floods. It was over 700 words [too long for a picture book] but gave the background Craig needed to locate the story and characterise the little cow. This is a link to a newspaper article about her amazing survival swim.
It was a revelation and a privilege to work with Craig one on one as he sketched out his visual thoughts on the story with me reading excerpts and the audience interspersing with comments. I cut swathes from the text as Craig’s expert hand created wonderful image after image.
This is a glimpse of the creation process –
- A view of the Brisbane Rive in flood provided by Kim Byron from her newspaper collection on the event.
- Craig working on a charcoal image of the little cow. He has a strong feel for movement and can create a whole range of emotions with sometimes the barely there addition of a line or a smudge.
I love the way illustrators climb into the visual universe of a story. Text says a family is sitting in a kitchen. The illustrator will look over their shoulders, look out the window, go out into the next room, climb the stairs to the attic or down to the yard and see where the house is located in a community.
[more coming… I just need to sleep now…]