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Do you keep imagery around you to reference in your work?
It's important to me not to have any imagery in the studio. The walls are white. It is my job to imagine whatever it is I am drawing. In the same way, I have only ever drawn from live models during Life Classes when I studied part-time at Chelsea School of Art. Everything I draw now comes from my own imagination.
What is the most unusual object in your studio?
People send me things sometimes, and they can be quite interesting: a group of artists from Australia once sent me a little wooden box full of pictures and items beginning with 'Q'. I have a large ball of pencils (from the Big Draw) which, no matter which way up it lands, will always make a mark; and there is a sheep skull in here somewhere, too. Not to mention a good collection of old-fashioned motor horns, which I include in my books whenever possible.
How many books have you written/illustrated?
I've written or illustrated over 300 books so far, and that number is still growing. In my early career I illustrated many different covers for books (without doing any illustrations for the inside) but now almost all my illustration work for books tends to be for the whole thing.
Peek into the archive ..
I have an archive of over 30,000 drawings: not only finished work, but also all the roughs and many preliminary drawings too. Here are a few early sketches from 'Billy and the Minpins' by Roald Dahl, which I illustrated for the first time in 2017, although the story itself is already over 25 years old! See how Billy develops from rough ideas to finished drawings:
What sort of paper do you use?
I prefer to use cold-pressed watercolour paper, such as Aquarelle Arches fin, or Canson Mi-Teint. They tend to be about 185gsm, which holds the watercolour and is nice to draw on with a scratchy nib or reed pen.
What are you working on at the moment?
I've started doing a series I call 'Unrestricted: The Isolation Drawings' and am doing one every day specially for this set. Many of them are inspired by recent work I've exhibited at Hastings Contemporary (of which I'm the first Artist Patron) and involve people and characters in a sort of parallel fantasy: strange creatures, people 'airborne' and travellers in a variety of guises. Here are the drawings from the first week:
Which pens do you use?
Often I use a lot of scruffy-looking dip pens. Essentially each of these is a straight double-ended holder (a German make called Brausse) with a nib, which is flexible and scratchy, or a J nib, which is harder and broader. Or it may be some other kind of nib, such as a brand called 'Waverley', a favourite of mine, which is a very old-fashioned sort of nib that used to be used a lot by clerks; they are quite hard to come by now, but luckily I laid in a good supply which will last me for years. Or I might use a brush, or a reed pen, or a watercolour pencil, depending on the needs of the job.
Which paint do you have in your watercolour palette?
I use Winsor & Newton paints, and the palette was made for me by my friend, fellow artist Linda Kitson. Every so often, when the existing palette starts to run out of paint or gets too messy, Linda makes me a new one. It's not an easy job as each nugget of paint has to be carefully labelled and set into a little 'pan' which has been let into the hardboard base.
Drawing with quills
I do drawings with quills sometimes, and several years ago I produced a set of drawings of birds and animals drawn with their quills: a picture of a turkey drawn with a turkey quill, a vulture with a vulture quill, and so on. ‘The porcupine’ was the most unusual one of the set! Possibly the strangest thing I’ve used is a plastic toothpick (which I used to draw an illustration for the cover of ‘Punch’ in 1957) but it achieved the effect I wanted.
Which ink do you use?
I am often asked how I stop the ink running when I add watercolour to a drawing; the answer is, I use waterproof ink - a brand called 'Higgins Black Magic'. Then I can add the watercolour afterwards without the lines getting smudged. Sometimes I use ordinary, non-waterproof inks, perhaps because they come in different colours, or because I'd like the line to be a bit blurry.
I've been using a lightbox for the past forty years or so. How it works is this: the light shines up through the rough drawing (on fairly thin paper) which I place underneath a blank piece of watercolour paper. I can see the rough shape of the drawing under the paper - but not too clearly. So I don't trace the drawing, but it does help me to know how the picture is composed; and I can retain an air of spontaneity, of 'doing it for the first time' no matter how many goes I have at any particular drawing.