Why did Mr Chicken go to Paris? Why do two blankets change the way we see the world? Why do animals give us insights into ourselves?
Our star-studded panel featured illustrators Freya Blackwood, Leigh Hobbs and Alison Lester who discussed the ways in which characters are created and go on to warm the hearts of children and readers worldwide. As children, the ways in which we see the world are often shaped by our favourite children’s books and characters, leaving us with a nostalgic vulnerability well into adulthood. Take the opportunity to hear about the creative process from three industry-leading illustrators.
Image: Mr Chicken eats with the animals, by Leigh Hobbs
The Art of Storybook illustration
*Speakers: Grace Blakeley-Carroll (G), Belle Alderman (B), Leigh Hobbs (L), Alison Lester (A), Freya Blackwood (F)
*Location: National Library of Australia
G: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the National Library of Australia and to the art of storybook illustration. My name is Grace Blakeley-Carroll, I work in the Library’s Exhibitions Branch. I had the great privilege of curating the Storytime Australian Children’s Literature exhibition here at the National Library of Australia. The exhibition is presented in association with the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature.
As we begin I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet tonight. I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunawal and Ngambri people past and present for the caring for this land we are now privileged to call home and I’m sure many of you here tonight share the great pride that I feel in being a Canberran and the great privilege that it is to live on this land.
It’s a great pleasure to welcome you all here to the Library this evening to hear from industry-leading authors and illustrators, Freya Blackwood, Alison Lester AM and Leigh Hobbs led in discussion by Dr Belle Alderman AM.
We all grew up with a favourite storybook we couldn’t put down or perhaps a bedtime story we could listen to over and over again and maybe we know it back to front and inside out. These stories leave their marks on us and they’ve helped shape the adults that we’ve become.
Here at the National Library of Australia we are fortunate to be a home for numerous treasured Australian children’s books and associated materials, it’s a real treasure trove. A selection of our collections of Australian children’s literature are showcased in the Storytime and they’ve shown alongside loans from other important collections including the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature.
Among these are titles from the three extraordinarily talented individuals in front of you this evening. We are sure their discussion will provide some fascinating insights into what it takes to create the characters and worlds that go on to warm the hearts of children and adults across the world. They need no introduction but I’ll give you a brief overview, a little bit of background just in case.
Freya Blackwood is known for her iconic illustrations and the way they perfectly capture the warmth and complexity of growing up. While rich and classic her style has a unique quality that renders her work instantly recognisable. Since her career began in 2003 Freya has illustrated more than 30 books. That’s pretty impressive. Her work has deservedly captured international attention and a swag of awards and nominations including the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal in 2010 and that’s the UK’s most prestigious award for children’s literature and it’s recognised across the world.
Alison Lester’s picture books mix imaginary worlds with everyday life, encouraging children to believe in themselves and to celebrate the differences that make them special. In a career spanning decades I’m sure many of you like me grew up on her books. Alison has written over 40 books and collected many prestigious awards. In 2016 she was awarded the Drum Key Medal for her outstanding achievement in the creation of Australian children’s and young adult literature. In 2018 she became the first Australian children’s book writer to win the Melbourne Prize for Literature for her contribution to Australian literature and to cultural and intellectual life.
Leigh Hobbs is the bestselling author of more than 30 books featuring characters such as the iconic Old Tom, Horrible Harriet, Fiona, the Pig, and of course Mr Chicken, my personal favourite. Leigh’s subversive humour has delighted children for more than two decades. I’m sure there are many fans tonight here who are looking forward to hearing Leigh speak. His work has received countless accolades at every major Australian Children’s Choice Awards. Leigh has also had his books adapted for TV and for the stage with the Old Tom animated series appearing on TVs across Australia and Europe, and Mr Chicken Goes to Paris adapted by the National Institute for Dramatic Arts. Also funnily enough Mr Chicken has actually gone to Paris and the book is in fact a bestseller at the Louvre bookstore. Leigh will admit there’s something of himself in each of his characters and that Old Tom is no exception.
Our facilitator for this evening certainly has her hands full with these three wonderful creative people on the panel. Dr Belle Alderman is Emeritus Professor of Children’s Literature at the University of Canberra. She is currently the Director of the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature. For her services to Australian children’s literature she has been made a member of the Order of Australia. Please join me in welcoming Dr Belle Alderman, Freya Blackwood, Alison Lester and Leigh Hobbs.
B: As all of you must be I definitely am in awe of these three eminent, wonderful creative people. We’re here tonight to hear from them. The way we’re going to do this is each of them has chosen five or six slides that they want to talk about the essence of their work so Leigh will go first and then Alison and then Freya and then we will have some discussion over a series of questions that we’ve all looked at but you and I know that we’re going to do the best we can but questions often times have a way of mutating. But I know that this evening it’s going to be terrific and like everyone else I’d like to say thank you to the three of you for the wonderful time that you’re going to give us tonight.
L: Belle is going to work the slides. For the sake of succinctness I’m just going to – ‘cause we’ve only got five minutes each – I'm just going to read out a little bit about mine. I’ve always been fascinated by characters and in regard to the artwork I produce in all its various forms and mediums this is and always has been a constant theme.
Children’s books have provided me with an excellent way to explore and develop this. Most kids have an innate sense of fun and the absurd and I find their willingness to trust and follow me into the world that I as an author have created in a story are profoundly touching. It provokes in me a feeling of responsibility if not protectiveness. Undeniably my characters range from the strange to the berserk and while my stories and their world may appear to an adult to be subversive children I suspect primarily relate to the characters and the relationships between the characters. The themes are classic I think storytelling ones such as love, friendship and most terrifying of all perhaps to a child being deemed different. Now how many minutes was that?
So this is Old Tom. So – oh now there’s Mr Badger. Alright Old Tom. So very quickly even though I never set out to – I’m not interested in doing issues-based books but in retrospect I find that somehow – like Old Tom really is about the love between a mother and her son and in the eight Old Tom books I’ve never mentioned the word, cat. Next, Belle. Oh.
B: You press the black one.
L: I think we might need – Mr Badger really is about my love of London. Yes, we can just go on. Mr Chicken, I’m not quite sure what to say about him. But I did show him when I first made him up to my mother and said what do you think of him? She’s oh my god, you’ve gone too far with that one, you’ve never known when to stop. So next one and Horrible Harriet based on kids, the girls that I taught at Preston Tech. One of them has recently made contact, she’s a librarian in Bairnsdale and her husband’s a lawyer. Next. These are the kids that I taught at Preston Tech so there’s my little – oh no, there’s Fiona, I think. Yes and Fiona, the Pig. There we are, that’s it for me.
B: Fantastic, thank you, Leigh. Okay, Alison.
A: Alright well this is Nony, the Pony and I guess this work is very different to the work that I started doing when I first started illustrating and when I look back on those early books like Clive Eats the Alligator I used to draw with a very spidery uncertain line. As I’ve got more confident, I guess, as I draw and kids always say to me how come you’re such a good drawer? I go I just do it every day and you should too and that is the thing like you do just get better because you do it all the time but now I really love using a lot more confidence in my line work.
These characters are really characters I live with and Nony, the Pony lives with our house and I’ve got a dog like that whose name is Bigsy and a cat as well so when I work most of it’s based in reality, I don’t actually make much up. It’s just a reflection of my life. Next one. This is from Tricky’s Bad Day and it’s very grainy ‘cause the paper has come up very grainy but I love this image of – in this book Tricky’s having a really shocking day and I’m surrounded by grandchildren at the moment. For years I had none and I used to joke and say I bet once one comes there’ll be an avalanche and that sort of happened so we had seven grandchildren in four years. One family has actually got – at one stage when their littlest baby was born the oldest one had just turned four so their house was just completely upside down. I was witness to many tantrums and the socks that wouldn’t fit and all that sort of stuff. So in this story Tricky is having such a bad day that finally his dad takes him out into the wild and they climb up to the top of their cubby tree and have a nice time. Next one.
This is my latest book which is about a little girl whose grandma used to be in a travelling show and here they’ve gone up to the mountains to capture some wild ponies that they saw as they went through. Even though the dad says you shouldn’t catch them ‘cause they’re wild the mum and the uncle can’t resist them so they very gently go and catch them with apples and carrots which is a little bit unrealistic but it’s kind of nice for a book too.
A way that I often work these days is that I love drawing with a 2B or a 6B pencil so I can be quite loose with my drawing and then I scan it into the computer and tidy up all my lines. You can see at the back of the green truck in the distance there’s a little bit of truck that I haven’t cleaned up so I tend to work very much manually but there’s a little bit of digital work that goes into pulling it altogether.
This is my Kissed by the Moon and I really love the country that I grew up in which is down near Wilson’s Promontory in southern Victoria and I really love twilight, that’s my favourite time of the day and night-time where the whole world has that lovely purple cast over it. So that’s the baby being kissed by the moon and the farmer picture on that.
This is the cover for One Small Island, a book that I wrote and illustrated with Coral Tulloch and it was a book about Macquarie Island that I visited on the way back from Antarctica in 2005 when I had an Antarctic arts fellowship. This cover nearly didn’t exist, we had another cover that was absolutely going to [unclear] 13:28. At the very last minute I said to the designer, I’ve got another idea, and I'm so glad I did because I really love this cover, it works really beautifully. Then I think there’s one more.
This sort of work I like just as much my own work. I do a lot of work with kids working in a collaborative way so I go to remote communities a fair bit, working with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation but I also work – well this was on that Antarctic arts fellowship where I emailed kids every day of my voyage and they sent me drawings and so these were a whole lot of ships that were sent to me and I collaged them together and made that illustration so yeah that’s been a really nice way to work. Is that five minutes?
F: Hi. I think I chose the wrong images but I usually illustrate other people’s stories unlike these guys who do a lot of their own books and what I discovered soon after I started was just the power of illustration and the power I had as the illustrator. This is the first example I found where I could strip all the colour out of an image and leave these two little spots of colour and it gave the image such huge power within the book. So what I’ve tried to do from then on is include this sort of thing in my illustrations so I think in the next image I think there was talk about characters and I’m not much good at designing characters, I find as soon as I draw something that feels authentic and right I tend to stick to it.
This drawing was actually quite small and I thought oh I’m never going to be able to do that again and I loved all the life in the line work and so I just scanned it in and printed it out heaps bigger and coloured it in and it’s perfect for what it needed to be. I think I find that with my illustration work is it’s so much about the line work and the life. I try and give all my drawings lots of life. Look, I have an amazing daughter who’s in the audience somewhere so a lot of my earlier work was inspired by her and the mayhem of our life. This is The Runaway Hug and you can see all the mess and sort of chaos of family life. Even though we have a family of two I love filling all sorts of different families’ houses in my illustrations. Now she’s older so I have to find other influences in my work. The next one.
So because I illustrate other people’s stories the stories are all very different and I try and find the right way to illustrate each book and this illustration is a good example I think because it was from The Treasure Box written by Margaret Wild and I felt it needed to be really delicate and detailed so for the first time ever I worked in collage and I’ve used little strips of text up the top there. Yeah, I try and make sure my colours and the materials I use are all appropriate for the stories and sometimes it works, not always, though. Because that previous book had been so grey and quite depressing to work on I made sure my next book was a lot brighter so this is Banjo and Ruby Red and I used oil paints and I made sure the line was fun and bold. The oil paint colour was a lot different than the previous book so it was right for the story but it was also good for myself.
I think the last image is just from a recent book called The Tiny Star by Mem Fox and I discovered pastels in this book ‘cause I needed lots of colour and in a dark setting I wanted lots of colour so that’s why I’ve put that one there. I think that’s all I’ve got.
B: That gives you an introduction to how different they all are but one of the things that is common about all of them is contact with the reader or contact with the viewer and even though they’re doing this unconsciously that is one of the essence of children’s books, being able to reach the reader and the reader says immediately when it’s finished read it again if they really love the book.
Now I have a series of four questions and I’m hoping this will be freewheeling between them and we’ll see how it works. So I really wanted to know or each of you is going to be different and I think that all of you have a lifetime in writing and illustrating one way or the other but I wanted to know when did you first think that you were going to be a writer or an illustrator? What made that moment in your life because I have heard children say I’m going to be a writer or an illustrator? So Leigh.
L: Sorry, what was that last bit you said? You hear kids saying what?
B: I’ve heard kids say I’m going to be a writer or an illustrator and they’re quite young.
L: Well I had no choice, drawing was the only thing I was any good at so as a little kid all I ever wanted to do was to be an artist and I was a compulsive drawer. Dad gave me an alarm clock which was set at 6 and it would go off at 6:00 and that’s when I was allowed to turn the light on and start drawing. He also gave me a drawing book which I still use. I’m 66 so nearly that old. Yeah, I only became a writer because I made up Old Tom and I didn’t want anyone else to write the text and I had an ear for text saying one thing different to the picture and I didn’t want to entrust anyone else with it.
A: It’s a great job for a control freak, I always say, illustrate it just the way you want it. I didn’t start illustrating until the my first baby was born and then it was really just desperately having a job that I could do from home. I’d been an art teacher for a year and I didn’t like that very much and other than that I just hadn’t worked – well no, I probably hadn’t worked very much at all. I hadn’t had proper jobs, I’d just been a student and worked on a farm. So I’ve told this story lots of times but I was looking at just being a housewife and I didn’t like that idea much either so I got the Yellow Pages and found Oxford University Press and rang up and asked to speak to the children’s editor and luckily for me it was Roslyn Price and we had a little chat and she said oh would you like to bring your folio in? I didn’t really have a folio but I went through the house and found a few drawings.
I was very pregnant so I drove in feeling like just not confident and all and she was so nice and friendly and we laughed at each other’s jokes and she looked at my drawings and said they were interesting which I’ve since realised is what you say when you don’t like something very much but you’re too polite to say. But anyway she rang me a week later and gave me a book to illustrate and so that was the start of it for me. I think if she’d knocked me back then I wouldn’t have done it so it was really quite a fluky thing and I illustrated other people’s books for about five years and then just started thinking I don’t actually like this story much and I was moaning about it to another editor who said well if you don’t like illustrating other people’s books why don’t you write your own? I had an idea for one and that was Clive Eats Alligators which was inspired by the baby’s catalogue, I mean so it wasn’t a very original idea but that was how it started.
B: Fantastic. Freya.
F: I was one of those kids who always drew and my mum was a painter and her father was a painter so I guess we were surrounded by paintings and artworks and whenever we were bored as kids my mum would say oh well go and draw or she’d teach us to do lino block cuts or wood blocks or all sorts of things. Yeah, at uni I tried different things, I kept kind of resisting drawing even though I think it was what I was always really wanted to do. I mean even at school I made illustrated picture books and then at uni I made illustrated picture books and I kind of still resisted it and I went into the film industry for a while.
While working in the film industry I met illustrators who were working on Lord of the Rings who were doing amazing conceptual art and it was so exciting, that sort of work and I knew I could draw but I just needed to find the right place for my work. Yeah, I gave it a go, I got some interesting feedback like oh it’s all too brown or yeah, it was all very brown. Yeah and I just found my niche eventually and knowing people also helped, knowing one person helped anyway yeah to get me –
B: I think probably the audience would be interested in knowing from each of you whether you had a teacher or a librarian or some individual that inspired you or whether it was just the climate of where you were or your family.
L: Well someone else can answer that first.
A: I feel like I’m talking all the time. My best friend’s mother was an artist and so as a very little girl for me there was a model, there was a woman who was making beautiful art so she was there but I know when I was at boarding school too we had a great art teacher who liked me and liked what I was doing and gave me the key to the art room so I could just go and work in the art room whenever I liked. So yeah, Mrs Bray, I have a lot to thank for.
B: Well that’s good to know.
F: I think it was probably my mum, yeah, just because she was an art teacher and a painter and even now she still comes over and says oh I don't think that drawing’s quite right.
A: I remember hearing you say that she’d given you the advice to use a limited colour palette in that beautiful book that’s got the blue and orange in it.
F: Oh yes, yeah, every so often – no, I know nothing other than what she’s taught me. Yeah so I think she’s well and truly directed how my work has become.
L: I grew up in Bairnsdale in country Victoria and there was a bloke called Peter Durkin, the librarian, and they were the days where you had an hour each week that you’d go into the library and you could explore and that’s when I discovered Ronald Searle and Thelwell and all those marvellous cartoonists and artists – well brilliant artists – that the school libraries were full of then. I loved drawing and it was like fertiliser coming in, it was fantastic. That’s what’s the great shame now with libraries not being so available.
B: Well there’s a question I have about developing your characters and when you’re a writer and illustrator you decide what they’re going to look like, you decide what to say about them but we have Freya who has a different approach. She has to look at someone’s text for the most part although she has written and illustrated her own books so I just wondered how do you get in the idea of your characters? So what is the first phase of a moment at which you know that you’ve got that idea that you want to get across in your character or your emotion? So yours will be sort of the emotional side and maybe yours on Nony, The Pony and maybe yours is Mr Chicken, I’m not sure.
L: Look, it’s funny you ask that because just yesterday I saw some beautiful colour prints of me as a little boy – can you believe it? Playing cricket and football but they were so clear they could have been taken yesterday. Now looking at that little kid playing with his dog and that up in the country I couldn’t connect it all to the external boy and what intrigued me is looking at that little kid, I could remember how I felt inside. This is a seven or eight-year-old and inside that little kid with shorts and skinny legs like a chicken’s legs playing cricket with his mates, I was thinking about what later would turn out to be Old Tom and Mr Chicken, they were in different forms. So I was fascinated by the fact that I managed to I assume look quite normal but inside were these weird sort of characters that now are running free.
B: What about you, Alison?
A: Well I feel so stupid saying this but even when I’m working on my characters I often don’t really understand what’s going on, it all happens quite instinctively and it’s not until even the book’s out and someone says oh this is obviously blah, blah, blah and I go oh yeah, that’s right. But yeah while I’m working, as long as they look right and then everything else seems to fall into place like Tricky isn’t just one of my grandkids, this kid who’s having the terrible day but he's a lot of them but then he’s this little person that he is too. But I’d never had him as a whole person when I was doing it. Does that make sense?
B: It does.
A: It just all kind of evolves and then I go off you go.
B: So they have a life of their own then, don’t they?
F: I’m trying to work out how to answer this question ‘cause I think I talked about it beforehand but I guess for each book of mine it takes a while for me to work out how I’m going to translate that from someone else’s text and to give it a visual that’s appropriate or to find my own translation. I guess I use materials a lot for that, different materials and a lot of it like you said, Alison, is kind of I think intuitive so as you’re drawing something’ll feel right like the image of Harry and Hopper. At some point I just drew that and it felt right so it’s like right and then I will try lots of different colours and materials to find the right thing. What was the question?
B: Well I think you’ve really basically answered it. I was thinking of My Two Blankets which is by Irena Kobald and that would have been a very difficult story to write because it’s about a refugee girl who comes and everything is strange, everything is different, the colours, the food. How did you capture that character because I don’t know about the audience but for me immediately I could feel I was inside that girl who felt so different. How did you –
F: I remember writing a blog post about that which I don’t do anymore but it was one of those cases where she kind of just took over. Yeah, I mean that’s a bit odd to say that but I knew that I wanted her to be sort of scared so that kind of dictated the way she stood and the way she looked and she was from an African country but not necessarily anywhere particular. I also wanted to capture that saturation and amazing – the colours that they wear. But that book did take a very long time to kind of translate to visuals because a lot of it’s metaphorical so yeah, some books take a lot longer and that one particularly. I ended up using watercolour and oil paint because I wanted her to be beautiful and saturated and the child who helps her to be kind of pale and a bit washed out. You can see some of them in the exhibition, actually, as well, you can see the different materials if you go and have a look.
B: In fact at this point I should say that you can see some of the artwork by all of these people up here on the stage so be sure you see the exhibition before it closes overnight to February 2020.
Well each person has different moments of inspiration. You’ve got seven grandchildren. Well that’s going to be endless amounts of inspiration. Where does inspiration come from? Now, Freya, you have done some of your own books. Where –
F: I have, yes.
B: So where does inspiration come from?
F: I think our life is pretty quiet and insular but a lot of inspirations come from Ivy and just being a parent which I guess therefore connects me with a whole lot of other parents which is lucky. But what I’ve ended up doing is finding that my childhood was actually fantastic so I’m hoping to do work that’s –
F: That captures my childhood and the funny things that we used to do as kids ‘cause we grew up out of town – well no, sorry, we grew up in rural New South Wales and we had lots of picnics and camping and it was quirky and weird and fun and I think it will make good material. But yeah, just stuff that’s been around.
B: Well I mean kids want to see themselves in books, this makes sense. Alison, what about you?
A: Well Kissed by the Moon came about ‘cause I had a sweater and the label was Kissed by the Moon and I remember looking at that and going that’s a great title for a book so I actually made up a story to go with it. The Very Noisy Baby, Claire’s eldest girl, Beatrix, Trixie, was an incredibly loud baby and she was in a shop once just making such a lot of noise that everyone was giving us dirty looks. As we left Claire said what am I going to do with her, Mum? I said I don’t know, Bear, she’s just a very noisy baby. We looked at each other and went – sometimes it’s that obvious but I’ve got a book at the moment that I haven’t written a word about yet but I love going down to Wilson’s Promontory which is that very southern part of Victoria and you can do a 20km hike out and stay in the lighthouse.
I was there a few times ago and the lighthouse keeper said I wish you’d write a book about this and it just made me start thinking and I had this idea that I guess started off ‘cause my dad used to take cattle out there when he was a young man. He always said that there were three families living there with lots of kids and there was always one family on the outer and it was always a different family so the dynamic changed all the time. I started thinking about being a kid out there and being a bit lonely and I don’t know how these things happen but I started thinking about a kid who’s maybe Jonie if it’s a girl – I don't think I’ve ever done a main character who’s a boy so maybe it’ll be Jonah but they’re really obsessed with all the humpback whales that go past so they’re always out climbing around cliffs studying whales and the other kids tease them a bit ‘cause they’re always off on their own and they call them Jonie, the lonely or Jonah, the loner.
Anyway one night – and there’s also a cow, there’s a house cow out there and the cow drives this kid crazy ‘cause the cow is always following her around and sniffing her sketchbook and being annoying. One night when she’s way, way ‘round looking for whales a terrible storm comes and as she’s heading back to the light cottage she slips and falls down the cliff into the sea and she can hear this big [moans] noise and she’s convinced that a whale is going to come by and rescue her and a whale does come past but it just keeps going. Then she hears it again and she realises that the cow is also in the drink so it’s the cow who saves her. I’m not sure where it’s going to go from then but it’s so enjoyable just having a story like that on the boil where you can just think about it all the time.
B: Leigh, I was just thinking of Mr Chicken and how he’s travelling around Australia now. What was the inspiration for that one?
L: Well if you’d asked me a couple of years ago I never would have intended on doing a Mr Chicken book about Australia because my passions are art, architecture and especially European history and classical music but can I just tell you about Mr Chicken Goes to Paris? ‘Cause that’s an example of just a spark. I was in the bookshop of the Louvre museum, Musee de Louvre, in Paris in 2009 and it’s so beautiful, Paris, ‘though I still love London more. Anyway I’d already made up Mr Chicken for Hooray for Horrible Harry and I suddenly thought gee, imagine a ridiculous-looking character like that with these beautiful buildings. So I quickly did a silly little sketch and came back to Australia and emailed it to my wonderful editor and publisher, Erica Wagner and we spark and she saw one sketch of him hanging off the Eiffel Tower and said it’s a book, do it. So that’s how that came about.
About a year after it came out I got an email from France from a very excited Frenchman, sales rep, saying that he was the sales rep for Bloomsbury, he’d tried to wait but he couldn’t, he was going to wait ‘til they’d sold 1,000 copies but the Louvre had just sold 1,963 copies. So this is 10 years ago so Mr Chicken has his own life in Paris in the Louvre. So that’s how that – but the Australia book was inspired because I got so many letters from kids while I was the Laureate which we’ve reproduced most of them or a lot of them on the end papers asking could he come to Ballina or Poowong and stay with Nan, she’s got a spare room. So that prompted the idea, I thought why not? So that’s how that came about.
B: I mean it’s absolutely fabulous if you haven’t seen it. It’s so child-inspired so I think what these wonderful people are saying is that inspiration is everywhere, you just turn your back and turn around and there it is, you’re not sure how it all came about.
L: Could I just say about all? I mean I’m really lucky that I'm on this little thing with two other people whose work I love but I think really fair dinkum, one connection that shouldn't be overlooked is that there’s real love in the work and I think that’s what comes out when you look at – you can’t fake it and I think that’s what the kids pick up and they can’t articulate it. They don’t need to but they’re engaged and that’s you know –
A: Well when you fake it it doesn’t really work.
L: Well, yeah.
B: It was like on your blog when you were writing about My Two Blankets and you were saying that the character just took over, you didn’t even realise how that character became who she was but she had life of her own and probably that does happen in a way. You start your story and then it grabs you and then to has to take over.
L: I love the characters.
F: I’ve sometimes found I’ve given back stories to characters as well just so that I can fill them in a bit.
B: What a great idea.
F: Yeah and I’ve worked out like in Harry and Hopper I decided where they lived and what the dad did and why there was only a dad and lots of things like that just so that I could make them more authentic.
B: I think that’s what gives characters depth, if they have a sense of who they are and that is conveyed to the children so you’re doing this intuitively but sounds great. Did you have something you wanted –
L: No, I don’t want to talk too much, I’m waiting for a question.
B: You’re very good. So what I’d like to talk about now is just what kind of materials you use. For example with Alison Lester’s work we have some of her work in the National Centre and at one stage she had written a little note that this little piece of fabric that was in this piece of book was actually at one stage in a tip. Elizabeth Honey was with her and spotted it – Elizabeth Honey is another artist/author - spotted it and pulled it and was going to do something else with it and Alison fell in love with it and said I need it for my book –
A: No, I was going to make a dress.
B: So where do all of these things come from? They just have a life of their own, they become part of the story that you want to tell and so I was just wondering where you decided that I’m going to do this in gouache, you said you’re going to use paper sculpture or collage or oil. So in every case you have to think what would be the best medium? So what do you think?
L: Well I think over a period of time you become adept. See I love pen and ink and I love the rhythm of dipping – a lot of people think oh look, what Leigh Hobbs does is scribble. In fact I had a horrible – what’s it called?
A: I haven’t heard that.
L: What’s a person that does things online? Says nasty things?
F: A troll?
L: A troll. I was going to say a toad. Sorry. Anyway I had – no, this is good for you to know out there - I had a horrible troll and she said it’s obvious that Leigh Hobbs can’t draw but one good thing that comes from this is that a child looking at his books, anyone can do what he does. So why that was infuriating was that underneath I work really hard to make what I do look easy. I’m sort of embarrassed – now it’s being recorded – sort of embarrassed. Sometimes like a drawing will work straight off and I’ve got just the right look in Horrible Harriet or Old Tom’s eye. Other times I can do it 20 times and just to try and get it right. But that sort of obsessiveness I find I just can’t not be part of, it’s just part of a thing.
A: I find too if I haven’t been working for a while and I do have long periods where I haven’t done anything, when I sit down to draw I might have to draw for at least a day just to draw all the rubbish out of my system kind of thing like I don’t get –
F: You warm up.
A: - groove where as I get older there’s a zone I get into where everything kind of looks a little bit like a stuffed toy like everyone’s quite chubby and their limbs are short. Once they start looking like that I feel like I’m in my zone but I sometimes will have to just draw and draw and draw and it’s all awful and then finally I’ll get there.
F: I have the same issue where especially when I start after a while, it’s awful. But I find I also kind of trick myself into drawing with expression and depending how I hold my pencil I get different lines and this book here that we’re still looking at, I just used really thick chalk or pastel and so I had very little control over it and it felt expressive or it felt expressive to me and free. So yeah, I trick myself a lot.
A: We need to do that, we need to –
F: It can just be so boring, sorry, drawing constantly.
L: It’s a bit over the top word but there’s almost a divine time where your imagination and the hand and the brain, everything’s working in sync. It’s like a drug, who need drugs?
F: It’s five minutes before school finishes.
L: Yeah well whatever but it’s – the most high-tech thing I’ve got at home is a black – is my photocopier which I love but just that thing of the paint and oh gee, it’s good. I’m missing it already, Belle.
A: I think that’s why we’re so lucky is that it’s never work, really. Even when you’re having to draw a whole day to get a decent one you love doing it like it’s a pleasure, isn’t it?
F: I’ve learnt that there’s no point doing that and I just go off and do something else or wait ‘til five minutes before Ivy is going to get home and then I’ll be productive. Oh no, I’ll do it in five minutes.
B: Look, I think obviously you know there always has to come a time to end and I mean this just seems like way too soon, I'm sure but Grace is going to come and thank our wonderful speakers and then we’re going to have time for questions from the audience so that they have 15 minutes too, they may have an absolutely brilliant question that they want to ask and then we have a half an hour for signing of books so we have to save time for that as well. The good thing is this is recorded and it’s livestreaming on Facebook now so all of us are immortalised forever. So, Grace.
G: Please join me in thanking Dr Belle Alderman, Freya Blackwood, Alison Lester and Leigh Hobbs for that really interesting discussion and I’m sure one that will spark many further discussions.