Children’s book illustrator and author (Goth Girl, Ottoline, The Edge Chronicles) – and The Observer political cartoonist – Chris Riddell has just spent the last two years as UK Children’s Laureate. He’s now about to publish his first children’s book in 10 years – Once Upon a Wild Wood – and has begun creating artwork for a new illustrated edition of JK Rowling’s book of children’s stories, The Beedle and the Bard.
Before leading a live art class at the London Apple store on Regent St for the The Big Draw Festival – the beginning of his journey from analogue to digital art processes – I spoke to Chris about art education in school, illustrating for both adults and children, and his upcoming children’s book.
Chris Riddell has been illustrating for more than 20 years, yet he only picked up an iPad and began sketching in Procreate as of a few weeks ago. Chris freely admits he still dries his water paintings with a hairdryer before mailing them to publishers, much to the delight of the designers.
Attending Brighton Art School (now School of Art at the University of Brighton) in early 1980s – the age of post-punk – Chris’ personal tutor was none other than the iconic illustrator and cartoonist Raymond Briggs CBE, who had just finished his first The Snowman children’s book at the time.
“Raymond was huge influence on me as a student. It was because of Raymond that I wanted to work in the world of publishing, and children's books,” says Chris.
Chris began showing publishers his artworks created using condensed charcoal – a texture he continues to love and uses as a digital brush.
“I remember feeling slightly discouraged,” he says, after his A1-sized artworks of The Chronicles of Narnia were rejected from publishers.
It wasn’t until a German publisher asked where his own stories were, and a night of frantically writing his first ever one, Mr Underbed, did Chris realise this is what he needed to do.
“If I wanted to commission myself to do the pictures, I've got to write the stories,” he says. “I went off that into my career as a children's book illustrator and writer.”
It was his picture book The Trouble With Elephants that caught the eye of The Economist editor at the time, thus starting his parallel career as a political cartoonist.
A political cartoonist in a digital age
What could be seen as a dying art – political cartoons – is in fact everything but, thanks to the current political climate. Chris says social media has helped to increase the reach of political cartoons. He also uses social media as an engagement tool, a voice – something he never had even 10 years ago – to amplify his role as Children’s Laureate, of which he held the position from 2015 to 2017 before handing over to Lauren Child.
“The internet allows us to access a world of images but also to make creative connections,” says Chris. “So it's a golden age in many ways. It has all sorts of downsides, we hear a lot about that. What I like to talk about often, is the very positive side of these things.”
As a political cartoonist Chris no longer has to work under the gatekeeping of a publisher – he can just Tweet his own political cartoons from his own account and reach people directly, “attracting a readership, if you will, in the online world very, very easily.”
Chris walks an interesting path as both a children’s illustrator and an illustrator for adults, essentially, when it comes to his grotesque, exaggerated visual interpretations of politics, or world leaders. But, he says, illustrating for both audiences isn’t all that different.
“I do quite enjoy saying subversive things very delicately in crosshatching. So yes, drawing Theresa May as two feet sticking out of a dustbin, you know, it's very rude of me to do that, but I think it's an accurate image of her political situation, but also, it means I can draw it very delicately and carefully,” says Chris.
“So I think when I illustrate my children's books, often I'm using the same style.”
Chris tries to create empathy with his characters, often drawing the reader into a space they can enjoy.
“With a newspaper cartoon,you're dissecting someone's opinion or political position, and so you will emphasise that aspect of them to make your point. So in that sense, it can become darker, certainly, than anything I would do in the children's books.”
Art in school is "overtaught"
As his position as the UK Children’s Laureate comes to a close this year, Chris can look back on two years of defending school libraries and librarians, emphasising the excitement literacy and illustration brings to the next generation of readers through live events both alone and with the support of other artists. It’s a prestigious job – Chris now joins the long list of iconic illustrators who have also taken post as Children’s Laureate, including Quentin Blake, Jacqueline Wilson and Anthony Brown.
During his time in schools, Chris saw art being “overtaught” and he calls for the education curriculum to create a holistic approach less focussed on analysis of art – and more on the craftsmanship, experimentation and “the actual doing” of art.
“It's extraordinary that you can actually sit an Art [GCSE] and A-level and write essays,” he says.
“In my day, you painted stuff and you drew stuff and you created projects. You found your materials, and you explored them by using them. You didn't explore them by analysing them.”
He compares the system to reading a novel – you can either read a novel to enjoy it, or to examine it.
“You can draw a picture because you love it, or you can draw a picture where you're analysing every aspect of why you're doing it. Now I wonder which is more creative?”
Being a veteran drawer
Surprisingly, Chris finds it hard to explain why his books are successful.
“As an illustrator, I'm always trying to create that empathy, that connection. And sometimes you do. And sometimes you're more successful than at other times,” he says.
“I certainly carry on doing it because it's an endless trial and error, and you are always trying to find something that hits that wonderful spot.”
But Chris never seems to be short of ideas. His array of famous sketchbook artwork is a manifestation of his constantly creative mind – even the dull confinements of an aeroplane haven’t led him to a creative block.
“I just draw whatever seems to going on, and I sometimes draw myself if I'm going to do something. I will be sketching with charcoal pencils, and often themes occur,” he explains.
He’s recently visited Belfast, Ireland, and south of Copenhagen. His notebooks were filled with beautiful sketches from his flights – his “displacement activity”.
Chris’ sketchbooks are kept in his studio bookcase to look back on if he pleases. He’s even kept sketchbooks from his time studying in Brighton, of which his daughter – also studying art in Manchester – will look back through.
“It becomes an innate thing. I think that is part of what sketchbooks do. They train visual artists to think on paper, to conceptualise. And they are also discreet, because they're within the covers of a book.”
Much of the characters and ideas you see in Chris’ books have come from the pages of sketchbooks – ever since his school days he’s been a veteran drawer.
How to start your own sketchbook
Chris treats his sketchbooks as a “private place to work things out”.
“What I like to do with a sketchbook is draw things naturally, really connect with your subconscious of creativity,” he says.
This is an important way to break that sense of block, explains Chris.
Celebrate the notion of having a clear head, channel that and just draw the first thing that you think of.
“I always start with a whisper hair on an eyebrow and build from that. Just start to draw a character, don't think about who it might be.”
Then he likes to play a game – Chris calls it ‘Who's what, from where?’.
“Once you've drawn a character, explain where it’s from in a simple sentence and see whether that begins the process of story building,” says Chris. “I say to anyone who's feeling a little bit blocked, I say sit down, draw something and let the concept grow out of that, and see where the story takes you.”
This is how he created Mr Munroe who appears in his Ottoline children’s book series.
Not defiantly non-digital, just incompetent
Chris has taken a while to embrace a digital creative process – he only began drawing in Procreate on an iPad only two weeks ago – but he assures me it’s not because he’s “defiantly non-digital”, as once described, but because he’s incompetent.
“I just don't know how, and I would love to if I got the chance.”
His illustrations for publishers are all sketched and painted by hand before being packaged and sent from his studio to designers in the office.
“The designers at my publishers get very excited when one of my packages arrives, because they don't get to see real artwork anymore,” he says.
“I've just hit upon this extraordinary thing, that I'm now so unfashionable, I've become fashionable.”
And with the “soap opera” narratives of Brexit and Donald Trump, Chris says he’s never short of work as a political cartoonist. Gearing up on a Friday morning, Chris will listen to the radio and then sketch a notion or idea. He often starts by drawing little doodles and then he’ll have an idea and sketch it out in “the roughest possible terms”.
“I’ll then go into my studio and stretch a watercolour paper on a drawing board, sketch my cartoon out in pencil, then ink the pencil lines with a very thin paint brush that I dip in ink,” says Chris.
“I’ll use both concentrated and traditional watercolours and lay watercolour wash over my ink drawing, dry the paint with a hair dryer, and scan it and send it to The Observer to be printed.”
More than one children’s book
Chris has spent the last few years in “middle-grade fiction” – he’s illustrated eight books in total, two sets of four titles. He’s also illustrated for author Neil Gaiman, a long-time collaborator of his.
But after exactly 10 years, Chris is finally about to release his new children’s book called Once Upon a Wild Wood – hopefully by next summer.
“I think the best way of describing it is a rather facetious fairytale. So there are all sorts of characters one might recognise,” says Chris.
“There is a beauty. There is a beast. There are some bears, certainly a little girl in a red riding hood.”
His principal character is a girl called Little Green Rain Cape. Expect to see lots of colour and silliness.
And while he’s about to tie up work on Once Upon a Wild Wood, preliminary work on JK Rowling’s book of children’s stories, The Tales of Beedle and the Bard, is beginning. There’s a storybook of the same name mentioned in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the last book of the Harry Potter series) of which the book derives from. Although there have been limited edition copies printed before – each handwritten and illustrated by JK Rowling – Chris will be illustrating a new line which aims to be published by next autumn.
Although Chris doesn’t work directly with JK Rowling – “there’s a whole hierarchy of junior wizards” – he’s been in meetings with her organisation.
“In some sense, it actually gives me greater freedom to be able to step back a bit,” he says, pleased that he isn’t illustrating the Harry Potter books themselves like his “good friend”, illustrator Jim Kay.