Illustrator Owen Davey on how he's created a successful series of animal-themed children's picture books

With the release of a new book celebrating the humble frog, Owen Davey talks about the fine art of depicting an entire species while keeping kids informed - and entertained.

Owen Davey is an illustrator and animal man; so good is he at drawing our friends from the natural world, he led one of our tips articles on how to draw animals.

Owen was a go-to choice due to his long-running series for Flying Eye Books that gives kids a guide to one species of fauna per book; his latest, Fanatical About Frogs, follows charming and informative titles like Bonkers About Beetles and Crazy About Cats.

There are countless frogs drawn and annotated in Owen's latest work, and as any illustrator can tell you, even drawing just one kind of critter is hard enough on its own. How does the man do it? Does he perhaps lurk in zoos or nature reserves, net in one hand and tablet in the other? Not quite.

"I've tried to do some sketching from life in zoos, but it just didn't work," he admits over email. "Animals move. And hide. And my eyesight isn't superb. So I quickly realised that instead I just needed to explore references; photos I'd taken from the zoos, or stuff in books, pausing documentaries, using animal biology books (and of course the classic Google search)."

But in an age of fake news and Wiki armchair-experts, Owen has to tread carefully as he traverses this wild and tangled jungle of personal research.

"Trying to ensure I'm drawing the right thing can be a challenge in a world with so much incorrect or mis-information being thrown about," he reveals. "Many documentaries overly-simplify for my needs, and many books become outdated with their information by the time they're printed, so it's always a lot of work.

"Luckily, we also work with experts in the field who can put me right if I make any errors. The beetles and frogs have been two of the hardest ones to do, as new species are being discovered very regularly, and little is known about lots of them.

"I try to make the books very contemporary and accurate with the information so that they will last for years to come."

The topic of each book is decided by either Owen or Flying Eye, with the aim being to release one new book each year; Fanatical About Frogs is the fifth so far in the series.

The release joins a body of book work by Owen that comprises of narrative delights like Laika: Astronaut Dog, which tells the story of the first animal to orbit the earth. Such books are intended for a younger reader much like his animal series, but how different does it feel for Owen working between such styles?

"It's a totally different approach,' he says. "You can be so much more free with fiction books as the aim of the book isn't necessarily to impart facts on the reader. You can skew things, alter them to your own needs and sometime just make stuff up.

"Laika was a weird middle-ground where I definitely used some of my artistic licence, especially in my revised ending (where Laika survives), but also I wanted there to be some authenticity because it was based on true events.

"There was some detailed research that went behind that book, but lots of it was stripped away for the benefit of the narrative, because that was the key point to the book."

Pages from Crazy About Cats

Narrative or not, Owen's books enjoy the same kind of success, which the artist puts down to his investment in each project.

"(Their success) is just about enjoying illustrating them. I have a book or two from the past that I'm not very proud of, because for whatever reason, I fell out of love with the project.

"My favourite books are the ones I can't wait to share with the world. I concentrate on making the books as appealing to myself as anybody else. The couple that have gone awry have been due to outside influence or bending the content or style to something that doesn't interest and excite me.

"That's why I usually prefer to write and illustrate my own books, because I can make them my own passion projects, my own little babies."

Two foreign titles featuring Owen's work

Speaking of babies, I ask father-of-two Owen about whether his little ones have any influence on his work.

"I have two daughters now: one is 18 months old, the other is about a week.

"I've been really inspired by reading to my eldest because it properly shows me how she interacts with the books, and also how I do. But most of my own picture books are aimed at an older audience, so I haven't gained insight into them yet. It is, however, getting my mind racing about younger picture books that I'd like to work on.

Illustration for Pottermore

Portrait of Kathleen Drew-Baker

"I already have a series in mind that I want to get a publisher on board with, but I need to find time between parenting and commissions to get the ideas down on paper."

Looking forward to it Owen, and congrats from Digital Arts on the new addition to your bibliography - and the new addition to the Davey family.

Fanatical About Frogs is out March 1st on Flying Eye Books (RRP: £12.99/$19.95)

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