Interview: Marion Deuchars

Marion accompanied by artworks by her sons, which cover her fridges

Marion Deuchars is on a campaign to get everyone involved in art – a timely matter when it's being downgraded in the eyes of the British education system. 

"Music, sport and art are really important, but instead [the teaching system] is drilling people to become little automatons," she says.

Marion believes that art should be an integral part of all levels of education – from pre-school to university – helping children and students both to be more creative, and to see the world around them in a way that's only possible when you've some understanding of aesthetics.

"I'd love it [every university student] did an art foundation course," she says. "Everyone would have a much nicer life."

Her campaign isn't just aimed at children and young adults though. While her D&AD Yellow Pencil Award-winning first 'proper' book Let's Make Some Great Art and its just-released follow-up Let's Make Some Great Fingerprint Art were conceived and are sold as children's art books, they – especially the former – offer the chance for adults too to get their hands dirty and have fun with the artistic process. Each book proposes a series of exercises – from drawing your own version of the Mona Lisa's smile to making a Pollock-style drip painting – that can mostly be attempted whether you're a novice drawer or a seasoned illustrator.

"I realised that as I was coming up with these exercises that they're not really just for kids," explains Marion. "There's no such thing as an exercise for kids and an exercise for adults – they're ageless. Then I realised it would appeal to adults too, so I stopped worrying about what age group it was for, and decided to make it accessible to everyone regardless of their age.  Each age group would just tackle it in a different way."

You might not think that adults need as much help and encouragement to engage with creating art as children, but Marion notes that there are many grown-ups who have built up a fear of drawing as they believe they're not very good at it – something that starts in childhood when they try to develop representational techniques (or are pushed into trying by art teachers).

"It happens to 11-year-olds: they try to draw really well as they try to achieve realism – and if they don't, they stop," she says. "They say, 'I'm rubbish at it. I can't draw.'

"I really don't think that's true. There are so many different ways of drawing. There's realistic drawing, but there's also that drawing from imagination that you did as a kid – which is brilliant drawing. It's probably more interesting [than realistic drawing] as you're just expressing yourself."

The best days of your life

Marion's own experience at school is what led to her career as an illustrator – though she says the inspirational effect of her art teachers was matched by the influence of her parents, who always encouraged her to follow whatever passions she had. The teachers lit the fire, but her parents stoked it it.

"We had a whole top floor of a building dedicated to art and four art teachers," she remembers. "They were all brilliant and eccentric. My art teacher had some connection to Salvador Dali. He used to visit him once a year and come back with all these pictures of him and Salvador. He used to mould himself on him. He didn't copy his moustache, but he had this presence that was very strong. 

"They were people who believed you should follow art throughout your life – not just on the curriculum. They were the ones who said [to me] you have to pursue art."

Even so, Marion felt pressure from her other teachers to focus on more practical careers aspirations – and to apply for university rather than art school.

"I remember the headmistress saying 'you could always do that as a hobby'," she says. "It wasn't taken seriously as a subject except in the art department. And they weren't great examples [of success] as they were a bunch of hippies. But they were the ones with a passion, and they inspired a passion in me."

Marion's says that the nature of her work was as much influenced by her environment as by her education. She grew up in Grangemouth in Scotland, an industrial town dominated by a petrochemical plant whose night fires were filmed by Ridley Scott as components for the opening flyover sequence in Blade Runner – which she says shows that there can be beauty in the ugliness.

"Scotland's a funny place," she says, "often quite dark, grey and dreary. But when the sun comes out, it's full of colour. There's a tradition of bright colours in Scottish art – and in my work.

"We see the colour there – we're looking for it – because maybe we're a little bit deprived," she laughs.

Photos by Johann Chan

School led to Duncan of Jordonstone in Dundee, the Royal College of Art, and to a career creating editorial illustrations for likes of The Guardian, and commercial work from Harrods to the Dutch Police Force’s Annual Report. Marion married Angus Hyland – now a partner at leading design firm Pentagram – and has two children, Hamish (7) and Alexander (6). Two years ago, she decided that – while she wouldn't go back to work full-time – she wanted to begin a book project. She wasn't pleased with the quality many of the children's books that she was reading to the boys, so she decided she wanted to create a kids books and started a writing course – with the aim of producing a storybook. But she was unsure of what it would be about.

"I'd been working for 20 years as an illustrator and I was used to working thematically," Marion notes. "Someone gives me a theme, parameters, I can do something."

Angus was working as a consultant for hip art supplies chain Cass Art and proposed doing a project for it. Marion had regularly complained that there was nowhere to buy art materials for children from, and this had inspired Angus to advise Cass Art to turn the basement at one of its shops into a place that focussed on kids. He asked Marion to produce an activity book to promote it, and a "little flippy book" called Let's Fill This Book With Art was created – its name drawn from the pledge 'Let's fill this town with artists'.

Marion made a conscious choice not to emulate conventional kids activity books, which she says focus too much on doodling rather than challenging children to work with a wide range of techniques,

"I hate doodle books," she says. "I tried to shift [my book] away [from that] and make it more sophisticated and more intelligent, because I don't believe that you need to speak to children always in that kiddie language with bright colours and doodle characters."

Let's Fill This Book With Art lead to Marion being approached by publisher Laurence King to expand the concept into a full-sized book, which became Let's Make Some Great Art (above). To do this, she focused on asking herself one key question: "how did I learn?".

"There's so much stuff you've learned that you take for granted, " she says. "How did you learn how to crosshatch? How did you learn how to make something three-dimensional? How do you come with ideas? I wanted to show people how I'd learned."

The techniques and approaches that she wanted the book to show how to achieve were drawn from a mixture of things she'd taught herself and things she'd been taught a school and art school. The most important factor when creating each of the exercises was to make them easily understood by children and accessible to parents so that they could help their children and explain things if they had difficulty. Which is how she ended up with a series of exercises that can be as fun and educational for adults as they are for children.

Let's Create Some Great Art was a great success. Even the design industry establishment – not often fans of children's books – was enraptured, and the book won two Yellow Pencil Awards at this year's D&AD Awards. Marion was invited to do a follow-up, which she wanted to aim at younger children. She describes Let's Make Some Great Fingerprint Art (below) as "a play book, a fun book".

"There's something really fascinating about the mark that fingerprints leave," Marion says. "I don't know whether it's because fingerprints are unique, but we find the fingerprint mark very attractive. It's also impossible to make a bad fingerprint marks.

"[It's amazing] when young children realise they can take a fingerprint mark and make something out of it. They can just put a pair of legs on it and suddenly it's alive. I love the simplicity of it."

Marion notes that this book was the first time that she'd ever created characters, and that by doing it she was testing herself to see if she could work with them. But challenging herself has regularly guided the choices of projects she's taken on over her careers – as she has the creative drive of the easily bored.

"I've still got that hunger and that thirst. I still feel I haven't done my best work," she says. "It's probably how I'll die and that's a good thing. If you ever felt like you'd got there, like you created something great – I don't know how you'd keep going.

"My friend Margaret Calvert [co-creator of the UK road sign design system] is an inspiration to me because she still has that attitude – like a student, always trying to discover stuff. She still gets nervous when she gets a little job and she still really pushes it. If I like that when I'm [her age], I'd be pretty happy."

For now, Marion's happy to evolve what she's doing rather than reinventing herself again. Her current project is a third book in the Let's Make series, this time about cardboard sculptures and structures. She can't see herself going back to creating commercial illustrations.

"I now feel like I should just make my own work," she says. "I've got lots of ideas for books and I would like to just keep going down that route and see where it goes."

Let’s Make Some Great Fingerprint Art is out now from Laurence King.

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