Oliver Jeffers on how he illustrates picture books children (and adults) love

Oliver Jeffers is one of the world's best loved authors and illustrators of children's picture books – with works including Lost and Found, The Day The Crayons Quit and This Moose Belongs To Me. Oliver's latest book, Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, isn't a story but an introduction to the world for his first child – written and illustrated in the first few months of his son’s life.

We caught up with Oliver on a recent press tour to promote the book, and interviewed him about his creative process and approach to mark making and composition – and how different it was to work on a non-fiction book with a very particular audience in mind. We also discussed how he’s recently been working digitally on an iPad, and what he’s got planned next.

You can watch our interview above, or if you're not able to watch it, read an edited version below.

I started by asking Oliver how he generally approaches his books and how much, in the past, he's had a specific audience in mind when he writes and illustrates them.

“When I'm making a book, I don’t start off thinking, ‘well, this is what the kids want to hear’ – and then try and address that,” he says. “It just so happens that a good number of kids share my sense of humour and my sense of curiosity.

“My own target audience for the majority of those books is me, both me as an adult and my remembered world view from when I was a kid. I think there's a degree of honesty in that and not really trying to talk down [to children] or presuming I think I know what children want to hear. Instead I’m letting them into the way in which I think - [and] that’s why both kids and adults enjoy them.”

Oliver’s approach to each the illustrations that live on each page or spread of his books is usually to start with a very simple focal point – both visually and conceptually. From here he adds details around this that encourage the reader’s eye to explore the rest of the artwork, discovering additional elements - some related to the story, some just to entertain there-and-then – as they go.

This sounds simple but often isn’t.

“I've learned over the years that the simpler something looks, often the more difficult it is to distil it back to that form,” he says. Once that has been achieved and the core elements of the page have been nailed, “that's when you get to have a bit of fun with adding in extra layers and Easter eggs for the discerning eye.”

In the early days of being a children’s author/illustrator – and before – Oliver also worked as a commercial illustrator. He also has a separate career as a fine artist, being exhibited in galleries around the world, most recently in New York where he now lives with his wife and soon-to-be-two children.

Being a commercial illustrator clearly wasn’t what Oliver wanted to be.

“With picture books, you don't sell huge amounts of copies and you don't make a huge amount of money from royalties,” he says. “At the beginning stages [of my career], I always knew I was going to have to supplement my income with something else – trying to sell paintings and getting commercial commissions. That always frustrated me because a job would come in and I would need to take it for money – but it would end up sucking all the air out of all of the other things I had.

“I knew that for creative satisfaction to occur, I would have to cut that off. I did, and that was a massive leap into the unknown. For the last five years, I have only been making the work that I want to make.”

Here We Are is a book for his son - but also for himself (and for any new parent). In it Oliver explains how he believes the world works – or should work – but also the responsibilities that parents have to project a world-view onto their children (at least until they’re old enough to think for themselves).

Oliver says that he was reminded of his responsibility by the unfolding world events of 2016-17 – characterised by the disrespectful tone of speech and writing that has underpinned everything from social media to the election of President Trump and Brexit.

“The three main things in the book are about parenting, about the shared responsibility of humanity and Earth's place in space,” he says. “It started off as maybe a book for new parents explaining the paradigm shift of looking after yourself to looking after this completely helpless little ball of life, which is a pretty huge jump really to make. But it was also because I was watching things unfold in Western Europe and in the US.

“It's funny how whenever you're looking at this tiny little baby, it makes you think about the perspective and the grandeur of everything."

Oliver never intended the book to be a polemic for or against anything – merely an explanation in simple terms.

Whenever you do draw things down to their simplest forms, the truths can be fairly obvious and screamingly obvious,” he says. “I didn't necessarily set out to do that. It was only that I was writing these things down, as I was saying to my son, and trying to write him a letter that I saw it myself.

“I thought, ‘Yes, these are things I'm trying to teach him, but I'm also re-reminding myself’. There were a lot of the things that my mom and dad taught me when I was growing up.”

Oliver was born in Belfast in Northern Ireland, and you can learn more about his childhood and how that influenced him in this video by Bas Berkhout.

An unusual way of working

The full text was written before Oliver even started sketching – the first time he had ever used that approach. This was also Oliver’s picture book without central characters and a formal narrative, which required some different thinking on his part.

“Because it's more like a science book in some ways than a picture book, there was a degree of obviousness about the way it should be tackled,” he says. It turned out that the best way to approach illustrating the book was for Oliver to sit down with his sketchbook and pick apart the text line-by-line and build concepts of how each element might look and tie together.

“It was only through doing that, I realised that there's a few devices I could use about the zooming into Earth and the zooming out again,” he says.

Oliver has a studio in Brooklyn – “smaller than I would like, but anybody who is an artist in New York knows that space is a very valuable commodity there”. Because of this, and as Oliver likes to work with many different tools and mediums as ideas of how to represent ideas come to him, it’s super-organised with everything labelled an in its right place.

“I've never been a master of any one particular medium or technique,” he says. ”For me, everything is idea-or story-driven first.

“With this book, there is a little bit of everything in there. The majority of the colours come from watercolour and ink washes. Then, there's some coloured pencils, some gouache paint. Anything that's a large shape is done physically on a piece of paper."

Finishing touches were completed on an iPad, primarily for practical reasons so Oliver could work from home and while travelling – adapting his craft around the time pressures of being a new parent. While he still prefers working with paper to digital creation, he has found working with an iPad much easier than traditional graphics tablets such as Wacom’s Intuos.

“I was never able to draw using a [graphics] tablet,” he says, “because it's an unusual thing to be looking at the screen at something being created that's actually happening with your hand. I tried it a couple of times [and thought], ‘No. It feels unnatural.’

He did find some advantages to working on an iPad though.

“You can zoom in, which is a huge advantage,” he says. “You can't do that with an actual piece of paper.

“It's strange because there's zero friction. Whenever you're drawing with a pencil across a piece of paper, there's texture, drag, resistance. It’s just not there, and that’s a strange sensation, which I don't know if you'll ever really get used to.”

Just my type

While his early books are known for hand-lettering created by the Oliver himself, Here We Are uses digital type – another practical decision. Oliver prefers using his own handwriting to digital text, but it caused problems as his books were translated into other languages.

The publishers would have to edit out Oliver’s text, then he would go back and hand-letter the translated text. Not speaking many of the languages, it was easy for spelling mistakes to be introduced. So recently, Oliver’s books have largely been typeset – though he does include some hand-lettered type as labels where he can.
Oliver’s next project is a monograph that combines his work across fine art and illustration.

“I've always kept the two things separate to a degree, just because it confused people,” he says. “This will be a little bit of everything, as in a lot of ways the art and the books that I've been making have been getting closer and closer – both in terms of style, but also in concept.

“This is an opportunity to really put everything together and show other people the connections between the things, that they all come from the same place. They all come from the same brain.”

Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth is published by HarperCollins. You can buy it from Amazon, Waterstones and other bookshops.

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