Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
David Melling is the international bestselling author and illustrator who first came to our attention with the critically acclaimed The Kiss That Missed, and whose The Tale of Jack Frost went from page to animated TV feature, voiced by Hugh Laurie. Here he talks to Graham Marks about how he became a children’s book illustrator, his influences, his passions and why he loves Twitter…
It seems that you have an artistic background in your family, with your father being a sculptor; what kind of work did he do?
He died, unfortunately, some thirty years ago now, and actually he was firstly a model-maker, working for architects doing scale models of buildings; but he always wanted to be a sculptor. When I was born he went freelance and did everything from trophies to jewellery, working in all sorts of mediums – plastics, precious metals, glass, wood – and the biggest thing he did was a huge polystyrene lion for the Lord Mayor’s show one year that people could actually go inside.
So was your house full of his work?
No, he had a studio in London, Baker Street, where he worked, but he also had a workshop in the garden, a lovely, dusty Aladdin’s cave full of tools and amazing things; I used to go in and talk to him, watching him, a little fag sticking out of his mouth, chipping away at something. I’d pull up a stool and we’d just chat, me looking over his shoulder. He did help with my drawing over the years, but it was when I was about 15, 16 - when I decided what I wanted to do - that he helped me get a portfolio together.
Do you remember the first drawing you did that people liked?
Funnily enough, I do. I remember doing a drawing of a polar bear and being really pleased with it as it was the first time a drawing didn’t have ten other rubbed-out heads gouged into the background, and my dad said he liked it, my mum, too. Just the family, but a breakthrough moment.
Did you go to college to study art?
I did, yes, an art foundation course. When I was at school I loved Biology, I loved animals, loved drawing them; but I was rubbish at the science, and then there was clash of subjects and I came to a crossroads and chose art because it was obvious I loved it more. After the foundation I did a Graphics course, even though I wanted to do Illustration, because my tutor said illustration was a very difficult way to make a living, you’ll be good at graphics. But it was very mathematical, all about working out type, and I hated it. The one part of the course I did enjoy was photography, so I went off and did that for three years, during which I realised it was drawing that that I really liked.
Then I was very lucky when a friend of a friend introduced me to an illustrator, Mike Vaughan, who took in illustrators - gave them space, but didn’t pay them - to keep him mentally occupied. I found I could get money, £40 a week, from the government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which I did for a year and with Mike’s help I got a portfolio of detailed colour pencil work together. He was fantastic, a huge influence on me and helped me a lot.
I went out into the big, wide world and I wasn’t particularly successful, until a friend told me that animation studios in London were looking for people who could do what’s called rendering - drawing in pencil on the animation cells [sheets of clear plastic]. I went along and suddenly I was getting a lot of well-paid work.
Any studios we might have heard of?
Mainly I was at TVC – TV Cartoons - the studio which did The Snowman. I didn’t work on that, but I did work on the Raymond Briggs story Father Christmas, and you can see my name in the credits at the end, along with all the other renderers. I also worked on the animated Peter Rabbit as well, but it was, it has to be said, mostly adverts for TV. I did that for four years, effectively colouring-in other people’s work, and one day I saw some VIP guy walking round one of the studios and asked who he was. Someone said ‘Oh, he’s the illustrator whose film we’re working on’, and I remember thinking ‘I’ve got to be that guy!’. It’s tough to make that decision, to turn down work to focus on getting a new portfolio together, but that’s what I did; then by chance I got introduced to a children’s book illustrator whose wife just happened to be an agent who was just starting up her own agency and was looking for new illustrators. That was Eunice McMullen and we’re still together, since 1993-94!
When I first saw your work, before I knew anything about you, I thought you had a style well-suited to animation – was that because it was your natural style, or had it come from what you’d picked up in the studios you worked in?
I think it was a bit of both. That time in the studios was a huge influence on me, and I remember one time I was assisting an animator, not doing rendering but doing in-between drawings; I went with her to watch the rushes and loved the look of the scratchy, rough drawings moving on the screen. You can see these influences in my work…in a lot of my books you can see sequences, like the knight getting on a horse in The Kiss That Missed, you can see movement.
Your career seems to have taken you from doing still photographs, then on to animated pictures and finally to illustrations - but ones that have an awful lot of movement in them.
It was a good journey, and the animation years made me fall in love with storytelling with pictures, that was the important thing I got in the first couple of years; I learnt about timing, character and pacing and I bought all these books – like The Illusion of Life, Disney’s huge animation bible - and although I was seeing everything from an animator’s point of view it’s all fed back into my work.
Do think you got anything from your time as a photographer?
What appealed to me about photography, and at one time I thought I might want to be a studio photographer, was that I liked the fact that the studio was black and the minute you switched a light on, everything in it was under your control…I liked that ‘painting with light’ mentality and approach. But to be honest, I’m not a very technically-minded person, and I don’t use computers at all with my illustration, just paper and pencils and ink.
So lighting was important, but the photography course also broke everything down to simple ways of looking…it taught you to look at colour, line and pattern and break down problems and challenges into single words. Sometimes I think, yes, I studied children’s book illustration, but I did it with a photographic course, working a year with an illustrator doing magazine work and four years in an animation studio. It all fed in to what I do now.
Who would you say were the people who influenced you?
A big influence on me, and I’d say he is someone any young, budding illustrator should look at, was Maurice Sendak…he said a picture book is a visual poem, it’s a moment, and Shirley Hughes talks about them as being like a film where the illustrator is the director, the editor, the writer and the producer, and it is like that. When you break it down, a picture book is a simple twelve or fourteen-spread storyboard, whether it’s a five-minute experience for a toddler, or something, like Jack Frost, with a beginning, middle and an end, with drama and pace.
But if we’re going to talk about influences, I haven’t touched on humour, and I’ve got some major influences there…from the early years it was Tom and Jerry and Asterix and Obelix, and you can see some of that coming through even now as I love the slapstick type of humour. And then there are people like Heath-Robinson and Ronald Searle, and I think most illustrators would quote him. My early work was very Ronald Searle, very Ralph Steadman, and I always say, as do a lot of people, that it’s good, at a certain point in your career when you’re finding your way, to copy people.
It’s important that you only use it as a stepping stone, though, and don’t stay there; what’s difficult is to draw but consciously not look at the way you draw and just draw. Quentin Blake, and David Hockney, I think, have both said that drawing is like handwriting: the more you do it the more you find your own way to do it. When my first book came out, and people said they could see my style and that it was quite different, I was really surprised as I hadn’t noticed; I hadn’t been looking, I’d been concentrating on the storytelling and humour.
You’re known as a picture book illustrator, so what is it about the format that attracts you, draws you to it?
Several things…I’ve always loved stories, I like idea of telling a story, but what appeals to me enormously, compared to general illustration, is you have two or three months to really get involved in one project. Some illustrators love the buzz of a different brief every two or three days, but it doesn’t suit me. And I love having certain constraints - I love the restricted format of 24 pages - and the fact that the books are mini-films. I also like the broad canvas children’s books offer, everything from Hugless Douglas, which is for a very young audience, to Jack Frost, and the goblin spin-offs from it; I always try and keep working on a wide range of ideas, although, if I’m honest, I do prefer the older picture books, which afford me more scope for interesting images.
What comes first for you, a story or a character you then write a story for?
Well, not every book is the same…for example, just to pick a book at random, Hugless Douglas came about because I’d done a bear in a previous book - Two by Two and a Half – and everyone at Hodder said I should do something with the character. In that case I came to the drawing board knowing I had to work on an bear, so it was the drawing first, but often it’s a mixture of both, although led more by the sketchbook and doodling. Probably the pencil before the pen, but once the pencil starts the pen soon follows with names, phrases, titles, all sorts of things.
Is there any one part of the whole process you like the best?
What I really, really love - the best part of this job, the best part - is when you’re just going to start the new book, which is why, when I finish the next Douglas, it’ll be such a great time because anything’s possible at this stage, there are no restrictions whatsoever, even if it doesn’t necessarily all happen. It’s a blank canvas, and I get a new sketchbook every time I do a new book, so all the drawings specific to that idea are there in one place. Ian Rankin, in a recent BBC Imagine documentary, talked about how, at the start of each book, he’s convinced it’s going to be amazing and how by degrees the idea slips away and it’s never quite what you thought it would be. I thought that was so true, but you never learn because every time I start a new book I get equally excited, which is probably what gets me up in the morning!
Do you set yourself problems to test yourself, like that really complex, intricate double-page spread in Jack Frost?
There is a bit of that. I just thought I wanted to do something that was different and I’d never done anything that detailed – and I’ll tell you what inspired me, it was going to see a small, local exhibition by Jill Barklem [author/illustrator of Brambly Hedge]; it was just as I’d started the story for Jack Frost and I was absolutely blown away by the beautiful illustrations. I thought I’d love to do a really detailed spread, and without forcing it Jack Frost would be a appropriate place to do it, the perfect opportunity.
You’re quite an avid blogger, and I notice you also Tweet – what do you put up there?
I kept wondering ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ with Twitter, but I like it…I don’t talk about my opinions on anything, I just doodle, and it’s made me draw more. I think it was in the summer I did a quick blog called The Twitter Effect, on how a comment by someone about making fudge ended up a few Tweets later with me doing a drawing of bunny fudge. What appeals to me is that a Tweet takes seconds to do and you can look at it or not. And I normally take the picture on my phone when I’m on the move.
What’s on your drawing board right at this moment?
Last year I did this board book called Splosh, which was exclusive to Sainsbury’s to begin with. It was counting book, with ducks, and I’m working on Book 2, Colour with Splosh, right now. Then it’s on to the next Douglas book!