Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
Guy Parker-Rees is the award-winning author of whole shelf of bestselling picture books, including the international hit Giraffes Can’t Dance. He writes his own stories, as well as working with other authors, such as Giles Andreae and Tony Mitton. Here he talks to Graham Marks about his world of colour, line and characters, and his latest Tom & Millie books.
You’ve talked about your very early years in Zimbabwe, and the major difference there was for you coming to England when you were three years old – do you think that time has had a permanent affect on you?
I think it did, really…I remember it as being a very happy, safe and secure time. We came back here and my older brothers went off to school, which was a shock to the system…I don’t know if it was a fantasy of a happier place, or whether it was, but I’ve always thought of Africa as somewhere happy.
Have you ever been back?
Yeah, I went back in 1990; I was hitching around with a very funny friend, a writer called Lisa Taylor who is actually the person who got me into children’s books. The trip was brilliant, and it’s bizarre how the smells of the country were so evocative…I can’t really put words to it, but they were very powerful feelings…there are kopjes there, which are very large, dry boulders with plants growing on them, and lizards, and you can climb up them. They give off a particular ‘hot rock’ smell that brought back waves of memory; memories of a non-verbal, pre-verbal experience maybe.
Do you think the place affected your colour palette?
I think, again, I associate with Zimbabwe…I always like strong colours, which can be like playing with fire, really, because it can look very tacky, so I always aim to use strong colours in a sensitive way. It’s got to be about feeling and not just piling it all in in a easy way. I think colour has always been very important to me…I did a painting when I was at university – I didn’t go to art school, I went to university and did Literature and Philosophy, but spent most of my time painting there…I did a painting of some bananas, with lots of colours in the shadows, and I remember the artist-in-residence there saying what positive feedback it’d got from the dinner ladies; I really liked that, it meant a lot to me.
You also talk about the fact that you spent a lot of your time at school ‘doodling and painting’, but then you went to university to study English and Philosophy…why?
Well, it was a toss-up between going to art school or going to university, and I knew I was always going to paint, because I’ve always painted; I thought that I probably wouldn’t get around to reading philosophy books and studying literature in as in-depth a way if I didn’t go to university. And also, to be honest, my sense of my own identity wasn’t strong enough at that age; I’d have been copying the person next to me, I think. I didn’t have a sense of my own voice or how I wanted to express myself visually.
Who would you say were the greatest influences on you as a child and growing up - artistically who did you gravitate towards?
I always loved Picasso, his Rose and Blue periods, and I still love him, he’s brilliant, and I’ve always like David Hockney and Matisse…
What about illustrators?
As a child I liked Richard Scarry’s books, and I’ve always liked Dr Seuss…that bounce in the line from Dr Seuss is something I aspire to, to try and keep that lightness and emotional connection to the line.
Have you ever wanted to do animation?
I’ve done a bit on my website, but doing all the boring, connecting bits, I’m not too keen on that. Animation fascinates me, how you can get so much feeling into such subtle, little movements and gestures, the way someone walks…I’d rather be sitting, looking over someone’s shoulder as they did it, though!
You seem to be able to capture a lot of that movement in your ‘still’ illustrations.
Well, that’s what I aspire to do; I think it’s about capturing gesture, as well as colour and line and expression. All things I feel are very important. It takes a lot of pulling faces in front of a mirror - to draw an expression I have to be pulling that expression. Maybe you need that connection between your heart and your hand.
But also I seem to have specialised in dancing animals, and exuberance is what I find most interesting to illustrate. That joy of childhood which slowly gets a little bit diminished? That joy in life? We try to keep it alive, but it’s so intense in childhood, and the perfect medium for me seems to be dancing animals, as it’s transpired; although I’m sure there must be other ways of doing it. So there’s a lot of pulling dance moves in front of the mirror, which hasn’t improved my dancing, unfortunately…
Having spent time painting murals, being an art therapist and teaching, what happened to convince you that illustration was what you should then go on to do?
It sounds really odd, but I didn’t even know the job of illustrator existed. It hadn’t occurred to me. I’d always been fascinated by stories, in fact one of the papers I did at university, to combine philosophy and literature, was looking at patterns of story. So I’d always been really interested in how they worked, but until I met someone who wrote picture books it never really occurred to me that people illustrated them.
I stopped art therapy because I wanted to do more of my own stuff, and, selfishly, didn’t want to listen to other people’s problems - and maybe I needed to look at my own a bit more as well. It was only when I met Lisa Taylor, who wrote picture books, that everything came together and I knew what I wanted to do. Then life became much easier, once I knew what I wanted to do: there was a focus and you just keep on persevering until it happens.
How difficult was it to make the that move?
The difficult move was starting to paint, rather than having a job. It happened when I was travelling in Carcassonne, in France, with my dad; I saw someone selling watercolours just outside the castle walls, and I thought ‘Well, I could do that!’. So then I made the bold leap, and through the Enterprise Allowance Scheme I was given a pitiful amount a week, but it was just enough for me to live and have a market stall and sell pictures in Camden Market and Greenwich.
So you started not as an as illustrator but as an artist.
Yeah…I’d get some masking tape and mask watercolour paper off into all these little four-inch squares and paint whatever came into my head and sell them. Having a market stall was something I’d always wanted to do, but I’m glad I got it out of my system as it was very hard work!
That was moving from art therapy to art to sell; how did you get to illustration?
I wrote a book called No Such Thing as Monsters, and I did the pictures for it and made a dummy and I sent it out. Two publishers wanted to do it, Bloomsbury - who wanted to change it a bit and add another character, which I didn’t want to do - and David Bennett Books. I went with David Bennett. Once I’d got one book under my belt I then had to work out how to make a living as an illustrator, and that took a long time. I had to do painting and decorating and other things as well to make ends meet.
So you never went through that horrible rejection phase, then.
Oh, that all came later – that’s been the rest of my life! No, I’ve actually been very lucky, really…after the initial success I thought ‘Oh, this’ll be easy’, and I could just knock the books out. Then, when other things I sent out weren’t picked up, I realised it wasn’t quite so easy and I had to build things up gradually, to learn the craft - learning how to illustrate as I wasn’t very good at the beginning. Then it was just a hard slog.
Looking back, do you think you gained something special from working as an art therapist?
I think it was about letting other people do things; I think what I got was that things will come out if you let them come out…that’s what always happens when you put a sheet of paper in front of someone and they start to draw. Things will happen, and it’s about not getting in the way. Working like that got rid of my fear of a blank sheet of paper, definitely.
How I always start, coming up with an idea, is I doodle; my drawings are very messy and I don’t keep a neat sketchbook or anything. It’s a total mess and chaotic and you’ve got to have faith that out of all that some pattern will come, and you will get an answer. And you usually do.
Has the way you work changed much over the years?
Yes, I still have that way of beginning, to get a very large sheet of paper and start doodling without thinking too tightly, and see what comes up.
Yes, or a stick of graphite, or I splash around with paint and generally make a mess. I thinks it’s got to be a bit chaotic…it’s a very difficult, frustrating process, but you have to go through that in order to get good ideas.
What’s your favourite medium?
At the moment I use pen and ink, and watercolour…I like the splashiness and randomness of watercolours; it’s exciting, the effect you get by laying the colours down, which is something you can’t really copy with digital. It’s more like real life, I think, and the fact that it’s not controlled means there’s a warmth and a life to it. It’s more human.
It is almost like calligraphy, you have to be in the right zone to let it happen, and if you’re too uptight and don’t have that connection you’ll cock it up. You just have to believe you won’t, but it’s surprising how often, if you do make a mistake, you can then change it into something else. I find it very interesting how these happy accidents come along [with watercolour], through that slightly less controlled process.
Do you draw from life, or always use reference?
I do both, really. And as I draw a lot of animals, I go to the zoo quite often; there’s one called Drusillas near here, which is handy for penguins.
Do you find the writing an easy process?
It's something I always struggle with, writing, and still don’t feel I’ve found my voice. The last two books for Orchard, the Tom & Millie books, are my homage to Richard Scarry, really…I loved Richard Scarry books, and I wanted to create a world that was very busy with a lot of detail in it, so that parent and child sitting together would have that world to share and talk about. I wanted things to spot, and the world to grow as they meet Tom and Millie’s friends through the story. I don’t have a problem with the images, but the writing doesn’t come so easily to me….words have never been quite as much my friends as images, they’re tricky things and I struggle with them. What is it about words? Maybe I don’t trust them as much, an image you can just see what you like.
Which comes first for you: the words or the pictures?
If it’s one of my own stories, it’s the characters which always come first. There’s a sketch for a character and it comes to life, and as I write and draw I find out what their voice is and what their story is.
Have your own children been an inspiration for you?
Well, I think they have, really. Although they just get in the way, most of the time! When I was doing the Tom & Millie books, which are really busy, my son Dylan, five at the time, was doing his own versions of them, which I loved. When I was doing a kitchen scene, or something, he’d draw the same sort of thing, but he’d pick out the things he liked and they’d be enormous! The pizza oven would be huge, or the ice cream…that freedom [children have] to mess around with scale, their freedom in drawing I find inspirational. It’s a bit sad, now they’re getting older and their drawing’s are becoming a bit tighter.
Where did the idea for the Tom & Millie books come from?
I’d wanted to do busy scenes, with characters, so I drew a seaside scene and took it to the publishers. I had ideas about how the stories would work as well, I knew I wanted them to build and that Tom and Millie would find more of their friends. The reader would start off by not knowing many of the people on the page and by the end of the book they’d recognise a lot of them…like the actual process of making friends, and the world becoming a friendlier place. And I like using animal characters, I like the fact they aren’t located in a particular culture or setting…they’re universal and can be shared by different cultures, everyone can own the characters.
What’s on your drawing board at the moment?
At the moment I’m doing a touchy-feely version of Giraffes Can’t Dance, and I’m also working on a new book by Tony Mitton and drawing up the characters…that one’s at a very rough stage. I’m busy…I seem to have far less time than I used to have; I miss the fallow time to sit and stare and look out of the window.
Isn’t that where the ideas come from?
It is, and I do try and make that time, but it’s quite hard to carve that out of your day.
Is there always a moment when you know that an idea is going to work?
Definitely. That's the exciting bit, when you catch an expression or a colour and something at the back of your head pings and you know you’ve got what you’re looking for. It’s very easy not to hear that little voice…when I was doing the first scene of Tom & Millie it was actually coming up with the kitten character. I knew I had something different.