My flagging morale was recently boosted by this blog post. Amongst many other interesting points, it promotes the notion that good illustrators are also good artists.
I love art in all its forms, but there’s an unspoken hierarchy in the art world, and in some people’s minds illustrators are down at the bottom of it, ranking far below painters, sculptors and graphic designers. As if that’s not enough, children’s book illustrators have for many years been consigned to the murky depths of that particular category too. It’s as if, because we make pictures aimed at young and undeveloped minds, we are not to be taken seriously.
Recently I dropped in to a local gallery which sells all different kinds of lovely prints and paintings, to ask about the possibility of exhibiting there. The owner was all enthusiastic and friendly until I actually started to explain what my work was. Honestly, her facial expression and attitude changed so suddenly and so obviously it was as if I’d just let out a loud and pungent fart. She nearly wafted me out of the door like one, anyway… I didn’t get the chance to tell her that I’d sold several original illustrations (framed and ready to hang as art on your wall) at every exhibition I’ve done. Please forgive me indulging in a bit of name-dropping, but I wanted to tell her that my buyers included the lead singer of a long-established folk rock band (oh go on then, it was Dave Cousins of the Strawbs, not that I’m suggesting that gives it credibility but, y'know…!) and the star of a popular West End musical (what is it about singers?!). I sold a rough pencil sketch from one book to an Art Buyer from Sotheby’s who was so poshly spoken I could barely understand her, but who said (when I finally tuned in to her accent) that she loved to see a work in its unfinished form and to be able to appreciate what went into it. I would have hugged her but I was afraid of crushing her pearls. And yet this gallery woman looked down her nose at me and discouraged me from even showing her what I could do. I really wouldn't have minded if she'd just said she didn't think it would be right for her, but it was the way she made me feel so inferior that pissed me off. I should have farted as I went out the door, shouldn’t I?!
Fortunately, though, views are gradually starting to change and children’s book illustration has become more recognised as an important art form in its own right. There are always going to be those low-end, mass-market products that cater for children in which artwork has been lazily commissioned and unimaginatively or sloppily executed, but these days thankfully there is increasing recognition of the fact that good book illustration - ok, good book art! - is to be valued. Not only do you need the ability to draw and paint, but you need the kind of mind which can conjure up these images from within. You only have what’s in your head to draw from (in both senses), whether it’s a trumpet-playing monkey or a dragon taking a bath (or a surfing rhino…) It’s a huge amount of fun, but it takes a lot of energy and a particular way of thinking, and that’s before you’ve even put pencil to paper.
Not only that, but because your work is going to be used commercially and publicly, rather than sold as a piece in its own right to one person, you’re subject to a massive amount of critique. A whole team of people get involved, scrutinising your compositional ideas, poring over your every pencil stroke, making judgements about the tiniest details, sometimes conflicting ones. On top of that you’re working to continuous deadlines. It can take up to six months to complete one picture book, and the advance is rarely over a few thousand pounds, unless you’re Quentin Blake or Lauren Child…
So you do it for love. Why else would you do it? Not to have anyone look down their nose at you, that’s for sure.