An interview with Emma Chichester Clark

EmmaCC200px On Saturday morning at Conference we’re delighted to welcome Emma Chichester Clark to speak to us. Emma studied at Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art, London, where she was taught by Quentin Blake. She has illustrated a huge number of children’s books, and she has also written and illustrated many of her own stories, mainly for very young children. She has been described as ‘one of England’s most distinguished picture-book creators’, and I’m delighted to bring you an interview with her today.

FCBG: Was illustrating something you always wanted to do?

Emma Chichester Clark: I always wanted to draw and when I realised that someone had to do the pictures in books, it was immediately what I wanted to do. I used to make little books as a child with sewn up spines and text and pictures on each page.

FCBG: What have the key moments, experiences, people in your development as an illustrator? Was there a school teacher who encouraged you? Was there a book that particularly inspired you?

Emma Chichester Clark: A key moment at school was when a new young art teacher suggested we illustrate a poem. It was the first time I had thought about putting text with pictures – apart from when I’d made books when I was little. I chose a poem by W.B.Yeats – very romantic and atmospheric – The Song of Wandering Aengus. After that I illustrated everything I could find from Hamlet to Madeline (which was already perfectly illustrated by Bemelmans!).

The book I pored over all through my childhood was Homebodies by Charles Addams. I didn’t understand all the jokes but I loved the drawings. I still do. I also spent hours in the school library looking at a book of paintings by Rousseau. Those fabulous lush forests and extraordinary colours – I’d never seen anything like it.

FCBG: How did you go about developing your distinctive illustration style? Do you have any advice for budding illustrators?

Emma Chichester Clark: It seemed to take a long time. I remember at school experimenting with different styles of handwriting. I recently found an old project I’d done then and each page was written in a different style – sometimes loopy writing, sometimes backward sloping, sometimes italic! It was a similar experience with drawing – at first wanting to draw like so many other people whose work I admired. I think everyone does that and you pick up bits and pieces and make them your own. But eventually I realised that you have to draw in a way that feels entirely natural to you- like your own handwriting, and you have to be honest and true to yourself – which is what makes a style consistent I guess. I wish I could draw with a scratchy nib, or any kind of nib, but I can’t seem to. I try it at the start of every book but always end up with a pencil. I began illustrating children’s books using Dr Martin’s watercolour inks – they are so easy to use – you can paint layers and layers on top of each other, unlike watercolour, and I still use them most of the time. Sometimes, for more serious books – like Alice in Wonderland – I use acrylics because their colours can be so rich and dense. They have a sort of gravitas!

My advice to a budding illustrator would be along the lines of what I’ve already said about being honest and true to yourself. It just makes life easier! You don’t end up doing books that you hate afterwards because you’ve compromised too much or because you’ve nicked somebody else’s characters. But it takes ages to find that thing that is just yours and is unique because of that. The only way to find it is to draw as much as possible – every day, of course, just as you would practice the piano or train for a marathon. It’s the only way and every day you get better at it.

Another thing that I think is essential is to read as much as possible – novels, stories, poetry – and imagine. You can fill your mind with places and scenes and atmospheres that are all useful.

FCBG: I believe originally you were a specialist in illustrating book jackets rather than your own books. Illustrating just one scene to grab peoples eyes as books sit on shelves – how different is that to illustrating an entire story?

Emma Chichester Clark: Yes, that is right. I had tried to get in to children’s book illustration and been rejected all over the place so I threw away my watercolours and started working in dark oily pastels mixed with olive oil and I managed to get lots of book covers to do. I really enjoyed all the reading and waiting for the right scene to appear in my mind. It was quite exciting – but you usually had to come up with two or three for the editor to choose from. I did book covers for adult books for about three years and by the end of that time I was longing to do something that involved a sequence of drawings rather than one-offs. It was a strange feeling to work intensely on one picture, wrap it up and send it off on a bike and then see it months later on a book with weird typography all over it. So I was desperate to do the insides of a book by the time I’d finished!

FCBG: Do you tend to illustrate sequentially or take different scenes from the story you’re working on and then sew them altogether at the end?

Emma Chichester Clark: Usually I work sequentially, but the book I’m doing at the moment is very long and has a tight deadline so I’ve done all the biggest pictures first starting with double-page spreads, then single pages, then half pages and then vignettes, all completely out of sequence which has made me feel less panicky about the time and has also given me a better overall sense of the story as I’m looking at all of it all at once rather than working my way through it.

FCBG: Do you have a favourite character you’ve invented or illustrated? If Blue Kangaroo could swap owners are there other feisty girl characters out there he would choose?

Emma Chichester Clark: I am pretty fond of Blue Kangaroo and I think if he could choose another girl character he’d probably choose Madeline and hope to get some time with the Bad Hat, but perhaps he’s also love Lola and her brother Charlie.

I was also fond of two other characters I created called Melrose and Croc – a yellow dog and a small green crocodile. I think they were quite a cool gay couple probably. They had a rather romantic first meeting and treated each other with such kindness and respect and they lived in the South of France.

FCBG: Can you tell us a bit about Plumdog. In preparing for this interview I’ve had lots of requests to ask you please, please PLEASE can you you write a book (and more) about Plumdog. Not one where she appears in supporting role (as the cinema usher in Wagtail Town) but one where she has the starring role? What do you say?

Emma Chichester Clark: Ha! Plumdog…. Doing the blog is just about my favourite thing and of
Course she is my favourite character of all time – but I didn’t invent her. She is lying beside me as I write. I started writing her diary just for fun a while ago, before I put it online and it made my family laugh so I made it into a blog ( I had no idea what I was doing really and am so computer illiterate but one Saturday afternoon I decided to tackle setting it up and in one of those very, very rare times of determination and concentration, five hours later, there it was. I draw and write it every two or three days, or when something happens that seems worth drawing – because it’s funny or poignant or peculiar. There is a lovely crowd on Twitter who are incredibly supportive and they really keep me going with their comments.

As for a book…. There is going to be a book, or two… but I can’t say any more about it yet, in case I jinx it…

FCBG: What’s your next book to be published and what are you working on right now?

Emma Chichester Clark: I think my next book to be published is Alice Through the Looking-Glass but it might be Pinocchio… They are both coming out in the autumn with the same publisher. Alice Through the Looking-Glass will be the companion book to the Alice in Wonderland I did a couple of years ago. Pinocchio is the book I’m working on at the moment, which is why it’s such a tight deadline! Usually we work about a year ahead of the publication date. It’s been retold by Michael Morpurgo as if Pinocchio himself is telling it. It races through darkness and light as Pinocchio makes one mistake after another and battles with his conscience but it also has a lot of humour. It’s packed with fantastic things to draw and wonderful places – including gloomy forests – my favourite thing – and Michael has set it in Naples at the beginning, so plenty of opportunities for shabby buildings and washing lines.

FCBG: Both books sound very exciting Emma, perhaps you’ll be able to tell us a little more about them at conference. Thanks ever so much for taking the time today for our interview, it’s been a pleasure.

One response to “An interview with Emma Chichester Clark”

  1. Donna says:

    Thanks Zoe and Emma. Wonderful interview!