Our new monthly feature, FCBGAsks, features the incomparable James Mayhew this month! Once Upon a Tune is his latest creation and is a beautiful journey through famous stories and fantastic music. His answers to our questions are so wonderful and we cannot wait to see his secret project coming in 2023!
You do an Illustration of the Day on Twitter- what prompted you to begin this series?
I was very aware of how often illustrators go uncredited for their work. Together with illustrator Sarah McIntyre and others, I’d been supporting the #picturesmeanbusiness campaign, and I wanted to do something positive to remind people using social media how much the illustrations we grow up with affect us. I love it when a post unlocks a long forgotten memory of a beloved book. The way these images imprint on us is extraordinary. The nostalgia and emotion bound up in them is very real, and incredibly touching. It’s equally exciting to share a newly discovered book or illustrator. So many riches! It’s been a lovely thing to do – and has attracted a wonderful, warm and appreciative community on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We often think of social media being a negative thing, but I’ve encountered so much love for illustrators, old and new.
Is there any shortage of amazing illustrations to share or can you easily find one per day?
There are so many unsung heroes out there I enjoy finding and sharing, as well as classics and old favourites, and exciting new talent. Where I do have problems sometimes is finding a specific illustration for particular occasions. Like Black History Month for example, or Pride Month – you suddenly realise how poor the representation of minority groups really is. It’s getting better and I celebrate the progress, but if I’m posting older illustrations, then it all becomes more problematic in terms of diversity – there simply isn’t any in the “vintage” books of the 50s or 60s that I saw growing up.
The only other difficulty is that I sometimes have to check I haven’t posted an illustration before! After nearly four years, that is increasingly possible! Also, having just moved house, lots of books I want are in boxes, so I can’t always find what I’m looking for!
What aspect of illustration brings you the most joy?
As a practitioner myself, I’m always really interest in the techniques, and asking – “how did they do that?”. I don’t work digitally, and so while there are some great digital artists out there, I’m personally more drawn to illustrators who work with traditional methods. I’m specially drawn to printmaking.
But as a viewer of illustration, I think I’m like everyone else, I find great joy and happiness in rediscovering images from my childhood – and also in discovering exciting new talent, and seeing new things from friends and colleagues who I admire and love.
How do you handle deadlines- are you ahead of schedule or often late?
I consider myself to be a very hardworking and conscientious illustrator. I believe in being professional and keeping on top of things. Of course, life throws things at you, and things might not always work out (I had jury service this year, which stole valuable time from my schedule, for example) but these are outside problems I have no control over. Otherwise, I think I’m pretty reliable. I have to be – if I don’t do the work, I don’t get paid!
How long, on average, does it take you to illustrate a book?
That depends on the book, how many pages etc. Something like Nen and the Lonely Fisherman by Ian Eagleton (Owlet Press), from roughs to finished art was probably about 4 months, which is very fast, but it was the only way I could fit in in to schedule. I really wanted to do that book, and worked very intensively – no weekends, no days off, just solid work.
The collage technique I use for the Mrs Noah books by Jackie Morris (Otter-Barry Books) takes longer. Cutting and sticking tiny bits of paper is very time consuming. I’d allow 6 months for a book like that. Once Upon A Tune uses the same technique, and it’s a big book – 100 pages. It took about 8 months I think.
What do you think the secret to your success is?
To be honest, I don’t feel successful. Perhaps that’s the secret? I’m always trying to get better and learn new skills and come up with ever better ideas. I’m always striving to be the best I can be and to produce books that have something to say.
Do you need to work in silence or do you prefer noise? What would you normally listen to while working?
Music is very important to me. Right now I’m listening to the new ABBA album Voyage (which I’m loving, by the way). Usually I listen to classical music. I love music that tells stories. It doesn’t matter if it’s Rimsky-Korsakov or ABBA. I can’t bear music snobbery. I like what I like – no guilt!
BUT I don’t listen to anything when I’m writing stories – for that, I need silence!
Do you have a favourite book from your career?
Yes. Once Upon A Tune is a book I had wanted to do for so long, and was inspired by the stories I learned when presenting concerts with orchestras. This is something I’ve been doing for over 15 years, and I love it. I paint live on stage, in time to the music, and these paintings are projected up onto a screen above the musicians, and follow the ebb and flow of the music. It’s been wonderful to discover the stories that inspired works like Peer Gynt, Scheherazade and The Sorcerers Apprentice. I wanted to share my love of the music – and the stories – in a book. Once Upon A Tune is the result. I think it contains some of my best illustration too.
Can you share any details about what you are currently working on?
Yes, I’m really excited to be working on a unique project – a fairytale retelling with a twist. It’s called The Frog’s Kiss and it will be published by Scholastic Children’s Books in 2023. What’s really unusual is that there are two writers and two illustrators, because I’ll be collaborating my husband, the Spanish artist Toto, for the very first time! We have both worked on the text, and will work jointly on the illustrations. I think it’s going to be very special.