Author and illustrator, Jake Williams won the Business Design Centre’s New Designer of the Year 2017 for work which became his debut book, Remarkable Retiles, published in 2018. His passion – and talent – for creating informative, accessible and eye-catchingly illustrated non-fiction continued with Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery, charting the life of the famous explorer and naturalist. Now, Jake turns his attention to the Leonardo Da Vinci’s Life of Invention, charting the life and works of this master of many disciplines. Here Jake talks about his interest in non-fiction topics, and how he tackles such in-depth subjects from the point of view of both author and illustrator.
What inspired you to turn your attention to Leonardo Da Vinci for your latest book?
My previous book Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery focused on Charles Darwin’s around-the-world voyage on the H.M.S Beagle as well as his life’s work. Researching and illustrating Darwin’s life was something I found fascinating and I loved the diversity of subject matter it allowed me to include in the book. So, following on from this I knew I’d love to find another topic with similar attributes for my third book. I researched various possibilities and together with Pavilion we settled on Leonardo Da Vinci.
Were there any particular surprises you discovered when researching the book?
I think one of the biggest surprises for me whilst researching Da Vinci was the sheer quantity and breadth of work he undertook. He was not only prolific but obsessed with quality, innovation and learning, as you can see from his many working journals and inventions.
What it is you like about creating non-fiction books?
I love getting the opportunity to dive into a particular subject, whether that be a life story, time period or natural history. Being able to research and learn as much as possible about the subject before starting work on any illustrations really helps me to get an understanding of what content to include and what visual tone and feel the book should have. I also love to look for the less well known or slightly wacky facts about a subject and feel these often lead to some of the most interesting pages in the books. The research for a particular subject often goes far beyond the specific person the book may be about, for instance in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Life of Invention I wanted to give the whole book my take on a renaissance visual aesthetic. This meant looking into architecture, fashion, textile, pottery and so on from the time period. I find this aspect so interesting and I love how it influences the illustrations within the book.
Da Vinci had so many facets to his work, across art, maths, architecture, engineering… how did you decide what to include in the book?
As with all my books I try to include the most interesting and visually engaging content from the subject matter. Although Da Vinci had a huge amount of work to draw from some things were less relevant to include than others, for example they may be far more mathematically based and lacked a visual counterpart. Alternatively, some of his inventions focused on war and military application which I didn’t feel were appropriate for the book.
The sections within the book occurred fairly organically as his work and journal content seemed to neatly fit into each category of either Inventions, Works of Art or the Natural World for the most part.
Having the luxury of 96 pages to work with allowed me to include the very best and most exciting things from Da Vinci’s life’s work whilst also being able to dedicate a few pages to other areas such as how his work influenced us today and a backstory to his life.
Do you find it easy to finalise the layout of your books, to balance the smaller chunks of digestible text sections with eye-catching graphics?
During the sketch phase of the book, I always block in areas of the page for text either around the illustration or vice versa. As I research the information for the books first, I have a rough idea of the amount of text needed for each page, so this helps to inform the layout and types of compositions that can work. Creating a diverse range of layouts is also an element I like to include where possible to help the book feel fresh and exciting with each turn of the page.
Your texts are succinct and accessible – do you find it difficult to keep the word count down but include lots of information?
Certainly, this is something that is key within the books. It can definitely be a challenge to condense the text down into easily digestible chunks! I like to bullet point out the key elements and facts for each spread first then I slowly start to work through turning these into short and engaging paragraphs.
What do you hope readers will take from the book?
I would like readers to find the books exciting yet informative, as a journey through the life of Leonardo Da Vinci. I hope they will see how subjects like science and maths don’t have to be separate from art and creativity and how they can often even inform and enhance each other.
Da Vinci often saw himself as a failure and would leave a lot of his work unfinished because he wasn’t happy with it. I hope that a good message readers can take from the book is that even one of the most successful people in history thought they were a failure sometimes.
Did you enjoy non-fiction books as a child?
Yes definitely! I loved illustrated non-fiction books as a child which has probably led me to where I am now. Anything related to space, ancient history or especially ancient mythology was a particular favourite of mine growing up.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on some illustrated editorial and advertising campaigns, but I’ve got some ideas in the works for future books so keep your eyes peeled!
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Life of Invention by Jake Williams is published by Pavilion Children’s Books (17th February 2022), £12.99 hardback. www.pavilionbooks.com