Q & A
Which books have you illustrated for other authors?
Not many. The first one was A Field Guide to the Smaller Moths of South East Asia for the British Natural History Museum in 1993. Using a microscope, I drew the heads of micro-moths (each one was considerably smaller than a pin head), and some whole moths showing the resting postures. I enjoyed this because of the structural nature of it. Jumping forward to 2011, I illustrated Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead and produced the cover illustration for The Red Canary by the same author. Then there was The Mandarin Duck, by Sir Christopher Lever. Ongoing proposed projects for other authors include Silent Wings—a book about flying gliders by my former flying instructor Ron Johns (yes, I used to fly gliders myself), and The Vertebrate Fossil Record by Darren Naish.
Do you consider yourself primarily an illustrator?
Absolutely not. In fact when people started describing me that way after The Unfeathered Bird it felt like an alien term for me. I very rarely agree to illustrated books for other authors. I have no imagination when it comes to commissioned work, no passion for other people’s projects, and no inclination to subject myself to other people’s will. The purpose of illustration is to illuminate text, so it’s something of an oxymoron to describe someone primarily as an illustrator when it’s their own text they’re illustrating. I like to be called an author nowadays; author/illustrator only grudgingly, and definitely not an illustrator. I don’t even like being called an artist anymore.
What do you consider to be the difference between art and illustration?
The line between art and illustration is a fine one. Many works of fine art can function superbly well as illustrations, and many illustrations are sublime works of art in their own right. The distinction is not in the creations but in the professions. Being an illustrator usually involves working to someone else’s brief and taking instructions from a non-illustrator about how the work should be done. (Just the thought of it fills me with contempt!) Also in the purpose of the piece: illustrations usually exist to enhance or illuminate text. So my illustrations for my books are definitely illustrations, having been created exclusively for that purpose, but I’m still not an illustrator!
You say you don’t like illustrating other people’s books. What sort of illustration projects could tempt you?
I do enjoy drawing things like natural history, or geological, specimens and welcome opportunities to be paid to produce beautiful drawings of interesting objects with lots of texture. If a job is reasonably well paid and well organised, with access to the research material I need, then I might just accept. I work very thoroughly and very fast and always meet deadlines, so I’m actually quite a good candidate for work of this sort. Some publishers mess up their chances of getting good illustrators, however, by being in an unreasonable hurry, not paying promptly, and not budgeting for realistic professional fees.
Do you ever produce digital illustrations?
My limited PhotoShop skills allow me to make some digital enhancements to traditionally-produced artwork, and I’m no Luddite when it comes to making good use of the technology that’s available. I’ve simply never had access to the training or the software that would allow me to produce digital illustrations. (Computer graphics were laughably primitive when I was at college). I’ve never regretted this as I enjoy actually drawing and handling drawing materials and do find the finished product more aesthetically pleasing than most digitally-produced art.
Do you get bored drawing for long periods?
Oh yes. But I keep at it, and am not the sort to engage in displacement activity. (Husband wishes I’d use housework as displacement activity sometimes). I’ve found the thing that keeps me glued to what I’m doing is listening to audiobooks. With a good long story to listen to I can work away happily all day and look forward to the next instalment the following day; ten hours a day, seven days a week.
Did you study illustration at college?
I studied Fine Art for my BA(hons.) which I enjoyed very much, and specialised in printmaking. After that I went on to study Natural History Illustration at the Royal College of Art though I only applied for that course because of a poster I’d seen for it featuring the work of Kim Atkinson—who I consider to be a proper fine artist. I could hardly believe my luck at the interview when the tutor invited me to do what was then called a ‘Degree by Project’ (the equivalent of an MPhil), an illustrated 25000 word research thesis about bird anatomy. It was this thesis, continuing from my earlier dissection and skeleton drawings, which finally evolved into The Unfeathered Bird.
What was it like being at the Royal College of Art?
Unfortunately the RCA experience was a huge disappointment. I was actively discouraged from doing any work from specimens and received no tuition whatever for my lengthy thesis. It was as though it had been forgotten about. Ultimately threatened with expulsion for mentioning this (in confidence) to the head of department, I scraped through graduation, but had my PhD proposal torn up in front of me, and left under a cloud. The best part of my time there was being taught artisan-level intaglio printing by the etching technician. I learned to produce immaculate large prints, to grind my own pigments, and a whole lot more.