From the archives: interview with Judith Rossell
I interviewed Jude 3-4 years ago – having only met her once before. Of course, this was ‘BW’ (Before Withering-by-Sea, Jude’s highly acclaimed and much-awarded novel). These days we catch up over a glass of Shiraz, and Jude is still as entertaining, generous and full of advice as she was then.
Here’s the interview. If the interviewer sounds a little wide-eyed and awestruck that’s because she was. And I still am – thanks Jude! 🙂
Interview with Judith Rossell : 2012
In Judith Rossell’s studio, mice currently dominate: many, many bright, lively, skilfully rendered mice. They’re standing in pyramids, hanging off bunting, swinging on chandeliers…
“They’re cute”, I say, “but not icky.”
“Oh good!” says Jude, “I had someone else tell me that recently too. Cute is fine, but I’m trying to avoid cutesy. I had worried these were a bit borderline.”
I can’t stop looking round the friendly studio; the walls are covered in clippings, buttons, bits of fabric, postcards and sketches, the shelves stuffed with enticing books. Everything exudes warmth and creativity – rather like Judith herself.
I was keen to interview Jude because her work is just great: meticulously detailed, yet bursting with vigour, humour and character. She tackles technically difficult illustration head-on, drawing objects, characters and buildings from every angle. Jude is also a published writer, and has written (and illustrated) two picture books: Ruby and Leonard and the Great Big Surprise and Oliver, as well as two children’s novels: Jack Jones and the Pirate Curse and Sam and the Killer Robot.
We leave the cute-but-not-cutesy mice for a while – they’re for a counting book with writer Caroline Stills and there will be 130 mice in total – and head to a Northcote cafe for a chat and a coffee, which the interviewee very generously buys…
Although you’ve worked as a scientist and studied textiles, you don’t seem to have had any formal illustration training! But the detail and grasp of perspective in your work is just immaculate.
Actually, ages ago I did do an illustration course. It was just a short course – 8 weeks, on Sundays – and it was at the Melbourne School of Art in Elsternwick. The course was great, and so I repeated it several times. The tutor, who came from an architectural drawing background, was excellent on perspective and I actually became quite obsessed when it came to getting the perspective right. He was interesting on the perspective of colour too – where objects become more pale and blueish over distance. You don’t notice that so much here in Australia, where the atmosphere is not so misty, but I remember really noticing the changing colours in London; as a long street of houses receded into the distance, each one became a paler, bluer version of the previous one.
I also experimented with perspective – curving the lines as they recede. Our eyes don’t see in straight lines, really, and so I wanted the images to have more of a human touch. I’ve used this curved perspective quite a bit in my work.
What do you love about being an illustrator?
Well, one good thing is that people don’t care about your background, but just about what you actually do. Illustrators come from all sorts of backgrounds and it’s quite an informal profession in that way. I do love illustration, and I can’t really imagine doing anything else. I like to write too, of course.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I do, though it’s not directly work related. I use it as a visual diary, and I sketch things around me: people on the train, the view out the window… I’ve had it for 3 years and am only a third of a way through its 360 pages – so I don’t sketch that often, but I do enjoy it. And I like having all those sketches together so I can see that I have, in fact, improved. It’s nice to see progress.
What references do you use – do you use the internet a lot or do you get out and about?
A bit of both really. I use the internet a lot more now. I used to collect images and paste them into a book, but not these days. I go to the zoo to sketch the animals but I also find watching DVDs and freezing the action is a good way to capture movement.
Also, the ‘Google Search’ images are pretty widely used..
Well it was the same with the old reference material. So many people would use the same reference books. So you’d look at an illustration and think: “I recognise that cockatoo”…
Your artwork is perfect! What materials do you use and what do you do if you make a mistake?
Well with mistakes – it depends. Obviously for bad ones I start over. But usually I can correct small errors by just covering them up with paint. For the bunny book, The House of 12 Bunnies, written by Caroline Stills, I use liquid acrylic, and the brand I’m most comfortable with is actually British and you can’t get it over here any more. It’s called ‘Magic Colour’ and it’s so bright and lovely. I like the names of the colours too: “Panther Pink” “Chiffon Green”.. But really I’m most comfortable with these paints as I’m used to them, how they mix. But I also use collage, pencil, crayon…
Do you use a computer to edit or correct mistakes?
I always present artwork on paper which is then scanned and edited by a designer. I would like to know some more about PhotoShop, definitely.
Would a designer ‘clean up’ and edit your artwork?
They often cut out parts of images to feature in the layout of the cover or inner pages. And they’ll sometimes remove construction lines – that I’ve left in there deliberately, as I think they add a bit of warmth and life to the drawing.
You’ve created two picture books as a writer and illustrator. Obviously when you illustrate someone else’s book, the text is complete and you just have to think about how to bring it to life. Do you find it harder to illustrate your own book, where you can keep changing the words?
I like to illustrate my own stuff, and to write and adapt as I go along. It’s great to have the control over the whole work. Generally I start with a drawing, then build up a picture of the main character. I put together a dummy, and (this is a good hint for character consistency) I don’t do the pictures in order – from front to back – as the characters may evolve a little as I draw them!
Can you tell me a bit about your puzzle books?
I started out illustrating other people’s puzzle books, then came up with ideas for doing my own. I love doing them – they’re so much fun.
There’s so much detail! How long would a spread take?
Well, two weeks, typically. It’s a lot of work, but I really like adding extra little tasks to each page. And children love them – they can have their own little adventure inside the book. I get kids coming up to me at book signings, and saying that they like the books. They also like to point out to me where I may have made a mistake, and where they thought a puzzle was “really easy’! I would love to do more.
They don’t seem to get the same publicity as picture books.
They don’t get treated as seriously, no. And they aren’t particularly fashionable just now. It might be that iPads and so on are filling that niche. But still, the puzzle books I created have been translated into more than 10 languages and every now and then something good still happens – a new translation, for instance.
You teach at RMIT University (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology)…
I teach two courses at the moment: “Writing for Older Children” which is a subject in the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing, and an 8 week “Writing for Children” short course.
Did you do a writing course at RMIT at any time?
No, but I did a writing course quite a few years ago which was taken by Hazel Edwards, and this is how I came to write my first novel for older children – Jack Jones and the Pirate Curse. I’d been away on holiday and missed several weeks. When I got back everyone was submitting titles and first chapters for their novels! Hazel insisted I have something ready by the following week and so I had to write something. After that, I built up the novel chapter by chapter. Then a friend who was also an editor at Little Hare books (who publish the maze books) agreed to read it over for me as a favour. Then that lucky thing happened: I sent it out on the Monday and go the call on the Wednesday – that they’d like to publish my book!
Do you have any hints for people writing picture books?
Well, one thing is to ‘leave room for the illustrations’. That is: leave the illustrator something to do. You don’t need to put all of the book in the writing. You can leave illustration notes of course, if you think an idea isn’t going to come across fully.
Also, with character development, it can be useful to build up a back story for a character. This is probably more appropriate for longer texts. I like an exercise where you think of five items of clothing a character might own, what they think of each item, how they came to own it and so on. Exercises like these can help you get to know your character. You can even keep a diary for them, imagine what their favourite foods are, or write out some recent conversations they may have had. This helps you to work out how your character might act in different situations and make for a more convincing story overall.
I think it can be hard for illustrators to write as we’re so used to thinking visually. We’re good at thinking up dramatic settings and situations, but character, motivation and plot are a little trickier. But then the best thing is to sit down and just do it – write.
What about the rule of ‘show don’t tell’. Such as you might not say “Grace was excited” but ….
“Grace was jumping up and down and then she let out a screech like a passing train”.? Perhaps, but then sometimes – well it’s for little kids – “she was excited” may be just fine.
I think though, that children don’t notice fine writing in the way we adults do. If you ask someone what their favourite books were as a child, you’ll find they’re hardly ever the beautifully written ones. Though of course good writing is important.
I tell my students that you need plot, character and then you need something else. It could be exquisite writing, or maybe humour, or a really original idea…
But good writing is important for the reader – it’s hard to read books aloud that are poorly written.
Enid Blyton’s a good example of that, perhaps. Children love her, but she’s not a ‘fine writer’ by today’s standards. She wrote a bit like a clever child would.
How would you suggest going about getting work as an illustrator?
It’s certainly easier to get work as an illustrator than as a writer. For a start, it’s easier to get people to actually LOOK at your work. Pretty much everyone has time to look at a picture. It doesn’t demand much of them, and probably gives them pleasure, but getting them to read a novel is much harder. So go round publishers and show them your work; let them see you’re committed and professional, and hope they like your style. That way, the next project that comes in – well they may think of you!
When we went to visit publishers as part of the Maurice Saxby Mentorship, they said that they actually had picture book texts they wanted to publish but were unable to find illustrators for.
Yes I can see that. It’s a real undertaking to illustrate someone’s work if it doesn’t resonate with you. I mean, a detailed book can take months and months to complete.
If you want to write and illustrate..? I was thinking of putting some of my own work into the folio – I mean pages from own picture book ideas. That way the publisher can see that I’m committed, and that I can design a consistent character…
Yes, that’s a great idea! That’s definitely a way in.
Back at the studio, Jude picks up a package from under the door. It’s an edition of The House of 12 Bunnies printed in Taiwanese –’simpified Chinese’, which runs from left to right rather than up and down. “I wonder what the illustrations looks like to Taiwanese people” asks Judith. “Do you think they look foreign to them?”.
The book looks very elegant and exciting to me. We flip pages and Jude points out differences: “They’ve put a bunny on the title lettering – sweet!”,”The colours are much paler in places..”,”oooh… dodgy binding – look!”
The deadline for the mouse book looms and it’s time for me to leave. THANK you Jude! More illustration and background material can be found on Judith Rossell’s site: judithrossell.com and Oliver is out now and available online here.