Last week I reviewed a gorgeous debut picture book, Red Cat, Blue Cat by Jenni Desmond and I’m delighted to be able to bring you an interview with her today.
Playing by the book: Hi Jenni, I was so delighted to discover your picture book Red Cat, Blue Cat – Can you tell my readers and me a little bit about your journey to becoming a published illustrator? Is it something you always dreamed of doing?
Jenni Desmond: As a child I would draw all day and it was always my dream job to be an illustrator. After doing an art foundation, I was very aware of how tough a career as an artist would be, and decided to take the ‘sensible’ route and study English Literature and History of Art, pursuing my passion for stories. After graduating, I taught English in France for a year, but the thought of illustration and drawing always followed me, and when I got back I enrolled on a week summer course in children’s book illustration in Putney, London.
Something in me switched on during that week, and I then spent the next year doing more short courses and obsessively drawing for up to 18 hours a day. I then started the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art (APU) where I studied part-time for 2.5 years. What I learnt on the course was invaluable, and it fuelled my passion for children’s books even more. It became normal to think about illustration every second of every day. After my graduate show, I joined Bright Agency who I’ve been with for just over a year now, and who have been wonderful in keeping me busy.
Playing by the book: What were some of the key points that helped shape your career so far?
Jenni Desmond: The short courses were great to learn about the format of children’s books. My first exhibition with my friend Amy Wiggin where we sold our work to friends and family was a huge learning curve and very exciting. Doing textbooks from quite early on (after sending a mail-out) meant I learnt about how the industry worked. The MA course and the Agency have both been great, but the most important thing has been the support and encouragement from family and friends.
Playing by the book: Who were your favourite authors and illustrators when you were a child? And now? (I wonder about Edward Lear, or Der Struwwelpeter given your penchant for the slightly ridiculous, occasionally macabre cautionary tale like aspects of your own work…)
Jenni Desmond: My mum was very passionate about children’s books so I think her tastes probably rubbed off on us when we were little. Our favourites included Dogger by Shirley Hughes, Burglar Bill by Janet and Alan Ahlburg, Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs, Granpa by John Burningham, The Bad Tempered Ladybird by Eric Carle, In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, Not Now Bernard by David McKee, Babar by Jean de Brunhoff, Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells, The Tiger Who came to Tea by Judith Kerr, Five Minutes Peace by Jill Murphy, anything by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, Anthony Browne, the list goes on forever. We would sit around finding the hidden details in the illustrations, making up our own versions of the stories. I still love these author/illustrators today and have also discovered so many new ones. My favourites at the moment include Elena Odriozola, Anne Herbauts, Wolf Erlbruch, Beatrice Alemagna, Oliver Jeffers, Laura Calin, and John Klassen.
Playing by the book: You’ve said in a past interview that music inspires you a great deal – what sort of music? Do you listen to music whilst you work? Where else do you draw inspiration from?
Jenni Desmond: I use music as a tool. I find that it transports me to my imagination. Upbeat music (with a lot of black coffee) makes me incredibly energized and excited to the point where I can barely sit still, but instead of moving physically I scribble the characters down onto the page, making them dance around. I work to 1920’s Jazz, pop, classical, rock, indie… everything really.
These days I try not to get too influenced by other illustrators. I get my inspiration from a lot of different places. Interior design, nature, people-watching, cycle rides, travel, textures, fabrics, films, literature, food, Japanese art and culture, French art and culture, photography, exhibitions…
Playing by the book: Tell me a bit about you and the use of colour; one of the aspects of Red cat, blue cat which I absolutely love is its colour, and yet I read that the colour came into the book only towards the final stages so I’m curious about what you think of colour, how you use it in your work…
Jenni Desmond: When I was younger I always found black and white line drawing most natural, and having to colour things in a bit of an inconvenience. There was one point though, when I showed a tutor some collage work I’d done, and they pointed out that I was using too many colours and it was a bit hectic. On the way home, I over-thought my use of colour so much that when I looked out of the train window suddenly everything clashed and looked so ugly. It was a really weird train journey. From that point I decided to create my own visual world only using colours that I really loved, that all went together harmoniously. I’ve always liked Matisse’s quote when he says that art should be ‘a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair’. My sense and understanding of colour developed during and after my MA, and although I’m not confident with it, I am learning how to use it through trial, error and experimentation.
Playing by the book: Printing, particularly etching, is something you enjoy. It’s not a technique often seen in children’s books – do you have any ideas/hopes/plans for using it in a picture book? Or is it something you see more for your other creative outlets (your design work, the greetings cards and wedding invites you create for example)
Jenni Desmond: I discovered etching by doing a short course a couple of years ago. It was fun working in a print studio and I loved the smell, the mess, the process, the big printing press. A slightly boring line suddenly takes on a new quality when it is a print. Through beginners luck, I entered one of those first etchings into the Royal Academy of Art Summer Exhibition and got in, which gave me confidence to produce more to sell at other exhibitions as another source of income. I would love to do a book using etchings so much. I don’t know why printing isn’t used in books more. I have actually been plotting a book using etching for the last few months, and I hope it will happen one day.
Playing by the book: Cats are a theme in many of your illustrations – not only is there Red Cat, Blue Cat, but your next book (I believe), also features a Cat (Backstage Cat, written by Harriet Ziefert to be published in 2013). Are you a Cat Person? What are your favourite cats in illustration?
Jenni Desmond: I am more of a dog-person believe it or not. However, my family cat Kinga was a massive source of inspiration as she was very loud, demanding and a bit bonkers. The second book Backstage Cat wasn’t written by me so it wasn’t my choice to have a cat as the protagonist. I’ve loved drawing cats, but I think I’ve had enough now. However, it is always very tempting to add pointy ears, whiskers and a tail to things.
Playing by the book: Can you tell us a little about the work you have in the pipeline? The Emperors new clothes – or is this already published in South Korea?
Jenni Desmond: The Emperors New Clothes is being published this autumn in South Korea. It has buttons that you press to listen to the story in Korean, which is pretty cool. I am doing a few new and exciting book things but they are top secret at the moment! My friend Caro and I have just launched a wedding stationary company at foldedpaperdesigns.com, and at some point I would love to develop an illustrated textile and interiors range.
Playing by the book: Thank you so much Jenni, it’s been a delight to talk to you. I’m really looking forward to your next book!