An interview with Tim Hopgood

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Today I’m delighted to bring to you an extensive interview with illustrator Tim Hopgood. In 2008 Tim was named as winner of the Best Emerging Illustrator Award at the Booktrust Early Years Awards. He’s been nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal four times, and if you’re looking for an illustrator to bring colour, vitality, verve and humour into your home Tim’s your man.


His debut book, Our Big Blue Sofa, is a firm family favourite and one I use often in schools. His exploration of synasthesia in Here Comes Frankie! is what I turn to when I’m looking for a ray of sunshine (and indeed was one of the books I reviewed in my first ever week of blogging here on Playing by the book!), whilst his Ping and Pong Are Best Friends (mostly) is definitely on my Top 5 pictures books of 2013 list.

Suffice to say, I’m a fan!

So it was with great pleasure I recently interviewed him, about his reading life, his route to becoming an illustrator, about his style, and passions outside illustration. Here’s how our conversation went:

Playing by the book: I’ve read that you didn’t enjoy reading as a child. Why do you think this was?

Tim Hopgood: Yes that’s right. I don’t have any memory of anyone sharing stories with me as a child, I’m sure they probably did, but I have no recollection of a book at bedtime or a favourite childhood book. My first memories of reading seem to be all about learning to read rather than being read to. For me reading was a chore, a huge struggle and certainly not an enjoyable experience. I’m still not a confident reader; I struggle with spelling and have a natural talent for mispronunciation!

My family moved from Hertfordshire to the West Midlands in the mid-60s; I was six years old and struggling to read. The school I joined was using the I.T.A. (Initial Teaching Alphabet) and this completely confused me. Instead of making life easier for me as it was designed to do, I felt I now had two languages to learn and it completely baffled me.

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One very clear memory I have of reading as a child was queueing up in class with my book to read to the teacher; when I got to the head of the queue instead of reading I stood there and wet myself. I was sent home in disgrace. After that, reading and me were never really friends again!

Playing by the book: Oh Tim! How confusing and stressful that must have been. No wonder reading didn’t seem wonderful and magical 🙁 So with this starting point, what changed along the way given that now you’re a published author and illustrator? What books / people / experiences were key in you metamorphosis?

Tim Hopgood: My Dad used to take me and my sisters to the library every other Friday after school.

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I used to like visiting the library because you could pick anything you wanted. I would spend ages studying all the book covers and then leave usually with a enclycopedia under my arm; I was fascinated by the colour plate illustrations in these old heavy books.

Later on when I was at secondary school things started to change. I remember my first English teacher was called Mr. Armsden. I found I enjoyed making up stories for homework and discussing the meaning of books in class. But I was still terrified of reading out loud. If ever we had to read aloud in class I would spend the whole time scanning the pages looking ahead for words that might trip me up and dreading being asked to read that part of the text. So although reading and me were now on talking terms we certainly weren’t best friends.

Around about this time I discovered a book that made a huge impression on me: Roget’s Thesaurus, published by Penguin. This reference book completely fascinated me and because of it I developed a love of words.

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I opted to do English Literature at A level: quite an achievement when you consider that in my final year at junior school my parents were told that based on my reading ability I would not be taking any O levels.. And judging by the first five years of schooling they were probably right; so far the only certificate I had been awarded was for 100% attendance.

But there was one thing that I was good at, well two things actually! The first was drawing. So the next person who made a real impact on my life was my Art teacher Mr. Bates. He declared me ‘an ideas man’, and that’s probably still my main strength. And the second was making people laugh.

Put these two things together and hey presto! you’ve got the makings of a picturebook. Pity it took me another twenty-five years to work that one out. Having said that, all through my career as a graphic designer and art director I have worked with images and text. It’s the relationship between the two that really fascinates me: how the meaning of an image can be completely changed just by adding a word or how a word can take on a different meaning by adding an image.

After school I studied Illustration at Kingston Polytechnic. Most of our tutors were practising illustrators so we were given invaluable insights into the world of professional illustration. Ian Pollock encouraged me to loosen up my line drawings, he encouraged me to be more spontaneous and he also taught me to keep visual humour simple; he used to say if you can’t explain your idea over the phone you need to rethink it!

My attention returned to picture books when I became a parent. Reading at bedtime to our two children was always part of our family routine, so I guess that’s when I rediscovered my love of illustration. Of course there were a few books that the kids loved that I didn’t and vice versa, but the best books are always the ones that appeal to children and adults. I try to produce books that do just that.

In March 2003 I finally got the phone call I’d been waiting for: it was from a literary agent who was keen to represent me. Then followed three long years between being signed up by my agent and having my first book published. During that time I worked part-time as an early morning cleaner which enabled me to continue developing ideas for picture books, two of which were eventually published by Macmillan: Our Big Blue Sofa and Wow! Said The Owl.

After Our Big Blue Sofa was published I was working as a part-time dishwasher in a local restaurant. And even after winning the Booktrust Award for Best Emerging Illustrator, that Christmas I worked at the Post Office depot sorting letters. It was only after Wow! Said The Owl was published that as was able to start working full-time as an author/illustrator.

Playing by the book: It’s been quite a journey – and not one always full of glamour!

But now, as an established illustrator, books are something you love so much you create them – what books (for children or grown ups) have you read that have particularly moved or excited you in the last year or so?

Tim Hopgood: At the moment I seem to be hooked on vintage picture books from the 1940s and 50s. There’s a quiet charm about them that I find is lacking in many contemporary books. I’m generally drawn to books and films that celebrate the everyday things in life. Some of the books I’ve particularly enjoyed recently are:

Sun Up by Alvin Tresselt and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin – A fine example of portraying the wonder of an everyday event in a beautiful and dramatic way.

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The Little House (Her Story) by Virginia Lee Burton – Oozes charm from start to finish.

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John Burningham – A fascinating insight into the life and work of one my favourite illustrators. The freshness of Burningham’s line work and his use of colour is awe inspiring.

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen – A contemporary book that has a stunning limited colour palette.

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Art Of The New Naturalists by Peter Marren and Robert Gillmor – A complete overview of the creation and production of the New Naturalist book jackets published by Collins. This book demonstrates how powerful illustration can be if used properly. Pages and pages of glorious artwork.

Playing by the book: In the past, you’ve talked a little about the difference between ephemeral vs permanent art, and how it became important for you to channel your energy into creating something longer lasting. Does this influence your attitude to ebooks and Apps at all? After all, many of these could be deleted at the flick of a distant switch. Or does the medium of ebooks and Apps appeal to you given your background graphic design? (I imagine that designing illustrations which work especially well on electronic screens could be quite different to designing illustrations to work on paper)

Tim Hopgood: At the moment I have no real interest in developing Apps. As yet I don’t even own a smartphone! Having said that, I’ve no objection to my work being developed into Apps, but my main interest is still printed books: books that work as a shared experience whether it’s at bedtime, in a pre-school group at the library or in the classroom. I worry that we’re creating a society that spends less and less time with each other. Devices that allow a very young child to enjoy a book on their own are only OK if this doesn’t then replace being read to by an adult. Although I’m sure the same was said about stories on tapes and before that stories on records!

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My main reason for creating books is to give adults and children a shared experience, hopefully something that is enjoyable and thought provoking. If a picture book sparks off a conversation on a particular subject between adult and child, if it makes you think differently about something, or it inspires creative play/or another related activity then to me the book has done its job.

Playing by the book: Ah well, as you can imagine, I’m with you on that! Whilst reading alone is a definite pleasure, that shared experience is something to be treasured.

Now, two aspects of your illustrations which I adore are your use of colour – lots of it, bright, bold and sometimes riotous – and your use of texture – whether actual, through use of different printing techniques, or implied, through shading and patterns. Can you tell us a little about how you feel about colour and texture and perhaps why these are such important features in your work. Is your home full of colour and texture or is it clean white throughout?

Tim Hopgood: I grew up in a 1960s white box. My dad was a Product Designer (he designed TVs and radios before becoming a lecturer) and our house was white throughout. All the walls were white and most of the furniture was white. There was no colourful artwork on the walls, my dad said that the colour would be provided by the people in the room and their conversation!

When I was in my teens I rebelled and insisted on a dark purple, lime green and mustard geometric wallpaper (impossible to live with!) for my bedroom. I also had a large notice board in my room which I changed every week; it was a visual feast of 70s popstars, art postcards (mainly Pop Art and Surrealism) record covers, protest stickers and badges.

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Colour is really important to me, (I was clearly deprived of it as a child!) and I find new colour combinations fascinating. There’s a tendency in children’s book publishing to encourage illustrators to go for ‘bright is best’, but I feel this is too simplistic an approach and I’m pleased that recently a few new books have shown us how powerful a limited colour palette can be. Despite all the technical advances (particularly in printing and computer graphics) it’s still often the most simple techniques that deliver the strongest message.

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As for texture, that was sort of forced on me. When I first started showing my illustration work to art directors in publishing the general feedback was that the work was too flat and computery and lacked obvious child appeal. So I started adding a little bit of texture and pattern to my work and that seemed to do the trick! However, the artwork style in my new book Ping and Pong Are Best Friends (mostly) has very little texture or pattern in it and is much closer to the kind of work I was doing before I was first published. I found taking everything out of an illustration that isn’t completely necessary an interesting and challenging exercise, because what’s left has to work much harder to convey the meaning and the emotion of the text. It’s back to basics stuff but I feel my drawing has improved because of it.

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Big!, which publishes in May, couldn’t be more different; it’s very textural and uses lots of different graphic treatments and patterns. I’m really pleased with how it turned out, it’s visually very playful, but more imortantly I love the fact that these two new books are so different.

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Previously I was signed to just one publisher and I started to feel as if I were being pigeon-holed into working in a set way. Working with different art directors and designers has helped me gain confidence in my work and explore different ways of working.

Our house is painted in muted colours but we tend to go for bold artwork on the walls which we move from room to room. We also like patterned textiles and colourful ceramics.

Playing by the book: That sounds wonderful, Tim! And talking of textiles, as someone who sews I’d love to see you combine these aspects of your work to design fabric. Do you have a favourite fabric (based on texture)?

Tim Hopgood: Surface pattern really does interest me. We have a wonderful book Scarves by Nicky Albrechtsen and Fola Solanke which features the work of many great artists and illustrators. And a great book on the work of Vera Neumann, Vera The Art and Life of an Icon by Susan Seid which is also very inspiring. I recently discovered fabricrehab which is a great source for printed fabrics and contemporary designs. So yes maybe one day I’ll have the opportunity to design fabric.

Playing by the book: Maybe you could have a go anyway – Spoonflower is a great place for having your own fabric designs come to life as real fabric.

Talking of moving in different, new directions,would you ever consider illustrating someone else’s story or do you prefer to work solely on your own projects?

Tim Hopgood: I have been sent stories in the past but nothing that particularly appealed until early last year when a story by Joyce Dunbar was sent to me. I loved it straightaway, in fact halfway through my first read of the text I knew I wanted to illustrate it! There was one particular line that grabbed me “Upwards and onwards, a tiny smile in the great big ocean”.

I must admit I was a little apprehensive about illustrating someone else’s text, obviously I didn’t want Joyce to be disappointed with the outcome. Once the main character was established Joyce left me to it and I have to say it wasn’t long before it felt like it was MY book! I think the fact that Joyce gave me the space to do my own thing really helped me feel like it was my story too. I’m pleased to say it was a hugely enjoyable experience and I hope when you see the final artwork that enjoyment will shine through! Twinkle, Twinkle Squiglet Pig publishes in July.

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Playing by the book: I shall look forward to this, Tim!

As well as illustrating children’s books, you’ve illustrated a recipe book. Is it true that you’d quite like to be a chef in another life? Have you a favourite recipe you can share with us?

As child I was always keen on cooking. Unfortunately back in the 60s and 70s cooking was not considered an appropriate subject for boys to study at school; oh how times have changed! I find cooking very enjoyable. And since I started working from home I do all the cooking, although my wife is fantastic at cakes and puddings. I’ve learnt not to over-complicate flavours – just the same applies to colours! The day I discovered lentils was the day I knew I would never eat meat again, although I do still eat fish. A lot of vegetarian recipes are quite similar, but this book The New Vegetarian by Celia Brooks Brown has some real winners in it, my favourite is the Charred Aubergine and Coconut Curry…delicious!

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Playing by the book: MMMmmmmm! Now my tummy’s rumbling 😉 Thank you Tim, it’s been a great deal of fun talking to you today.

Tim Hopgood’s website:
Tim’s blog:
Tim on Twitter: @timhopgood

11 Responses

  1. One of those posts where I end up adding a load of books to my wish lists! I borrowed that John Burningham book from the library and loved it.
    Katherine recently posted..Bagl Reads: The Economist

  2. I know, I know Katherine!

  3. Fascinating interview particularly because I am married to an illustrator. There were quite a few similarities to Tim’s experiences. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Love this interview. As a children’s author, I can definitely relate to the struggles that lead to success. Of course, I’m still waiting on the success part. I have the struggles down well, though!

  5. Hi Barbara, Jason, I think it’s very reassuring to hear how others have managed to realise their dream, isn’t it?

  6. What a wonderful, intelligent interview. And like Katherine, now feel like ordering lots of books! Btw, I knew Ian Pollock at college and he once said something that has stayed with me (concerning inhibitions when illustrating): You always do your best drawing on the last page of an old sketch book!

  7. Great interview Zoe. I hadn’t heard of Tim before there are many similarities between him and Peter. I shall look out for his books in future.
    Ann Scott recently posted..OH NO!

  8. Great interview. Tim sounds like a lovely chap. I was sad to read about his early experience of reading, but it just goes to show that school’s don’t always get it right when they are evaluating talent.
    Lou recently posted..How to Minimise the Effects of Divorce on Your Children

  9. Hi Ann, oh well you’re in for a treat then! Happing discovering!

  10. Colin – thanks, it was really enjoyable interviewing Tim – and love the comment about the last page 🙂

    Lou – yes, isn’t it sad, Tim’s early experiences with reading. I do so hope this sort of thing doesn’t still happen.

  11. Gillian Philpotts

    I am one of Tim’s sisters. Given his experiences, few would expect that I am an English graduate with over thirty years teaching experience of English at secondary school level. I also do not recall bedtime stories; although, I do remember lying on the carpet with Tim listening to EPs – especially Squirrel Nutkin. We had few books in the house but they were treasured: I always coveted Tim’s version of “The Night Before Christmas” (still do). Four years older than Tim, I learnt to read phonetically and was an established reader before we encountered ITA which was a disaster – few parents could access it and thus share the reading of their children’s school books! Oh, and Tim, I had the purple, pink and lime green paper and you had the equivalent in orange – coloured circles in squares and on one “feature” wall, it was “state of the art” 40 years abead at the time!

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