Over the five years I’ve been writing Playing by the Book I’ve had the chance to meet many authors and illustrators, but one who has a special place on my bookshelves, and indeed in my heart is James Mayhew. I’ve always admired and been inspired by his passion for storytelling across the arts; so much of his work is about opening horizons beyond the pages of a picture book to encourage curiosity and foster delight in art, dance and music.
This year is a very special year for James. It’s hard to believe, but it is 25 years since the publication of his first picture book, Katie’s Picture Show. Katie and her adventures inside paintings (and across landscapes and cityscapes) are known the world over. A new edition of Katie’s Picture Show has been published, to mark its Silver Anniversary but what’s especially interesting to me is that this new edition, whilst still very much Katie’s Picture Show, contains entirely new illustrations and new text.
I’m fascinated by the changes that have been made and so I took the opportunity to talk to James about it. This is a long interview, but I do encourage you to savour it. What James has to say is fascinating and thought-provoking.
Zoe: Ah, hello James! It’s always great to talk with you. I’ll dive in straight away with a big question though: How do you feel your style has changed in 25 years?
James: I don’t believe I’ve ever had a very identifiable style, and although I’ve sometimes worried about this, because it’s obviously important to have an identity that people recognise, I am also of the opinion that it is dishonest to just fabricate a “style” and apply it to my work in a contrived way. Any identity found in my work has grown naturally out of the way I instinctively draw, and make marks, and how I see the world.
It’s the old adage: be true to yourself. I believe strongly in that. An illustrator’s work should be genuine and honest, a reaction to the text, and response to how we see the world around us, or imagine the world we can’t see. You are sharing a little piece of yourself with the world, why dilute that but trying to be predictably commercial or merely generic?
The irony is that the Katie books are all about imitating famous paintings, and so the argument becomes more complicated. In the very first book, I illustrated in a fairly uncomplicated way, and the world of the paintings becomes closer to the world of Katie (ink line and wash). However, in later books, my ability to pastiche and pay homage to these artists has grown. And as my proficiency at capturing the effects and learning from the techniques of these great masters has increased, my own identity as an artist – or my “style” – has become, I think, increasingly hidden. And that is how it should be with these books. They are not bought because of my name but because people want their children to encounter Monet and Botticelli and Van Gogh etc. So it’s right for the books. But for me, as an artist, it can be frustrating to be honest. Sometimes I sit down to draw and think, “Who am I? How do I – James Mayhew – create images?” it’s hard to forget these artists and just be me. What I must say though, is that I have truly approached the studies of these paintings with real love and integrity. It was a never a gimmick, but always done out of a love and respect and admiration for these artists and a real desire to share that passion.
Although I‘m describing a very particular project and situation, I think this quest for an identity is something a great many illustrators concern themselves with. Certainly at Cambridge School of Art where I teach students on the Masters in Children’s Book Illustration, this is the most common discussion.
And so, to answer your question, my style (such as it is) has changed according to my changes as a person, as an observer and draughtsman and recorder of the world around me, over many years of practise and experience, and according to the artists I have studied. And actually as a tutor as well – I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. As my knowledge of techniques and materials has advanced, so my approach has changed. As my knowledge of picture books and publishing has increased, so has my approach to the craft of utilising those 32 pages to maximum benefit. The whole last 25 years feels like one colossal apprenticeship.
Right now I feel I am at a crossroads. There is a whole side to me as an artist or illustrator that isn’t seen and isn’t published. And I feel very strongly, after a quarter of a century of trying to paint like other artists, that it’s time to be me! So I am hoping to put Katie to one side for a while to find time to begin experimenting and playing with different techniques and materials to see what happens.
Zoe: Do you have any examples of this work that you would be willing to share?
James: I suppose a lot of the Noye’s Fludde art is a case in point [Click here to see a slide show of this project, part of the 2013 Cheltenham Music Festival/zt]. It WAS seen, but only for two days! Then it was gone.
Otherwise, I do sometimes paint in oils, and sometimes use lino, for little one-off pieces.
Zoe: What skills/techniques have you developed the most (or adopted anew) in the past 25 years?…I’m really interested in this from an educational point of view – how we are all lifelong learners…
James: Although I studied Illustration, only one short project looked at children’s books, which was when I first created a rough dummy book for Katie’s Picture Show. This was in 1985, and I sorely lacked the necessary skills to make an ideal book. I had very little idea, even when I graduated, about the world of children’s picture books. It was very unfashionable in the 1980s to show an interest in that area of illustration. Besides, “teaching” as such was largely absent. We were left very much to our own devices. Despite my degree, I feel largely self-taught.
In 1987, to my never-ending surprise, my book was taken on by Orchard Books, the first publisher to see it. It was THEN the real learning began.
I must say, they were very patient, steering me carefully through difficult waters, although I think the original student dummy changed relatively little. I guess I had good instincts. But I had no knowledge of how colours reproduce, of the best papers to use, I didn’t know how inks fade with time… and I knew nothing about how to create a character, how to show expression through faces and body language… How to pace a story, or use sequential images…
I learned so much on that first book. It was a wonderful, terrifying, tentative time, and I can now look back at the very first edition with amusement and nostalgia. But I also see so many things I am unhappy with.
I suppose the principle learned skills have been practical ones, like drawing children over and over to get a character right, and finding tools, nibs, inks, paints etc that I feel confident about using. Every artist or illustrator will find tools that suit them and tools that don’t. I’m not a pencil person particularly. I fell in love with ink quite early on, but had to develop how I use it over many years. I get quite fixated about nibs (I buy boxes of antique nibs on ebay), and different inks, which I mix, dilute and play around with.
More recent Katie illustrations are very mixed media. I’ve developed quite particular methods, especially for scenes where Katie is inside a painting. To replicate the effects of oil paint, I use emulsion paint, which dries matt, waterproof and is and good surface for many other tools, like pastels or pen and ink and watercolour. The illustrations are built up in many complicated layers over some time.
But there are other less tangible skills too… the ability to let go of ideas, to self edit texts that are too long, to appreciate better the inference of words to children, to ruthlessly recognise a failing illustration and just do it again. And the ultimate ongoing chimera: self-confidence! I am incredibly critical of everything I do – it’s just a bad personality trait (although I see it in a lot of illustrators!). I suppose I will never ever be entirely happy with anything I do, but I hope I might get a little closer as I get older. The learning never stops, and I think you need that to motivate you. If I had all the answers, what would I do tomorrow? Some very successful illustrators do come up with a technique – a “style” – that they feel confident about and they use that all their lives. It’s commercially sensible as they are instantly recognisable. But it’s not for me. This is a journey and I’m always searching, evolving, exploring and experimenting. I feel I still have so much to learn, and I’m glad of it. There are materials and techniques that I would love to explore more, printmaking most especially. I would love to illustrate a picture book in lino cuts!
Zoe: Why does printmaking particularly appeal to you?
James: With printmaking there are always little mistakes, mis-registered things, or unexpected results that really push an artist in new ways.
It’s the opposite of how I work on illustrating a book with ink and wash, where one has so much control and a particular expectation (ie, to produce something in a particular way for publication; there is little room for serendipity).
With lino, for example, I need to think entirely differently. I need to think in terms of shape and layers rather than just colouring in a line drawing. And because it looks so different my expectations of myself change. I find that incredibly liberating. I can surprise myself.
Having said all of this, I rarely have to time to play and print. I’m usually tied up with Katie or Ella Bella, where the established methods mean I have to return to my usual tools…
There are many forms of printmaking – screen printing, lithography – that I’ve never tried. I admire what others achieve with it and I hope I’ll find the time one day.
Zoe: And are there other techniques /materials you’d like to try out?
In general, I am very attracted to traditional methods of all kinds. I’m very keen to explore collage too, having dabbled recently for the Birmingham Festival Sword in the Stone poster and for Noye’s Fludde. I am sneaking a tiny bit of collage into the new Ella Bella book (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream – after Mendelssohn) and I think I will take it further in the future.
Zoe: Talking about being in control, and also about creating spaces (physical, emotional, mental) to try new things… this makes me think of your events where you illustrate live to music – something I think is incredibly special to witness…
James: Yes, in relation to experimenting, the events with music challenge and push me also, of course. Partly because of the speed, but also because I use materials and methods I wouldn’t ever have tried otherwise. The transitory nature of painting live and moving on is absolutely the opposite of the psychology behind making a book, especially a series, where everything is about “getting it right for posterity”. Painting live is about that moment. Nothing is preserved.
Zoe: Perhaps this is a good point to ask about the new text in Katie’s Picture Show. Was as the decision to change the text yours and what was the rationale for doing so?
James: The new edition of Katie’s Picture Show was triggered by the dissatisfaction I always felt for my very first book. Because I learned so much in the process, and other books benefited from that knowledge, I always felt it didn’t match the series so well. When Orchard proposed a new bigger format for the series, I was unhappy to begin with, as I knew those early illustrations would look even more coarse and crude when enlarged. And so I requested to illustrate it again, for no fee, just for the love of it.
In the process, I changed the page turns, in relation to the story, to make better use of the pages in narrative terms. At least, I think that’s what I’ve achieved. I wanted each painting, when coming alive, to be a double page spread. This necessitated some text changes. Also, certain updated information had to be incorporated – changes to painting titles (‘Tropical Storm with a Tiger’ is now ‘Surprised’), spelling or artists names (Kasimir is now Kazimir). Beyond that, as a more experienced storyteller, there were just a few things that didn’t really feel right to me now. Reading the story out loud in schools, there was always a sentence or two I winced at, some turns of phrase that felt a bit dated to my ears now. I am absurdly self-conscious about my writing. So I tried a few slight changes. It was really hard to feel I had “permission” to do this. I agonised. Then Orchard Books emailed me with changes THEY wanted, and I suddenly thought: yes, it’s OK. I can let go. If it is a change for the right reasons, it’s allowed. I wanted the text to be newly minted for another generation.
Zoe: How do you think the role of being an illustrator has change in the past 25 years?
James: When I graduated, children’s book illustration was scorned upon. No-one else on my course was interested in pursuing it. It was considered beneath them. Art schools had no time for it at all. Back in the 1980s everyone wanted to work in advertising where there was big money. My lack of a “style” and my traditional methods and temperament meant I simply wasn’t suited for the advertising world. I wasn’t trendy enough. I loved books, so I was the odd one out really.
Now, there are many courses that focus on children’s book illustration. The MA in Cambridge is the most celebrated and expands year on year, but there are several others. There are more prizes, more publishers, more festivals than ever before. There are dedicated centres (like Seven Stories) and galleries now. I think, despite all the prophecies of doom about the publishing industry, that this is a new golden age. Books are become more beautiful than ever before to justify being in print.
This new age of celebrating children’s book illustration, and the advantages of the internet, provide a great spring board for illustrators today. 25 years ago one simply had to trudge the streets of London and knock on doors. It was time consuming and expensive especially if, like me, you lived in the country. Now with emails and websites and so on, you can easily follow and contact publishers, send work, keep in touch and hopefully get the chance you are hoping for. I think it’s simply a more recognised area of specialisation now and that illustrators are more pro-active. Perhaps the next generation are just a bit more confident. They all seem to go to the Bologna Book Fair to try their luck. Do you know, I’ve never once been to Bologna?
On the other hand, with children’s illustration now a rather fashionable career, it does mean it’s very competitive, and publishers take fewer and fewer risks these days I think. The way books are acquired has changed too. Once upon a time a publisher would fall in love with, and then just publish, an idea. Now it has to go through a long acquisitions process and be approved by committee. It’s much harder in that respect. Publishers are always looking for a commercial artist they can develop as a “brand”. I’m not interest in that side of things, Money doesn’t motivate me in the least. Never has.
As for the role of the illustrator, I think that the fundamental need to serve a text (either your own or someone else’s) should not have changed, but I think the need to promote, market and sell yourself as a brand most certainly has, and for the worse. This is now a big part of the illustrator’s role. Through events, social media and websites we are expected, by publishers, to tell the world how wonderful we are. It’s a development I personally feel very ambivalent about. Of course it’s great to be able to meet your readers – I enjoy events very much. And one needs to tell people an event is taking place. It’s great to share information about materials etc. with colleagues and students online. But the endless self-promotion I see is really quite off putting. I guess I come from an earlier generation, with different ideas about social interaction, decorum, good manners. And the boundaries have shifted. I’m finding it hard to adjust to that.
I think it is also worth mentioning digital media, as that has definitely influenced the general look and style of books being produced and our expectations of illustrators. There is some sensational stuff being produced digitally, and the computer can be a marvellous tool (although I always remind my students that it will never make a silk purse out of a sows ear!).
Publishers now expect that about 80% of books submitted will be created digitally. Certainly at Cambridge School of Art the huge majority of students use digital media at some level. I suppose the danger is that we move away from the sense of hand crafted imagery, and expect a level of perfection (whatever that means) in the work. No blemishes, no happy accidents; we have complete control at our finger tips. I think a lot of digital illustration is outstanding on its own terms. But just sometimes it lacks the personal touch. Then, there is no humanity. It can feel a little cold. The flaws of something made in the real world can be inspiring. In the same way I know many who prefer the stop motion effects of Ray Harryhausen to the CGI of modern cinema, the analogue world, for me, is important, because – to a child – it can be an inspiration. I grew up believing I could make dinosaur movies. It was a tangible possibility. I grew up believing I could paint. But if everything is passed through a computer, it rather takes that away. Certainly, for the Katie series, it’s important for the illustrations to be real paintings, with a real sense of mark making by a real person.
In any case, I enjoy the process. I like to get my hands dirty!
Zoe: If you could step inside any painting (anywhere in the world, not limited to those you’ve included in the Katie books), which one would it be, and why?
James: So many paintings! It is tempting to choose something famous and wonderful, like a Turner painting perhaps. I could experience a shipwreck, a volcano, all sorts of things that way. But actually I will choose a painting I’ve never used in a Katie book, by Samuel Palmer: The Gleaning Field. I love his visionary work, with moons and stars and curious, living breathing trees, and voluptuous hills. This is less rhapsodic, but I find it incredibly comforting: the harvesting, the welcoming light in the window of the cottage. It reassures me, welcomes me, and I have an almost pantheistic response to it: the spirituality of nature, harvest and ritual.
Zoe: Apart from reading the Katie books with our kids, what other top tips do you have for instilling a curiosity and excitement about art in our children?
James: I actually think there is too much emphasis on looking at artists and not enough on being an artist – one of the reasons the final pages of the Katie books, which used to have info on the artists, now invite children to be creative. In schools too much of the curriculum is about copying artists. I know that is ironic, given the nature of the Katie books, and obviously it IS important to look at art. But that is only part of the learning journey, and is really “Art History”. I think to really instill a love of art, children need to be encouraged to have a go and be creative themselves, and I don’t see enough of that happening, in general, at school or in the home.
I am desperately saddened at what I see in many schools. Partly this is to do with the curriculum, and here I must emphasise that there ARE some fabulous teachers and brilliant schools that rise triumphantly above the routine and DO get fantastic results. But in very many schools I see the same old projects repeated. And I must also mention the quite disgraceful lack of materials. Very often I have turned up to run a workshop to be confronted with cheap copy paper, tired old tins of watercolours that look as though they’ve been stuck in the back of a cupboard since about 1967, and useless brushes like startled hedgehogs, messy mixed up pastels. It’s absolutely disgraceful. How children are expected to get good results with such tools is beyond me. It’s a national scandal, quite frankly.
I implore teachers and parents to go into an art shop and buy some decent materials. It needn’t cost the earth. In terms of a school budget it would be a very small investment. For a parent, make it a Christmas or Birthday treat. The best Christmas present I ever got was a box my father made (I still have it) filled with paper, paints, brushes, transfers, stickers, pens, pencils… everything an artist could want. Now THAT’S how to encourage an interest in art!
Beyond that – visit a gallery or museum. Show children what art CAN be. It’s not all just pretty pictures. Modern art can be liberating, or confusing. Or look at really old art – medieval images are often fascinatingly dark and peculiar, full of narrative.
And that’s what works for many children – the story in the picture.
Zoe: Thankyou, James, thank you. What an enthralling insight into Katie’s 25 years, and your wonderful work. Here’s to the next 25 years!
James has some very special forthcoming events:
“Come to the gallery with Katie”
A 25th anniversary exhibition of the original Katie art, from the first pictures to the latest at the Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh. Opens November 4th. (As yet there is no web link but rest assured, it is taking place!). The exhibition will be free, and there will be linked events taking place in November and December.
Illustrated concert featuring music by Rimsky-Korsakov performed by the Saffron Walden Symphony Orchestra. October 19th @3pm. Part of the Words in Walden festival.
“Heroes & Villains”
Illustrated concert featuring music by Grieg, Rossini, Copland performed by The de Havilland Philharmonic Orchestra. November9th @ 2pm and 4.30pm. Weston Auditorium, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield: http://www.herts.ac.uk/about-us/arts-and-galleries/whats-on/music