Barcelona-born Marta Altés is a graduate of one of the most fertile courses in the UK when it comes to producing fabulous illustrators – the MA Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art. She originally trained and worked in Spain as a graphic designer before taking the plunge to follow her childhood dreams, move country and retrain as an illustrator. “I think it was the BEST decision I have ever made,” says Marta, and with nine books already to her name and more following later this year (noting Marta graduated only four years ago) her success speaks for itself. Her latest book in English is The King Cat, a lovely story about friendship, negotiations and adjusting to change, especially in families welcoming a new arrival.
I recently caught up with Marta and asked her about The King Cat, her love of dogs, chocolate and more. Here’s how our conversation went:
Playing by the book: I know you sometimes include secret details in your illustrations – images of friends and family for example. Can you share a secret about your new book, ‘The King Cat’ – something we should look out for in the illustrations?
Marta Altés: Yes I do that! But I don’t always do it on purpose… It just happens. I start drawing a character and it ends up looking like somebody I know. In this case, I think, somehow I ended up illustrating the house that I would like to live in. Walls full of different sized frames (not with cat photos!), old and nice furniture, a sofa full of cushions with different patterns…
Also… Even though the story was VERY different when I started it, now it is the story of any person who has a young sibling (including me). My brother is 4 years younger than me, so I guess I was “king cat”. Although I don’t think I had his strong personality (a part from the times he broke my toys… of course)
Another thing that you can look out for in the illustrations is the little joke on the endpapers. On the first one we see a little basket full of wool balls and knitting needles on a table. Check out what’s on the last endpaper 🙂 Both cat and dog don’t know yet, but they are about to deal with the arrival of a new member to this family.
Playing by the book: I’m guessing you’re quite a dog person given your very funny book No! and your new book – what dog books (for kids) have made you laugh or nod in recognition of your life with dogs?
Marta Altés: You got me! Yes I am! I dogs make me laugh… My mum is taking care of my dog in Barcelona, and I miss him very much. Dog books that have made me laugh recently are:
Also, not a book, but a blog: Mike Smith’s diary is great. He draws lovely everyday life sequences about him and his family, including very funny situations with his dog. Here are a few examples:
Playing by the book: What aspects of being a graphic designer (in an earlier life) have helped in your career as an illustrator?
Marta Altés: I think having been a graphic designer has definitely influenced the way I work as an illustrator. Mostly in the way I use colour (always a very limited palette), the use of white space, the compositions of the illustrations on the page and knowing how to use some software like Photoshop.
I also enjoy hand-lettering quite a lot, and the importance I give to the fonts is probably because of my graphic design background.
I suffered a lot when it came the time to write our final dissertation in the MA, my English wasn’t the best, and it was a big effort. But I learned a lot. I wrote about Graphic Design in Picture Books, and since then, I try to take all the elements that you have in a book to communicate the main idea (Cover, endpapers, title page, font, colour, where the text is placed…).
Playing by the book: What was hard to “unlearn” when moving from graphic design to illustration?
Marta Altés: It was difficult but at the same time one of the most exciting things was to try not to use the computer too much. And another thing was to not be afraid of trying new things, like – for example – watercolours! I hadn’t used them before joining the MA, and I’m so glad our tutors were always encouraging us to try new techniques.
Playing by the book: Do you see differences in illustration styles favoured in the UK as compared to in Spain? If so, what are they?
Marta Altés: I don’t like to generalize and I think each illustrator has a different way of seeing life and working, no matter where they live. There are English illustrators working for Spanish publishers and vice versa.
A couple of years ago at the Bologna Book Fair, I started talking to a Spanish art director that was there seeking talent at the MA Children’s Book illustration stand. And she pointed out how the main characters of many English picture books were animals, and that it is something that usually doesn’t happen there. I thought that it was a very interesting thing!
Playing by the book: What Catalan children’s books do you wish were translated into English so a wider audience could enjoy them?
Marta Altés: Probably all the ones I use to read when I was a kid (although I’ve just checked and many of them have already been translated!). One of my favourite ones is “El Patufet” a very surreal story about a little boy that was veeeeery tiny (and I won’t spoil the ending because is one of the most surreal endings ever!)
There are also many small Spanish publishers doing very interesting things.
Playing by the book: Could you share some of the illustrations you made for the Catalan/Spanish/Galician chapter books/poetry you’ve illustrated?
Marta Altés: I really enjoy working on different projects at the same time as working on picture books. It gives me the opportunity to experiment with new techniques. Illustrating a text that is not yours is lots of fun because you can give your vision of the story through your drawings. But is a completely different approach to when you illustrate your own text. In the latter case, you keep editing text and image to make them work together, almost until the day you send the files to print!
A very challenging project I’ve just illustrated is this Catalan Poetry book for kids (‘Tan Petita i ja saps‘ written by Maria Mercè Marçal). I hadn’t illustrated poetry before, and it was quite difficult. Also, I was told there had to be something that graphically linked together all the pages of the book. That made me go and do some research on the symbology of the author and I ended up using the night, stars and sea as the main elements of the book. The idea of the darkness of the night sky made me try to use brush and black ink. And I coloured things digitally.
The chapter book I’ve just illustrated for a Spanish publisher talks about the story of a little mouse meeting a girl who has just moved into a new house. I thought it would be fun to play with shadows and lights. Something that I’m not very good at but I wanted to give it a try. So I did try, and it was lots of fun. Again it was a mix between digital colouring, pencil and millions of layers of photoshop.
Playing by the book: I believe you work as a part time lecturer in the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art. What’s your role on the course?
Marta Altés: Studying in the MA was one of the best experiences ever! I met so many nice people and it was very sad when it was over. So I felt over the moon when Martin Salisbury offered me the opportunity to go back and work there.
What I enjoy the most is working with the students on the sequences, storyboards and story lines of their projects. Each project is very different from the other so going there is very challenging but also very exciting!
I’m so happy to still be involved with the MA. I get to meet lots of lovely people and I’m super lucky to be working there along with amazing illustrators like James Mayhew, David Hughes, Pam Smy, Alexis Deacon, Paula Metcalf and Hannah Webb!
Playing by the book: If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you like to be?
Marta Altés: I’ve been a full time illustrator just for the past 4 years, so this is a difficult question to answer… 5 years ago I was a graphic designer that wanted to be an illustrator (my dream came true). Now… If I weren’t an illustrator, I guess I would like to be a dancer (I know it’s WAY too late). I’ve danced since I was little and it’s something that I love doing.
Playing by the book: I hear you like chocolate. What sort of chocolate is your favourite?
Marta Altés: I loooove chocolate. All sorts of chocolate… But if I had to pick one it would be dark chocolate. Or triple chocolate covered with a layer of double chocolate with chocolate sprinkles to top.
Playing by the book: Many thanks Marta – it’s been great fun interviewing you. I hope you enjoy the virtual chocolate I’ve found for you 🙂