Tim Hopgood is an illustrator and author I admire greatly. His brilliant Here Comes Frankie was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog, over 6 years ago now, and I’ve yet to read a book of his which hasn’t made me happy.
His use of colour is exceptional. His strong sense of design is eye-catching. His use of visual textures always has me stroking the pages of his books. Yes, I’ll admit I’m a bit of fan!
And so it’s a great honour, and an enormous delight to bring you an interview with Tim today. His latest book is something of a departure for him – up till now (at least when working with children’s publishers) he has always illustrated fiction, but Fabulous Frogs is a bold, extremely beautiful and fascinating non-fiction collaboration with Martin Jenkins (author of the award-winning Can We Save the Tiger?). I kicked off my interview with Tim by asking him about this different genre and what impact it had on his illustrations.
Playing by the book: This is the first time you’ve illustrated a non-fiction book. How was your approach different (and also how was it similar) to illustrating a fiction picture book?
Tim Hopgood: It was my first time working on a non-fiction book and my first time working with the team at Walker (Editor – Lucy Ingrams, Art Director – Beth Aves) and Author – Martin Jenkins, but what was so great was their approach was exactly the same as mine when working on my own picture books. By that, I mean the process was very fluid. We met a few times face-to-face at key stages in the development of the book and the rest of the time it was all done via email, but nothing was ever set in stone until it went to print, and that’s how I like to work. So the book was allowed to evolve in a very natural, organic way; it was a very enjoyable process.
It was also incredibly hard work. For me, the biggest challenge was trying to capture the essence and personality of each frog in my style of illustration whilst remaining anatomically correct. When working on a fiction picture book I wouldn’t be too concerned with anatomical correctness as I’d be more interested in whether my frog character had personality and emotion so this was the main difference, as all the frogs had to be easily identifiable. I don’t think I’ve ever drawn anything quite so small and in such detail as the tiny frogs from Papua New Guinea!
The other big difference was each frog belonged to a different world; so unlike in a fiction picture book where you create a world for your characters to exist in and have to stick to it throughout the book, this project allowed me the freedom to create completely different backgrounds for each frog. In some cases I kept the backgrounds white, which is something I don’t usually do in my own books.
Playing by the book: I think you’ve combined anatomical correctness, personality and emotion wonderfully well in this book – a huge part of its visual appeal is that the frogs have immense personality – lifting the book into something special and very, very distant from a “dry” fact based book…
Tim Hopgood: Thank you Zoe! that’s really good to hear…
Playing by the book: So is there anything about the process of illustrating non-fiction that you think you will “bring back” to your story picture books? Any way of looking at a subject which is different for you now because of the things you had to think about with your frogs?
Tim Hopgood: Although I wasn’t able to draw any of the frogs from life, I think my observational skills were sharpened because of this project. I studied lots and lots of photographs of each frog and had to work out what were the defining features, what made each frog special and then try to bring that frog to life on the page. I think working on the book reignited my interest in nature and I think this will influence my future projects.
Playing by the book: That’s wonderful to hear! Were you a fan of frogs before you illustrated the book? Not everyone loves wet slimy creatures…
Tim Hopgood: As a child I was fascinated by frogspawn and tadpoles; I think children like the way tadpoles move in the water. When my children were little we discovered frogs at the bottom of our garden so we created a small pond in the hope to encourage more (we put an old school sink in the ground and put some plants in it) and amazingly it wasn’t too long before we had a sink full of tadpoles. The kids loved watching the tadpoles grow and develop into tiny frogs.
Playing by the book: Which is your favourite frog in your book?
Tim Hopgood: My favourite is the striped rocket frog from Australia. It can jump five metres in one go. I love the look of this frog with its cool stripes running down its back and sides. The other one I really enjoyed drawing is the Malagasy rainbow frog.
Playing by the book: How did you and the author interact during the process of creating the book – like a great picture book, the illustrations in this book don’t just double up on the text – there’s a real interplay between words and images. Did Martin indicate what he was thinking of with regard to images? Or was there something of a dialogue about how text and image could play together?
Tim Hopgood: When I first read Martin’s text what really appealed to me was the humour running through it and that it was packed full of frogs I’d never heard of, so I knew this had the potential to be a very striking and informative book. Although we didn’t interact directly – it was all done via Beth (Art Director) – there was definitely a dialogue between text and image which shifted and developed throughout the creative process, but it was a team effort.
We did meet a few times at key stages in the development of the book. At our first meeting we discussed the overall approach and Lucy (Editor) explained how the text would work on two levels: there’s the main text running through the book and then there’s the more detailed information which would sit smaller on the page. We discussed initial ideas for each spread and Beth and Martin provided me with source material for each frog. The next stage was for me to respond to the text in a visual way.
For my first rough I did several versions for each spread so that we could discuss options and work out which one we all thought worked best. Throughout the process the copy would be revised and repositioned on the page to work with the illustrations I was creating. And sometimes I did new drawings to sit more comfortably with the text. Beth is the kind of Art Director I really enjoy working with, the kind that has a clever knack of getting the best out of you, sometimes pushing you out of your comfort zone, but in a supportive and encouraging way. I think a great Art Director can often see things in your work that you as an artist can’t see yourself, they can see you’ve got more to give and that maybe you should approach a subject in a slightly different way, and with the right encouragement and support you can do it! I learnt a lot from creating this book and not just about frogs, but about drawing too!
Playing by the book: Whilst researching your frogs, did you come across any other non-fiction illustrator’s work on frogs that really stood out for you?
Tim Hopgood: Oh yes – Art of the New Naturalists – Forms From Nature by Peter Marren and Robert Gillmor is an amazing non-fiction book for anyone interested in art and nature. I was given this book as a present and was inspired by the vitality of the drawings and the strong design compositions of the New Naturalist covers that are lovingly recorded in this book. It definitely influenced the way I approached the artwork for Fabulous Frogs: artwork for a non-fiction book doesn’t have to be clinical it can be painterly too. Combining expressive artwork with clear-cut information produces an interesting dynamic and that’s something I intend to explore in future projects.
Playing by the book: So apart from books used for researching for work, what role does non-fiction play in your own personal reading? Now, and as a child?
Tim Hopgood: As a child, non-fiction played a big part in my love of books. I struggled to learn to read and I struggled to find books that I enjoyed reading. I was always drawn to the non-fiction side of our local library, highly illustrated books on nature filled with facts had a particular appeal.
When I was nine, my parents bought me a hardback copy of ‘More Tell Me Why’ – Answers to over 400 questions children ask most often, by Arkady Leokum, published by Odhams Books. I loved that you could dip into it, that you didn’t have to start at the beginning and stick with it all the way through to make sense of it. You could flick through the pages and see something different each time you picked it up and I loved that it weighed a ton! And although it was heavy that didn’t stop me taking it to school and proudly reading from it in assembly!
Nowadays you’ll find plenty of non-fiction titles on my book shelves; mainly cookbooks (I recently completed over 100 illustrations for the new River Cottage cookbook ‘Love Your Leftovers’), but also lots of books on artists, designers, textiles and architecture. I still love the way you can dip in and out of a non-fiction title and discover new things each time you pick it up.
Playing by the book: One last and completely different question given that you are being interviewed on Playing by the book… what’s the last thing you did / place you visited / something you made for fun having been inspired by a book you’ve read?
Tim Hopgood: Now I feel very dull! I’m afraid it’s been all work and no play here recently, but when I’m not drawing I love to cook. For my birthday I was given ‘A Modern Way to Eat’ by Anna Jones – her Artichoke and fennel seed paella recipe is delicious!
Playing by the book: A book that makes you want to cook? That’s good enough for me! Thank you so very much Tim – here’s to frogs, fennel Seeds and further success in the future!
Do look out for Tim’s new pre-school boardbook Walter’s Wonderful Web, and (like me) rejoice that his first three books are now all back in print!