Some illustrations make me want to explore, other illustrations make me want look afresh at the colours outside my window. Illustrations by Sam Usher (@SamuelUsher), however, always seem to make me want to dance. Sam’s style is fluid and flowing, with a pen line that floats and flickers across his pages and so when We Are Not Frogs written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Sam came out earlier this year I was full of tingly-toed anticipation.
A tale of mistaken identity, doggy curiosity and chocolate cake, Michael Morpurgo’s story (originally published in 1994, and slightly edited in this new version) starts with a hopping competition between frogs and toads.
If you don’t know how this sort of competition inevitably ends, you’ve just found yourself a very good excuse to treat yourself to this funny and playful picture book (which happens to be produced in such a way to include dyslexia friendly features). And if you – unlike Alice and Jago from the story – do know how to distinguish between frogs and toads, you’ll still enormously enjoy the energy of the illustrations, the simple but enriching counting activities on each page, and the urge it will feed to get outside to find some mud to squelch in.
Having enjoyed We Are Not Frogs so much, I approached Sam with some questions about it and about his life as an illustrator.
To start with, I was curious what it had been like for him illustrating a story that had previously been published with different illustrations, by Siobhan Dodds; I’m fascinated by cases where images are reinterpreted or completely re-imagined (see this post about James Mayhew reillustrating the first Katie book, or this one about updates to Richard Scarry illustrations) as this seems to happen less often than editing or reinterpreting of texts, but Sam surprised me: “I didn’t realise it had been illustrated previously – which is probably lucky as I would have been tempted to look. I think I had about 5 weeks in total for the book – so there wasn’t an awful lot of time for thinking… I just got on with the drawings.”
Five weeks! This seems like a very short time to illustrate a whole book but I wondered if, in a way, the time pressure helped, providing an impetus, demanding a certain level of energy. “Well, I was scared at first of the quick turnaround but decided to embrace it — having to work quickly turns drawing into a sort of performance – getting into a piano playing frame of mind.”
Ahh. A ‘piano playing frame of mind’. I was hoping Sam’s music would pop up as we talked – the first time I met Sam was a festival event in a green room where there was a piano. Sam sat down, put his hands on the keyboard and caused everyone in that room to stop what they were doing and listen; Sam is a very talented pianist (he tells me he is currently learning Chopin’s Ballade No.1 and Bach’s Partita No.1), and music plays a big role in his every day life – perhaps this is why his illustrations make me feel like dancing?
“I like to work all morning, then go for lunch, then a few hours work in the afternoon, break for chocolate and tea, a few more hours, then supper, then the news and reading, then 3 or four more hours work till bed. All that work will be interspersed with liberal amounts of piano practise and maybe developing some camera films. I like to be too busy to think – I end up drawing instinctively and the drawings are filled with energy and humour that I don’t really notice until I look back at them a few days later.”
I think we’ll return to more music in a little, but for now we chat more about We Are Not Frogs, a book which is a wonderfully lively invite to get outside looking at plants and flowers and wildlife. But Sam lives in central London (you can hear are really interesting BBC interview about his somewhat surprising and innovative housing arrangements here from 28:27) and I don’t think frogs or toads are something one encounters very often living in the heart of the capital. How did Sam decide how his toads and frogs were going to look? Were there field trips involved? What research (if any) did he do?
“I certainly didn’t find any frogs and toads on walks around Regents Park, so my research involved looking on the internet. They don’t look an awful lot like real frogs and toads – I think believability, character, humour are more important than accuracy. I tried to give them a variety of expressions and interact in subtle way – hopefully readers can invent their own stories and imagine what they are all saying to one another. There are quite a lot of unhappy, shocked and surprised frogs. I think that’s funnier than them all being jolly and smiling.”
This range of expression certainly brings a richness to Sam’s illustrations, offering many starting points for conversations and wandering imaginations – just perfect for sharing a picture book with a young child.
In an earlier interview I had read that for Sam playing the piano helps him to be more disciplined with his work: “You only get one chance at playing a piece through for an audience, and there is a similar parallel with drawing in ink and watercolour – if you get it wrong you have to start again.” This got me wondering about the role errors or unforeseen events play in his illustration, to what extent he plan the details of each illustration (and then stick to that plan)?
“I take it for granted that I will get a picture wrong several times. Each picture is planned quite carefully in pencil on layout paper. That sketch is used as the basis for a drawing in ink on thick watercolour paper – I draw on a lightbox so I can see the rough drawing underneath. Despite the careful planning I’m never quite sure how it’ll turn out – there’s usually an expression or detail I’m surprised by.”
Could it be that it that space for surprise which ensures something of the vibrancy and freshness in Sam’s illustrations?
Moving on, or perhaps more accurately back in time, I wonder how Sam got to where he is today. What experiences helped him on his way to becoming an illustrator?
“I love birds – when I was 6 my primary school teacher brought a parrot into school. She edited a local newsletter and put one of my pencil drawings of a swan on the cover. I used to design things – a Subbuteo Rugby set, a Playmobil Pirate ship and lots of trainers for Nike… I would fill up sketchbooks with designs and send them off. They always replied to say thank you and that they liked my designs. Drawing was a normal thing to do while growing up – we were always making and coming up with schemes. I drew cartoons and sent them to the editor of the Beano – he replied with some helpful criticism.”
Sam did not enjoy school and instead spent most of his time drawing – “Things that made me laugh, or or diagrams that explained something – useful drawings. All of those things gave me the justification to continue to enjoy drawing — I’m not an especially accomplished draftsman, but I enjoy the process of drawing, and after 30 years or so practise I can just about do drawings that people want to look at.”
Sam is being rather modest: I would say more than “just about”!
As well as drawing a great deal as a child, Sam also studied illustration more formally, at art school, though he is hesitant when I ask him about how important a formal qualification is in this field.
“I found, by accident, a course that let me mess about as I always had done, for a few more years, and gave me a degree at the end of it. What it did do was poke me in interesting directions and give me opportunities to try out interesting techniques. That’s what’s really crucial – not the degree.
My training as an illustrator has been for about 30 years, not just the few years I was at art school. Despite all that I still feel I have no idea what I’m doing, so I hope I’m still learning. I’d love to do a Masters in something interesting like anthropology, or photo journalism (I’ve been learning to develop photos in the kitchen sink) — something completely different, that might give me a new take on the world.”
Commissions with tight deadlines, piano practice, learning about photography (Sam’s current book at bedtime is Susan Sontag’s On Photography) – Sam exclaims he has no spare time at all. But what then of ideas for future books? Perhaps something combining his artwork with his love of music?
“Well I do like drawing birds — I would like to come up with a book where I can draw a million of them. I’m trying to get the feathers looking iridescent using watercolour. I’ve also been taking photos using slide film — the shadows go completely black which leaves a sort of abstract but recognisable shape… I’m trying to replicate that with watercolour too – it makes things look as if they’re cast if scorching sunlight… and it’d be fun to do a book about composers wouldn’t it… a lot of them are quite peculiar characters.”
I think this would be BRILLIANT (are you listening, publishers?). Perhaps Sam could combine forces with Lemony Snicket (see this recent article by Daniel Handler about getting kids hooked on classical music)? Or… my mind suddenly starts going into overload and I imagine myself bringing together fabulous book creators who also make great music in order to have a sort of book-ish, story-ful chamber group… Sam could duet with Helen Cooper (of Pumpkin Soup delight), who is another accomplished pianist, and perhaps they could both accompany illustrator Jane Ray, who I’ve heard is a rather good soprano. “I’d love to play some chamber music – especially Beethoven and Mozart,” says Sam. So, Illustrators, Authors! Let us know if you’d like to form a small band with a difference. I’ll gladly develop my music promoter skills!