In this installment of Meet the Illustrator, acclaimed author and illustrator Emma Chichester Clark discusses the artists and books that moved her as a child, and names the ultimate design resource for young artists looking to develop a signature style. Plus, she shares lots of photos of her workspace and the absolutely adorable, scruffy canine that inspired her newest book, Plumdog, and the upcoming Love Is My Favorite Thing.
What first made you excited about art?
I grew up in Ireland, in the middle of flat countryside where there was little to do and I had to entertain myself a lot. I loved making things — houses, clothes for my animals, and, especially, pictures and books. The first images I remember being excited about were in a book called Homebodies by Charles Addams. He was a cartoonist for the New Yorker and he invented the wonderful Addams Family. I didn’t always understand the humour — it was pretty dark and sophisticated, but I loved his style of drawing and the way each picture made a completely atmospheric little world.
What illustrated book from childhood has stayed with you over the years?
Apart from the Charles Addams book — which was really a book for adults and belonged to my parents — I had the whole series of Madeline [books] by Ludwig Bemelmans, and I absolutely loved them. I especially loved Madeline’s Rescue where Madeline shows off, much to the alarm of Miss Clavel, by balancing precariously on the edge of a bridge and inevitably topples over and falls into the River Seine. Luckily she is rescued by a good, brave dog called Genevieve. Madeline is drawn with just a few quick strokes yet she has enormous character. You know exactly who she is despite the fact that she looks exactly like the other eleven little girls under the charge of Miss Clavel, and I think that is genius.
The whole environment again was very important to me — the exotic feel of Paris — with curly wrought-iron balconies, shutters on the windows, and chestnut trees. The emotions are strong and brilliantly conveyed — Miss Clavel’s urgency in the night when she wakes, knowing that “something is not right” and we see her rushing diagonally across two pages. It is such a strong graphic image. And the distress felt by the reader and the little girls when Genevieve goes missing conveyed with sombre colour in a book that is otherwise mostly black and yellow. I still look at this book over and over again and marvel at it. I love the line, the colour, the characters, the story … everything about it!
Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?
In the case of these two books, Plumdog and Love Is My Favorite Thing, the inspiration came from my dog, Plum. She has such an expressive character and I found that I was constantly imagining what she might be saying or thinking, so I began to write it down.
She is a gift to draw. As are her friends, Esther and Jakey … and her sister, Liffey.
The places we go are a constant source of inspiration too. We are usually either on the dirty old River Thames in London.
Or in Suffolk where Plum has a choice of watering holes.
The landscape is flat and beautiful with enormous skies that change every second.
What does your workspace look like?
My workspace is an office we had built in the garden, in London.
I love the fact that it’s separate from the house and I have to “go” to work. It is full of my things and books that I’ve carried around with me since I was 17 and I feel very at home in there, as does Plum!
What materials do you most like to use?
The materials I use alternate between concentrated watercolour inks and acrylics. I also always use coloured crayons. I use them for the outlines because I like their softness. I’ve never managed to master pen and ink — I find the line too sharp for me. I also sometimes use collage, but only sparingly, combined with paint and line, often just as decoration. I keep meaning to try other things but there’s never time. I don’t use the computer because I really enjoy the actual feel of pencil on paper and the element of fear that comes from inevitably making mistakes.
What design resources would you recommend to young artists?
This is a difficult question! I am probably going to sound old-fashioned because I think the best design resources come from inside your own head. First of all I think it’s important to practice drawing as much as possible, every day — just as if you were trying to get better at playing the piano, it works only if you practice. Then I think the only way you can find your own style is by finding out how you are the most comfortable. Your drawing style should be as natural to you as your own handwriting. It is also important to look at as much art and illustration as possible — to study the work of other artists of every genre, from Michelangelo to Maira Kalman to Dr. Seuss — it’s all part of forming your own taste, which changes all the time. But I think the best design resources are your own head and heart, and being true to yourself, not being tempted to imitate anyone else. All my favourite illustrators are the ones that are just being honest, being themselves.
What’s the best name for a color that you’ve ever heard?
There’s an English paint company called Farrow and Ball that has wonderful names for its paint. The ones I like best are “Mole’s Breath” and “Elephant Breath.”
Emma Chichester Clark began her website, Plumdog Blog to chronicle the real-life adventures of Plum, her lovable “whoosell” (whippet, poodle, and Jack Russell cross). Emma soon had thousands of loyal Plumdog devotees, and a book of the blog is Plumdog. Love is My Favorite Thing is the first Plumdog picture book for children.
Emma has written and illustrated numerous picture books, including the Blue Kangaroo books, as well as books by Roald Dahl, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Peter Dickinson, and Michael Morpurgo. She studied graphic design and later attended the Royal College of Art. She lives in West London, England, with her husband, three stepsons, and their beloved Plum.