Interview with Noelle Davies-Brock, Illustrator Extraordinaire, by Walrus Amber,10
Noelle Davies-Brock is the illustrator of ‘Here Comes the Poo Bus!’, which was written by Andy Stanton. Growing up she was always being told off for drawing in schoolbooks, or on the desk, or inside cupboard doors. Horses wearing cool shades, space cats, fruit with faces and the like. Since leaving art school she has been a film extra, a food stylist, a granny-sitter and an ice-cream seller, but now she has her dream job – drawing pictures.
Hello, Noelle. Why, and when, did you decide you wanted to be a book illustrator?
I’ve drawn and painted for fun since I was very young, but it never occurred to me that it was someone’s actual job to do drawings, it still seems crazy! I loved my picture books and when I was about nine I will never forget seeing Quentin Blake’s illustration of ‘square sweets looking round’ in Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. It was so hilariously silly that I had to keep looking at it. I was determined to draw like that, but was always being told off at school for doodling in my books. I once spent ages drawing a really detailed scene on the cover of my Geography book of a cow astronaut in space. The cowstranaut was floating past planets and stars that all had stupid grins and pointy teeth. I thought it was brilliant, but my Geography teacher didn’t agree. She made me cover the book in brown wrapping paper.
I only realised at the age of about twenty-five that I wanted to make drawing my job. I think people need silly pictures to make them laugh and the occasional sad picture to make them cry. I really believe that if you like your own drawings, other people will too. (But maybe not Geography teachers.)
How do you come up with your ideas for illustrations?
I think coming up with new ideas for illustrations is so difficult! I like looking at brilliant Artist’s work or visiting museums to see old stuff and get ideas. If you’re nosy like me, sometimes just mooching around observing people and things is even better. One day it could be useful to remember you saw a guy balancing loaves of bread on his elbows while you were out shopping with your mum.
Let’s say I’m going to draw a picture of Book Walrus. I might think to myself, ‘Walruses huh? Aren’t they a bit like sea lions? Sea lions balance stuff on their noses, I’m sure a Book Walrus could too. Let’s look at some pictures of walruses on the Internet. Wow, I just remembered that guy balancing loaves of bread on his elbows while I was out shopping with mum.’ Then I sit down and doodle in pencil on anything I have around. This could be the wall, the floor, the cat, but most likely it’s loose sheets of paper. I draw on loose sheets because I think a new, empty sketchpad is a scary thing. I then do several bad drawings and make lots of mistakes, because the best ideas usually happen when I’m not trying to draw a perfect picture. I waste lots of paper as I try to get everything into the drawing that was in my original idea. Book Walrus must be walrussy enough. He must have books and a cake balancing precariously on his nose. And he must look happy about it. Meanwhile the pile of paper on the floor gets bigger while I try to draw a version I’m happy with. Eventually I’ll do several versions with a bit more detail, adding colour to the pictures with ink. Finally I will choose the Book Walrus I like best.
When you draw, it’s really is helpful to remember that you don’t have to show anyone the two hundred, ninety-six and a half drawings that went wrong, only the one you’re happy with. Then if somebody says they love how your finished picture looks as if it took about five seconds, you can shrug and pretend that it did.
How do you make your illustrations funny or yucky to compliment a story?
Often in a story, there are certain clues about what an illustrator should draw. If a character is described wearing a yellow hat, then it’s your job to include this detail. If they never take their yellow hat off, you must remember to draw them wearing it every time they appear. If the picture is in black and white, then the person reading the story can imagine the hat is yellow, but what if the words in the story don’t describe the shape of this annoying yellow hat that you keep having to draw? In that case I would immediately draw the hat in the shape of a giant banana.
Illustrating a yucky story like Andy Stanton’s ‘Here comes the Poo Bus’ was a lot of fun, because his story is so funny and I got to make the pictures as gooey, lumpy, drippy and gross as possible. I enjoyed splattering and smearing lots of greeny-brown paint. I think kids like looking at yucky pictures a lot more than grown-ups do though. You might think it’s funny to see pictures of poo, slimy snot, sick, animals getting their heads chopped off and worms getting eaten by grasshoppers, but I bet your mum will say it’s absolutely disgusting!
How do you make illustrations tell a story in a different way to words?
I think it’s important that illustrations fully show the details that the text is describing, but it’s a shame when words and pictures seem to mirror each other exactly. The most fun is when authors write a story that doesn’t describe every detail, because this leaves a whole world of imagination for the illustrator. The author might write that two people have made a jelly. Brilliant! This means you can tell a whole new story about the aforementioned jelly in a way that only a picture can. You can draw two people looking up at a gigantic red jelly, which is as large as a skyscraper and almost toppling over because it’s so wobbly. You can show things stuck in the jelly like hats, lamp-posts, cars, umbrellas and a dinosaur. You can see that the people are looking worried, because their three children are bouncing around on top of the jelly with the family dog and hamster. There’s a fireman climbing up the side of the jelly to rescue the kids, but they are having a fantastic time bouncing. Meanwhile the jelly is about to swallow up their house like some kind of terrifying strawberry-flavoured tornado.
I could go on describing the action in words, but the point is that a picture tells the story where the text doesn’t. And in an illustration there is no lengthy description, because you can see everything happening at once.
What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?
The best thing about being an illustrator is when kids like the pictures you’ve drawn and do lots of brilliant and hilarious drawings themselves. It’s the most fun to scribble and make a big mess, while encouraging other people to do the same.
I also enjoy getting to go to the art shop to buy shiny new pens, hundreds of sheets of paper and colourful ink, because that’s what I need to do the job. So much better than shopping for trousers, boring!
Have you met anyone famous?
I have met quite a few amazing Authors and Illustrators including Andy Stanton, Michael Rosen, Tony Ross, Lydia Monks, Vivian Schwarz and Sarah McIntyre. And as if they’re not famous enough, I also once met my absolute hero, Quentin Blake. I shook his hand and didn’t know what to say, but he was very kind and asked me what I did. I told him I was an illustrator, and he said ‘try to illustrate a story with no words at all.’ Then he signed my copy of his brilliant book ‘Clown,’ it was so cool
What’s YOUR favourite kids book? and why?
I have lots of favourite books, because it really depends what mood you’re in, doesn’t it? When I was very little, I loved the picture book ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes. The Illustrations are so fantastic and it still makes me cry a bit. Then when I was ten I read ‘Find the White Horse’ by Dick King-Smith and loved that too. More recently I read some short stories by Paul Jennings, they are so brilliant! But my ultimate favourite book has to be The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, I wish I could live in that book for a while and chat to all the characters.
Book Walrus LOVED talking to Noelle Davies-Brook and was completely over-excited when she offered to draw a picture of him! Check it out below. ‘Mr Book Walrus’ is our favourite work of art in the whole wide world!!