First published on 8 Jun 2012. Updated on 28 Jun 2012.
Graeme, you're featured in a new exhibition of picture book art with several other picture book artists. Looking at your rich, detailed work alongside the others, don't you feel the temptation to knock off a quick, scrappy little picture book one of these days? With all due respect to Mr Leigh Hobbs, you could bust out a Mr Chicken in a weekend I reckon.
I live in envy of people who do have that particular skill. I always get bogged down in detail, trying to fill every corner of the page and it’s just a cross I bear I think. I have actually made effort in more recent work to just relax a bit, open up and, you know, not try to colour in every dark part of it. But I’m sort of going against the grain. You know I spend a lot of time working on music as well and I do the same thing: I have an idea for a song and I just can’t help myself. I have 20 other little pieces that might be nice in there, and I put them all in.
You said not too long ago that you were going to try to spend one year on a book instead of two. Have you succeeded?
I’ve done it for a few years but I’m actually taking a bit of a sabbatical at the moment. I’ve got one coming out this September/October called Little Elephants, then the one after that is going to be two years hence. I just need to do a few other things for my sanity’s sake.
Has your work changed much over the years?
The main change, historically speaking, is that when I was very young I was terrified of colour. I hadn’t been properly trained in it. Everything I did was in black and white and very linear. And I think that’s why I probably got stuck with all the detail, because working in pen and ink you tend to work in detail. I never learnt a painterly technique – it was always based on line work. And over the years I’ve become more confident about the complexities of colour and I think that probably shows most.
Of course, puzzles have been a major part of your books: scanning Animalia for things that start with whatever letter, all the way through to decoding hieroglyphs in your latest, The Jewel Fish of Karnak. I suspect that part of this is about keeping yourself entertained and stimulated in the two years it takes to make the darn things?
Yeah, definitely, yeah. It was also the sort of stuff that I liked as a kid. The nub of the matter is that everything I do has to be – and I think a lot of artists are like this – for yourself first. You know, if a musician is not writing a song that they feel inspired by, or if an artist is not painting or creating an image that somehow means something to them, then it’s very hollow. So that’s what drives me mostly.
Actually, funnily enough, after the first few books, Animalia and The Eleventh Hour, which was, you know, way back, I found myself being described as ‘the guy who does the puzzle books’.
What a curse!
I thought: warning! Warning! You’d better make sure you don’t get cast in that particular light…
So the next book I did was called The Sign of the Seahorse and I steadfastly said, "It’s not gonna have a puzzle in it!"
Apart from the little shrimps…
Exactly! Yes, you are well researched. I couldn’t resist. I had to put those little fellas in.
But it’s just innate. It’s the sort of stuff I always loved and I just assume that other people will like it too.
Kip Williams’s Masquerade surely would have been an influence for you back then.
Oh very much. It was a huge moment when I discovered Masquerade and realised that a picture book – I was gonna say ‘children’s book’ but let’s open it up and call it a picture book; pictures are less age-specific – can be sophisticated and layered and rich and very grown-up. And also, of course, a wonderful puzzle.
I actually met him some years later. It was really delightful to meet this extraordinary polymath – he would not only paint these amazing oil paintings, he would also do all of the woodwork for the frames and the inlay, and all of the jewellery work and silversmithing… Quite an extraordinary man.
Has the picture book industry changed much since those halcyon days? I know Animalia was a phenomenon at the time, there was lots of promotion surrounding the publication of The Eleventh Hour… It's hard to imagine that level of hype over a picture book nowadays.
I think I certainly was very lucky. I rode a wave. I totally fluked it. I’ve often thought that probably in this day and age I would be very lucky to get Animalia published, certainly in the form that it was published back then. I think what would happen is that the sales people and the external readers and educational specialists and age-specific people would have their wicked way with it and it would be simplified. I think of the things that were on the ‘V’ page –
Exactly what I was thinking…
– I wouldn’t get away with it now. They’d say, "Oh no no, kids in this age bracket…" Whatever this age bracket may be for Animalia, who’s to know… "…they don’t know those words…"
Yes, I can imagine the red pen being struck through ‘vaudeville’, ‘ventriloquist’, ‘virtuoso’…
It really was a simpler age. I just sat down with Bob Sessions, who was my publisher and still is my publisher at Penguin Books, and I recall him saying, "That’s a pretty complex one Graeme…" And I went, "Yeah yeah, but kids love that! It’s like ‘Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious’, they love making the sounds, and, you know what, if they don’t know what it means let them look it up and find out." And he went, "Yeah, fair enough, let’s do it."
It was just a freer, less risk-averse sort of industry. It has gotten harder to try and break new ground these days.
Are you following the work of any modern picture book illustrators?
I probably got stuck in a bit of a time warp. The people whose work I know are all probably now the old granddaddies and grandmothers of the industry. People like William Joyce, Michael Hague, David Wiesner. I know there’s a lot of new people coming along but I’m not much of an expert. It's one of these things: I tend to sort of, you know, stay in the dark and do my work and almost not want to know what’s happening in terms of trends or other books, because I’m a little scared that you can get influenced and distracted from really what does matter – which is trying to be innovative and original and honest with your work. Maybe this is just a little phobia that I have. But I actually don’t want to know too much about what the market needs or wants or what people are saying about the industry. Just get on with your work and do it well and do what’s best.
It seems to me that, rather than responding to what other artists have been doing, throughout your career your major influence has been travel.
I think that’s true. I’ve found that to be the best way of coming up with ideas. Sometimes it’s a direct result of something that you see – "wow there’s an idea for a book" – and sometimes it’s just being in a different place and your head works differently. You tend to be more receptive to what’s around you when it’s a new environment, and I think that’s just a fertile ground for ideas to take root.
Speaking of new environments, I know there are apps for Animalia and The Waterhole – did you have much input?
Yeah, and I loved it. I’m actually really fascinated by the coming tide – if it hasn’t already crashed over us, it’s certainly going to. There’s a new way of getting stories, entertainment, information and it’s on a screen. I’m sure this must have happened you know, centuries back, where someone goes, "There’s a new form of information, it’s called the book, the printing press." It’s happening again.
As an artist, as a creator, I want to find ways of working with that new delivery medium, and this is very early days, I think it’s embryonic. While some types of entertainment apply themselves to that medium very obviously, picture books don’t. It’s the tactility about the page, the binding, the cover which I still am very attracted to.
But the idea of just expanding into that field [of technology] is one which I find enticing. Animalia and The Waterhole obviously have an interactive essence about them, so the screen enables me to play more, get a little bit deeper into it. But there are ideas currently spinning around in my head which will apply themselves even more to the digital world than the print world.
A lot of people are scared of this I think. Like educators perhaps, perhaps librarians. But I think you’ve gotta say, look, this is happening, it’s not going to go away. Then what you end up with is a whole lot of people who have a passion to tell stories, to create artwork, whatever it is, adopting the medium in which their audience is growing up, and servicing it.
That’s an inspiring point on which to wrap up, but one last question: What was the swan's name in The Eleventh Hour?
Oh you don’t expect me to tell you now?
No, I really didn’t.
I can give you a clue though, if you’re interested – what I tell people who ask me: The answer lies in the cards.
Look! The Art of Australian Picture Books Today is at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery from Jun 30 until Aug 5.
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