Everybody loves the drawings UK illustrator Emily Gravett loves drawing
Hi Emily, thank you very much for the opportunity to have a chat. You are well-known internationally for your illustrations and books (Wolves, Cave Baby – with Julia Donaldson – and The Odd Egg ... to name a few). How did it all start for you? Did you always want to be an illustrator? And how did you approach your very first publisher?
It didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-twenties that being an illustrator would be the perfect career for me (which in hindsight is mind-bogglingly stupid of me). I had always loved drawing, and I came from a very arty family (my dad is a printmaker, and my mum was an art teacher). My family always assumed I would go on to art college, but I was a little bit wild in my teenage years, and ended up leaving school without decent exam results. I left home very soon after to live in a bus. It wasn’t until I had a child in my mid-twenties that I began looking at children’s illustration and realised what an exciting medium it is. I spent a year doing an art foundation course in my local college and when my daughter started school I started an illustration degree. It was a hectic time! In my final year I entered two college projects: Wolves and Orange Pear Apple Bear into The Macmillan Prize (a competition run by Macmillan Publishers for art students to find new talent). I was overwhelmed when not only did Wolves win, but Macmillan offered to publish Orange Pear Apple Bear as well and gave me a contract to write and illustrate a third book too!
I recently attended your events at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town and was intrigued by your personal life story. Before you started illustrating, you used to spend lots of time on the road. What used to be your job back then?
When I lived on the road I didn’t have a permanent job. We were itinerant, so it was impossible to find steady employment. In common with most people who lived that lifestyle we took seasonal work where we could find it. There was a lot of agricultural work picking apples, strawberries, potatoes etc. I spent some time busking, and even lived in forests making pine wreaths in the run-up to Christmas. Sometimes I drew people’s houses for money.
Marianne van Loggerenberg (Pan Macmillan SA) with Emily Gravett during Gravett’s school visit in Johannesburg.
At the Open Book Festival you spoke about looking at your final drawings (which used to be done in ink) and realising that your initial drawings (in pencil or in charcoal) actually looked better. What is your favourite way of creating a picture – do you sometimes use paint as well?
My favourite medium to draw in is an oil-based pencil which has a nice soft line but isn’t too smudgy. I also use watercolours. I like to use found ephemera such as old tickets, newspapers etc that I manipulate in Photoshop. In fact, I tend to assemble all my finished page layouts on my computer in Photoshop. I find it is a very fluid and malleable way of working, but I have never got into drawing directly on the computer, as I just can’t make the line lively enough.
Emily Gravett with alien
Where do you think your ideas usually originate, if it is at all possible to answer such a question?
Ah … I really wish it was possible to answer that question. If it was I wouldn’t be sitting here starting to worry about where my next idea will come from! To be honest, each book’s idea comes from a different source. For The Rabbit Problem I had the idea while listening to a radio programme about the mathematician Fibonacci. My last book, Matilda’s Cat, was inspired by my friend’s daughter Matilda’s drawings of cats.
Before you attended the Open Book Festival I know that you also visited Gauteng. Was it your first time over here and how did you experience South Africa as a country?
It was my first visit to South Africa, and I’m afraid it was very brief. I spent only a few days in Cape Town, and one in Johannesburg. For most of that I was either doing book festivals or school events, so I’m afraid it was far too brief a trip to be able to form any opinions beyond very superficial ones.
Emily Gravett with a fan
Photos: Marianne van Loggerenberg, Pan Macmillan SA
Read other interviews with illustrators.
Read about another event at Open Book 2012.