SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: John Shelley

By Mio Debnam
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

John Shelley studied at Bournville School of Art, then illustration at Manchester Polytechnic under children’s illustrator Tony Ross.

Debuting as a freelance illustrator in London, by 1984, he’d co-founded the artist’s collective Facade Studios with designer Andy Royston and illustrators Jane Ray and Willie Ryan.

Fascinated by Japanese art, in 1987, he moved to Tokyo in search of the missing link between samurai and Sony, making it his home for the following 21 years.

In Japan his award-winning illustrations have been used in everything from animated TV ads, poster-and-newspaper campaigns to character merchandising and editorial illustration. With a unique insight into the Japanese creative market, he has stood as a committee member of JAGDA (Japan Graphic Designer Association) and presented at colleges across the country.

Shelley’s work for publishing follows a more elaborate vein of pen and watercolour. His first major picture book The Secret in the Matchbox was shortlisted for the Mother Goose Award, after which his children’s illustrations have continued to gain steady recognition in East and West.

As an author, his own published stories include Hoppy’s New House (Fukuinkan Shoten) and The House of the World (Benesse).

John’s upcoming books are The Halloween Forest (Holiday House, U.S.) and his own retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk (Fukuinkan Shoten, Japan), both scheduled for release in fall 2012.

Bilingual in Japanese, Shelley returned to the U.K. in 2008, but still maintains close associations with Japan. John is a member of The Society of Authors, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and Picture Book Artists (PBA)

John, apart from being a successful commercial artist, you are the illustrator of over 40 books, but it’s a lesser-known fact that you’re also the author-illustrator of three picture books published in Japanese. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of illustrating someone else’s words as opposed to your own, and can we look forward to any more books both written and illustrated by you in the future?

There are pros and cons to both sides. I love the sense of discovery when illustrating other people’s texts. I approach the work as a reader does, a visitor entering an imaginative kingdom, where (if it’s the right text) my own imagination can respond, explore and expand on the world created by the writer.

It’s a process of discovery, though does of course depend on the story. Some texts I can really fly with; others are more sedate. I particularly enjoy the challenges to adapt my interpretation to match and enhance the world of the writer. For these reasons, I really love illustrating imaginative novels in black and white, though it works for picture books, too.

I tend to approach my own texts from a different angle, as quite often the visual tone of the story is fixed visually in my mind before I write a single word.

As pictures are natural for me, there’s always the danger that the story is subservient to images–something I’m constantly battling to avoid.

Some illustrators are adept at using their images as a starting point for their stories, and sometimes it can work for me too, but on the whole I try to create stories around texts. The illustrations come naturally!

Yes indeed, I do intend to work on more of my own stories, though at the moment I’ve a full plate of commissioned books.

You’ve mentioned in the past that you like to create children’s book illustrations using pen and ink, with a watercolour wash. However, as computer tools and programs become increasingly sophisticated and versatile, have you found yourself being lured into creating art digitally, or do you already use the computer for any part of the creative process?

Actually, I’ve used computers with illustration for many years (though everything starts with a hand-drawn scanned image). Most of my work for advertising in Japan is coloured mechanically, originally with mark-ups for four-colour process, latterly using Photoshop, etc.

I have a love-hate relationship with computers. For the level I use them in my illustration work, I lean more towards simplicity – flat colour, for the graphic dynamism that works well for posters and other advertising/editorial work.

A lot of my children’s books, however, are more atmospheric and intuitive. I aim to create subtleties of tone that I would find a challenge using digital means. Some artists are able to create digital work of incredible depth and texture, but I don’t have the software, or technical patience for that; it’s not a natural tool for me. Children’s books are from the heart, at least the ones I like to paint in watercolour – and I find it tough to achieve a level of natural authenticity with digital art.

That’s not to say I don’t use computers at all with my children’s illustrations – some of my simpler picture books in Japan were coloured digitally. Even with my watercolours my Mac is invaluable for research, resizing and arranging sketches and other preparatory work.

Ultimately, computers are just a tool like any other, and I’m looking for the most effective way to get the job done, whether digital or analogue. If the task requires a clean graphic edge, I’ll work digitally.

I’d like to explore ways of adapting my “commercial” illustration techniques to my children’s books, certainly for younger readers, but for the more elaborate books, I’ll probably always stick to watercolour. The day I’m able to create them as effectively digitally as I am with watercolour I’ll certainly change, but until then, I prefer a tool that I’m in command of, no matter how flawed and messy, than one that I struggle to use intuitively.

Flawed and messy for me is what makes watercolour so ‘human’! 

At the Bologna Fair 2010, I was lucky enough to watch you do lightning quick sketches to illustrate a story which was being read out to you live. I was impressed that you were able to depict the scenes from different angles and interesting viewpoints at such speed. Do the ideas come to you that quickly normally?

Making pictures is problem solving. Sometimes the solution comes to mind immediately. Sometimes it takes a bit of thought. The sketching duels are unusual and can be very challenging because time is one thing you don’t have! Quick thinking is essential.

Sometimes the answers are visual puns – commercial/editorial illustration is often like this. How do words fall together or clash? Two elements put together can create a fun illustration. For children’s books, the tone can be established by the characters or through composition, and may go through a series of development stages.

My first sketches are usually very rough and ready, establishing areas of detail and space, light and dark, which gradually come into focus as the work develops. Or images can grow from a single element that expands on the page – my sketchbook is full of odd drawings where I just take a pen for a walk to see what develops.

I bet your quick sketch abilities come in useful in school visits! Do you do many? And what’s your favourite aspect of a school visit?

I’ve only ever made one school visit. It’s not something I actively go looking for, though I’d be interested in doing more. The one visit I made went off very well. I was rather nervous of dealing with children, but they were gentle with me! I’ve lectured and presented to adults and art students many times though, in various countries.

Can you talk us through an average work day?

Though in the past I always had a separate studio, nowadays I work at home. I have a dedicated studio room in my house. This has it’s advantages and disadvantages. It’s certainly convenient, yes, but getting enough exercise can be a problem when you’re in the same property all day!

I start work at 9.00 after walking my daughter to school, and usually spend an hour (sometimes two) answering emails and other clerical business before beginning work in my studio. I’m trying to cut down computer-time lately as sometimes it can eat up my morning completely. Afternoons I work until collecting daughter at 3.15, then usually squeeze in another couple of hours work before dinner.

When my wife was alive and I had a studio, I would sometimes work in the evenings, but nowadays as a single parent that’s difficult. By the time I’ve tucked in daughter I’m pretty useless for anything else except a few emails and bed myself. That’s an average day, though naturally things become intense as deadlines approach!

Can you tell us about your latest book project?

Recently completed is a picture book written by Marion Dane Bauer, The Halloween Forest, due for autumn 2012 release by Holiday House in the U.S.. I’m very excited about this book; some images are on my website.

Right now I’m finishing work on a 44-page picture book of Jack in the Beanstalk for Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan, retold in my own words. I’m also working on a 32-page picture book on Michelangelo’s statue of David, The Stone Giant for Charlesbridge (U.S.). So things are very busy!

And finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator who lives outside of the U.K./U.S., who wants to break into those markets?

I think you need to have an astute head and an intuition for tastes. Its key to hold onto the things that truly inspire you and not be distracted too much by the short-term demands of the market, however at the same time understanding that market is key to knowing how your vision and talent will fit in.

It can seem daunting to approach an overseas market, but on the other hand you have the advantage of appreciating the ‘bigger picture’. You may find it easier than local illustrators to stand back and see where your work may slot in.

Research is absolutely essential. Don’t try to emulate art that is popular in those countries, that would be like “taking coals to Newcastle” – i.e., why would a publisher employ someone overseas who’s work is just like someone on their doorstep?

You need to isolate what it is in your own unique background, your own style, that will fit in and find you a niche in those foreign markets. What is it about you that is different from the locals that nevertheless hits a nerve with those markets?

Get to the core of what works there, not through style, but through deep-seated aesthetic tastes in those markets. Isolate that and you’re on course.

Cynsational Notes

Visit John’s website, portfolio, facebook page, tweet deck and both his blogs (English & 日本語).

A Yen for Drawing: John Shelley on Illustrating Books for Japan from Picture Book Den. Peek: “Japanese children’s books are often strong on fantasy, some inhabit a fairy-tale escapism described as meruhen, from the German word ‘marchen’. Western editors are sometimes at a loss to understand these books, as, compared to UK titles, they seem to be slower-paced, ‘quiet’, or lightweight, are less driven by plot, and more about space and atmosphere.”

Mio Debnam is currently working as a writer and an editor of children’s books, having ‘retired’ from the world of journalism, where she worked as the Editor in Chief of two daily children’s newspapers for several years.
She has had short stories and articles for both adults and children published, as well as a middle grade fantasy novel, four picture books, and several educational readers. The first six in her kidsGo! series of travel guides for kids were published in 2011.

Mio started on her present career path early, editing and writing stories for school and university newspapers; getting her hands inky learning how to print the old fashioned way.

After a decade working in the financial markets in London and Hong Kong, she returned to her first
love and has been working with words ever since.

To get inspiration for
her writing, and to keep up with ‘what’s hot’, Mio has become expert at eavesdropping on her children’s conversation, as well as those she encounters at school visits and the creative writing workshops she runs. She is the Regional Advisor of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators, Hong Kong Chapter.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.