The thing about conversations is, you never know which way they will go. So a conversation between my two favourite contemporary author/ illustrators (who had never met before) filled me with immense excitement and anticipation. The Comica Event organised by Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury at the St. Alban’s Centre was the first event in over five years to drag me back into London from the cosy safety of Home and Not London.
Having lugged my precious books around London all day, I was determined to have the chance to get them signed. How relieved was I to see that most others attending had the same idea. There was a real buzz in the air as Paul introduced the two guests for the evening.
As Quentin Blake began to about his drawings and paintings, it was clear to see Shaun’s admiration and reverence towards him. “I have an advantage, I grew up with your work,” Shaun acknowledged, probably as most of the rest of us had too.
Quentin Blake’s drawings to me as a child were synonymous with Roald Dahl. All of us – all over the world- who have read those quirky, dark and hilarious stories are sharing the same cultural references. Quentin Blake brought The Twits,Charlie, Matilda, the BFG et al to life for us as early readers grappling with reading “a proper book”.
Blake’s drawings for me (as a non-artist) always give characters such energy and vivacity. Quentin explained how he will repeatedly redraw the characters (not tracing), until it is right for him, and revealed that the sense of impulsive immediacy is a kind of “acting”. He said, “I’ve always used the line…but hope it’s better now.”
Shaun questioned to what extent Quentin liked to liaise and confer with the author when illustrating, and of course he admitted not a lot! He touched on his relationship with Dahl, saying how Roald would say things to wind him up before embarking on new illustrations,such as,”this will give you trouble”. Quentin recalled how he loved the changes of mood within a Dahl story. He has recently reworked his Dahl illustrations in watercolour for a new series of colourful, larger size books.
Shaun Tan recalled his early days when he was working too often on dark and gloomy subject matters and, at the risk of being pigeon-holed in terms of commissions, began wishing he could do some funny stuff. Quentin said that he had the opposite problem!
Quentin’s techniques are very different to Shaun’s: Quentin prefers white paper with no background or borders; whereas Shaun prefers painting on a dark background and building layers up. In Sean’s words “the sedimentary rock” approach.
As Quentin’s illustrations connect so well with children, people often assume that he loves children, or refers to emotions or memories from his own childhood. As he told an anecdote about a letter he had once received, he made the very interesting point that you can identify with a person (or indeed animal or other character) even though you don’t really know them, or have much experience of them as such.
Recently Quentin has been producing works for hospitals and clinics, and has identified with people with mental health issues, eating disorders, and new parents in mother-and baby-units. He said he loves to draw people flying in the air, or underwater “because you don’t have to worry about gravity and all that kind of thing”. At the age of 80 it seems Quentin is as active as ever on the work front.
Shaun delighted the audience with a sneak preview of his new book which is still work in progress, with no title as yet. But we now know it portrays the relationship between two young brothers.
Shaun describes learning to draw as “building a vocabulary of shapes”. He said that there were 2 types of illustration: the golf swing (where you practise, and practise and practise), and the “sedimentary rock” approach. He revealed how he “likes to mess up the paper…it breaks up the surface tension of the blank page”. He confessed that he keeps envelopes from strange far away places to use for his collages. I get the impression Shaun might well be a bit of a hoarder!
For Shaun his drawings start with emotions, and his initial jottings may evolve into potential characters, maybe with a connected word. He said, “I can’t intellectualise my work until I’ve finished;it’s ALL emotional.” He explained that he feels whether something is right or not, rather than if it makes sense. He said, “the drawing is the thing,it’s not a representation of a thing”. He leaves the intellectualising and analysis to later. He admitted, “I don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve done it.”
Shaun said he thought about doing The Arrival as a series of photos, but dislikes pictures being too perfect (even to the point of taking sandpaper to some paintings he deemed too polished!)
He compared The Arrival with Quentin Blake’s Clown, in terms of the wordless text. He made the point that words have a set pace, and move the story along at a certain speed. Whereas with pictures the eye lingers, and may even reorder the images. The text is all in the reader’s own words and time frame. He felt adding words to The Arrival would have been “throwing pebbles in a still pool” and wanted to avoid intellectual ripples.
He revealed that The Arrival is more about the emotions of transition that we all experience in our journey through life, rather than being a book about migration. Quentin Blake praised Shaun’s work, saying, “your drawing has an authenticity-it makes you believe it”.
When Shaun showed a series of cartoons to reflect a typical day in his life as a writer, Quentin joked, “I admire that you use a realistic style, but say anything you want to.” He also said to Shaun, “you make your ideas convincing with your drawing”.
During the conversation Quentin Blake said, “It’s an occupational hazard to want to do what others do”. Shaun Tan admitted to angst about artistic failure. How amazed I was though, as I watched the pair rapidly produce cartoons in front of our eyes! I
However, I expect for those of us in the audience we all felt humble and privileged to be able to listen to two such immensely talented and committed professionals and see their work old and new. If only we could have the tiniest little fragment of their talent too!