I reviewed Benji’s picture book, STORM WHALE, back in November and it had a very large number of page views, so I thought that my readers would appreciate an interview with him. We have had very few Brits in this series and that really needs to be rectified!
This photo looks like it’s been taken on a bracing British summer day!
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[BD] Well I do both so I have to wear different hats. I also have various illustration approaches and tones that I work in for different projects so that requires some hat wearing too. For instance I might be working on Bizzy Bear novelty books for Nosy Crow(Candlewick) and they are very bright chunky novelty books with lots of colour and smily, waving characters. But then I will have a more emotionally led text like the books I do with Simon & Schuster in the UK, which I don’t think is so much a style change as a change of approach and tonally its very different. I think style should be a result of the way you work, not really something you force upon it.
I think as an illustrator who also writes, the pictures come first, in my head. I will then put them down as text or sketches, depending on where I am at the time. If I’m awake at night and I have an idea for something that I don’t want to forget then I’ll make some notes. But sometimes ideas arrive in my sketchbook while aimlessly drawing something else and I’ll think, “hmm that could be interesting..” so then it might lead to a bigger idea, or at least contribute to something else I’ve already been pondering. All these things can come together to form a story. It all contributes to the end work no matter where it started.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[BD] I was born and grew up in a small city in the UK, called Peterborough. I studied at University in Hull, which is ‘up north’ and then, after some pinging back and forth, finally went south to London for work as an animation director in my mid twenties. I’ve been here for 10 years now. London is still such a rich place for creativity and culture its a very effective place to live and work as an illustrator.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[BD] Well I drew from a very young age and all through childhood, it was always my ‘thing’ at school. I suppose I identified myself through drawing, its always been the main part of who I am and what I do, over and above anything else. I also used to do a lot of model making, little clay models and things. My grandad was a headteacher, and he had an interest in art and drawing, which I think influenced me a lot. We used to write to each other (he lived quite far away in the south-west of England) and i’d send him letters and drawings. Also in my teens I would visit my aunt in rural Essex, she used to run her local art club (and still does), so I would go in the summer and visit and paint.
I studied a year art foundation ( a generalist art course before specialising at university level) then the studied a BA in Animation. But I was always mixed still on whether I should go into animation or illustration and I’ve ended up doing and combining both.
[JM] Could you share a little of your process with us?
[BD] I have a plan in place, but then I elaborate and refine things, add detail. Lighting also affects some of the compositional choices and additions. Other things stay exactly the same. The following examples are taken from THE STORM WHALE.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[BD] I work in pencil & ink for rough work then I scan and work up in digital, via Photoshop and a wacom tablet. All final artwork that I supply to publishers is 100% digital. I’ll sometimes employ a little texture using scanned paint or ink, overlaid into the work, just to improve the image by giving it a bite or edge, something tactile. Every now and then I’ll create a piece entirely on paper with real pens and paint, perhaps for a charity auction piece, gift or similar. I love real materials but also the flexibility that digital gives my work is too advantageous to resist when your working to a deadline.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[BD] Not that I can think specifically… although I do love the sea, and nature generally always forms a huge inspiration.
[JM] European picture book audiences are often quite different to US ones. Do you create with a specific audience in mind? And why was the cover of STORM WHALE different in the USA to the UK?
I make the artwork based on the brief, the sound and style of the text, the tone it delivers. If that is written by someone in the US and/or for a US publisher then I think I can’t see past that fact, and of the market its for, so it inevitably influences the work – quite strongly I think, but in many ways sub-consciously. I’m happy to work like that. I grew up with a diet of both american and british cartoons, films and books, so have been influenced by both.
Its perhaps a mid-atlantic ‘accent’, if there is one in my work, but then thats probably true of many UK illustrators who have grown up in my generation with those same set of influences.
It’s interesting to see how well received The Storm Whale has been in the US because I would say its the most european looking of my books, but then the setting and the houses give it a non-specific location, which has been interpreted as a bit Nantucket/east coast, so I guess it enables the lots of audiences to access it more readily.
The cover was changed because the US publishers had feedback from some book retailers over a concern that the whale might be seen as deceased! It hasn’t been a problem in the UK, in fact the US is the only co-ed to have seen the cover change necessary, and I think we have about 18 or so translations now. I love what Henry Holt did with it though, I like the choice and using the interior artwork and some alternate art under the jacket.
[JM] What languages and/or countries have your books been co-editioned in?
[BD] OK … Japan, Thailand, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Australia, USA, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Portugal, Netherlands, Greece, South Korea.. I’m sure I’ve missed a couple.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
Five Fun Ones to Finish
[JM] What’s your favorite park in the world?
[BD] I like parks but really I would prefer to be somewhere wild and rambling where nature is free to do its thing!
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[BD] I think it would be nice to have a dog sitting by my desk in the studio. I don’t have a pet but this guy keeps sleeping on our doorstep and we gave him a bed and named him PW so he’s half adopted now..
[JM] Oh, I am so glad PW has you looking out for him, maybe he’ll come inside one day! Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[BD] Fear of heights!
[JM] Me too! One word to describe yourself.
[BD] Cautious. (See above)
[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[BD] A good mug of tea. And peanut butter on toast.
my online links:
Benji, thank you so much for sharing with us today. I love all these birds and this island scene and I sure hope that GRANDDAD’S ISLAND is released soon in the USA.