Emma Chichester Clark is the illustrator of the beautiful middle-grade chapter book, Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz. Its 250+ full-color images showcase Chichester Clark’s signature style.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! In Toto, you collaborate once again with author, Michael Morpurgo. How does illustrating well-known stories differ from working on new fiction? Does having a dog as the narrator change your focus when you work on the art?
EMMA CHICHESTER CLARK: In fact, it’s my sixth collaboration with Michael. We have also done versions of Pinocchio, Aesop’s Fables, Hansel and Gretel, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and a Christmas story called The Best of Times. Almost all of them were about well-known characters and I had to find my own ideas about that. This is a challenge because the images we all already know so well are imprinted in our heads. With each character, I have to draw and redraw them, over and over again, until I find someone that belongs to me but who is, at the same time, true to the character I’m representing. [In Toto], having a dog as the narrator was the most fun of all because I adore dogs. I have one, Plum, who is not unlike Toto in appearance and I spend a lot of my time trying to interpret what is going on in her doggy brain.
CVZ: You are also an author. Please give us some insight into your process, both as an illustrator and an author-illustrator.
ECC: Plenty of Love to Go Around is about my dog, Plum. It is part of a series dealing with the subject of love. I have drawn Plum a thousand times; it began as a blog that was her diary, recording things that happened day to day—the words were hers, the pictures mine. This became a book called Plumdog, published as a graphic novel and it was the publisher’s idea to make a series of picture books for children. These books are close to my heart because of being about my dog and that seems to make a difference to the process: it comes more easily. I spend a long, long time trying to work out a beginning, middle, and ending to a story and a reason for it—i.e., a lesson to be learnt, and then paring down the words so that they are doing one job and the pictures are doing another. It is like trying to work out a puzzle—getting each element to fit without forcing anything and without overlap. Working out a story plan is the most difficult part and takes the longest. After that come pencil roughs—double-page spreads about the size of a smartphone. At this stage I would show the publisher and, if they like them, I blow these up on a photocopier and redraw them to the correct size. I then draw them again for the artwork on a lightbox. Then comes color . . .
Working on someone else’s text is different and perhaps more difficult because the author will have ideas of their own and it’s important that they should be happy with the finished result. It can be nerve-racking. It is vital to read the text extremely carefully and keep an open mind.
CVZ: As an author and an illustrator, how do you decide whether to write the text, create the images, or do both?
ECC: Usually a creature presents itself and I can’t stop thinking about them and have to draw them to find out who they are. Then I will wonder what they are doing, where they live, what they want to say, and I’ll have them hanging about in my head for months while I’m working on something else. Now and then, they pop up and remind me that they are there. Then I feel a kind of yearning and long to do something about them and the only way I know how is by making stories with pictures.
Occasionally, it happens the other way around; a phrase will come into my head—often just as I’m waking up in the morning—and I’ll write it down and wonder where it’s going next.
But the decision of whether to write the text or create the images is usually up to the publisher. Nothing is more exciting than being allowed to do both. However, if a publisher asks me to illustrate a text by someone else, I’m always delighted and intrigued.
CVZ: How long does a book like Toto take to illustrate?
ECC: Toto was done in different stages. It took a couple of months to do the rough drawings and then another two to do the artwork. It had a tight deadline, so I was working day and night—I quite like doing that (occasionally!). I like to be completely immersed in a project with no interruptions. I become a hermit in my shed and only go out to walk the dog.
With Toto, the characters were all so well-known, obviously, and were all so easy to love (apart from the witch and one or two others). The hardest to reimagine were the scarecrow and the witch because they come in a set format—with particular characteristics: pointy hat, pointy nose, warts, straw hair, etc. They have to have the uniform. I spent longest on them, pushing and pulling them around until they felt different and I could claim them as mine. They had to feel as though they were done in my handwriting—if they look as though they belong to someone else I feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t have to be much more than tweaking sometimes. It just has to feel right.
Once I’ve found the characters I will read and re-read the text and choose the parts that I want to illustrate. I will usually try to illustrate bits that haven’t been illustrated before by other people, if it’s a well-known story. I believe that an illustration should reflect whatever is going on in the text but not simply repeat it. It has a separate job, bringing another element to the story. The text and illustrations work together in partnership, doing different things. So, if the text describes a monster jumping out of a cupboard, you might draw the moment before, when the doors are still closed, and the hero is about to have this horrible experience, and let the reader see the next moment through the narrative. Or, you might depict the moment after the explosion—the reaction. It’s all about timing and choosing what to show and what to leave to the reader to imagine—just like film or theatre.
I had used collage as part of the artwork in Pinocchio and decided to do the same in Toto. It seems to add a dimension. I collect patterns and colours all the time and I photocopy them—enlarging and reducing where necessary. Then I cut them up and stick them on the artwork; I don’t use Photoshop or any other program. It is a hands-on experience for me! The Tin Man’s barrel chest and forearms are made from a photograph of a pebble mosaic from a grotto at a stately home in England!
CVZ: Where do you find your ideas?
ECC: I wish I knew, . . . then I’d go and get some more! Sometimes I feel as though I don’t have any at all. Sometimes they come from just sitting down and drawing. But mostly they come when you are not expecting them (when you are doing something boring like washing up, and you’re staring out of the window); somebody, maybe a complaining poodle, drifts by in your empty brain and makes a remark that stops you in your tracks, and you have go and write it down. One thing I know is that if I try to have an idea, I can’t, and it makes me feel as if I’ll never ever have one again. They just pop up, I think. But sometimes things I see on Instagram, or sometimes other people’s books are inspiring, and I go back to look at the old masters all the time: Piero della Francesca, Tiepolo, Matisse, Goya, and illustrators such as Bemelmans, André Francois, William Steig, and Charles Addams.
I spend most of the day in my shed with my dog, Plum. We listen to the radio. I like to work for two or three hours, then walk with Plum along the river (that is another good place for having ideas), then more work, and another walk. If it weren’t for Plum I would probably never stop but she begins to nag me if I don’t.
CVZ: What advice do you have for illustrators who are just beginning their career?
ECC: Be brave and be who you are. It’s the only thing you can do that nobody else can. Find your very own style—your voice, your handwriting. It’s vital. There are so many thousands of illustrators out there and an awful lot of them look the same. Everyone takes this or that from others—it’s all part of learning who we are—but just making up a mishmash of other people’s styles isn’t enough or satisfying. Nothing is ever quite satisfying unless it is really truly honest and from the heart—and books that are made with those elements are easy to spot. They are the ones that become best sellers.
The other piece of advice I have and which was given to me is to read a lot. It helps your imagination to grow. Also, obviously, to draw all the time. It’s the same as practicing the piano. It makes you get better at it!
CVZ: What are you working on now?
ECC: I am currently working on a book of my own about a very nasty little girl called Imelda. She has a fluffy rabbit who has to be rescued from her. It has a sort-of happy ending. After that, I’ll be starting the third picture book in the Plumdog series. Help! I wonder what it will be . . .
I’ve been working as an illustrator since 1983 and have illustrated over 80 books, both as author/illustrator and illustrating for other authors.
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Images provided by Emma Chichester Clark and HarperCollins