The Illustrator's process

Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by the stories themselves.
I love thinking about my childhood in the ’70s – they are good memories. I was part of a big family (eight siblings, grandpa and my parents) and there were always extras! We had motorbikes, pet animals, a huge, home-made, in-ground swimming pool and there was always lots of laughter, storytelling and antics.

How does it feel doing the illustrations – do you go back into the event? Do you feel nostalgic? Does it get you thinking about the people you’re illustrating?
It’s like therapy. I’m going back into my past reliving it - almost recreating it through the pictures. The good parts come out… I realise how valuable experiences were. It’s almost like going into a movie, into another world. The people?… Yes I am thinking about the characters but they are larger than life. I’m recreating them as I draw them, almost like comic characters.

How do you do your illustrations?
I do a pencil sketch carefully first and then again freehand, letting go of the little details. Sometimes I don’t even look at the original. I go pencil, then black pen, then water colour. Before painting I photocopy the black pen sketch in case I do something wrong. It makes me more confident and I can paint more freely.

Did you find yourself remembering the colour, shape, detail?
I have been amazed how many details I remember about my childhood. But sometimes I have a complete blank. So I Google and look for something of that era.

What memories/images did you draw on for Old Truck
I remembered Old Truck sitting in the shed for years, covered in cobwebs, dirt, bird poop and birds’ nests – looking very neglected. I used to pretend to drive him in the shed when I was playing – I could barely reach the brake and the clutch.

What were some of the technical difficulties illustrating Old Truck?
I wanted to draw Old Truck as he was. One of my difficulties was drawing him from different angles.  For example with the detail at the back of the truck - do you see the mudguards?  I wanted to grab a camera and go and take photos of it. Instead we got John to send some photos of the truck from different angles.

Painting Old Truck in the shed I thought, ‘How do I make dirt and dust? I know – I’ll just flick the paintbrush! It was a bit scary – I thought I better not do too much of this!’

How important is it to you to have the illustrations accurate?
Quite important! I realised as I got further into the process that I needed to pay more attention to accuracy. I don’t want the Old Truck’s engine to look like something from Star Wars! The problem was I didn’t know much about engines. So I watched the video of old Truck (from Cue TV) and stalled it and copied the engine from that.

Was it difficult having to redraw some illustrations for the second edition?
It was a difficult to get motivated to re-draw some of the illustrations for The New Old Truck, as I had already started on the next book: The Eel Hunt. However once I created a schedule for myself and began drawing the new illustrations, it was fine.

How satisfying was it to revise the book?
It was hard work but very satisfying and totally worthwhile. Now we know how hard it is to get everything right! We have realised the book could go to another level beyond where we thought it could. We raised our own bar!

What lessons have you learnt for future books?
When we think you’ve finished maybe we haven’t! It’s time to think about what we could improve further! I’m now spending a lot more time getting the original sketches more precise and thought through. I am also using watercolour pens to get the colours consistent. When I was mixing paints I found it difficult to get colour consistent, especially with the revised picture. We discovered the graphic designer could help with this but there is a cost!

What’s your best tip for overcoming procrastination?
Illustrating a picture book is quite a process. It includes dividing up the story into different pages, story booking the illustrations in draft form, carefully illustrating each page in pen and painting each page to a high quality. If I am clear about which stage I’m in, then it is easier for me to just sit down and begin working. Usually that gets me into it.

When and where do you illustrate?
Up to now I have been working on a table in my bedroom. This year three of my children left home so I now have a sunroom to work in. Yeah! I work full time as a teacher at Waitetuna School so I use my school holidays to illustrate.

Do you have a fixed illustrating schedule, or do you prefer to go with the flow?
As I have limited time (the holidays) in which to work, I need to be fairly scheduled. I give myself a few days to recover from the teaching term and then I get into the planning, drawing and painting. I usually start in the late morning (sleeping in is a wonderful luxury) and work through to late afternoon or evening.

Before you start to illustrate do you have any specific rituals or practices?
Only that my environment is clean and organised (and my working table!!) Background music can help me get “in the zone”.

Have you always been good at drawing?
Yes, I was top at art in Form IV. And I regretted not doing it in Form V. But in those days if you were bright you didn’t do art! It was silly really. But the world has changed so much.

Any surprises?
It has really excited me to see my own style developing…

What ages of kids are you pitching your illustrations to?
I’m generally aiming for primary school age.

Did you ever dream you’d end up being an illustrator of children’s books?
I dreamed this most of my adult life. I thought, ‘I would love to do this one day.’ But I imagined I would be doing the writing as well and it was too big. I never thought of someone else doing the writing. It’s worked out really well (with Jennifer writing)” Yes it’s been a journey. But I’ve been really surprised how teaching has set me up for this. It must be all those years of reading to children and teaching language. I know what I should be drawing. Inside of me I know what a picture should look like.  

Further interviews with Margery: Click on the image for a readable version

Raglan Chronicle,
July 2014