Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Martin Brown

Martin BrownMartin Brown is probably best known for his illustrations of the best-selling Horrible Histories series. He was born and brought up in Australia before moving to London. He eventually landed a job with Hippo books to illustrate Peter Corey's book, Coping With Parents. That started a long and happy relationship with Scholastic and the rest, as they say, is (horrible) history!

What stages (technical) do you go through when creating illustrations?

Whatever kind of illustration is needed stage one is always a careful reading of the text. After that, because I was teamed with Terry Deary as a cartoonist to bring some humour to the Horrible Histories, stage two is generally the ideas phase. Either coming up with gags to suit the text or interpreting Terry's instructions for best comic or dramatic effect. Stage three is design. Even before you put pen to paper you must decide how to use the space provided - angles, scale, aspect, style, pace etc are all considerations in the process. Next come the roughs. Drawing at last. This is the creative part. Each one follows directly the idea and design for the drawing in question. In other words it's; idea, design then rough. One picture at a time. Many is the time when I've had a flash of inspiration and left it till later when I was due to do the roughs only to find the idea gone. When all the roughs are complete they are sent to the publishers for comment who then forward them to Terry. With any tweaks required tweaked I redraw each picture from the rough in pencil before finally going over it in ink to produce the finished line. A careful rub with an eraser to remove the pencil, a little more ink for tone or texture and the 'finished artwork' is done. Or nearly... These days as we are doing more full colour books so the final, final stage is adding colour. Either I do it with ink and water-colour or the line-work is scanned and sent to a colourist who adds the colour on computer.

How closely do you liaise with the writer and presumably you need to see the written text at an early stage? Do you ever disagree?
Terry is a very generous writer. I can change or even cut any suggestion that I may have a different angle on. So he pretty much just lets me get on with it. We trust each others' strengths so disagreements are extremely rare.

Is the series editor consulted at different stages in the work towards completion of the book?
Hopefully, all the comments will have been made at the rough stage when making changes is easier. The content, style and look of the book are hard to alter once we are in the final artwork stage.

Who chooses the illustration for the cover jacket and what factors help decide the choice?
It begins with a conversation between me and the publishers' designer. We can narrow down the sort of thing we think will look right. Then I do roughs for the 'cover committee' to look at. With their comments I can fine tune it to give them a better, perhaps colour rough for the decision to go to finished artwork. This whole process is complicated by the desire, these days, to show prospective covers to the major bookseller(s). The principal factors in cover design are a mystery - but aesthetics, drama, humour and perhaps, legibility are pretty high up on my list.

What kinds of materials do you work with?

Layout paper and technical pencil for the roughs, good cartridge paper, pencil and fine-liner (Edding 1800) for the line and Dr Martin's concentrated water colour with a dash of coloured pencil for the colour.

Do you use the computer to generate some illustrations? If not,  do you think there is a role for digital pictures?
As seen above, I don't use the computer to illustrate but they are used more and more with Horrible Histories. I do use my mac for research, picture references and sending and receiving scanned artwork - especially roughs.

What kind of research do you carry out for historical pictures?

Once upon a time I would strip the local libraries' shelves of the subject of the next book - I suspect, much to the annoyance of the poor school-kids trying to do their history projects. These days the all powerful Googlemonster gets me just about everything I need. The image search is particularly useful. I can have a dozen different pictures of my chosen subject on scene in a matter of moments.

From where do you get your inspiration for facial expression, attitude and gesture?

TV. A short answer but a true one. Growing up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons was a fine education. But other cartoons have been massively empowering as well. The cartoon strips by Johnny Hart and Bill Waterson, the off the wall humour of B Kliban and the editorial drawings by Pat Oliphant and Jeff MacNelly are particularly wonderful.

According to Martin Salisbury who runs the Cambridge MA course on children's book illustration, most of his students want to illustrate fiction. What are the attractions of picturing non-fiction for you and what advice would you give young would be illustrators of non-fiction books?

Non-fiction has the best stories. When people say "you couldn't make it up" they're right. You can't. The world that's past and the world around us now are the most amazing places; more exciting, more scary, more fantastic, more dark and more funny than anything made up. As for illustrating those stories, it's probably best to mix in some boring fiction work as well because non-fiction doesn't tend to pay as well.

Are there some things, for example in The Horrible Histories books, that you would hesitate to picture for young readers?

It's surprising what you can get away with in black and white. When we started doing colour it all began to look a lot more gory. The blood became red - and there seemed to be a lot of it. However, although history can be very horrible indeed, we must be very careful about whitewashing it. Having said that, for the littlest reader I might stay clear of the burnings (and stick to monotone).

What sort of feedback do you get from young readers about your pictures? Do  parents and teachers comment too?
The feedback we get is all usually very positive. Of course, it is somewhat self selected. The kind of people you meet are the ones who have come along to see you at this event or that signing. And they tend to be fans in the first place. If there is any negative comment it's the publishers who are most likely to get it and they are very good at filtering out the ranters and finger wavers. In my experience, parents love the fact that their kids are reading so much and wish they had something similar when they ere young. Teachers are our biggest fans of all.

I imagine the Horrible Histories are books that you either love or loathe- do you agree?

Loathe? Loathe? I couldn't possibly comment. (But I sure hope so. If not we aren't being edgy enough.)

Do you have a favourite illustrated or a favourite illustrated book? Please tell us why you liked it.
There are way, way too many - but here are three to be getting on with; Leon and the Place Between by Angela McAllister, illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith; The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. They are all very different but the illustration draws you in - sometimes intricate, sometimes intriguing, sometimes simply beautiful.



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