Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Shoo Rayner

Photograph of Shoo RaynerShoo Rayner battled dyslexia on his own to become a leading, international children’s author and illustrator.  He is highly committed to the cause of struggling and newly-independent readers, writing series books that they devour.
Shoo believes that drawing is just as important as writing and loves to encourage children, and adults too, to pick up a pencil and draw. His award-winning YouTube Drawing Videos are encouraging thousands to have a go at drawing both at home and in classrooms worldwide.

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

There’s a lot of doodling and noodling in sketchbooks, developing the characters until I’m happy I can draw them so they look like the same people each time I draw them and then I do a lot more in sketchbooks for background material. At the moment, I’m planning out a Roman series, so I’m looking at lots of Roman stuff and sketching ideas and getting used to drawing columns and pan tiles!

When the book is written and laid out to the page, I know what spaces I have. I’l have imagined the illustrations while writing. I may well have not written some things because I know they will be in the illustrations. I do very quick pencil sketches of how I think the drawing will be.

When these are approved, I place a the sketch on a light box with my finished artwork paper on top. Then I use the sketches underneath as a guide to the finished illustrations that I draw in ink on top.

Which comes first – the writing or the pictures?

Always the idea first, I know exactly what the idea is about and then I need to sketch the characters before I can write about them. I draw as I plan and gather notes and ideas, It’s a great mess of stuff that fills up sketchbooks. I always know what the characters are going to look like before I start writing. Then comes the plan - then comes the writing. (Then lots and lots of re-writing and editing!)

Who chooses the illustration for the cover jacket and what factors help decide the choice?

It's a team effort. I'll often throw an idea into the ring to get things started and something evolves over discussions. Often the covers are finished before I even write the books!

What kinds of materials do you work with?

I have fallen in love with the Rotring Tikky Graphic pen. It's disposable, but it the ink is waterproof so you can watercolour over the top. I will also use Prismacolor or Karismacolor greys for a softer look that ink. This too works well with watercolour. I’ll often use watercolour pencils on top of watercolour pictures just for fine detail.

Do you use the computer to generate some illustrations? If not, do you think there is a role for digital pictures?

I did My Ricky Rocket, Monster Boy, Viking Vik and the Just So series all on the computer. I used Adobe Flash, which is really an animation program. Flash is a Vector drawing program. I liked it because I could use a tablet and pen to draw with, which made it feel more normal than if I’d used Adobe Illustrator, (which I just can’t get my head around.) Illustrator is a mouse type of program.

I use Photoshop for tidying up illustrations, but I wouldn’t use it to paint in.

I find digital painting really unsatisfying. The screen makes everything look the same. Digital artwork is very slick, but there’s something missing. It’s like diet coke or megablocks. They look similar but they’re not the real thing! The computer takes twice as long and makes your work look like everyone else's. I've given up on computer artwork - I can spot the filters and effects people use a mile off. Computers have a way of homogenising everything.

What kind of research do you carry out?

Lots! I read books, watch videos, go to museums and anywhere that will give me inspiration.

My Latest book, Dragon Gold, Firefly Press - May 14, features a very particular place in North Wales. I know I’ve been past it, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was able to use google maps and satellite images and quite a few YouTube videos of the place to build up such a picture that I felt I didn’t need to go - I could just carry on writing. I will go soon!

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

The mirror mostly! If ever I’m stuck I pose in front of the mirror in my studio or the bigger mirror in my bathroom.

Otherwise, I take my sketchbook with me and draw people at parties and events and even while I’m waiting for my wife to try on a dress in a shop!

What are your favourite subjects for illustration?

Cats mostly. I used to hate drawing people, but I think I've got over that now. I probably draw people more than anything else now.

Did you always want to be an illustrator?

No. I wanted to be age 8 a Vet 13 a Psychologist 14 a Fashion Designer 16 a Pop Star 24 an illustrator.

My best friend’s dad, when I was 13, was an illustrator for women’s magazines. He was so good, I never considered it and achievable job. I did sciences to A level. Got 4% in Maths and was told to doodle in the art department and never come back to the Maths department. I had a great Art teacher who got me going. So I didn’t really start drawing and painting till I was 18. Then I worked in printing, which gave me a great technical background.

I eventually went to art college when I was about 23. I was lucky to be taught by Colin McNaughton, who introduced me to the world of children’s book illustration. Finally all my skills and interests came together in one art form.

Are there some things that you would hesitate to picture for young readers?

Yes, guns and violence - drugs and alcohol too. Now I’m amazed how Captain Haddock in the Tintin books is permanently drunk. It was funny to me as a kid, but now he makes me feel quite uncomfortable. You can do comedy horror for little ones and do quite gruesome pictures, but without the jokes, they would have a different meaning. Context is everything.

What sort of feedback do you get from young readers about your pictures? Do parents and teachers comment too?

I get emails and envelopes with drawings! I like it best when they say I made them laugh. I love it too when parents tell me that the first time their child sat down and read a book was one of mine and they had to go and read the rest of the series. (Maybe my best readers are a bit OCD - know your market :)

I always do drawing with children when I visit schools, which is quite a lot. They love doing my drawings, but then I encourage them to add more and build a story. I encourage teachers and parent to join in and they love it. One teacher burst into tears. She had been told during teacher training college never to try drawing because she was so bad. She was actually quite good. I think it's shocking how little drawing goes on in schools, especially with the younger years. Young children love drawing. It builds hand eye coordination and the drawings are their first attempts at writing. Words, after all are just formalised drawings.

Do you have a favourite illustrator or a favourite illustrated book? Please tell us why you liked it.

Where The Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak. It’s the perfect picture book and the book that inspired me to get started.

It’s technically perfect. The illustrations grow as fantasy takes over and then they gently return you to normality at the end. The text is perfect too - even the silent pages in the middle that are free for you to extemporise, like a piece of Baroque music - Sendak’s favourite, I’ve just realised.

It will remain for ever, on the shelf, side by side with Shakespeare and the other greats.

What advice would you give to children who would like to illustrate books?

Draw every day. Forget computers. Have a sketchbook with you at all times and just draw, draw,draw.

There is a barrier around the age of 11, when children begin to compare themselves with great artists and start telling themselves they are no good.

If they can work through that and just keep drawing and painting and making things for the sake of it, then they will be years ahead of where I was whenI started learning to draw at 18. A personal, recognisable style is the one thing that is really prized in illustration.

Also, you might think twice about doing art GCSE and A level. These have become academic subjects full of essay writing that will probably put you off art forever. Just draw! Learn the skills, the ideas will come later.

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