Guest blog by Yvonne Mes (writer and illustrator) www.yvonnemes.weebly.com
Sarah studied English and worked as a teacher before getting into illustration and has no formal training. She started illustrating picture books full time in 2007 and since then has had over 20 books published and has been shortlisted for over 20 awards in Australia and New Zealand.
I love writing for children and visual art but I have much to learn about illustrating for children. Sarah gave us an insight into the intellectual and practical processes of illustrating picture books.
Sarah’s style is incredibly versatile, just look at these covers of some of the books she has illustrated:
Even though Sarah has illustrated over 20 books, she told us: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” She says that, depending on her style, she might Google “How to do good oil paintings.”
Hmm, seems to me Sarah has a severe case of modesty.
As an illustrator you get a text without instructions, and there is minimal to no interaction with the writer. Her style is so incredibly diverse because she lets the stories dictate the medium and style. “Being an illustrator is like being given the soundtrack and making up the movie,” she said.
One of the participants in the workshop said that where usually you can pick an illustrator by style when reading a picture book with Sarah’s books she would only realise much later that a story she had enjoyed was illustrated by her.
Sarah showed us several examples of texts she has worked on and how she goes through the process of extracting meaning, then brainstorming symbols, shapes, lines and colours. She reads the text many times and keeps brainstorming, coming up and dismissing ideas until she has what she says is her “AHA! Moment” and everything falls into place.
This was partly a hands-on workshop and we did an exercise on composition, deciphering a piece of text and brainstorming ideas. I already had come across her mastery of composition when I read her picture book The Fierce Little Woman and the Wicked Pirate by Joy Cowley when I was awestruck by the composition of her opening page.
If you have a look at Sarah’s books, you will find that there are no blank endpapers. She considers endpapers part of the visual narrative and you will find clues to the characters and their story even when the story text has finished.
You will also be able to spot many sub-narratives that compliment the text in her books. Just have a closer look at her latest book Sounds Spooky (written by Christopher Cheng) and take particular note of the bear and the newspaper article and the insight they give into the characters.
When illustrating stories for emerging readers, the illustrator is the, “un-coder” and assists the reader in interpreting the text.
Sarah does a lot of research into developing her characters. From finding real life models such as dogs and friends of her children to using visual reference and using stick figures to work out shape. Her children often find her at work making funny faces while mimicking the facial expression of the character she is drawing.
We finished with another exercise in interpreting and coming up with a concept on how to illustrate a text, beyond looking at the obvious. The range of different concepts the group had for this particular text shows what a huge influence the illustrator has on the story.
I walked away from this session inspired and in awe of illustrators and Sarah in particular.
You can find out more about Sarah here