The award-winning and prolific author and illustrator Jane Ray writes our November blog, about the joy of illustrating and rediscovering old techniques. Jane's latest book, The Emperor's Nightingale and Other Feathery Tales, is out now.
I’ve been making picture books for a very long time now. I started at the age of 5, with the epic adventures of Mr Teddy, each story lavishly illustrated in stubby wax crayon. I still remember the excitement of creating those little books. I think the picture book is one of the most perfect art forms we have. I love the variety of scale possible – from panoramic landscapes, dark woods and vast cities, to quiet moments of family life, and subtle detail of expression and feeling. I love my job and each new book excites me with its possibilities.
However, because I have been doing it for such a long time, it can sometimes feel that I am approaching every project in the same way and I began to feel the need to try something new. It is important to keep work fresh, and although I have no intention of turning my back on my established way of working, it's good to shake things up a bit every now and then.
I've looked at how I might use digital techniques in my work but though I admire many of the ways in which the computer can be used, it’s not right for me. Call me old-fashioned but I like the swish of the brush in the water and the point of a newly sharpened pencil.
Ironically, in order to create something new, I found myself looking backwards, to a technique I used when I was still at school – Scraperboard. Scraperboard itself is stiff card with a layer of white china clay topped with a layer of India ink. Using a stylus you scratch through the black ink to reveal the white china clay layer beneath. The result has something of a wood engraving about it, and once you have overcome the slight ‘nails on a blackboard’ sensation of scratching through the ink, it is an immensely satisfying technique. Because you work from black into white, you are revealing light as you make an image, rather than adding shadow. It is wonderful for night scenes, for moonlight and mystery, which in turn opens up whole new areas of subject matter – the ghostly, the sinister and forbidding.
At around the same time that I rediscovered Scraperboard, I met David Bennett, publisher and creative director at Boxer Books. A truly independent and experienced publisher, David has a huge respect for authors and illustrators. He has a vision of what each book could be, the confidence to take time over its development and the patience to nurture it through to completion. It is inspiring for an illustrator to work with someone who has such commitment to their ideas.
After much discussion about what sort of book I wanted to make, I began collecting and re-telling folk tales, legends, myths and poetry around the themes of birds, fish, and animals, all to be illustrated with scraperboard illustrations. This body of work meandered and morphed and ‘shape-changed’ numerous times, until we felt we had got it right.
It has come to fruition as a series of four books, beginning with The Emperor's Nightingale and Other Feathery Tales which was published in September. Four books is a big commitment for both illustrator and publisher, (and it’s an awful lot of ‘scraping’) but holding this first book in my hands, beautifully designed with its rich purple cover, I truly feel that the project has had the rejuvenating effect I was hoping for.
Variety really is the spice of life!
Jane's latest book, The Emperor's Nightingale and Other Feathery Tales, is out now.