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24th February 2014

Interview with World Book Day Illustrator Alex T Smith: Artists and Illustrators Magazine

Alex T Smith at his drawing table © Mark Radford

Alex T Smith at work in the studio helped by Coco the dog © Mark Radford

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World Book Day Illustrator, Alex T Smith has been asked to contribute to Artists and Illustrators Magazine in an in depth interview about his influences, inspirations and working methods and to celebrate the launch of Alex’s new book Hector and the Big Bad Knight, published by Scholastic this spring. Thanks to David Sanger for his help setting this up.

What’s your first memory of art?

My first memory of art is actually my first ever memory. It’s of sitting on my mum’s lap at the dining table when I was about two years old drawing. It was a very wobbly circle with sticks coming out of it. I knew it was a teddy bear I was drawing and I was very pleased with it!

Were your family artistic at all?

I’d say more ‘creative’. My great grandmother had been a milliner, and my grandmother Alice was very good with a needle and thread, and used to create beautiful tapestries. My grandfather Sid and both of my parents were teachers, but Sid was also a writer, and my mum can sew and my dad plays the guitar.

I think what my family really is, is very bookish. I grew up surrounded by books and stories, as well as in an environment where art and drawing was seen as an important subject and not just a hobby.

What was your big breakthrough?

I was very lucky to be awarded Highly Commended in the Macmillan Prize for Children’s Picture Book Illustration in my second year of university. I then went on to win 2nd prize the following year and this opened doors for me to meet my agents and to get my first commission as I was putting up my degree show.

What was your favourite book as a child and why?

I had lots of favourites as a child, but the book I always came back to was the Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr. I loved the ‘who’ premise of the story, as well as the beautiful illustrations, but what I really loved was how the little girl in the story went out for supper to a cafe in her pyjamas. That seemed so exciting and extraordinary, and I always hoped a situation like a tiger coming to tea might arise at my house so I could do the same!

What do you think is the key to illustrating a children’s book?

I think the key is to not patronise. Children are, I think, exposed to very sophisticated imagery from a very young age and are quite capable to bridge the gap between words and pictures without having everything explained to them explicitly. My concept of illustrating a children’s book is that the whole thing should work like a joke. The text is the set up and the pictures are the punchline. I don’t mean that every image needs to be funny, rather it should expand on the words and provide something unexpected and enhancing. That could be funny, or moving, or dangerous etc. It shouldn’t just be drawing what the words are describing.

How did the idea for Hector and the Big Bad Knight come about?

My editor and I were discussing ideas for books one day and the idea of doing something with knights popped up. There are quite a few books with a child being a knight already and I wanted to do something a bit different. I started to play around with the idea of a Big Bad (but actually quite silly) Knight, but it was when I was doing a school visit and met a little boy called Hector that everything started to slot together. I thought he had a super name and one that deserved to be in a book, so I decided to explore what would happen if a little boy had to outwit a silly and slightly bullying grown up, and how he would do it.

Your Claude series is to become a TV series – how much input do you have in its development?

We are in the very early stages of development at the moment and the team developing it have very kindly asked me to be very involved at this stage. I’m getting make sure that the look and feel of the books is translated as faithfully as possible into the scripts and images. It’s a great experience and I’m really enjoying learning and working with such a great and talented team of people.

What have you sacrificed for your craft?

I do work long hours and quite often have to work weekends too so perhaps a bit of my social life has been sacrificed, but I am doing a job that I really enjoy and because I work  from home that gives me quite a lot of freedom (to nip out for a coffee and a cake when I fancy it!)

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Lots!

Be confident in the way you draw, but don’t stop experimenting and developing new ways of working.

Be very honest with yourself and identify strengths and weaknesses in your artwork.

Don’t be too precious about your work. Listen to art directors/ designers thoughts and ideas and try them. If you feel strongly about something say, but maybe try out a few of the things being suggested to you. The Claude fiction books are designed by a great designer called Alison Still who manages to pinpoint exactly what’s needed to pull it all together, if I’m feeling unsure about an image or making a page work.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

Inspiration comes from lots of places – people watching, traveling, reading, going to exhibitions and watching films all help. I also love hanging out with my niece, nephews and godchildren. They are a constant source of (often bonkers) inspiration!

What’s your favourite subject to draw?

I do enjoy drawing people as you are free to create all sorts of characters. I also enjoy deciding what they should wear as I think you can tell a lot about a character by the clothes they are put in. I also love the challenge if drawing anthropomorphic animals. Trying to get the same amount of character as a human, but still making them look like the animal they are meant to be is sometimes hard work, but satisfying when it all comes together.

What is your studio like?

I actually work in two spaces. One is my drawing table which is in front of a large window so I get good light. That’s quite messy with pencils and paper everywhere. There’s also a sofa there where my dogs sit and ‘supervise’…Then I have a small desk upstairs in my office where I colour in my work on the computer. This is a quieter space with less distractions so I can concentrate on my work. I try to keep this space more organised, but I’ve not met an artist yet who has a perfectly tidy studio. I’d love to be the one who does, but it never seems to happen!

If you could own one artwork, money no object, what would it be?

So many pieces, but I do love The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard as it’s whimsical and I love the lighting and use if colour. I’m also a huge fan of Michael Sowa’s work. I have several prints of his painting, but to own an original would be really lovely!

What is the last exhibition you saw?

I don’t get to see as many exhibitions as I’d like, but when I do have some spare moments I love wandering around the British Museum, the V&A and the National Portrait gallery (which is a real favourite of mine).

What is your favourite art shop?

Nearly all of my work is coloured in digitally. However all the line work is drawn by hand, but I actually use very simple materials. I tend to draw on ordinary plain white paper with mechanical pencils I buy from Paperchase. I also tend to use Crayola wax and pencil crayons when I need a slightly different line or texture. I do like to use Moleskine sketchbooks, but the plain paper ones rather than the actual sketchbooks. I prefer the paper in the plain journals. It’s thinner and doesn’t smudge as easily as the cartridge paper in the sketchbooks.

What one art product could you not live without?

Can I have two? A light coloured pencil crayon for rough, under drawing, and then a mechanical pencil for the actual line work. Nice and simple!

When were you most inspired?

I think I’m most inspired when I’m travelling. There’s something about airports, trains, holidays and moving about etc that’s very inspiring. I love people watching and all of those places are good for that. I went to Iceland just before Christmas and found that an incredibly inspiring and beautiful place.

What’s the biggest misconception about being an illustrator?

I think  a misconception could be that it’s a cosy, Beatrix Potter sort of a job and that you spend your days colouring in little bunnies and things, but it is actually a business. It’s great fun, and I do love it, but a lot of time is spent emailing and at meetings. The colouring in the little bunnies is the fun bit!

Do you still find illustration difficult, and if so why?

Yes, at times. I’m quite a hard task master to myself and I’m always trying to challenge and develop artistically. But I think if it was really easy, it wouldn’t be as fun. I love a challenge!

Apart from drawing, what’s your biggest talent?

Hmmm…. drinking tea and looking out the window. I call it ‘people watching’ but I suppose it’s really procrastination!

A big THANK YOU to Mark Radford for the photography.