The Big Draw is a global month-long creative project designed to get people drawing. The 2014 event has just come to an end, but illustrator and former Children's Laureate Quentin Blake, who is heavily involved, is keen to encourage people to carry on. Al Gordon meets him.
Master illustrator Quentin Blake – Sir Quentin Blake, since the 2013 New Year Honours List – has brought a library’s worth of children’s books to life. His delightful illustrations have coloured the stories of many authors but now Blake has embarked on another mission. He’s teamed up with The Big Draw, who organise year-round drawing events across the world, to aid visual literacy and to encourage people of all ages back into drawing. “The thing about children is that they draw anyway,” Blake says, “but when they get to 12 or 13, children get inhibited about drawing and they start to feel, perhaps, that other people do it better than they do, or that there should be some standard of photographic realism.”
Blake, now nearly 82, has been drawing since before he could remember, and stresses the positive impact that the activity can have on people of all ages – from infants to the elderly and everything in-between. “We put on a drawing event at The National Gallery of Wales in Cardiff for retired people because they would be able to remember and draw things that nobody else had seen. I was supposed to come in at 12 o’clock to encourage them to draw but when I turned up they’d all been drawing for an hour already. We had to stop them in order to encourage them!”
The prolific illustrator also has advice on how to create the perfect illustration: inside the pages of a book, your work should simultaneously complement the text and contrast with it.
“Sometimes when there aren’t many drawings in books, you’re a discreet decoration, but in books where there are a lot of illustrations you’re a double act with the author,” he says. “The author is the main character, so you have to play up to him or her and there’s a lot of thought that goes into choosing which are the right moments in the story to draw.”
An iconic example comes to his mind. “There’s a point in Roald Dahl’s Matilda where Bruce Bogtrotter has eaten some chocolate cake and he’s going to be punished by eating a whole chocolate cake by Mrs Trunchbull. He eats the cake quite successfully and the horrible teacher is so cross with him that she picks up the plate and smashes it over his head. Here, you draw the moment before when she’s lifted up the plate, you don’t draw the bit where she’s smashed it over his head because that’s the writer’s moment.”
And he stresses that the union between author and artist is vitally important. “Sometimes there’s an advantage in being able to show what somebody looks like, so that you can go through the book seeing what happens, seeing what they’re wearing. If you can do that, you get a certain pleasure in looking at the pictures before you read the book and looking at them after to look at what happened?”
Dahl, in particular, “saw the drawings as being part of what the book was doing,” says Blake, recalling the challenge of working with the popular children’s author. “You never knew what was going to come next, each book wasn’t the same as the one that came before…”
The Blake/Dahl relationship lasted decades. “He was a formidable personality,” says Blake, “but this wasn’t really a problem because I wanted him to be happy, if you see what I mean. We established a very good collaboration because he understood that, we talked about the drawings and I was ready to change things. I’m not fussy like that, and that is part of the job, but also we wanted the drawings to do part of the work. So that provided a very good basis to the collaboration. In some books there are even things left for the artist to do, he saw the drawings as being part of what the book was doing. So on that basis one can work very well.”
And as for the saying ‘You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,’ I’m inclined to think that Blake, who has designed hundreds of them, disagrees. “It’s very interesting to me because doing book covers is one of the most difficult things: sometimes you get it right straight away but it can be very difficult. You need to make the book look interesting and to give some feeling of the atmosphere and flavour of it but at the same time you don’t want to tell too much. It needs to stimulate your appetite without satisfying it.”
His illustrations are loved across the world, but Blake remains modest. He keeps coming back to the cover conundrum: “It’s quite a tricky job!”
For more info: www.thebigdraw.org