Bethan Woollvin interviewed by Madelyn Travis


Bethan Woollvin won The Macmillan Prize for illustrating in 2014 for her arresting version of Little Red Riding Hood. It is inspired by her own childhood response to the story: she didn't believe any little girl would be taken in by the wolf. After graduating from Anglia Ruskin University with a First Class Degree in Illustration, Bethan moved to London, where she continues to create extraordinary books. 

Were you an 'arty' child?

Yes. It was the only subject I really took a shine to. I was into painting and drawing. My parents have lots of pictures of me covered in paint. I had a little easel where I’d draw all day. My teachers encouraged me, and in Sixth Form I had great teachers who were also practising artists. I really admired that they were so brave to do such a creative subject as their profession. When I got to Sixth Form we all realised that I was going to be an artist. My teacher told me that I was more directed towards illustration and I should have a look at children’s illustration and illustrators of editorial work.

I went to Cambridge School of Art, where I did a degree in illustration. I struggled quite a lot to begin with because I realised how little I knew about the subject, but my lecturers were brilliant and keen to get us learning about all different types of illustration. That was quite important in the development of my work.

Did you read picture books as a child?

I have a lot of siblings so we read together a lot. My family have quite a dark sense of humour so we love the more quirky children’s books like The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. Lane Smith was one of my favourite illustrators growing up. I love The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. And every child loves things like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We love Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, and there’s a dinosaur one, Tyrannosaurus Drip, by Julia Donaldson and David Roberts. We quite like Stuck by Oliver Jeffers – we think that’s hilarious. I just love these really witty stories that don’t take themselves too seriously as a book, the ones that do push it when it comes to writing. That’s admirable when it comes to the process of getting a book out, when you think of how many edits a book can go through, and they’re still witty and quite dark.

So did you go into university expecting to specialise in children’s books?

No, it wasn’t until my second year that I knew the direction I was going in. We were encouraged to enter competitions. My lecturer said to me that there was a competition, the Macmillan Prize, and you have to do a book for it and it could be my semester’s project. I didn’t know where to start, nor did I have a story in mind. I didn’t have enough time to write my own story from scratch so I thought I’d have to do a pre-existing one. I thought of which one I liked the most or which one needed changing the most. It was all to do with how ridiculous I thought fairy tales were when I was little. So I decided to do Little Red Riding Hood. I didn’t want to do the same story, so I changed the ending to how I’d have wanted it to end.

What extra skills did you learn in order to produce this book?

I hadn’t had a lot of training at all when it came to being a children’s book illustrator. Our lecturers were teaching us to be illustrators, not specifically children’s book illustrators. We’d learned how a book format works and how to tell a story and how text and image work together, but we hadn’t had any tutoring for it to be a children’s book, it just became one. My lecturers encouraged me because so many people on my course were doing different styles and types of illustration. Our lecturers would talk to us individually about our projects. Neither of my lecturers were children’s book illustrators.

What training did you get in terms of technique?

When I first started at uni we did a lot of life drawing, where you learn to be quite loose and fluid with your work, which was really helpful, and that’s carried on through my work. So in my work you can see a lot of the brush strokes and it’s quite bold. I’m not really a fluffy kind of illustrator. If I can get across what I want in one stroke then I’ll do it.  A lot of modules we did at university really helped with that. We did a lot of image manipulation on the computer. I was so rubbish at Photoshop before I started uni, and learning that was helpful because it gave the clean, crisp line in my work. Mainly I learned at uni to stick with the way I like to work because there will always be people who love your work and people who don’t like your work. There were a lot of people that didn’t like my work and that was fine. I learned that this is the way I draw and that was the way it was going to be.  

Did you have any trepidation about doing a story that has been told so many times?

When I was doing this at university, it wasn’t supposed to be a book that was published, it was just a project I was doing at university whilst I was still learning. I was trying to get experience and maybe some feedback whilst I entered the competition. It was more of a personal project than anything else. When it did win an award and it was going to be published I couldn’t understand why they wanted it given that it had been done so many times before. But it was important to me that they thought it was good enough that it was worth publishing.

There have been some feminist Cinderellas recently, and there’s The Wolf’s Story, but can’t think of a feminist Little Red Riding Hood.

I couldn’t really either. I’ve seen a feminist Goldilocks. When I was younger, I didn’t understand why Little Red Riding Hood needed the woodcutter. Why didn’t she deal with the wolf herself? She didn’t need saving! A lot of this book is how I would think. But I feel the same about a lot of fairy tales.

The image at the end reminds me of Where the Wild Things Are, where Max is wearing the wolf suit at the beginning of the book.

I’ve read it, but I didn’t make that connection before. You wonder if she’s wearing pyjamas underneath. She’s quite an androgynous figure. She’s not particularly feminine but she’s not particularly masculine. I didn’t want it to be that she had a dress underneath. I think the fact that she’s in this all-over suit was quite funny.

Talk me through how you worked on this book. What materials did you use?

To begin with I’d draw the illustrations out in a sort of painting-by-numbers way, working out what will be black, red and grey. Then I’d paint them all in gouache. Then I’d scan them in and delete the white of the page, which is why there’s such a clean white on everything. I suppose some of them needed tidying up because I’m such a messy painter. A few people have said it looks like it’s been screen printed because it’s quite flat colour, but that’s the effect that gouache has.

I use Caran D’Ache paints. They’re gouache paints. They’re really good because they’ve got such a strong pigment, especially the red one. I didn’t need to mix my own red! I just use whatever paintbrush is sticking out of my hair.

Did you plan out the book meticulously?

I’m quite a planner. I’ve got books and books filled with tiny sketchings of spreads. They were quite thought out in the sketchbook but as soon as I moved to a big piece of paper it would be: this is it. I’m not someone who continues to go over and redo something. It’s more, this is how I’ve done it first time, this is how it’s going to look.

So you must be very confident.

I think I am confident. The confidence comes from spending so long planning. Also, I know what I want it to look like in my head. Because I’m working with so few colours and in quite a bold style I don’t have to spend hours painstakingly working on detail. There are bold outlines. Sometimes things don’t always look directly like what they’re meant to look like. Not all the trees look like real-life trees, but you know it’s a tree. Little Red doesn’t look like a human being, but she is a character. It’s all suggestion.

It’s a bit like naïve art.

It is quite naïve, yes. That’s probably how I would describe it. My little sister is 2 and she loves the big eyes. My family saw it from day 1 and they thought it was amazing when they saw the finished one. I think it probably would have been more scary if they’d had their way, though.  

How was the writing?

Writing is one of the hardest things out of the whole process. I’m not a writer, nor have I ever had any training as a writer. I find it probably the hardest thing and it often stops me in my tracks. The writing took the longest.

Did you do a lot of drafts?

Yes, because there are so many versions, and the Brothers Grimm one is pages long. I thought, how am I going to cut this down? How could I reword it and cut it down so that it’s the same story? When you’re an author and an illustrator it’s a lot harder, especially if someone’s not that confident at writing. If you’re illustrating someone else’s text you can’t change that text, you have to work around the text, but if you’re illustrating your own story you think, I might just change the text to fit this illustration… You’re constantly changing it and it can be quite hard when it comes to the layout of the book. That can change a lot in the early stages.

Well, it gives you a lot of freedom.

It sometimes gives you too much freedom!

I guess you were surprised to win the Macmillan Prize?

Winning it was quite a shock. I couldn’t have hoped for anything better. I didn’t feel like it was very developed, nor did I think other people would like it. It was a shock to me especially when there was a whole other course next to me that specialised in children’s book illustration. I just thought I was using it to see if I liked children’s illustration. It all happened really quickly. It did really throw me in the deep end. I’m so grateful that it’s happened to me so early on because it means I can achieve things that I want to achieve earlier.

What’s next?

I will be working on my next book. It’s still so early on. I haven’t yet figured out what I want my next book to be. I’m not someone who sketches 24 hours a day. I split my work up in quite an organised way so I’ll set aside an evening and just be working on this project this evening and will let my mind flow on this one idea, and I might do this for different ideas.  

Do you get inspiration from things around you?

Definitely. I think probably my biggest inspiration is all my siblings. They’re constantly asking me, will you draw me this? Can you make me a story about this? And you think, this would make a great project or character. Also I’m inspired by just seeing people around me. Sometimes you can see a person and you think, actually that person is quite like an alligator. Then you’ve got an idea and you start drawing them and their life. I have to go out and see things happening in the world and see other art and illustration shows to give me inspiration because I think that’s what feeds into my work. I couldn’t make art if I was working 9 to 5 and didn’t have much contact with the outside world. I definitely need to see and do things to make art.

 

Thank you  for your time Bethan. We wish you all the best with Little Red. It's a stunning book.

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