Alexis Deacon graduated in 2001 from the University of Brighton where he studied illustration, earning an honours degree. He now lives in London. Slow Loris his first children's book was published in 2003. This was followed by Beegu which was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal. His most recent picturebook, While You Are Sleeping is an unconventional, subtle and warm story about a sleeping child being looked after by a clutch of bedside toys.
Your emphasis on drawing sets your books apart from a lot of others around at the moment. Did you deliberately set out to do something different?
It’s more to do with not being able to do anything else. There wasn’t a grand strategy behind it, although I always had in my head that I wanted to do a certain kind of thing and was very fixed on it. I had a desire to express things that were in my mind, and that was how the books happened, so I couldn’t have done it any other way. I have tried in the past to do things a bit differently to fit in a little more with movements that I saw happening but I didn’t get very far with them because I didn’t really understand them. It would never occur to me not to use drawing as my primary medium, so I don’t think I’m quite seeing the world in the same way as other people. I don’t mean that at all in an arrogant sense.
The way you use space is very striking. Could you talk about your approach?
I started out in picture books with the attitude that anything goes: let’s see what works and what I like using. So I wanted to be experimental in every area - not experimental for the sake of it, just experimental. The only way you can learn is by doing things. I wanted to keep an open mind about which structure effectively tells the story. I tried to feel free to use it and not be worried about whether it looked absolutely perfect and appropriate.
I would have my story in whatever format and then the question I’d ask myself would be: how can I best get this story across with the tools at my disposal? And one of them is the rhythm and the pace of the pictures in the book, whether you have a series like a comic or a full page double spread bleeding off the edges, whether you have a lot of background scenery or hardly any at all. They all affect the pace of the visual story and the amount of information that it’s communicating, and you can manipulate them to help you tell the story that you want to tell.
Secret lives seem to be a theme of Slow Loris and While You Are Sleeping.
When you’re making up stories you make up stories that mean something to you because they resonate with you, or you wouldn’t spend the time on them. If you’re not interested in the story you’re telling you run out of patience, so there must be something there, but it’s not conscious. It’s probably something to do with the nature of being an illustrator anyway, because the main body of your communication is between you and a piece of paper, so in a sense you are leading a secret life.
What technique did you use on the double page spread where Slow Loris moves fast? It looks like a photo but it probably isn’t one.
If you’ve made a decision to do your whole book in inks and then you do a good pencil drawing you’re going to have to ink over it to fit in.
I realised that if it’s all drawn by the same person it will have at least that in common, so whenever I come up with a drawing that’s right, that’s all I need. There was a drawing in a sketchbook drawn from a real slow loris that I thought was perfect for that spread. It’s a very small sketchbook drawing that I did in the zoo. I scanned it into the computer and enlarged it and then put a photoshop zoom filter on it. They’re frowned upon - people are snooty about them – but it worked.
Where did the name Beegu come from?
It was a dog’s name. I quite like using animal names, because you get a pet and give it a name, and as you’re living with them you discover that that name doesn’t quite fit. If it were a child it’s too late, that’s the name you’ve given them. With a pet the name modifies over time to suit their character. The dog’s name was Ziggy for a while and it went through this evolution process and ended up being Beegu. It was perfect for the alien because it sounds like bijou and she’s like a little shiny jewel, but it’s got that “beep beep” alien cliché thing and the sound goo is one of my favourite sounds anyway, because there’s a certain anarchy and freedom and messiness which I like my characters to have.
How did you decide what she would look like?
Originally it was a story about a big alien. It was more obviously identified with me. I’d done that alien with three eyes and a couple of antennae, to be obvious about it. I didn’t want the design of the alien to be original. It didn’t
need to be. It came out looking a bit distinctive because I didn’t put anything else in. She has three eyes and two antennae, but there’s not much else going on. So when it was scaled down to be a baby alien she had this pleasing simplicity about her which seemed to fit the story. She has the minimum signifiers to show that she’s an alien and the rest is plain and simple because that’s the kind of character she is.
In the illustration where she is jumping rope and has the hula hoop round her ears it looks like you used several different materials.
The drawing is an ink drawing much smaller than it appears in the book and I photocopied that to enlarge it to roughly the right size, then it was painted with watercolour and goache.
It’s got some accents on it with water-based oil paint so it’s got a layer like grease over the top.
Although you use bright colours now and again, you often use a fairly muted tonal palette, which is quite unusual in books for young children.
That might be down to ineptitude. I don’t mean to be so dark; it just comes out that way. A very strong dominant colour is a very strong presence on the page, and if you’ve got a great sea of screaming orange on a page it’s actually shouting louder than the drawing. I didn’t want people to be looking at the colour unless it had a function, unless it was part of the story. It’s not the world that those drawings live in. But it might just be that I’m not very good at painting.
Do you prefer to work with any materials in particular?
Every material has a slightly different effect, and I don’t mean that in terms of what comes out. It makes you think and draw in a different way. So if you’re using a dip pen you know that you can’t fudge. If you want to use a half-tone, you’re going to have to hatch it or paint it on afterwards and that makes a change to the process, so when you use ink you’re making a specific statement. Pencil tends to be my favourite. You get a wax pencil and the waxiness adheres to the paper in a pleasing way, so you get a bit of tactile feedback, so it’s more of a touch skill than a sight skill. With charcoal you’re encouraged to make a much bigger mark. Unlike dip pen, you can really fudge. It suits drawing bigger, messier things. Things have more presence on the page with charcoal and you get where you’re going quicker as well which is useful.
You have an unusual technique where you oil the paper and apply the paint on the other side of the paper. How did that come about?
I did that on While You Are Sleeping. It was to do with preserving the line drawing. I considered transferring the drawings onto a clear film and painting behind them. There was a necessity to have colour work, but the thing that I mostly enjoy doing is the drawing, so there’s a separation between the two. I finish the drawing and colour it. It wasn’t a problem with the previous book because I used black line. But While You Are Sleeping is red chalk drawings and you can’t paint over them or you lose the drawings, so I came up with that method to keep the line visible, and it had other effects which suited that book. Because the colour is slightly obscured by the paper, the pictures have a hazy quality that looks a bit dreamlike.
Did you do much drawing at university or was it something you learned beforehand?
I studied illustration at Brighton University. You were encouraged to draw there. I did regular life drawing, but the emphasis was more on generating original content and training your mind. We were taught print making and various craft skills, but it wasn’t a craft-based course. The ethos is to liberate young minds rather than to shackle them to a method so they don’t teach method. I think it’s kind of frowned upon now to teach drawing as though there was “a way”. You’re encouraged to find it within yourself. But it does have this unfortunate side effect, which is that people are afraid to share information that feels like craft skills. When it came to etching or screen printing there was never any doubt that you had to know a certain few things or you were never going to come up with a print. With drawing you know that you’re going to come up with something, so there’s not a feeling that things have to be done a certain way.
In my work what I was trying to do was be able to express the kind of stories and feelings that I have in my imagination, and the only reason that I tried to become better at drawing was that I saw it as a liberating thing rather than a constricting thing. You acquire a skill to be able to express something as well as you can and get as close as you can to what you want to say.
Who are your artistic inspirations?
My favourite is Honore Daumier because he is like what I was talking about with the charcoal: messy, full of body and presence on the page. There’s a literacy and eloquence in making a mark on the paper, and he’s got this kind of liquidity to his mark making which is very pleasing. All the drawings are nice and sculptural so that you feel you’re looking into a space and seeing into a world rather than looking at a drawing which is filtered through him, so it doesn’t exist in a real sense but it takes on a reality.
Rembrandt does something similar but he tends to hatch a bit more, so like in those etchings he manages to combine nice chunky shapes with beautiful eloquent tiny little marks so the rendering of light on a face or the rendering of a whole head of hair, you don’t tend to see that done so well very often.
Winsor McCay did the Little Nemo strip comics around the turn of the century. He had a phenomenal talent for creating worlds and drawing almost anything. You feel he had the power to draw anything that came into his head and that’s something I’m quite envious of.
Thank you Alexis Deacon for talking to Just Imagine