Chris Mould interviewed by Nikki Gamble

   

 

 

Chris Mould went to art school at the age of sixteen. During this time, he did various jobs, from delivering papers to washing-up. He has won the Nottingham Children`s Book Award and been commended for the Sheffield. He loves his work and likes to write and draw the kind of books that he would have liked to have on his shelf as a boy. He is married with two children and lives in Yorkshire. 

Well, Chris, I have had the pleasure of hearing you talk on a number of occasions but for the purpose of this interview it would be great if you could talk a bit about where your passion for drawing and draughtsmanship came from…

You want to regress me to my childhood?

 Yes, absolutely.

 When I was very young as soon as I could pick up a pencil, I just drew and drew and drew. I was a bit introverted and I used to prefer being indoors to being outside, probably because I enjoyed drawing so much. I was also very taken with characters, Wacky Races, Batman, Spiderman and I was a huge fan of Pink Panther. I was always disappointed when the cartoon credits which opened the Pink Panther films turned to live action when the film started. I thought that was rubbish because I loved the cartoon character so much. I used to read the Beano. That invented world was so much more enjoyable than the real world for me.

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So, when you were drawing were you imitating your favourite cartoons and comics?

 Yes, that’s really what I did, lots of copying of  the characters that I loved. I remember having such a foul temper when I wasn’t able to reproduce something perfectly. It made me mad enough to want to spend the time working it out until I got it right.

That’s a difference between those that do and those that don’t: the tenacity to stick at something?

 It was that important to me that I found a way to do it and I solved the problem.

We have talked in the past about cultural context in which you grew up and you have spoken about how you felt ‘different’ to other people around you. Was there anybody in your family or extended family who had artistic flair or talent?

Well my mother was quite artistic and she would of little bits of drawing, comical things. My father had worked on a farm in his younger life and he used to keep animals. He kept rabbits and used to display them at agricultural shows and I remember my mum doing cartoon style drawings of rabbits, which were put into cheaply reproduced pamphlets. I was blown away by that. It didn’t go any further but I thought it was great.

Was your talent picked up at school?

 

 I don’t have a positive memory of school. I don’t like to cry a poor tale but I hated school. Even in art classes I don’t think they were really interested. To be honest I think I got into art school by chance. I went along for an interview and I think they needed to fill up places. They didn’t even give me proper interview, just said, ‘yes, fine, you’re in.’

I didn’t know where I belonged and I don’t think anyone else did, so I was guided towards an interior design course. When I got to art school,  I noticed people doing graphics and that made me realise that I was in the wrong room. I need to be with the people doing graphic design.

So did you transfer onto a different course?

 No, I saw the course through to completion and got the diploma in interior design.

 Well we know who to call on, if we need our rooms redesigning.

Yes, I’m your man.

 After that I took what might be regarded as a backward step and went to do a foundation course and from there I went on to study illustration. So all in all it took six years.

Tell us a little bit more about the illustration course. Did it include book illustration?

 I went to Leeds. John Ross was the course leader, an absolutely cracking guy. If you asked him to define illustration, he’d say, ‘how long is a piece of string?’ He would never set the same project for all students in the class. He would sit down with every single student and write them an individual brief on that applied to their way of working and their skills. Some people might have started an illustration brief but gone on to do 3D model making and he was absolutely fine with that. He just encouraged people to go with their tendencies. One of my closest friends from that course showed a flair for film-making and he was encouraged to pursue that. He’s now one of the animators for Aardman films.

Can you remember some of the project you were given?

My interest in black and white and pen and ink tended to lead towards character development projects. I remember illustrating Dickens stories and Greek Myths.

After graduating, did you move straight into book illustration?

Yes, I was very lucky, I went straight into freelancing and the first job I was given was with OUP. 

Gradually the small jobs became bigger jobs and the spaces in-between became shorter until it was full on, as it is today.

 What was the first job that you did for OUP?

The first job was The Oxford Book of Scary Tales. I did a black and white spread for a poem and some colour illustration for a story. I thought it was dreadful. To work on something, not be happy and then see it in print is a curse really.

Your style is instantly recognisable. How long did it take you to develop that style?

For the first ten years after graduating from college, I felt as though I should still have been at college. I had the style that I have now but I was still developing it. I changed my use of colour and materials and it’s really only over the past couple of years that I have felt that everything is in position. I don’t mind that. I was forty this year and I hope I’ll still be working in twenty, thirty years time and I hope I will still be developing. One of the things John Ross said to me that made an impression was that your best drawing should be your last.

Do the challenges come through commissions that you’re given, or do you set your own challenges?

 I think you have to be conscientious. I would say that the best illustrators that we have in this country are the conscientious people. Take for instance the event we’ve done with David Melling today. I’ve watched David come along as I’ve come along. I’ve always watched his work. David thinks long and hard every day about what he does and he’s definitely improved because he thinks like that.

What do you think have been the greatest personal achievements in your own development as an illustrator?

 The thing that has developed most is my draughtsmanship. Black and white is a tough discipline and it took me a long time to get the balance right.

Yes, in the work we saw this morning you were using fairly heavy black in the illustration and that’s relatively recent in your work, isn’t it?

 Yes, and it’s great. If you use a solid black, you can get away with a simple line drawing in the middle. It’s about balance. I get migraine quite easily and a bad black and white illustration that has so much in it that it sets your head buzzing could easily set one off. Chris Riddell is fantastic for detail, but he still manages to maintain the perfect balance between black and white.

We’re talking about black and white work as though it’s all the same thing but it has infinite variety. It can accentuate tone, or pattern, or line and is used by illustrators to different effect.

That’s true. If you look for instance at the work of David Roberts, he’s a brilliant cross hatcher. I can imagine him sitting for hours on end cross-hatching. The fine detail has a quality that reminds me of Gustav Dore’s etchings. But combined with David’s more modern cartoon faces the cross hatching is given fresh life. I can’t do that I need to jump up and move around.

You are a master of character drawing but you have said there are some things that still challenge you that you would like to improve in your drawing. Can you give us an example?

 Well if you look across this room to draw it would be a big task. It’s a big scene and demands a good sense of perspective, the angles need to be set up and there are lots of geometric shapes. So street scenes, buildings, anything on a large scale, present a challenge. It’s great if you get them right but it doesn’t come naturally to me.

 Portraiture is a particular strength. When you were drawing Edgar Allan Poe this morning,

I noticed that you started with the eyes. In fact the eyes in your drawings are very arresting and expressive and I wondered whether you always started from the eyes.

If I imagine myself drawing, I think I do always start with the expression. If you’re finding the eyes and the nose, you’re locating your place on the page.

 Illustrators draw eyes in lots of different ways, the position of the pupil and iris is very dominant in yours. For some people eyes are just a dot or a pair of eyebrows.

 It would be interesting to make a collection of a hundred illustrators’ eyeballs and see if you could identify the illustrator just from that little piece of drawing. I do think they are incredibly personal.

It’s often said that ‘the line’ is what gets you closest to an illustrator’s style. How would you describe your line?

The line is a mysterious thing. You can identify somebody by their line but when you get up close to it, it’s quite difficult to describe. When you sign your name, without thinking you do it in your own hand. Your handwriting is your style; it’s the same with an illustrator’s line.  It’s obviously affected by the implement you’re using at the time. I use the cheapest of bic rollerball pens. People are amazed by that because they’re cheap, throw away things. I guess that identifies me. Maybe I’m cheap and throw away!

Do you keep things in a bottom draw and pull them out to rework on at a later date?

Funnily enough, everything is in the loft. About two years ago I had an exhibition. It was about the time when the first Wickedly Weird book had just been published and I’d just got the art work for Dust N’ Bones back. I went over to the galleries armed with work. It hit me that I’d never had a piece of work framed. I have great problems looking back at my work. Once I have done it, I just want to move on,

Well, talking about looking back you have your current sketch book with you. Can we have a look and you can tell me all about it…

Yes, let’s have a look. You know all the years that I’ve been drawing, I have never actually filled a sketchbook. I might start by doing one drawing at the front and then something in the middle. I’m not very systematic and I end up with a sketch book with a lot of blank pages at the end. The idea with my current book is to fill it from to cover to cover. And to have it available as an interesting object when I’m talking to people like the students we’ve been working with today. This one was started in January 2008 and it’s nearly finished. So it will be about sixteen or seventeen months in the making.

When I’m using it, I’m just emptying things out of my brain. A lot of it doesn’t make sense. It’s like setting off the car without knowing where you are going. Sometimes drawings turn into something.  So for instance, this ghost train that we’re looking at here turned into a 3D book. Sometimes I sketch with words and sometimes I sketch with pictures. I guess it’s more of a thinking book than a sketchbook. Looking at this sketchbook is a bit like looking inside my brain; it’s filled with all sorts of weird thoughts.

It’s so interesting looking at the sketchbook this because you can see all the texture that is flattened out by the printing process.

On this page we have what looks like a word tree, tell me about that…

 Well to start with I drew this tree. I had a silhouette of the trunk and branches and I was about to start filling in the leaves.  I was going to draw every leaf on the tree  as a practice session because part of what I’m trying to do here is apply myself to something for longer periods of time than I’m used to. But for some reason I started to write words and sentences along the branches. It didn’t really mean anything but the words replaced the leaves. So I ended up with sentences like ‘ the tree thought long and hard but the words don’t come easy,  ‘the words fell like leaves’, ‘they curled up like dragon tails, whipping and winding’. Just little thoughts that don’t necessarily go anywhere but they could be the start of something.

What about this character we’re looking at here?

 He was a waiter in Bologna last year. This restaurant was full of old waiters and I was sitting at a table in the restaurant. This waiter was passing parmesan to someone across me and it went all over my shirt and in my glass of red wine. 

He made me laugh and he stuck in my head. I just had to draw him.

 This page of skull and crossbones doesn’t look like your work.

 I did this at a dinner in Bologna with my foreign publishers for the Wickedly Weird from Germany, USA, Romania, Spin, Sweden and Denmark At the end of the evening, I asked everyone to draw a skull and crossbones on the page and sign it to say that they had been there. I scanned the page and sent everyone a copy. That’s a special page to me.

 Now this is quite different, a painting of Rembrandt…

 It’s a shamelessly poor, small portrait of Rembrandt. I still look a lot at old paintings and I still try and mix modern pen and ink style with things past. There’s something in that for me.

 And here’s a copy of a Dürer

 Yes, a very poor copy of Dürer’s Hare. I just wanted to sit and concentrate on something for a while. You can see I’ve written next to it, ‘90 minutes ballpoint pen’. It took so much out of me sitting for that length of time.

And here’s a Raphael. So how important are those old masters to you?

 I like to use chiaroscuro, which is a technique that old masters used for contrasting light and dark and to bring them into a modern context. And it can be nice to suggest or emulate classical poses in a humorous way.

It is fascinating dipping into the sketchbook because I am seeing things that add a completely different dimension to your work. There are things here that I would never see in your published books.

What about this page, where you have used white on black…

I used a white gel pen on plain black. I like the idea that black and white drawing can be white on black not always black on white. That’s just decorative pattern making.

It looks as though it has some elements of Art Nouveau.

I think my daughter had some homework looking at Gustav Klimt. The tiny decorative shapes that he used  set me off. I think it must have been a very peaceful thing to do.

 And here you’ve introduced an element with torn paper…

 Yes, I’ve got quite a thing about torn paper. It’s an identifying mark for me.

 Here’s a picture that reminds me of fifties animation. It could be from something like Lady and the Tramp…

 Do you remember when we were in Bologna walking around the different stands, we saw somebody who was working in a similar way to this?  I can’t remember which country he was from but he’d done a version of Sherlock Holmes. I travelled back to the UK with this image in my head and then drew it when I got home. I just had to get something down because I like the way the light works.

 Yes, there is something very evocative about house lights shining in the dark. It suggests that something is happening behind closed doors.

 Wow, this page is very arresting - all these faces!  And this character is a little like Measle.

 Yes a thousand faces. It’s funny because Measle and Stanley in the Wickedly Weird series are quite similar visually. One of the challenges is being true to your style but making people different every time.

Do you ever use models?

Occasionally, if I’m drawing children and I want a difficult pose but I try to do it from imagination.

Oh and look there’s a stray chicken leg. You know if I hadn’t got that chicken leg out of my head it would have impeded on all my thoughts!

When you scan through your sketchbook like this, does it put you in touch with the mood you were feeling on the day that you did the drawings?

 Yes, the moods do come out.  I can tell by the way I’ve drawn something if I was having a bad day. Here for instance, you can tell that my pen won’t even settle on the page but at other times I’m really applying myself well.

You said that you don’t think you’re very good at landscapes but there are some really good drawing of buildings in here.

 If I can get them right, I enjoy it. If it’s complex I can have trouble applying myself.

This drawing of a tiger is is an unusual subject for you.

 It is. You know every time I look at this page, I think it’s not like my work. That tiger is taken from a book called the 'Tyger Voyage' by Richard Adams and illustrated by Nicola Bayley. My Dad bought me that when I was nine or ten and I loved it. I used to stare at the drawings for hours and I still keep it in my room. I was totally captivated by the drawings.

In this image we’re going into outer space. Are you moving into Science Fiction?

 I’d like to do some SciFi just to see what I could do with it. It wouldn’t be Star Treky if I did.  I really love what Philip Reeve has done with 'Larklight' and 'Mothstorm'. He’s such an inventive person. Who would have thought about putting the Victorians into space? The premise is out of this world. The illustrator David Wyatt is a hero of mine and I think his artwork for that series is incredible.

None of that has any bearing on this page. I simply  put some black paint on the page and thought that one day I would add some white. I think somebody asked me why I’d done that and I just said, ‘well one day I’m going to create a space scene’. I got some Tippex and added the pictures.  That’s why it’s very crude.

 You have a comic strip here…

Yes I thought I should have a go at doing some strip work. And for some reason I thought of ants. I remember looking at the ants and wondering whether they speak to each other. It intrigued me. Sequential art, it’s the way forward!

 How did you make the change from being an illustrator to writing the Wickedly Weird novels?

 I’d thought long and hard for a long time about writing but I’d never been able to get something down. It welled up inside me until it burst out. I guess it was a way to draw the things I wanted to draw by putting them into a narrative. I wanted to find out what my world was and who my characters would be.

 

I think the influence on that series was 'The League of Gentleman' which is a dark comedy about strange ways of small communities, which I liked. So I invented this place, an island which could be anywhere and isn’t connected to anywhere. And people are little odd, as they are in small communities.. I’ve always had a thing about pirates and an island was perfect for that. And. I’ve always had a thing about werewolves because of Thriller video and An American Werewolf in London. I also loved Hammer Horror when I was younger. So the series was a chance to put all of those elements together.

Writing is a whole other world and it isn’t to be taken lightly. You say things in a completely different way when you put words down. It’s a pleasure to be able to weave a whole world using words.

 Do you find that you don’t have to be very descriptive in writing because you know you’re going to be able to illustrate it?

 The fiction is purposely quite thin on description because I know what I’m going to do. If  I’m introducing a character, I’ll be thinking about a full length portrait that I might include in the book.

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