Polly Dunbar was born in Stratford upon Avon. Daughter of children's author Joyce Dunbar. Polly started illustrating when she was 16 and has a degree in Illustration at the University of Brighton. She lives in Brighton, Sussex.
Could tell us a little bit about how you trained to be an illustrator. You studied illustration at Brighton, didn’t you?
Well, to begin at the beginning, when I was 17 I went to Norwich Art School and did the Foundation Course. I wanted to be a Fine Art Painter but hen it came to having my folio ready, it became clear that it was full of drawings of people. Then I realised that I didn’t really have any choice but to do illustration, because at that point Fine Art really wasn’t about drawing people. People were telling me, “Well, you are obviously an illustrator.” Things could have been different if I had gone down the painting route but I am really pleased with the way things turned out. Doing an illustration course, you have to experiment in every field: printmaking, photography, drawing and painting. You don’t have to explain yourself in the same way that you do on a Fine Art course, which is more concerned with concepts.Although I still enjoy painting, the illustration course really suited me.
Why do you think there is such a divide between Fine Art and illustration? It seems to be a very British way of thinking about art. I think for instance in Italy illustration is regarded as fine art.
It is and I think it’s a shame, because the term ‘illustrative’ is used in a slightly derogatory way. An attitude persists that if it’s figurative, it’s not mysterious or philosophical enough. When you’re at art school, the divide is so strong and students don’t really want to mix socially.
That’s probably true, at least in this moment in time but I don’t think it has always been the case…
Yes, I suppose so, fine art has been illustrative in the past. I think it’s a fashion thing and I like the way that children’s books don’t really follow those rules. They do follow rules, after all they have to be understandable for children, but it’s not a fashion – though illustration styles do change, of course.
So was your illustration course mainly concerned with the illustration of children’s books?
No, it wasn't very children’s book based. There was more of interest in record covers, or magazine work. The tutors set us a lot of two week projects, mainly commercial tasks. Personally, I prefer a longer timescale to work on a project, to take it to different stages. With two week projects you feel that you always get to the same place and don’t have the opportunity for taking it further. In the third year, they left us alone and then I felt I could get some proper work done.
Doing those projects always followed the same pattern. At the beginning of the week you’d think you had ages to come up with something, by the middle of the week, you’d start thinking about it and then the night before it would be, “Oh, goodness, I’ve got to do something!”.
However, we were set a one week history project, which turned out to be quite useful. I wrote Henry VIII the night before ‘crit’. It was one of those occasions when having a tight deadline was really motivating and the outcome led to a series of books.
Can you tell us where the idea for 'Penguin' came from?
The original penguin was a very old antique toy and a gift from my brother. When he gave it to me he said, “You can have him, but be careful, he bites.” I thought you would have to do something outrageous to aggravate this impassive penguin. Anyway, the penguin was just sitting in my room staring at me for a while. Then one afternoon everything came together at once and I quickly wrote the story. I wanted to emphasise the contrast between a highly emotional and lively boy and a static expressionless penguin. I liked the humour value in that situation.
I enjoyed playing with the fantasy elements - what I could and could not do. I didn’t want Ben to be a
nasty little boy, but I did want him to do things like fire penguin into outer space. That’s when I discovered that drowning penguin in a pond wasn’t acceptable but shooting him into space was, because it is a more obviously fantastic element.
What sorts of things have you discovered through the process of writing and illustrating children’s books?
Many artists talk about an art teacher that has inspired them in some way. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that experience at school. I had nice art teachers, but not the one special person who really cared. I have had that experience at Walker Books, working with my designer Liz Woods. We have such a good relationship and she’s so knowledgeable. I’ve learnt a lot from her about fonts, formats and the technical side of picture book design and production
What about the pacing of the story has that always been intuitive or have your learnt how to do that as you’ve gone along?
I think you work that out for yourself through the process of writing. You don’t realise what you’re learning from creating a book until you move on to the next book. I didn’t realise that I was going to be a writer but when I found out that I enjoy making the words and the images work together, that determined what I want to explore. The juxtaposition between the two is very exciting, and only by trying out new ideas do you work out how it’s done.
Is the 32 page format a help or a hindrance? Have you ever wanted to break free from that constraint?
The parameters of a children’s book are very useful for solving problems and being succinct.
There are things you can do to make the format more flexible. For instance, you can get two more pages if you really, really have to. In fact I think 'Penguin' is a couple of pages longer. The good thing about the 32 page format is that it makes every single page essential to the story.
Having said that, you have to write a book without thinking about any rules at all because if you do, you can’t get past the first word: you’re too busy thinking about the restrictions. I think you have to write it unselfconsciously and the rules come into play later, when you start to shape the story. And to be honest that’s good fun rather than restrictive. I find shaping the book enjoyable, getting that initial creative ideas is the painful bit.
The distinctive thing that strikes me when I look at your illustrations is the joie de vivre evoked by the palette. The vibrant combination of reds and greens makes it difficult to feel anything but happy when reading the book. Can you tell us something about your use of materials and colour?
For me, colour is one thing that is so important in life; you can wear a particular colour and it can make you feel happy. I think people often throw lots of colour at children just because they like bright colours. However, because colour is a strong emotional tool, I think it’s important not to have every page shouting at you. When I’m faced with a blank page, I’ll want to fill it. I love colour and I want to go mad, so I’ve had to train myself to pare it back and to use colour for a specific impact. If you are spare with the colour then you ‘save it up’ and then you can really go “bosh,” as I did with the end page of 'Penguin' where I have used colour and collage for impact.
You seem to like pattern too – fabric and wallpaper patterns…
I have to watch out because I do walk around looking like a children’s book illustration. I can’t resist a patterned shirt.
You use a lot of white space that also allows the reader space to focus on the emotions.
Yes, a lot of that is about the pacing of the story. It makes the reader pause or speed up – de
pending on how it’s used. As much as I like pattern and colour, I find sometimes that illustrations aren’t clear. When I was a child I didn’t like cartoons which were packed with speech bubbles and lots of little subplots going on. I like to see what I’m looking at. If there’s a bit of pattern in the picture, I like to have the space to appreciate it. I think the white space allows you to see what’s really happening in the story.
Can you tell us something about the way you draw children, is it from direct observation?
I sometimes go and sit in the children’s section at the local library or the park and just sit and doodle. I don’t draw a specific child; it’s more an observation of behaviour and movement. I find that if children know that you are watching them, then it isn’t quite the same, so it doesn’t really work with friend’s children because the child is unnatural and performing for you.
Once I have worked out the anatomy, the shape of the head and the proportions, then it becomes an emotional thing. I try to think of myself as a five year old boy in order to capture the emotion. I don’t think about what I’m drawing; I think about how the character feels. If they are frustrated, I try and feel frustration. I’ll often sit there pulling faces!
For me it’s crucial to get the character worked out. I can do pages and pages of bad drawings to get to that point. Once, I know the character it gives me the freedom and spontaneity, which I think are important.
So you never work from photographs…
Yes, I think there are different ways of approaching realism, some illustrators work from photographs.
But your books are concerned primarily with emotional and psychological realism.
Sometimes a story can appear to be about nothing at all, but it does have a heart of some kind. Other stories have a lot more going on but the heart is lacking. That kind of story doesn’t interest me.
Your books are remarkable in that they capture an innocence in childhood without the cloying saccharine that can seep into books for very young readers. Your stories always have a slightly sharp edge.
'Penguin' is about a real frustration and I think it applies to all human beings not just children. I’m not talking down to children and I think that affects the tone.
The really clever thing is that both of the characters can be interpreted as representing different roles. Which one is the child and which is the adult, Ben or Penguin?
I wanted to also congratulate you on Here’s a Little Poem which was put forward by IBBY for the Honour List. Illustrating poetry must be quite a different task to making a picture book.
It was a huge but brilliant challenge. I was very lucky to do it because it really did stretch me. With a picture book you work out the flavour of the entire book at the beginning, but for the poetry collection, I had to come up with a new flavour every day.
That was tricky but exciting. I also had to create new characters but at the same time keep the overview of the entire book. I’d get to the middle and then want to go back and redo the beginning because I would feel that the style had changed. I tried to do something exciting on every page and I had the luxury of lots of space dedicated to each poem.
It strikes me that illustrating poetry you have to be careful not to give too much in the illustration. That’s true of all illustration but I think you have to avoid interpreting a poem in a rigid way, when it may have nuances of meaning.
… although the poems in this collection are simple rhymes for the very young.
Yes, a lot of them are very light and frivolous. I tried to read the poem and see how it made me feel and create the artwork in that vein. Mostly they’re joyous poems.
Can you tell us about your working space? Do you have a studio?
I’m in a top floor flat and I have a nice view of rooftops, which is important to me. I’ve lived in basements before and had no windows, which has not been ideal. I’ve got seagulls nesting opposite me and it’s brilliant because I have seen them building the nest, sitting on the eggs and then the gulls hatching. When they hatched they were so cute but every day, they’re getting bigger and turning into these great big monsters. That keeps me entertained for hours when I’m sitting at my desk working.
Generally, I work with a creative muddle around me. I have a cupboard stashed full of bits of paper that I’ve collected ever since I was a kid. I have sweet papers from long ago Christmases. I know hoarding is bad, but I think there’s a chance I’ll need them, if I want a certain texture or pattern. Sometimes I have to shuffle everything up so the things at the bottom get a chance. It’s like composting.
My flat turns into an absolute bombsite when I’m working. I have absolutely no regard for tidying because I’m concentrating. Afterwards I always have a ceremonial ‘shove it all back in the cupboard, lock the door and Hoover’.
In my flat I also have a shelf where I keep things that are inspiring me at that time, the items on the shelf change. When I was working on 'Penguin', that old penguin was sat on the inspiration shelf with bits and bobs, and the things that I just want to keep in mind …
Is music important while you’re working?
Yes, I always listen to music but never the radio. I’m a bit of a goldfish: I can put on an album and repeat play it all day long and not even realise.
…but then, on the other hand, sometimes I work in complete silence.
Who are your illustration heroes?
Well, David McKee is one of them. I noticed in 'Not Now, Bernard', there’s a very tiny Elmer on the shelf of the little boy. I wonder if that was the very first patchwork elephant David McKee drew? I’d like to meet him and ask him…
I think that book’s got a real edge to it. For me Bernard is an annoying child who deliberately pesters his parents at the most inconvenient moments… I know that isn’t the dominant reading of the book but I think it works.
Yes, it’s funny you don’t actually feel that sorry for him, do you? I remember being fascinated by the way the dad bangs his thumb.
That’s what I mean he’s waiting for that moment … timing it perfectly.
Yes, he’s a poor little monster really.
I’m not surprised that you mention David McKee because there are similarities between his work and yours. What is it that appeals to you?
I love his stories. There’s something about the worlds that he creates which makes them believable so many books only create a surface world. And I like his humour.
I also love the heart in John Burningham’s work. His books lift you inside. It’s not always easy to pinpoint why. Sometimes it takes a sophisticated eye to work it out but children respond to it intuitively. When I was a child, Quentin Blake was my absolute favourite. he was the one that made me want to illustrate because his books are so alive. As an adult, I really appreciateMaurice Sendak. His books have so many levels of meaning working in them.
Thank you Polly Dunbar for talking to Just Imagine