Helen Hancocks interviewed by Madelyn Travis

Helen Hancocks graduated in 2011 with a first class degree in Illustration with Animation from Manchester School of Art. She uses a mixture of crayon, watercolour, ink and pen, combined digitally. She also works with printmaking images to make one-off images. Her work often features cats. When she is not drawing, she can be found at the cinema, or just watching the world go by. Author/illustrator Helen Hancocks was born and lives in Lincoln, UK.  To date Helen has three published picture books; Penguin in Peril, William and the Missing Masterpiece and William Heads to Hollywood.

In this interview Helen talks to Madelyn Travis about art, illustration and the cat of mystery, William.

Were you someone who drew all the time when you were a child?

Yes. My mum and dad were both art teachers and my grandma and grandad on my dad’s side were both artists, so it’s a part of being brought up by them. It ran in the family.

Did your family encourage you to follow in their footsteps?

They did encourage me, but at the same time they wanted me to do other things. At one point I wanted to do science, but I failed my A-levels in that subject. They encouraged me to be interested in lots of things, but it was art that stuck through it all. At one point I wanted to be a fashion designer and then a photographer, so there was always a creative thing that I wanted to do.

Did your parents do anything in particular to instil that interest in art in you?

All holidays we were dragged around museums and galleries. I thank them for it now, but when you’re a kid you don’t read the introductions to each room. You’re like ‘I’ve seen it all, I want an ice cream now’, but it filtered through because there are things that I remember from that time. I remember seeing some weird piece of artwork that looked like pavement, but it was on the wall. I remember going round a sculpture park and not realising it was art, and running around and trying to climb all over it. But those experiences have stood me in good stead.

Tell me about your training.

I did a Foundation in Lincoln and then went to the art school at Manchester University. The course was illustration with animation. I wish I had done more of the animation, but at the time there is only so much you can do. I could already draw, but I learned all the other things that go with it, like design.  In the course we learned about the different stages, so when we were doing a project about storytelling we had to do it without words and then with words, so we learned about the thought process. Before the course I would draw something and think it was all done.

Writing and illustrating are quite different skills. Did the writing come easily to you? Your books are very funny. 

I’d always write little stories in my notebooks at school, but it would make no sense to anyone but me. I have an odd sense of humour. If I’m watching a film I will laugh at the thing that no one else finds funny. I always drew little cartoons and silly things that people like, but it’s surprising when people say my books are hilarious. I don’t try to force a joke, I don’t think about it that way.

Do you make black and white main characters deliberately or is that a coincidence?  That was a complete coincidence. I didn’t think of it until I had both covers in my hands and realised they were both black and white. It wasn’t intentional at all, but once I’d noticed it I was really aware that if you took off William’s face on the cover of Missing Masterpiece it could be the penguin.

Are you character driven or plot driven?

The books so far have been character driven, especially with William. I’ve had this figure of William as the character and made the plot around him. With Penguin I had the idea that the penguin would get stolen and built the characters around that. I guess it depends on what story I’m working on.

Do you see the character visually first or in terms of a personality?

Visually. I know there will be elements that I want to put in. With 'William Heads to Hollywood' I definitely wanted to include a party scene so I worked that into the storyline. There were things I could imagine the characters doing so I fit those into the storyline too. I don’t know if it’s the best way to work, though. The newest book went through a lot of changes partly because the plot changed. I always had the idea that William would meet Audrey. That was one of the main things I started with, and then I worked the plot to bring them together.

Originally it was going to have a mascot, a bit like the MGM lion, it was going to be a cat mascot that goes missing and they have to go to auditions which William goes to and then they needed a detective in the house because the mascot went missing, but he just wanted to retire. It got too complicated. I also backed myself into a corner by having lots of things I definitely wanted and didn’t want and that complicated the story. There were too many cats. I might use some of the ideas that didn’t get used at a later date so they’re not completely wasted.

The real William

So you must be a cat person?


Yes. I don’t have any cats at the moment, but I grew up with them. William is based on a cat who belongs to my cousin. He is very handsome, and you can imagine him being a person, if that makes sense. You can imagine him with human attributes. My cousin was going to call him Patrick, but as soon as she saw him she said he’s not a Patrick, he’s a William. (The real William is pictured left)

Are there more William books in the pipeline?

I’ve got ideas for them. If Templar want me to keep doing William books, I’ve definitely got some more adventures for him.

In Missing Masterpiece you have a lot of paintings based on ones by famous artists: there’s a Seurat, Munch, Klimt and others. What was your intention in doing that? Did you hope that readers would explore the original paintings with an adult or were you just having a bit of fun?

I had the Mona Cheesa as a take on the 'Mona Lisa', so I thought I would take famous artwork and put a cat or piece of cheese in it. There is also a Picasso, a Matisse, Dali. One is based on 'The Laughing Cavalier'. One school I visited studied the book for the term and they had slowly gone through it and picked it apart and done art classes on the different art movements. They had done an imaginary trip to Paris and talked about architecture and it had led to all sorts of things and I thought, 'oh, all this from my book!' They thought  the cheese jokes were funny, but they had also gone to town to with other things in the class. They learned how to do impressionism and they created William in the Matisse cutout style and there were words they didn’t know so they had looked them up and used them in their own writing. I was quite blown away. They were in Year 3 or 4.

Who was your imagined reader?

Me. I write them for myself initially because if I’m too much aware of the person reading them I think I would pander  to them a bit and think they wouldn’t understand. I try not to think who is going to read it.

Do children understand the cheese jokes? The newspaper article at the end of William and the Missing Masterpiece is hilarious:  ‘a feta-compli’ and ‘to see the thieves go unpunished really grates’.

The parents reading it say, oh, you’ve put in jokes for us!  You can tell which children eat different cheeses. Some say they had a particular cheese for breakfast. At that school where they did the project on it they also had a cheese party. They tasted different cheeses and talked about the names. I’m responsible for a whole class liking or disliking certain cheeses!

What materials do you work with? What paper do you paint on?

I use gouache paints mainly and I’ve got watercolour crayon that I sometimes use over the top, and pencils to pencil it all out. I just use ordinary watercolour paper: whatever there is in the shop. For some of my bigger paintings I use Fabriano, which is a heavy, soft paper. I like it when it’s smooth. Sometimes the watercolour papers have texture, but I don’t like that. I don’t want the paint to pick up the texture of the paper.

I still have some sketchbooks, but I end up drawing on scraps of paper. For William Heads to Hollywood I had several sketchbooks where I had the bones of the idea and then I scanned them in and sent them to the publisher. They were quite rough: I’d say, This might be a car or There will be a cat on this page.

So you do use a computer?

Not very much. I used to. For Penguin in Peril I drew it all and scanned it in and put it together on the computer, whereas now I will pencil it all out and paint it. For the latest book we had to take out the Hollywood sign so I had to tweak it on the computer and use it for some of the cropping and colours, but it’s final original artwork.

That’s interesting because there seems to be a trend for people to use the computer more.   If you don’t, you have to think a lot more about where everything is going to go to start with. With Penguin if something didn’t work and the text had to be moved I could just go on the computer and move it around. This way everything has to be finalised before painting it. I feel like there’s more control this way. It was more of a challenge, more of a process, you have to think about a lot of things up front before compiling the images. It generally works, but there have been times when I have kicked myself and thought, why am I doing this? I also spent so much time on the computer while doing Penguin in Peril that I needed a break from the computer so I started doing more painting. When I did Penguin in Peril at university I had wanted to paint it as full picture but I hadn’t figured out how to layer all the paints. By the time I came to William and the Missing Masterpiece I had worked out how to do it so could do it all as one piece with a few tweaks on the computer.

You said that you had to take out the Hollywood sign from William Heads for Hollywood. Why?

What I didn’t realise until I had printed it out and handed the artwork in is that the Hollywood sign is copyrighted. Apparently each letter is owned by a different celebrity. I was annoyed because I’m sure I’ve seen it in other books. I think Candlewick in America told Templar to be careful because they had had issues in the past. I was rather disappointed. You’d think the people who own it have enough money already!

I like the way you use colour and also the way you sometimes have a white space with William in an oval, which mirrors the pattern on his chest, or maybe looks like the way an old film has the frame closing in at the end. Was there any planning there or did you just do it because it looks nice?

I just thought it was a nice shape. Sometimes when you have a white background it can be like the image is floating and I thought it looked kind of like a dream. It looked nice to do curved edges. But also it is like the end of a film when it shrinks down.

How would you describe your style?  
I’ve never really thought about how to describe my own style. I am always apprehensive about using certain colours. I always have a test paper to test all the colours to make sure they go together. I’m always a bit worried that a colour won’t work, so it’s good when people like the colours you’ve used. It was fun doing the Hollywood book because the colours are pastels. I use a salmony pink and turquoise way too much. I’ve noticed I’m using them a lot so maybe I should pick two other colours!  I can see the changes through all three books. From Penguin to the William books, Penguin seems flat, as in the illustrations are all from one perspective: you are looking at it head on. Now I try to make them from different angles. I am getting more confident using the paint and different colours. Also, William has lost weight since the Masterpiece cover. I don’t know if that’s just the way he was drawn.

It seems like a naïve style of art.

That’s true. It isn’t realistic. My father has seen all my work and as a teacher he is interested in why I have done something a particular way, or used a particular angle. There are realistic elements – cars and buildings – but they are done in a way that makes it easier for me to draw.

You generally have one or two double page spreads in each of the books. Is the larger scale work meticulously planned out or do you sometimes think you don’t actually like what you had intended to do?  For the party scene and also the props department, I pencilled them out roughly as a bare skeleton. I had drawn some of the party people. I was painting the table and William. I had the foreground with a few people: the girl in the yellow dress and Queen Elizabeth and the cowboy figure and space woman. I stopped painting it because I hadn’t planned out everything. I should have done that at the start. I get too eager to start painting. It was the same with the props. I hadn’t decided all the props. I should learn to pencil everything out properly first. It would save a lot of tears!

I love the paper. It is really luxurious matte paper, even in the paperback. How did that decision come about?

I don’t think it’s the same paper in both Williams. The Hollywood one does feel thicker. I think I would have been disappointed if it had been a flimsy paper. It adds to the feel of the artwork when it’s on a good paper. Penguin is on a similar paper and I had asked what kind of paper we would use because I do definitely like books when they’re on a nice paper. It adds a more alluring charm to them.

How long does it take you to do a book?

I’d had the idea for William Heads to Hollywood a while… I started in September last year so it takes about six months. It’s getting shorter and shorter for each book because I’m knowing what I’m doing a bit more. I had from the middle of January to the end of March to do all the artwork.

That’s not long!

No, it was a lot of long evenings and cups of tea to fuel me through. At one point I was focusing so much that my hand started shaking one day. I’d been so worried I wouldn’t finish that I had been tense holding the pencil.

In William Heads to Hollywood you have the word ‘palatial’ and also 'canapes’. Do you think about extending children’s vocabulary when you write?

I had to fight over the use of canapes. They said, Can’t we use finger food? I said no, it doesn’t sound Hollywood enough!

I was pleased to see you use Ms in relation to Vivienne Baxter rather than Miss. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ms in a picture book! What made you do that?

I don’t think there was that much thought involved, but she was meant to be a bit like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, and how she is very bitter about what’s happened in her life. I felt that Ms would sum that up. And it sounded better than Mrs!

What’s next for you?

I’m trying to work on my fourth book, but I’ve not got very far with it at the moment. I’ve got some other projects on the go that I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about, and some non-book related paintings that I want to get done. I did one last year where it was all different dances from films in one picture and I’m doing one this year which is all different food films. I’m trying to pencil that out and I just need to make the time to do that.

So you are working on a picture book at the moment?

I’ve got the idea, but I’m not sure if it will work.  And I hope there will be more William books. I’ve got some ideas in the pipeline. The one I’m working on now is someone else’s text. I’m just doing the illustrations.

Is this the first time you’ve done that? Do you enjoy it?

Yes, in some ways it’s more freeing because they’ve had the idea and you’re drawing it, so there’s more flexibility in some ways, and I’ve been able to come up with my own ideas. It’s been a different way of working but quite enjoyable as well.

Are there any other picture book artists that you admire?

Flying Eye books are wonderful. The Wide Eyed Editions are really good, I admire Oliver Jeffers, obviously. When I first got back into picture books he was one of the ones I started to collect. I like quite a lot of American illustrators, like Maira Kalman. She did books with Daniel Handler. There are just too many wonderful people. Just too many.

Thank you Helen Hancocks for talking to Just Imagine


Copyright Just Imagine 2015
This interview can be printed and used in education settings. It may not be reproduced in any other format in whole or in part without permission.
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