When do you remember you started to draw? Probably at about the age of 5. I remember a visitor during the war saying ‘He draws a lot, but he won’t speak!’. I used to do drawings for the school magazine and also for Punch. I knew someone who drew for Punch and I started submitting drawings. I did get some little ones accepted when I was about sixteen or seventeen. That was a start. They paid me seven guineas each. I didn’t know what to do with the cheque; I didn’t have a bank account! Then when I was at Chelsea I got a regular job doing two drawings a week for Punch and I also started drawing for The Spectator. I began doing small drawings for them until they decided that they were going to have an illustrated cover, and I started doing that too. I suppose the first proper book I ever illustrated was while I was on National Service, before university. I spent three weeks illustrating a booklet – called ‘English Parade’ – used in teaching those soldiers who hadn’t yet mastered reading. There was no alteration to my weekly pay-packet, but I was able to live at home and I was allowed to wear shoes instead of boots. From time to time I had to show my work to a lieutenant-colonel for his approval. A few moments of silence and then: ‘Very good, Sergeant Blake. But I think .. the grass in this one ought to be shorter.’ ‘Yes sir. I’ll see to it, sir.’ ‘And I think the creases in these trousers might be sharper.’ Of course, the problem with making the grass shorter in drawings is that you can’t cut it: you have to do the drawing again. But at least it was preparation for encounters with editors and (worse) committees, later on.
How did you get in to illustrating children’s books? I was interested in education, drawing and English, so it seemed as if illustrating a children’s book might be something I could do. I thought: I don’t know whether they’ll like it or not. I was 20-something so I thought I’ll just keep on with it for a bit and see where I’ve got to by the age of 30, and if it’s no good I’ll give up and if it’s all right I’ll go on. By then it had begun to be all right so I kept on. I didn’t really know how to start. I talked to author John Yeoman, who is a friend, and said ‘Could you write a book so I can illustrate it?’ He could and did. It was called ‘A Drink of Water’.
Which part of a drawing do you start with? I probably start with a nose, or a gesture – if someone is throwing something, for example. This is because facial expressions and gestures are the most difficult to get right; and I build the rest of the drawing around that. The studio is full of discarded pieces of paper with unfinished faces, or hands and arms, and nothing else!
What do you like drawing best? I like drawing anything that is doing something. I like activity. Dragons are good because you can arrange them in interesting ways across the page, get people to ride on them, that sort of thing. Most animals are interesting to draw. Cars are difficult unless they are a bit broken down
Which products do you choose to use? I prefer to use cold-pressed watercolour paper, such as Aquarelle Arches fin, or Canson Mi-Teint. They tend to be about 185gsm, which holds the watercolour and is nice to draw on with a scratchy nib or reed pen. I use waterproof ink: a brand called ‘Higgins Black Magic’. Then I can add the watercolour afterwards without the lines getting smudged. Sometimes I use ordinary, non-waterproof inks, perhaps because they come in different colours, or because I’d like the line to be a bit blurry. I do drawings with quills sometimes, and several years ago I produced a set of drawings of birds and animals drawn with their quills: a picture of a turkey drawn with a turkey quill, a vulture with a vulture quill, and so on. ‘The porcupine’ was the most unusual one of the set! Possibly the strangest thing I’ve used is a plastic toothpick (which I used to draw an illustration for the cover of ‘Punch’ in 1957) but it achieved the effect I wanted. To get the sky effect mostly I use watercolour. The way I do it is to get a big wet brush and make splodgy marks where I want the sky or clouds to go. Then I paint into that with either blue – for the sky – or some other dark colours for clouds; if you do that you can see that it goes soft and runny at the edges.
Do you like to keep images around you when you are working? It’s important to me not to have any imagery in the studio. The walls are white. It is my job to imagine whatever it is I am drawing. In the same way, I have only ever drawn from live models during Life Classes when I studied part-time at Chelsea School of Art. Everything I draw now comes from my own imagination.
How did you start writing books as well? It was in 1968, with the book ‘Patrick’. Really it was a kind of protest because I was seen as a black-and-white illustrator, so I was never asked to do anything in colour. I retaliated by writing this story about a young man who made things change colour when he played the violin. So you see, it had to be illustrated in colour.
What was it like being a Children’s Laureate? Although it was hard work, it was marvellous too. For two years (1999-2001) my job was to do everything I could to promote children’s literature. I gave lots of talks and interviews and wrote lots of articles. I also had a particularly interesting experience producing a book in collaboration with 1800 French-speaking schoolchildren! A group of teachers based near my house in France had the idea of collaborating with an author-illustrator on a real book to be based on suggestions made by children from schools in the region, and they asked me to do it. The book was to be about humanitarian issues: bullying, racism, pollution, war. Via the internet we involved other French-speaking schools in London, Dublin, Luxembourg, even in Singapore. I used as many of the children’s ideas as possible, and much of the text was stitched together from the children’s writings. The finished book – ‘Un Bateau dans le Ciel’ (‘A Sailing-Boat in the Sky’) – is something I am very proud of. And the whole project took just a year from the first meeting to publication – une belle aventure (a wonderful adventure) as one of the teachers put it!
What have you enjoyed doing other than illustrating children’s books? One of the things I have most enjoyed doing was putting together an exhibition for the National Gallery. In ‘Tell me a Picture’ (2001) I chose 26 pictures, one for each letter of the alphabet: some Old Masters from the gallery collection; some modern works and some present-day illustrations from various countries. In 2005, I found myself engaged on a similar task for the re-opening of the Petit Palais, the Musée des Beaux Arts of the city of Paris. This time the theme was of women as they appeared in the paintings of the reserve collection of the museum, introduced by my series of cherubic angels around the walls.
What do you choose to do in your spare time? I am never quite sure when work finishes and spare time begins. Sometimes I go and give talks and lectures and that is also work but it makes a change from drawing. In my real spare time I read quite a lot of books, so that there are generally eight or ten beside my bed that I have started but not finished and perhaps will never finish. Some of them will be in French. I read them quite slowly and underline the words I don’t know, though I am often too lazy to look up what they mean. I also have a house in France. I can work there but my spare time is spent buying food (which seems to be much more interesting there than in England), especially fish and mussels and oysters. The countryside is very flat, so I can cycle round looking at birds. Herons are my favourite.