Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Craig Smith the Illustrator: An interview and review of his work

Craig Smith's Background
Craig Smith is a prolific illustrator who has been amusing and entertaining children for many years. He has illustrated 380 books. This includes trade and illustrated books, series, and book covers. He has a quirky, mischievous and humorous style that always seems to have surprises in each work. His artwork combines a wonderful sense of the absurd with attention to detail. As you read his complete bibliography you are quickly struck by just how many wonderful writers he has illustrated for and how many varied publishers. Craig Smith has been in high demand as an illustrator for almost 40 years. He estimates that this has required approximately 9,000 illustrations! 

He has won a number of awards; including The NSW Premiers Literary Award 1982 for Nan Hunt's authored book 'Whistle Up a Chimney', and a number of awards from the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA). The latter included an Honour Book for 'Where's Mum?' (1993), another for 'Cat' (2008), and a shortlisting for 'Billy the Punk' (1996).   

Craig grew up in the Adelaide Hills. He has been a freelance illustrator since 1976. Like many artists and authors, for some of his early years he had part-time jobs to make a living - washing dishes in a restaurant, scraping rust off the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and doing drawings for advertising. One of the more interesting jobs he had as a young man was working as a nurse's aide in a hospital for the elderly. In that role he was able to observe the human body. This experience he suggests stayed with him and affected the way he has been able to develop characters in his work. He lives with Erica, in Melbourne and has four grown-up children, and four grandchildren. 

Some of my favourite Craig Smith books

His most recent book has just been published by Allen & Unwin. It is called 'Where Are You, Banana?' (2013) and was written by Sofie Laguna. Roddy's dog, Banana, has disappeared! But when Roddy hears a wail from the drain, he finds an ingenious way to rescue his beloved pet. There is a free audio reading available for a smartphone or tablet via QR code printed inside the book. As usual, Craig's illustrations are vibrant and make the story come to life.

With so many books to choose from, it's risky trying to select just a handful of Craig's many wonderful works. But here are some of my favourites.

1. 'Black Dog', author Christobel Mattingly, William Collins, 1979 (Out of print)

This was Craig's first book and was done completely in very fine line work and black and white.  Crosshatched in a long, careful and laborious way, using an ultra fine technical pen. Sadly, it's out of print, but I'm glad to have it in my collection.

2. 'Whistle Up the Chimney', author Nan Hunt, William Collins, 1981

Mrs Millie Mack lived alone in her little cottage, and as she sat down to knit at night she liked to listen to her fire going crickle crackle.  But one winter, when she threw several pieces of wood from a 'bogey louvre' from an old railway carriage, there were very surprising results. I've always loved this book and have been reading it to children for over 30 years. The wonderful line and wash drawings of Craig Smith give Mrs Mack a personality that many will recognize. Curiously, when I discussed the book once with Nan's daughter she commented that Mrs Mack looked just like her mum.  This is all the more surprising given Craig's comments in his interview about little contact with authors. This wonderful book won The NSW Premiers Literary Award in 1982.

3. 'Sister Madge's Book of Nuns', author Doug MacLeod, Omnibus, 1986 (new edition 2012)

This book is just as funny today as it was almost 30 years ago when first released. Doug MacLeod's text and Craig's illustrations almost compete for the right to be more outrageous. I think it's a draw! It is written in hilarious verse and introduces Sister Madge Mappin and other equally unusual inhabitants of the Convent of Our Lady of Immense Proportions. Craig's illustrations (the old and new version) make a significant contribution to this book of irreverent fun.

4. 'Pigtales', author Ron Elisha, Random House, 1994 (Out of print)

This book about a pig was written by Ron Elisha a medical practitioner and playwright from Melbourne. While the book is out of print, if you can find a copy somewhere you'll enjoy it. Once again, Craig's illustrations help to make the book. Craig suggests that this 'under recognised' book contains one of his favourite drawings ‘In the back of a smallgoods van, hung a dejected Prince Porgy, awaiting his final deliverance....I’ve always loved the poignant characterisation of poor Porgy. I've wondered if my feeling for Porgy is because my childhood was close to a small abattoir. These things do leave lasting impressions.'

5. 'Billy the Punk', author Jessica Carroll, Random House, 1995

Billy decides that he needs to look different. And he doesn't care that no one much likes his hair or his new clothes. While Craig makes great use of fine line in his books, in this one he uses colour to bring out the 'emotion' or mood of the story. In Craig's words, 'Billy walking to school is in a cool blue, to show his aloneness, or self-centredness. (Of course, other elements that emphasise this are the ‘from behind’ point of view, and the empty landscape). When he’s being yelled at by his teacher, the colour surrounding her is hot, angry, orange.' The book was shortlisted in the CBCA awards 1996.

6. 'Cat', author Mike Dumbleton, Working Title Press, 2007 (Out of Print)

'Cat' is about a day in the life of a cat of course. It is a very simple but animated story with few words. Craig's images are essential to the strength of the work. The life of a cat can be dangerous. It is a great read aloud book for younger readers. It was a CBCA Book of the Year Early Childhood Honour Book in 2008.

My Interview with Craig Smith

The following interview is one of the most interesting that I've done. As well as helping to offer an insight into Craig Smith the illustrator and person, it provides a huge amount of good practical advice for young illustrators.

1. Was your gift for drawing obvious early? Who encouraged its development?

As a child and adolescent I had very average skills. However my older sister, Maire, has superb drawing skills, and these were apparent as far back as young childhood.

My developmental pathway came about through visiting my sister at art school (SA School of Art in Adelaide), and becoming enthralled by the place in all its facets: painting, sculpture, film (rudimentary animation) and graphic design (especially typography). My portfolio was sufficient to become enrolled - I suspect it was partly because my sister was brilliant.

However, like a lot of art students, I had a good work ethic, and the lecturers were good, occasionally inspiring, as were many of my classmates. Plus, the campus library with its contemporary art journals and illustration compendiums made clear the international standard we wanted to attain in the energized environment of Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan’s (South) Australia in the 1970’s.

Two last points; Life-drawing is the foundation skill for an illustrator. My lecturer George Tetlow was a terrific guide to how to do it. Lastly, I was lucky to strike a friendship with John Nowland, an inspired and very professional graphic designer. This friendship had – as well - all the aspects of a genuine mentor/mentee relationship.

2. What books and illustrators were influential for you when you were growing up, and as an adult? Who inspired you, and perhaps what illustrators and authors still do?

I’ve always enjoyed browsing and reading books. An example of a pivotal book was Lord of the Flies by William Golding – read at 13. I imagine this was a pivotal text for many. For the purpose here, I’ll concentrate on illustrators that inspired me, and especially around the period of art school, and the ten years thereafter – when most receptive to influence.

First influence, being taught the principles of Swiss graphic design, exemplified in the book: Graphic Design Manual: Principles and Practice by Armin Hofmann. My first bible at art school.

Secondly, New York graphic designer Milton Glaser. His book Milton Glaser Graphic Design was my second bible at art school.

Next, by now I was drifting towards illustrative solutions for all my art school work. A number of Swiss/German artists became especially influential, Etienne Delessert, Heinz Edelmann, Roland Topor, Tomi Ungerer and most of all, the great Karl Friedrich Waechtar.

They were especially influential by their exotic & peculiar Europeanness. Others included Ralph Steadman, John Burningham, Michael Foreman and Tony Ross in the UK. A very, very useful photographic resource was The Human Figure In Motion by Eadweard Muybridge. Nowadays, there is less that is influential but a lot that is charming and provoking; Leigh Hobbs and Shaun Tan come immediately to mind.

3. Do you have any preferred methods or medium?

The medium is the simple part – arrived at by years of experience, and still steadily changing. Basically the medium is, a blending of gouache paint (useful for watercolour like effects – but less troublesomely soluble than watercolour), acrylic paint and acrylic ink. My illustration has always relied on an outline. This part of the illustration has changed most over years, from a precise opaque line drawn with a nib, and embellished with crosshatching - to nowadays an imprecise line still drawn with a nib, but the ink often much watered down and with little or no crosshatching.

I rely on observing what happens as paint and ink dries, and trying to manipulate that. With regard to computer skills; you must have them. At the minimum to work professionally, you should have the ability to make basic alterations in Photoshop, as necessary, (to the scan files). Actually ‘painting’ for long hours on computer is physically stressful and eventually torturous, in a way that real painting never is.

4. How important is a sense of ‘partnership’ between author and illustrator? What is the key to the collaboration between author and illustrator working as it has for so many of your books?

A publishing strategy is to partner people with the hope it works commercially. Occasionally it does, mostly it fizzles. In my experience, it does not involve directly working together at all – you just share a rapport, and attitude, with regard to the story. A different way of looking at it is, the rapport is actually with the editor. A good, supportive, thoughtful relationship with an editor is very motivating. I think it is the principal relationship. My working practice requires mostly being left alone.

5. What is the best response you've ever had to a book?

The first book… Then being offered another one after that! I’m always cheered by a response that I periodically get from the few readers of a series known generically as 'I Hate Fridays' by Rachel Flynn' (Penguin 1990 –1997). The readers are always girls who’s eyes shine with fun and brightness – they are clued in to Rachel’s acute, dry humour and familiar school characters. (These five black and white books may be my best work).

Update: As I write this, I just received a notification that a recent book has a nice review in the NY Times (Heather Fell In the Water by Doug MacLeod, Allen & Unwin). That ranks!

6. Does the work of illustration get easier, or harder as your reputation grows and your list of great works lengthens?

I think it gets easier to make judgements and decisions. I've had enough success to gain self-confidence. Not enough to think I've got it all worked out.

7. What's the most unusual request that you ever had for an illustrating assignment?

The first that comes to mind would be What a Week! (by Robyn Ryan, Playworks). Requiring the child hero to be using a specific walking aid, and with some specific body movements characteristic of his condition. Another would be the requirement to picture the direct language describing child sexual abuse in Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept (by Jay Sanders, Upload Publishing).

Perhaps the first drafts for the 'Toocool' series (by Phil Kettle, Black Dog Books), in which Toocool's sporting rivals were all in his imagination - drawn by anthropomorphizing the brick wall etc. Sad to say, this approach was abandoned.

Another would be the video clip for 'The Lonely Goth' by Mick Thomas. The task involving planning, and timing, a series of images to accompany the song. I loved this task.

However, the task of animating the song 'Insy Winsy Spider' for the TV show Here's Humphrey - all in one day. This task broke me mentally and also broke my enjoyment of animation.

8. Can you tell us a little bit about your new picture book, Where Are You, Banana?

'The dog, Banana' has that familiar doggy curiosity that has him lost, then found by Roddy - but hopelessly at the bottom of a road works (footpath) hole. Some quick thinking, and savvy use of toys, makes the rescue possible. It is a child size drama- no less moving for that. Using this book, the relationship between Roddy and Banana is bought even further to life - if you choose - by utilising a QR code to go to web narrations (audio) to listen while reading along with the story. This is an interesting use of groovy new technology, highlighting the warmth and liveliness of the narrators. Very exciting.

9. Do you have many new projects on the drawing board?

No, not many in number. The years of abundant production in educational publishing are finished.

However, there are some nice projects happening. Some favourites are:

• A picture book based on the Vietnam War.
• A self-authored picture-book about a cat, on the theme of vanity.
• Another is a venture into self-publishing – 'Doctor Frankenstein's Other Monster' (by Nigel Gray, CSI-Books) - because I use the book in school visits, plus it is a vehicle to develop an enhanced fixed layout EPUB ebook. The iBook version of this is just about ready to go.

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