Nicola L Robinson spends her days drawing dragons, monsters, machines that don’t conform to health and safety standards, and scenes from beloved children’s stories. The Monster Machine, a book she both wrote and illustrated, was shortlisted for the Cambridge Children’s Picture Book Award. We dragged her away from claw and tooth littered desk to talk about her work.
How would you describe your style?
My children’s illustrations are generally fairly detailed, graphic and a little dark - but not without humour. I love silly things. Someone recently described my work as being “shivery” so I’ll throw that in too.
Some of your work is highly intricate and detailed, so much so that it was featured in a dpi Magazine article about “meticulous art.” Do you plan things out that way from the start?
Downtown was a personal piece and the subject matter really invited lots of detail so I let myself go, adding all the little windows and pipes and other elements. I knew it would be detailed, but I didn’t realise how much until it was finished, it isn’t totally planned. Same with The Monster Machine, which initially began as something I drew just for myself. Although I love detail I have to be mindful of my audience, some work I’ve done for younger children demands less of it, so my work varies.
Did you have any particular favourite illustrated books as a child? Any that particularly inspired your style?
The first book that really fired my imagination was The Hobbit, which I read with my dad when I was very small. It had a few of Tolkien’s illustrations in it, I was really taken by the maps on the inside covers and was hugely impressed with the character of Smaug which certainly inspired some dragon drawing from myself. Another favourite was The Faber Storybook that had lots of little gruesome pen and ink drawings by Alan Howard, which I loved. I wasn’t conscious of them inspiring my style, but the subject matter certainly influenced my taste.
Which illustrators do you admire these days?
I really admire the work of Shaun Tan, his paintings are beautiful and his children’s books are stunning-real works of art. I particularly love The Arrival, all illustrated in black and white/sepia and no text whatsoever. His illustrations tell the story, you can really get lost in his universe. I also love the work of James Jean, a painter whose work is often dark and surreal, although I like his earlier, more graphic illustrations best. I’ve always really enjoyed the fairytale world of Arthur Rackham - no one does gnarly twisty trees quite like him, it’s his use of ink line and wash that really appeals to me. I love pen and ink illustrations, and am also very fond of the work of Aubrey Beardsley with his decorative, and often somewhat grotesque illustrations. I’m always stunned to realise he died so young, at just 25, yet his output of work was so huge.
You’ve illustrated some new versions of Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz. Is it daunting to give your take on a children’s classic?
A little, as they are already so iconic. Everyone already has an image of the characters and their favourite scenes in their heads. I made a point of not watching any of the animated films or other movies before illustrating them and began by going back and reading the full original texts and starting from there.
Is there any book you’d love to have a crack at illustrating?
I’d love to illustrate a version of Grimm’s fairy tales, maybe in pen and ink, they are so surreal and dark and twisted. Alice in Wonderland would also be a fun one to work on with its somewhat psychedelic universe.
Dragons feature heavily in your pictures. Any particular favourite dragons you have in mind when you’re drawing one?
Haha, well I’ve been drawing them since I was about three, so I like to keep them as part of my work. I don’t have any particular dragons in mind, but they have to have pointy teeth and be a little bit dangerous.
Did you prefer the experience of drawing and writing your own book, compared to just illustrating someone else’s story?
It is hard to say. Creating The Monster Machine picture book has been a fantastic journey, I loved being writer and illustrator, but it did double the responsibility. Part of what I enjoy about illustrating is bringing something new to a text, which for me is a little easier when you aren’t the writer too.
What’s the most frustrating aspect of your job?
The slow pace of the publishing industry. It is totally normal for a book project to be finished and illustrated in September of one year, yet not published until the end of the following one. I’m used to it now, but it’s not so easy to explain this convincingly to friends and family who really want to know when your next book will be out.
How did you create The Monster Machine?
The machine came first, before any of the text or other illustrations. I looked at my drawing with all the random pipes and levers and funnels and other rickety looking components wondered what a machine like that would be used for and the text grew from there. Once there is a text - which keeps getting edited along the way - it needs dividing up into spreads, so you know which words will go on which page. This can be very tricky to get right as the readability of the book is dependent on the reader wanting to see what happens on the next page. Once all that’s done, there is a lot of sketching. The characters need to be designed and the full layout planned, there is a lot of screwing up bits of paper and throwing them away until things look right, finally culminating in a big pencilled, storyboard, much like a comic book.
Once the spreads are all roughed out with pencilled detail, there is the cover to design. That is an art in itself because you need to give a flavour of what the book is about but without giving too much away. Upon reaching the point of having a fully roughed out book, the actual illustrating starts. I work in traditional media which for me means stretching lots of heavy paper on boards, waiting for them to dry before transferring the pencilled roughs onto them, refining details as I go. Once I’m happy with how things look, I get to the inking, which is my favourite part of the whole process. I use either a fine dip pen in Indian ink, or a drawing pen with waterproof ink and draw over the pencilled spread, adding more details like fur and other texture, again much like a comic book. However, unlike a comic book I do all my own colouring and painting
Finally, I paint my inked illustration in watercolours and coloured inks. Much of my work needs to be painted in layers and scanned to Photoshop, for later flexibility like being able to move elements of a cover around, or for pop-up book work. How long a spread takes really can vary hugely, but I’d say about a week for each is ideal.
Is there a support network for Nottingham artists or are you locked to your desk?
I’m sure there are - Nottingham is a fantastic city and has a thriving art scene but I haven’t been involved in it as of yet. In my experience, illustrating is a solitary profession. I have embraced Twitter in recent years, which I have found to be a great way of connecting with other folks while still being able to work. I’ve met lots of interesting people through it, both local and global including other illustrators, students, bloggers, publishers and lots of mums and dads who’ve been interested in children’s books. It is nice to get feedback on work and to help others out too. Saying all this, it is very important to get out and socialise with other people in the real world, particularly when you freelance full time, it is essential for your state of mind. I am fortunate to have a very understanding partner who makes sure I don’t go stir crazy.
What’s your working day like?
My studio is home based, but I don’t wear pyjamas all day and watch daytime TV. I generally start the day by going for a walk. Then I get back, have breakfast, check email, make coffee - my work is powered by coffee, although I’m starting to build up a collection of tea - and get on with whatever is on the drawing board that day. I’m naturally a night owl and am most productive from about 10pm, but to be fair to my partner I work normal hours most of the time. Old habits die hard and I still often wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and have to run off to find a scrap of paper to scribble some monstrosity down.
The Monster Machine is available in all good bookshops.
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