Something Made By Hand:
an interview with David Mackintosh
by Robyn Sheahan-Bright
[This article contains some content included in Robyn Sheahan-Bright's
‘An Interview with David Mackintosh’ Books for Keeps, No 225, July 2017.]
‘Whimsical, brilliantly witty, anarchic, quirky and brilliantly observed drawings, seriously funny’ – these are just some of the words of praise which have been lavished upon the work of renowned graphic designer, writer and illustrator, David Mackintosh.
Born in Belfast in 1968, David grew up and studied art in Australia where his tutors included Armin Greder and Chris McKimmie, and where he embarked on his illustrious career. He relocated to London in 1997 and has since worked with some of the most acclaimed writers in both the UK and Australia.
Q: David, when did you first become interested in drawing and design? What were you interested in at art school?
‘I always liked drawing and reading. But I equally liked sports and physical activity and was always playing outside. I liked to draw cartoons and caricatures of people, but I’m sure they were terrible (the drawings, that is). When I got to high school I didn’t do any arts subjects and concentrated on technical drawing and sports subjects, and I loved geography. I never had the feeling that I was missing out on anything by not doing art, and none of my friends were doing art either, so I knew nothing of it.
At art school, I liked drawing and painting, and thinking about a text and meaning. But I also liked the mechanical side of things like making stretchers for canvas and using the repro camera and screen printing and the process of print making. Maybe that’s why I liked working in engineering, the behind the scenes stuff. And graphic design. The mechanics of it all.’
Q: After school you briefly wanted to be an engineer/draftsman?
‘I left school and found a job in an engineering company. I was there for 4 years.
At first my job was in the print room and as a messenger. I delivered rolls of drawings to architects and building sites all over the city, which I loved doing because I’d have to wander about huge, deadly building sites looking for the site office, which was never in the same place as it was the last time I was there. In order to be a draftsman I studied maths and technical drawing at night.
Meanwhile, I lived in a house with a group of art students and I kind of liked their lifestyles and what they called work, which looked a lot like sleeping, drinking beer and painting stuff on unorthodox surfaces. So on their suggestion, I put some drawings together in the hope of applying for a place at the design school. After a few interviews, I got a place in the art school and within 6 months I knew I'd made the right choice leaving the engineering firm’.
When he was an undergraduate at Queensland College of Art (QCA) his then lecturer – acclaimed picture book artist, Armin Greder – held a student exhibition at Metro Arts in Brisbane. The works David exhibited were from his very original interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes which had already been commended in the Macmillan Prize for Children’s Picture Book Illustration in Australia. The publishers at Jam Roll Press were immediately taken with it and commissioned him to create a picture book.
Q: What did that first book mean to you?
‘I was surprised and pleased that something which was done as an experiment in the studio at university ie. ‘illustrate a children’s book’ was seen as publishing material. The project was to complete a storyboard and dummy and three finished artworks of a picture book for children. This was Armin Greder’s idea and was one of several projects on a list. I never imagined myself illustrating children’s books, I just wanted to illustrate texts, stories and ideas. Children didn’t come into it.
But Armin had foresight because what was required to complete the project was what I do to this day when presenting my book ideas: a storyboard/dummy and one or two pictures.
Of course, what I did for school wasn’t what Jam Roll Press published. We started from scratch, but followed the dummy.
I remember being very excited about the prospect of my pictures being turned over to someone who would convert them into ink on paper. This fascinated me and made me see the artwork not only as loaded with meaning, but also to be taken on face value because the printed result was what people would be seeing. The day I saw the first proofs, I was really intrigued about the possibilities and interested in the process behind everything and I wanted to work in print thereafter.
The editing process was a breeze, and good fun too. Jam Roll were the best.
So, I think it meant an awful lot on many levels.’
Q: You had several studios in Brisbane in the early 90s. One was in Chinatown, and later at the Queensland Writers Centre? Did having your own studio and being a freelancer as an artist beginning a career give you more freedom to experiment? As a freelance illustrator what sort of work did you first begin doing?
‘I think I started doing covers at University of Queensland Press with Clare Forster. Clare was great to work with and had a clever way of sidelining poor ideas before they were advanced too far. I would do young adult fiction covers and also fiction titles that were just typographic or had a cartoon or something in them. I like dealing with a front cover, trying to represent visually in one page an idea the author has spent 300 pages developing.
Craig Munro and I collaborated on a lot of things, namely some of Hugh Lunn’s books. This is where I learned a lot about the editorial process from experienced journalists like Hugh, Helen Dash and Craig.
I worked for publishers in Melbourne and Sydney, namely Mark Macleod (Random House) and Laura Harris (HarperCollins/Penguin), doing children’s books at that time too.
The studios were important and I had a lot of people around making things and doing work that wasn’t like mine, so I learned a lot.’
Q: I remember that you adapted to digital design very early … before others of your contemporaries were using it. How did this influence your career?
‘Maybe I did, I don’t know. But what I do know is I had no choice. I didn’t train using the layout programs at uni or anything like that. I was spending my time making things and drawing and painting. We did a token introductory computer class which was in an air conditioned room and you had to fight to get on the colour monitor, of which there was one. Instead, I mastered the photocopier which is far less taxing on the brain.
I bought a computer for typography (a Mac LC630). I wanted to do my own type and not send off to a bureau for a linotype bromide. I would use laser printed type in my camera-ready artwork. Of course, everything digital took off over a few short years and it was an essential part of a designer’s studio. But there was a gray area in between where people didn’t know what they were doing and lots of mistakes were made.
If I was presenting a cover design to a publisher, the common practice was to do a rough illustration, in colour, then overlay a sheet of acetate on it. On the acetate would be the typography carefully painted in gouache or acrylic, in the desired colours. I would have hand drawn the type, or cut and pasted photocopies of a linotype setting of the copy which I could trace on the acetate in gouache. Then a cardboard window matt was put on top. Normally, there’d be two cover ideas set up on an A3 board so the editor had a choice!
As soon as we could do all this work digitally and print out a colour laser print of a design, it changed everything. All of a sudden, two ideas was insufficient and a minimum of ten colourways seemed adequate. Now, the publisher is expecting to see finished products in the first draft stage, more or less. There is less of a gap between the pitched concept and the finished article.’
After some time travelling (including a visit to the Bologna Book Fair in 1994) David freelanced in Sydney, then returned to Brisbane from 1995–6 to establish a studio Spud Design with another QCA graduate, Sasha Middleton.
He then returned to London to live in 1997 where he was art director for a photographic book publisher producing interiors and lifestyle books. Then he was picture book designer at Hodder Children’s Books (UK) for four years, and has been a freelance designer and art director since 2004 working in children’s and general publishing. At Hodder, he worked with various illustrators such as Neal Layton, Mick Inkpen, David Melling, Cressida Cowell and Nick Maland. He designed the original How To Train Your Dragon books by Cowell. He and Lauren Child have collaborated on many projects including her books, and he was design consultant on her Charlie and Lola animated television series (Tigeraspect).
Q: In working as designer for other illustrator’s books, what are the benefits of that for you?
‘The best thing is working with someone and debating ways of doing things, of problem solving. I learn so much in the process. I always admire how an illustrator can be fearless about something I might struggle with myself if I was trying to do it. But then I can help them out with some technical thing they didn’t know could be done, so it’s a good combination.’
He has won or been nominated for many awards: Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School was shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2011, longlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal 2011, , winner of the Please Touch Museum Illustration Award 2011, winner of the Hampshire Illustrated Book Award 2012 andshortlisted for The Sakura Medal 2013. Rex (written by Ursula Dubosarsky) won the 2006 APA Best Designed Children’s Picture Book and Best Designed Children’s Cover of the year, and was shortlisted for the 2006 CBCA Book of the Year – Early Childhood Award. (A full listing of his awards by title is available on this website.)
Q: You have worked with Lauren Child on many projects, and she has said that: ‘David is one of my favourite people to work with; we work together a lot and for my part that’s because his typography is always considered and always beautiful, and you can’t say that about everyone. He’s also pretty funny.’ (Sheahan-Bright 2011, p5) Tell us more about how that working partnership began and how it evolved?
‘We have a good time above all else. It is hard work though, because we’re normally against the clock with the deadline, but Lauren knows what she’s aiming for and she’s always willing to try something else if the idea’s not working for her.
Lauren always presents her idea and my job is to assist in realising it inthe form of a book. I worry about the printing and I deal with the typography. As time passes, she’s become really educated in the process but to her credit she leaves all the practical stuff to me so she focusses on the text and illustrating. She might bring a piece of fabric along to a meeting and say “I want this colour,” and I’ll say “Sure thing”, when deep down I know it’s impossible. Then it’s my job to come up with a solution that she will be happy with, or at least agree to.
Lauren works with other designers too, and I am better for some things over others. I ended up working on Charlie and Lola and she asked me to work on the TV show because of my knowledge of the books. As a freelance designer I get to do what I choose to do and I always make myself available to do her books if the schedules work.’
Q: During all these years as a busy designer and art director you also worked on a number of other picture books with writers such as Nigel Gray, Marion Halligan, Moses Aaron, several books with Gillian Rubinstein, and the award-winning Rex with Ursula Dubosarsky – all for Australian publishers. I thought it was quite amusing that when your first self-authored texts began to come out you were billed as a ‘new artist’.
‘Yes. It’s a little like a biological parent thing. Publishers like to claim responsibility.’
Writer and illustrator…
David has written a suite of five titles for HarperCollins in recent years, after over 20 years illustrating other writers’ texts. Each is a celebration of what it means to be a child and how children see the world entirely differently to their adult counterparts.
Q: So, until fairly recently all the picture books you had illustrated were written by others. But then you were offered a six book deal with HarperCollins UK and have just released the sixth title. Had that been a long-held ambition to create your own stories?
‘I like designing and working with others, but I felt that I had to keep practising illustrating because it’s something that requires practice. So one summer when I didn’t go on a holiday I developed some ideas and took them to HarperCollins. The first one was Marshall Armstrong. I just wanted to do one book a year and make the rest of my income from graphic design.’
Q: Your stories traverse some recurring themes such as the hopes and fears in childhood, the challenges of being or confronting an outsider, and being misunderstood?
‘I like to be able to present contrasts and for the reader to feel that everything will be OK in the end, that maybe there is something else to be gained from all experiences– something unexpected. Unfulfilled expectations often drive my characters to find other answers to their questions and I think this can be reassuring for the reader.
But I like to leave questions in the text, to have the reader make up their own minds. This can sometimes be at odds with what my editor wants, but I often fight for gaps like this to be left in.’
Q: I’d like to ask you a few questions about each title.
Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School (2011) is about being the odd one out. Marshall arrives at this new school with his pernickety stationery and carefully labelled lunch containers and the young female narrator announces that ‘he just doesn’t fit in’. But then the class is invited to Marshall’s birthday party and they each have a fabulous time. For Marshall’s house is just as unique as he is. It even has a fireman’s pole for sliding down, not to mention all his games and odd devices. The narrator decides that when Elizabeth Bell turns up as a new kid, she and Marshall will make her feel very welcome! The details in these images of all the things kids find entertaining are ‘vintage David’. They are intricately sketched and eccentrically imagined. As usual, though, he also manages to tug at the heartstrings with a book about accepting others, relishing one’s own idiosyncrasies, and making new friends.
Q: In Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School that theme of the outsider is very visible? What was the inspiration behind this one?
‘The outsider theme to the book is important to me, and MA was inspired by the expectations people had of the first men on the moon who had experienced something few others ever would. Suddenly, (in the course of 8 days or so, the time it takes to go to the moon and back) they were irrevocably different to the rest of the world’s population by virtue of visiting another heavenly body, but they were ordinary people who had an extraordinary experience. Returning to earth it was difficult not to be what they were before they left, but people expected more. I like the idea of MA being accepted for who he is, but being admired for being different.’
I was fascinated with the idea of how people fit in to situations, and remember new kids joining my class at school and how different they were, just because they weren’t yet familiar. It’s good fun to play with the contrast between things and with Marshall it’s easy because he seems to be from a different place and time. And the important thing is that he himself is perfectly fine with that.’
The Frank Show (2012) was described by the Wall Street Journal as ‘a cheerful paean to eccentricity’ which could equally describe all David’s work. The narrator has to give a talk to his class about someone, and he chooses his curmudgeonly grandad, Frank. But now he’s having second thoughts about that, because Frank’s ‘just a grandad’ and hasn’t done anything interesting like the other kids’ subjects have. ‘Kristian’s dad is a comedian, Paolo’s mum is Italian and speaks Italian, Donny’s dad works at a crisp factory. And my grandad’s name is Frank.’ The image of him in the monochrome car driven by Frank is symbolic of this sinking feeling of helplessness. David has said: ‘I remember the feeling of being defenceless when as a child you are in a car being driven somewhere you don’t want to go, like a family outing for example.’ (BFK 2012) But of course Frank proves the most interesting subject of all to these young students; his experiences are so foreign to them that they have real ‘cachet’. The relationship between old and young members of an extended family – a celebration of grandparents – is given a humorous twist here in David’s eclectic style.
Q: In The Frank Show you have a boy who is struggling to find anything interesting about his plain old grandad, who is the subject of his show and tell at school. So this is a story about bridging the generation gap. But it’s also about family history and memories and how we often fail to listen to those who are closest to us. And it’s both touching, wise and hilariously funny. Frank of course becomes the star of ‘Show and Tell’. And I love the way you tap into the things which kids will find interesting, too. For example ‘He has a rubber band ball that is twenty-eight years old.’ Can you remember what first prompted you to write this one?
‘This story is almost a reboot of Marshall Armstrong, but with different players. How we become familiar with the unfamiliar, about xenophobia and fear of the unknown. I remember having elderly relatives from overseas coming to visit when I was a kid and noticing how different they were, not just their age, but they didn’t have suntans and were always complaining about the heat. They had strong accents and seemed to be homesick all the time. My relatives weren’t around long enough for me to get to know them like the boy does in Frank, but everybody has a story.
Sometimes when you discover something about a person it makes them more attractive despite you having no interest in them previously eg. their preference in a type of music, or a favourite artist or writer. It’s like looking through a keyhole and finding something you didn’t know was there.’
In Standing In for Lincoln Green (2013), the hero, Lincoln Green, has an exact double – someone who does all the things he doesn’t like to do himself. Eventually, though, he realises that it’s not so bad doing things around the house, and that he can actually find things to enjoy himself and not leave everything to his erstwhile partner. I love the language in this where David channels those old fashioned cowboy movies: ‘Lincoln Green can grab some shuteye, listen to Sagebrush and Dawgies on the radio, and mosey over to Brian and Kenny’s place to shoot the breeze. There’s plenty of time for fizzy sarsaparilla and hot dogs too.’ It was so apt that this was a finalist in the Western Writers of America Spur Awards 2014!
Q: Here the eponymous hero has a ‘stand-in’ whenever he is set an unwelcome task. Was this story also derived from childhood memories of yours?
‘I am impressed at how imaginative children can be, and to them it can be real. A friend’s daughter walked into the room and noticed her reflection in a mirror and stopped and was either speaking to it or to herself, and then just carried on to wherever she was going. I think this is where it stemmed from. But it was just a device for the real story which is about responsibility. I remember the conflict between things that had to be done ie. what parents want you to do, and things that you’d like to do ie. watch tv, play outside. In my case it was mowing the lawn. My childhood was comprised of mowing the lawn (and other people’s lawns) interspersed with moments of school. Lincoln Green is really just trying to have the best of both worlds and my feeling is that it is most likely one can’t, but it’s worth a try.’
Lucky (2014) is a ‘hoot’! The narrator and his brother Leo are told by their mum and dad that they’re getting a surprise that night and try to guess what it might be. They fancifully imagine they’ve won a two week holiday to Hawaii and tell everyone at school. But the surprise turns out to be something else altogether. The retro collaged images of Hawaiian holidays are matched by an hilariously ironic text:
But the moments of childish doubt are also so very poignant:
The denouement is a celebration of a family and the quirky humour its members share; they realise that they are ‘lucky’ just to have each other!
Q: Do you personally feel lucky?
‘Well, I think so, yes. No matter what, it’s all relative and one must just make the best of the situation. If it’s a bad situation there still has to be highpoints. But I’m sure there are some people who don’t see those. To a child, having pizza for dinner can make up for a dreadful day. In my book, Leo just takes it to the next level by the simple act of adding pineapple to the pizza.’
What’s Up MuMu? (2015) was described by Oliver Jeffers as ‘stunningly beautiful and simple’ and perfectly captures that ‘low’ feeling every child suffers at some point or other. A cloud passes over the sun and nothing can make you feel better – until suddenly you just do! The two characters are drawn as odd little figures (neither animal nor human) whose very oddness emphasises their similarity to small children. Her friend is patiently trying to make Mumu enjoy the day by tempting her with her favourite things but is fighting an uphill battle. This is exquisitely endearing in the excuses Mumu makes up for not enjoying anything on this day! (‘I don’t want to get my hair wet.’) I was reminded of a four year old who hated attending a pre-wedding shower tea recently. (Boring, boring, boring! And no one would play with her!) But eventually Mumu comes good and enjoys the day with her friend.
Q: Have things changed for you as a designer and picture book artist since you began writing your own texts?
‘It’s a very different experience producing my own texts and illustrating and designing them. I love working with other people and getting an insight into how they do their work. But the chain of command is very important and as designer I have to balance keeping the publisher pleased and keeping the artist pleased. When I’m doing my own books, it is less complicated and I really only need to communicate with the editor, and then with the production controller with the print of the book. It is more streamlined.’
Q: How do you present picture book ideas to a publisher: do you use a storyboard, or a mock-up or what?
‘I like to show my publisher a handmade dummy of my book idea. It’s the best way to simulate the reading experience of my story in book form. Before it gets to the publisher I would have road tested it in this form anyway and made revisions and so on.
Before it’s a dummy, I’ll have planned out a storyboard of little drawings, investigating what works and what doesn’t, where the page breaks should be and all of those things. This is done on a big sheet of layout paper, then I cut up pieces and rearrange pages to suit. It’s the hardest part of the process, looking for how to reveal the story.
The rough drawings that make up the dummy are very rough because I just want to deliver the bare bones of the picture book so that the message is delivered, so it’s enough for the editor to ‘get it’ and give me the green light. The illustrating develops in its own way from there because you think of better solutions as you’re sitting working on the pictures over a two–three month period.’
Q: I want to talk about your style here, which is really quite idiosyncratic… you use line drawing, but also often employ collage-techniques, and incorporate objects and symbols which mean something to you personally. There is a certain ‘retro’ flair to the way your images are selected and how they work together too… can you reflect a little on your drawing and the inspiration behind creating your images as an artist?
‘I don’t think of my illustrations as modern or contemporary, but they aren’t self-consciously ‘retro’. They lack ‘modern’ sophistication visually because they are done in a very traditional way (drawn on paper) without any special effects that may only be possible with someone working digitally.
But I do work digitally, I supply my picture book images as a final digital image for print. However, it is not conceived in the computer. I produce a large part of it on paper at my desk and I compose things to varying degrees in Photoshop once I have all the pieces I need.
My pictures are drawing based and that’s always where I start. Adding paper for colour and texture, and watercolour is always secondary to the drawing. My process begins with making one off drawings until I get one that works. There is no underdrawing then tracing over. That way I can get a pretty spontaneous and bright line. Then I’ll add other bits of good drawings to the main drawing by collage and once I have the master drawing together, I’ll paint it and get it to a point that it’s ready to scan. Afterwards, I’ll add things here and there that I hadn’t thought of in the computer.’
Q: It’s also fair to say that you are a perfectionist. I can remember how readily you would discard any image if it wasn’t working for you. Your attention to detail is precise. And you like to maintain a tight control over extraneous aspects of design such as how your work is represented in catalogues, for example. How important is this attention to detail in being a designer?
‘Well, it’s important to me but not so important to anyone else! I think every artist is a perfectionist in their own way. I might do 20 drawings and waste a lot of paper getting to a single successful drawing that I want to use in the book, but it’s not really waste because I’ve just proved to myself that the drawing wasn’t quite there yet.’
Q: David, who are other illustrators or designers working today whom you admire?
‘I spend time in bookshops picking up books by other people and being impressed and inspired by what I see. It’s not easy to mention one over another. What I love about a book is the ‘unit’, a little capsule containing an idea, a story, in amongst all those other capsules on the shelf. And every now and then there’s one that makes you smile or go “Wow, yes… that’s a good one.” I like seeing someone’s drawing and ‘hand’ in the book. As if they had an idea and just-had-to-or-else put it down on paper to tell the story so they got a pencil and sat and drew it out. I like the atmosphere of Jon Klassen’s books, and the beauty of Sara Fanelli’s, and the imagination and style of Lauren Child’s, and Oliver Jeffers’ because of his positivity. I always find myself going back to my own shelf at home and re-reading my Sempés and looking at my Steinberg books and looking at paintings by Brett Whiteley and Egon Schiele and thinking that somehow it will help me out.’
Q: There have been lots of changes in the industry since the 90s. Does the growing market for ebooks or digital books effect how you approach storytelling? You’ve been working in the UK now for 20 years. What changes have you noticed in that time? What predictions might you make about the future? What changes have you seen in years of working with illustrators/photographers and the way technology has influenced the production process?
‘It’s almost unimaginable just how different working was before computers. Fortunately I was trained old school so was always into print and production, whereas today you can get away without that, and a publishing house has graphic designers working for them who take you by the hand and help you make your book. Before, you kind of had to do it all yourself and you’d learn what was required from the repro house, or your editor.
I use a computer everyday for my work, but it’s just a means to an end when it comes to preparing something for printing. A bound book is a vehicle for delivering my story. An e-book is simply a by-product, and I don’t think that flicking through the digital pages on a tablet is as enjoyable an experience as sitting with a printed book in your lap turning the pages. It just isn’t. But an app is a different thing, and if it’s designed well to exploit the medium, whilst maintaining the integrity of the story you’re telling, then you’ve succeeded. Sometimes I like movies better than the original book, and sometimes vice versa.’
Q: What have been the major artistic influences on your work?
‘I’ve always liked looking at pictures: paintings, photographs anything. Little snapshots of ideas for consideration. The idea of the artist in the studio making something has always appealed and so I am drawn to the tangible like a painting or a drawing or sculpture. Something made by hand. But then there’s the abstract and finding something in shapes and graphic information such as typography. This has always interested me, but again it’s tangible because it’s part of everyday life and ultimately it was made by hand. I’m just overtly interested in it.’
David has a sixth self-authored book out in 2017 – There’s a Bug on My Arm That Won’t Let Go (HarperCollins). This latest book has all the hallmarks of the other works – it’s touching, hilarious, and highly inventive in image, design and words. His sympathetic design and typography makes any book he creates a fully integrated package. His whimsical take on the world can be viewed on his website, too, where ‘Notes to Self’ provide some inkling of how his inventive mind works.
David’s words and images always highlight what it is to feel as a child does, sometimes misunderstood, or ignored, and often alone. They are intricate metaphors for what it means to tackle life as an individual whether that be as a big person or as a child. The closing words in this text summarise that so well. ‘Goodbye bug. Look after yourself.’ The bug takes off – as the narrator must inevitably do as well.
He has an innate understanding of a childlike perspective on the adult world. His observations on family dynamics and on his feisty narrator’s friendship with the elusive Melody next door, and her cat Pearl, are endearing. She spends a day wishing a bug would ‘buzz off’ and leave her alone, but then she realises that: ‘This bug needs my help – just like Melody when everyone called her Scratchy. I told them that Melody probably didn’t want to have scratchy hair and how would they like it?’ And she saves the bug from a hungry bird.
Q: David, do you draw on your own childhood, or more through observation of those around you?
'I’m sure I do draw on past experience when I’m trying to relate to a young audience. I am aware that if I’m doing a book that’s to be published for a young reader then there’s no point aiming too high above that, for example, by using highfalutin words. However, I try to think of my picture books as ‘books’ not ‘children’s books’. If I was overly conscious of an age range or something I’d never get anything done. I’m trying to deliver an idea or a point of view to help make the reader think about something that interests me, and that’s about it. It’s open to adults as much as it is to children. I don’t embark on a righteous attempt to connect with a child reader as much as I think my stories are so puerile they just suit a younger market.
I easily recall experience of relating to adults as a child, but I figure everybody does to varying degrees. I guess this is what you’re suggesting. I have a recollection of how demarcated children’s and adults’ lives were when I was growing up: at home, at school, in society. We inhabited different worlds, and that’s a great basis for storytelling for children. One can exaggerate it, or blend it. I love the melodrama of juvenile struggle, but in a good way. To the adult, it’s something the child will get over but to the child experiencing it it can be the end of the world. I guess we all did struggle. Didn’t we?’
There is another possible ambiguous reading of the bug taking off – that Melody, who the narrator has cared for during her ‘flea’ trauma, may let go of her at some point – sometimes we grow away from friends as they find their feet elsewhere? The narrator is alone. (Why is Melody staying indoors today?)
Q: You use a variety of mediums and techniques in your distinctive drawings and collages; here two pages contain a series of small images which give a filmic or comic quality to the action, and the final image contains a stark silhouette framed in a window. Can you describe some of the illustrative and design decisions you made in creating this book?
‘This book is very busy and scratchy and full of messy line drawing. I wanted the feel of outdoors in a garden in summer, when it’s holiday time, and I wanted to draw it all. I was thinking about how it was playing outside, around the house. The indoor/outdoor aspect was a theme, a metaphor for knowing someone and not knowing them.
Melody the next door neighbour is the fulcrum of this book. The girl’s flashback to her relationship with this new friend influences her reaction to the bug and so I inserted two strip-like pages where she recounts what happened with Melody on their way to becoming friends. It’s a contemplative story and the reader needs to think a little too.
My work is very drawing-based, nothing more than that. It’s figurative and I love to draw people and things. I like working on paper and in two dimensions, but with drawing I like adding tension with some collage, usually with a found image or something cut from kraftpaper or newspaper or something. Composition is all important. I might start with cutting out a cat from a piece of paper and working a picture up around that piece of paper. Or a drawing might have a piece of paper glued down on it because I like its shape and want to use it. I have pieces of paper I like pinned on the wall waiting to make an entrance.’
Q: Typography and hand-lettered type are passions for you. Can you elaborate?
‘Type was always a mysterious thing to me and I love how it has meaning and how the illustration has meaning and the two can be on the same page and together say something new. Visually, it is such an integral part of a composition, so the selected typeface has to feel right. A serifed typeface fits with my drawing somehow. The handlettering is really part of the drawing and is a kind of bridge between the set type and the drawing. I also like to look beyond the meaning of the letters and words, and just see them as shapes to use in the composition.’
Wry humour is another aspect of David’s work – when the narrator is looking for help to remove the bug, she turns in desperation to the family mutt but concludes that: ‘O’Reilly’s no help because O’Reilly wouldn’t hurt a fly.’ The ridiculously elongated arm of the narrator is a visual joke; his books are full of delicious little asides like this.
Q: What was the inspiration behind writing this book?
‘When I was little I was in the garden and a Christmas beetle flew on to the front of my shirt and clung on. I tried to brush it away but it stuck on there and flapped its wings to try to deter me. I could feel its claws scratching me. I was alone in the back yard and felt like I was helpless. But really, it must have been more terrified than me considering I was 100 times its size.’
In 2017, David has also illustrated Archie and the Bear written by Zanni Louise (Little Hare Books). In Archie and the Bear David returns to interpreting another person’s words. Archie is a boy who thinks he’s a bear and he meets a bear who thinks he’s a boy. It’s about a child’s frustration over not being listened to, and finding a friend who both listens and understands because he’s been through the same experience.
Q: David, the images in this book graphically explore spatial relationships denoting real relationships. There are images, for example, of people’s feet, from Archie’s perspective; you enjoy playing with the perspectives of both the boy and the bear. I loved the second double page spread where Archie is a mere speck in the middle of the spread diminished by the looming forest ahead of him. Would you explain this use of space on a page further?
‘Like the Christmas beetle I mentioned, I find the idea of vulnerability intriguing. Archie is vulnerable to his physical environment as much as his wilfulness is at odds with the adults who don’t agree with him. There are a lot of examples of this: the bear, the forest, the nightfall.
It’s a kind of King Kong in reverse. Kong is at the mercy of the strange new world it is brought into, but on Skull Island he was the big fish (big gorilla).’
Q: In the press release you say that you pictured Archie in a Carpathian Forest. This setting and the link with scary bears in fairy tales informs the imagery of the dark and dangerous forest; the use of silhouettes here, too, is very atmospheric. The warm, cosy ending is a classic fairy tale denouement with alternative potential readings.
‘I like the idea that perhaps it’s all happening in Archie’s imagination, after all, he thinks he’s a bear so his imagination is in full working order. Illustratively, the real bear is made out of paper and there’s a contrast between the drawn world of Archie and this collaged bear: I was thinking about how different the species are. I wanted the bear to be dangerous and a potential threat to this tiny human. It’s up to the reader to feel this through the images.
Another clue to the Bear being real or not is the question of whether the bear on the last page is the Bear or a bear rug which has perhaps inspired Archie’s imaginative journey. I wanted there to be a question mark.
I didn’t want to go down the anthropomorphic bear path because the text is suggesting that and my bear is real and I wanted to work against that. I made a joke by giving it a tiny boy’s jumper for this reason.
I remember the Walter Crane illustration of Little Red Riding Hood with this real wolf looking bestial and not at all like what I imagine Riding Hood’s grandmother to look like. It was so savage and surreal that it always stuck with me. I felt the same way with the bear in this book.’
Q: The patterned quilt under which these friends snuggle at the end is carried through to the endpapers in another carefully designed visual reference incorporating the retro aesthetic you often return to. How important is it to cement or repeat visual elements throughout a book?
‘I saw some Romanian folk art and really liked it. The blanket is based on that. The pictures happen in a woodland setting in a kind of unusual and remote place because I wanted it to feel remote but believable.’
Q: What was it like returning to illustrating someone else’s words after your spate of writing in recent years?
‘I like the idea of working with any inspiring text I’m sent because it’s kind of out of the blue, whereas with one of my own it’s always very familiar, maybe something that’s been on my mind for years. Somehow the former is easier to work with, but no more rewarding. I do like owning the ball.
Illustrating another’s words there is less freedom. I have to consider the consequences of wanting to change a word or even a sentence if my illustration can justify it. When I’m working with my own words, it’s a constant adding and cutting and changing to my heart’s content. I design my own books too, so I don’t even have to worry about consulting with my designer. But ultimately any change must be justified with a great idea that everyone likes.’
Q: What advice would you give your student self about making a career as an artist/designer?
‘That’s not easy to answer, but one thing would be not to underestimate the importance of having a studio or a place to work properly. Somewhere to make a mess and to pin things on the wall and to feel like each time you walk into the space you’re reminded of what takes place there and it doesn’t feel ike an office. Moreover, don’t be afraid to show what you can do and that only you can motivate yourself to get something done: don’t rely on others to do you any favours!’
Q: What do you plan to work on next?
‘I’m working on a book about a shoe shop which is all about making decisions. I’m really enjoying drawing lots of shoes. It’s surprising how many styles you can imagine when you put your mind to it. And I’m designing a series of longer fiction books for HarperCollins and have been writing some stories for boys set in the wild west but without horses.’
David Mackintosh is widely recognised as a gifted designer/artist. His signature style is always design-driven and his unique aesthetic is appealing to old and young alike. But the writer of words as well as images has always been lurking there in his pictures, and in these latest six books he confirms his considerable dual talents. He concludes that:
‘When I’m writing a picture book there’s a fight between what comes first: pictures or words. I’ll draw a quick storyboard to see the visual narrative which in turn inspires the words, but then I’ll write something that will make me think of a way to illustrate it. So it’s back and forth like that. But it really all stems from an idea or a situation I find interesting and I can’t tell you where that comes from because I don’t know.’
Sheahan-Bright, Robyn ‘Background to The Midwife’s Daughter’ Magpies Vol. 12, No. 4, September 1997, pp 22–23.
Sheahan-Bright, Robyn ‘Profile of David Mackintosh’ Magpies Vol 26, Issue No 2, May 2011, pp 4–8.