We caught up with author-illustrator Sarah McIntyre who is one of the tutors on our brand new online children’s picture book courses. Sarah leads our Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course, her solo picture books include There’s a Shark in the Bath, Dinosaur Firefighters, and The New Neighbours. She has also worked with writers like David O’Connell (who leads our new Writing a Children’s Picture Book course), Philip Reeve, Giles Andreae, Gillian Rogerson, and Alan MacDonald.
You got into illustration and children’s publishing quite late – was there a moment where the penny dropped and you realised that this is what you wanted to do?
I came to it gradually. I studied Russian literature for my Bachelor’s degree, and spent two years studying and working in Moscow, where I was amazed by the artwork I saw there. I’d always wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t think I could make a living at it, or I’d be living with my parents for the rest of my life. When I got married, I started running an art gallery with some friends, and taking evening classes in children’s book illustration. I liked the people I met in the children’s book world much more than the fine art world, and really bonded with people in critique groups we set up after taking the evening classes together. I then did a bit of book illustration, but when I was 30, I went to art college and got my MA in Illustration, which gave me the focus I needed to really get stuck into the UK publishing world. I was also helped a lot by the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and Business Start-up classes I took that were organised by the Association of Illustrators.
What do you do when you need some inspiration – do you have a particular spot you go to, or a favourite artist or illustrator who always gets your creative juices re-flowing?
Yes, David O’Connell was the first person I went to who really got me excited about collaborating, and he also helped me see how I could make my own books and sell them at comics fairs. I also love working with Philip Reeve, and our brainstorming sessions have resulted in six books together, starting with Oliver and the Seawigs, and we’re in the middle of the next one. He lives way out in the middle of Dartmoor, so I love grabbing my hiking boots to jump on a train and go out there.
What’s your favourite material to illustrate with?
I love ink, I always feel safe with black lines. Colour is fun, but I get a lot more frustrated trying to get it right. When I’m out and about, I love working with my Pentel brush pen in combination with a Faber-Castell Pitt pen, and when I’m in the studio, I’ll often work with dip pen and a little jar of India ink.
What’s the strangest book you’ve ever produced?
I collaborated with a bunch of friends on a book called NELSON, published by Blank Slate. There were 54 of us, and we all took a day in the year of a life of a woman we created, as a sort of game of Consequences. I took over from my studio mate Gary Northfield, after he did a day in the life of the girl – Nel – set in 1972. I was working on another book and didn’t have much time to research 1973 Dagenham, so the editors, Woodrow Phoenix and Rob Davis, sent me a lot of period-specific visual material to help. We finished following Nel’s life in 2011, and surprisingly the book had a wonderful coherency to it, despite the fact we all had incredibly different drawing and storytelling styles.
Probably my other strangest book was on called 24 by 7, where seven of us stayed in a room together and each turned out an entire 24-page comic book in 24 hours. It was gruelling, but also kind of exhilarating, watching a book coming together so fast. At the end, Fanfare published all seven books together as one anthology.
Your picture books feature all manner of characters: children, jam eating vampires (Jampires), pugs (Pugs of the Frozen North), dinosaurs (Dinosaur Firefighters), sharks (There’s a Shark in the Bath), bunnies and other animals (The New Neighbours). What’s your favourite thing to draw and what’s the most difficult?
I don’t know, there’s nothing I can’t draw if I have good reference material. The hardest thing is to draw, say, a piece of machinery if I don’t have a picture to look at. I love drawing people’s portraits, especially when I go to schools and the kids all want one super-fast and I just whip them out and don’t worry if they’re detailed or very exact.
You and your Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book Course co-tutor David O’Connell co-authored/ illustrated the picture book Jampires. How do you two collaborate together – does the writing come first, or is it the illustrations?
With Jampires, it was literally the word ‘Jampires’ that came first. It immediately conjured up the idea of these little critters who suck the jam out of doughnuts (which is how you know they’ve been there, if your jam doughnut is strangely dry). We set ourselves the project of a 24-page Comic Jam, and I drew the first page, e-mailed it to Dave; he drew the second page, e-mailed it back to me, and so on, until we had our story. It changed a lot when we turned it into a picture book, but I love the quirkiness of the original comic.
Your latest book, The New Neighbours, is one which you have both written and illustrated. Are there advantages to doing both?
For The New Neighbours, I got to reuse the world of a comic I’d been making called Vern & Lettuce. I loved going back into that world I’d created, and knew exactly the story I wanted to tell. Unlike Jampires, it didn’t go through all that many re-writes, just a bit of tweaking of phrases here and there. So the whole thing was very much my own vision, expressed through both pictures and words. But I didn’t work on it alone, I still see the work of the designer and editor as collaboration, and I enjoyed working with them.
You’ve carved out an impressive profile on your blog and through social media – how important do you think this is for new writers and artists in terms of building name for themselves?
When you first start out, I think it’s more important to work on your artwork, so you have good things to post online. I suggest posting them online, but not worrying if you have any followers. Posting artwork is a good discipline in itself: it gets you used to showing off your work (not hiding), being able to talk about it, and feeling like you need to make new things. When you’ve built up a decent body of work, then you can start worrying more about networking. But if people like your work, they’ll want to find out more, so you need a website with a way to contact you, or all those ‘likes’ won’t lead to anything. Likes don’t pay the rent.
In your opinion, what’s the ONE thing you need to know if you want to build a career as a children’s illustrator and writer?
The most important thing is to get good at drawing, and keep going with it, don’t make a few images and then sit around – keep making new things, push yourself with new projects, and keeping your work fresh. If people don’t like your work, don’t worry, just make more. Drawing’s like practicing a musical instrument: the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
Jampires is about jam eating vampires – do you have a favourite flavour of jam?
I love raspberry jam to distraction. I think raspberry jam on freshly baked bread must be my favourite food. I heard that the UK consumption of jam has gone down because in the old days, people didn’t have as much variety of sweet things, whereas now, everything has sugar in it. There’s a scene in the film Gosford Park where a man gets caught by the housekeeper hiding in the pantry, eating her jam right out of the jar with a spoon to make himself feel better; I could sympathise with him utterly.
You can enrol now for our brand new online Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course taught by Sarah McIntyre.
Or, you can enrol on our online Writing a Children’s Picture Book course taught by David O’Connell.
And for those who want to do both there’s our Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course taught by Sarah McIntyre and David O’Connell.