While reviewing Banjo and Ruby Red recently, I was instantly captivated by Australian artist, Freya Blackwood’s use of color and playful characters. It was Freya’s own trouble-making, pet chicken that inspired her to create the character Ruby Red, the chicken. (By the way a chicken is commonly referred to as a “chook” in Australia.) Her work brings an enchanting element to the stories she illustrates, and she uses a technique she calls “rough drawing” for her final illustrations that really draw the eye into the images. Today I asked her about how that technique came to be, how she goes about her creative process and what it was like to work behind the scenes on the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as an Effects Technician. After reading the books she has illustrated and visiting her beautiful website, you too are sure to put Freya at the top of your list of favorite illustrators.
How did your artistic parents influence you creatively while growing up?
My parents are both creative and definitely unusual for a country town, so my brother and I had to learn how to cope with being weird. But we were subjected to a diverse range of experiences and learned to see things a bit differently than other people around us. I guess my mother taught me a wide range of artistic skills and always fostered creative thinking, while my father provided me with an interest in design and buildings. And together they contributed to my general education in design and aesthetics.
Is your daughter, Ivy an artist too?
Ivy does have a creative spark, but I’m not sure in which area it will blossom.
What was that like for you working on the Lord of the Rings Trilogy?
The experience working on such a huge production was terrific. All around you were people doing amazing things and being part of something unique and exciting. I met some very talented designers and illustrators while working in New Zealand, so it introduced to me the idea of illustration as a career, or at least a hobby.
That really is amazing that you were able to have that experience working on an epic film. What mediums do you use for your picture books, and do you also work with digital illustration?
I generally work with watercolour on watercolour paper, but have recently greatly enjoyed using oil paints on paper. I haven’t, as yet, tried illustrating anything on the computer.
After you are presented with the text of a picture book, can you explain how the creative process works for you to illustrate the story? Are you generally given a great deal of direction by the publishers or do you typically have a lot of freedom to illustrate the way you see the story yourself?
I will sometimes have a brief discussion with the publisher before starting a book, just so that we’re both on the same wavelength, but generally I’m given a lot of freedom. And this allows me the chance to interpret the story and make it feel like my own.
I don’t necessarily ‘see’ a story when I first read it, so for me, the process starts with lots of note making while reading the story. Once I’ve written enough to have the beginnings of visual ideas in my head, I draw very small and rough sketches, just to get the ideas out and onto paper. These drawings are often rather hard to decipher, but they help me decide what could work on each page. Hopefully by this point I will have developed ideas for a visual theme for the illustrations. From there it is a case of gradually building each page in greater detail, in a set of bigger drawings, or roughs, slowly ironing out any issues I come up against while working out a colour scheme and overall feel for the final illustrations. And then doing them!
© Copyright- image from Look a Book (Little Hare Publishing) courtesy of Freya Blackwood
Read about Freya’s Four Stages of Drawing on her blog.
“Sometimes I’ll leave a difficult page until the very end of the process and either I’ll have solved it along the way if I’m lucky, or the pressure of having to solve it immediately does the trick!”
The thought process that goes into your illustrations really shows in your outstanding work. Do you ever experience creative blocks when it comes to illustrating? If so, how do you manage those?
I definitely do experience creative blocks! And I’ve learned the best way to deal with them is to leave whatever I’m working on, and do something else mundane for a while. I find that my mind sorts things out if given some space. Sometimes I’ll leave a difficult page until the very end of the process and either I’ll have solved it along the way if I’m lucky, or the pressure of having to solve it immediately does the trick!
© Copyright – image from Banjo and Ruby Red courtesy of Hardie Grant Egmont
I was so drawn to your illustrations in Banjo and Ruby Red. The way you outline your images liberally really makes them come to life. How did that technique come about for you?
That roughly drawn technique came about when illustrating Harry & Hopper written by Margaret Wild and published by Omnibus in 2009. Harry & Hopper is about a young boy and his dog, named “Hopper” because he is as jumpy as a grasshopper. I did a rough drawing of Hopper bounding up to Harry and realized I couldn’t replicate it with the same freshness for the final drawing, so my mum, who happens to be my very dedicated artistic adviser, suggested I somehow use these rough drawings as the final artworks. I simply copied the rough drawings onto watercolour paper and then paint over the top of the photocopy. The effect works very well for certain subjects. Banjo & Ruby Red had a similar feel so I deliberately kept my drawings very sketchy to give the impression of movement and excitement.
I absolutely love your technique! What did you use for inspiration for what the wonderful animal characters Banjo and Red Ruby would look like? Are they drawn from animals you have yourself?
Ruby Red was based on our Rhode Island Red chook called Socca. Socca is a magnificent, strong, and destructive chicken and after three years of destroying my garden, I am ashamed to admit that I decided to take control of my backyard and she has gone to live with my best friend who has lots of space for roaming chickens. That was only a couple of days ago and I’m still feeling a bit sad. Banjo wasn’t based on any one dog, but a selection of dogs, mostly Kelpies and Blue Cattle dogs. He needed to be a good contrast to Ruby Red, so a black and white dog seemed the best option. Most of my drawings of dogs end up looking a bit like my whippet, Pivot, who does sad and pathetic very well.
© Copyright – image from Banjo and Ruby Red courtesy of Hardie Grant Egmon
“After this I was desperate for bright colour and determined never to use the colours raw umber, paynes grey, or watercolour EVER again.”
I never realized a pet chicken could be so much trouble! Your use of color is brilliant in that book and really draws the eye into the illustrations. You write on your blog about the color wheel you created. Can you explain to our readers how you use that to help you illustrate?
Banjo & Ruby Red came after a very serious book called The Treasure Box, written by Margaret Wild and published by Viking in 2013. It was mostly created using two very somber colours – raw umber and paynes grey. After this I was desperate for bright colour and determined never to use the colours raw umber, paynes grey, or watercolour EVER again. So Banjo & Ruby Red was painted in oil paints. It was a fantastic change from watercolour; the colours were so vivid and didn’t dry lighter like watercolour.
I don’t actually know much about colour theory, but am slowly learning more. My mum, an art teacher, recently gave me a few colour theory classes and reintroduced me to the colour wheel and the concept of colour opposites. This theory became the basis for a book I was doing which revolved around a scenario involving lots of opposites.
© Copyright- image of Freya’s color wheel courtesy of the artist
I read on your blog that you recently acquired a projector. Is that something you plan to use in your picture book illustrations?
No, not for my picture book illustrations. I’ve used a projector for producing murals before, for scaling up small drawings to wall-sized drawings. It’s lots of fun!
When you are not illustrating what do you enjoy doing most?
Well, I have an 8-year-old daughter, so I enjoy spending time with her, picnicking, visiting my parents’ farm and swimming in their dam. I’ve been learning to play the cello recently and love practicing and playing. I enjoy our quiet life in rural New South Wales.
“But most importantly, remind yourself to relax and enjoy it – the work doesn’t have to be overly perfect – if it is it can be boring to produce and to look at, whereas there’s a freshness that comes with embracing imperfections.”
It sounds like a wonderful way of life, conducive to inspiring creativity. Do you have any advice for artists who wish to illustrate children’s books?
I wouldn’t swap my job for anything else – it’s satisfying and rewarding and allows me to have a very flexible life. So it is most definitely worth the effort to get there. In terms of technique, I always recommend life drawing to improve drawing and observational skills. I also think it’s important to be able to offer something unique, unlike anyone else’s work. But most importantly, remind yourself to relax and enjoy it – the work doesn’t have to be overly perfect – if it is it can be boring to produce and to look at, whereas there’s a freshness that comes with embracing imperfections.
Freya, thank you for taking the time to share your work and fascinating creative process with our readers. I was instantly drawn to your unique and beautiful illustrations and so look forward to your next book.
Buy a copy of Banjo and Ruby Red. It’s one of my favorite picture books of the year; the story is just as special as the illustrations.