here - Oliver Jeffers

Frequently Asked Questions
How did you become an illustrator?
I have always been a visual thinker. It runs in my family. Since I was very young I’ve always had an appreciation
for how people make art, how they make something look like they do, and I’d always have rather looked at
pictures than say, read a book or watch tv.
Painting and illustration are very interesting means of communication, and when I’m not communicating
something I have to say myself, then I am communicating something someone else has to say. I’ve always been
fascinated by how this can be achieved, from my own experimental methods to constantly looking around at what
other people are doing. As far as becoming an illustrator is concerned, I made the decision out of college that I
believed that I was good enough, and I went for it. I put a portfolio of work together and began sending it around to
the type of people who might commission me. After a few commissions, I used the new ‘published’ work in my
portfolio and began building it up from there.
What would your typical workday consist of?
There is no such thing. Given the versatile nature of what I do, every day is different. If forced to categorize, I
balance four separate branches of making art; picture book making, illustration, working on various self initiated
projects, and painting, and every one of these demands something different. I try to get up pretty early and head
to my studio in Brooklyn and get my emails out of the way first. Well the urgent ones anyway. Then I get stuck into
whatever projects I have on that day, I usually try to plan out the jobs and projects I have on at the start of the
week. Quite frequently, I’ll be out meeting people, working on site, travelling, or travelling for events and signings.
I recently took on an assistant who I am able to delegate some tasks to, but quite often delegation is a project all
of its own, but I’m learning to get better at it.
Which comes first, the writing or the illustration of your picture books?
Neither really, mostly they both happen at the same time (at a book reading once, a 5 year old thought I meant it
literally- a pen in each hand!). I wouldn’t really consider myself a writer. I know enough talented writers to know
not to claim the title for myself. Rather I think of myself as an artist who uses words in their art, I try to say that I
make picture books, instead of writing and illustrating them, as I believe it is truer to the process of how they are
created. I begin with a concept, often a single idea, and start unfolding it by making notes and making drawings.
One of the advantages I feel that I have over picture books that are written and illustrated by separate people is
that instead of a finished manuscript existing before the story is visualized, I have the opportunity to have the
illustrations inform the text. Often, the text for my books, when looked at in isolation, might seem quite flat and
matter of fact, almost devoid of feeling, and when the illustrations are looked at without the text, they are quite
heavy with emotion and narrative. So, when you put the two together, they work off each other creating an overall
effect that is neither and both. Emotive and engaging without being overly sentimental. This is gives an idea to the
process of how they are made. The language of the text and its positioning over an illustration dictate the
composition, and vice versa, so both are very much at the front of my mind in the development stages; sketching
and writing together, working in unison as a partnership.
What kind of materials do you use for your illustration?
I have differing styles of illustrating and drawing. My earlier picture books were entirely watercolour, and with the
third book, the Incredible Book Eating Boy, I began experimenting with collage. The latest book was created
making hundreds of drawings and scribbles on paper and compositing them together in Photoshop.
My more recent illustration work involves some digital technology. I feel that Photoshop or Illustrator are tools,
mediums, not unlike watercolour or oil paints. Though I would rarely generate imagery from scratch in Photoshop,
but instead use it as a platform to composite organic drawings and textures together. I think it’s a very cool
medium when used with good judgment. But then again, that could be said of all mediums. As I mentioned, I use
watercolour for my ‘boy’ stories, a whole range of types- from ones I still have from college, to expensive new
ones. I use printer paper to make a range of drawings lines and scribbles that eventually become the components
of a layered Photoshop file. I use heavy Arches watercolour paper for my watercolour painting. I use mounting
board to glue old pieces of paper to if they are to be the base of the illustration. I also make oil paintings on
canvas, but never for commissioned pieces - the timing is always too unpredictable for my liking, and I like to keep
this style of art making separate for my own personal work. I also use whatever else I lay my hands on- any sort
paper (collage is wonderful), gouache paint acrylic paint and the dulux colour matcher paint (the stuff for walls
where you pick a colour and they match it). I also love Letraset and old typewriters. Though, an important lesson I
learned was when someone once brought to my attention the Mariah Carey Syndrome, where she has an 8-
octave range and won’t sing a song without using all 8. Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean
you should. Subtly, restraint and discretion are key in my mind to good illustration.
Do you test your ideas on children before finally going to a publisher?
Yes. Adults too. It’s very important to keep yourself on target without disappearing down tangents when
generating a picture book concept, so of course I ask other peoples opinions, anyone who’ll give it. It’s very easy
sometimes to work so long on something that you can’t see it anymore. That’s when fresh eyes from someone
you trust are essential. With regards to my books in particular, I frequently test them on friends and family just to
make sure, because if there’s something amiss, kids spot it faster than anyone. But ultimately it’s down to me
trying to satisfy my own sense of curiosity that is the predominant drive of the story.
What age group are your books aimed at?
The books have a rough demographic in order to market them, but ultimately, they are supposed to be universal.
My ‘Boy’ books are aimed at the 2-4 age group, whereas The Incredible Book Eating Boy, The Heart and The
Bottle, and The Great Paper Caper are aimed at 4-6 year olds, and made with a leaning toward the palette of the
more aesthetically sophisticated. I try to make my books dually appreciated, both by children and also by adult.
The adults reading the books to children, and also adults interested in picturebooks themselves.
I try not to overly force my books. There’s a natural simplicity and curiosity that fortunately seems to appeal to
both adults and children. If I’ve satisfied my own curiosity then that’s the benchmark. I try to make the sort of
books I’d want, both when I was a child, and now.
Are strong morals important to your picture books?
The objective of my books is to entertain. I think children are possibly getting strong moral messages from every
angle, and often they can come across as fake and preachy. Obviously I wouldn’t want to offend anyone, so try to
steer away from anything that may be illegal or needlessly dangerous. But, I think the ‘good moral message’ is
secondary to the entertainment value where my books are concerned.
In my experience, children are much smarter than they’re given credit for, and curious too. In fact, they’re often
more observant than adults, as they give a different amount of time and consideration to something that is in front
of them. There’s a difference between education dressed up as fun, and entertainment for fun, it depends on what
your objective is. My books are all about satisfying my own imagination; about the things I’m curious about, and
would have liked to see in books when I was young. But I try not to be completely reckless, and if education can
happen naturally then it’s a bonus, and a successful satisfying story usually will have a few good morals
intertwined through it anyway.
What is the usual amount of time you have for each project?
I limit the commercial jobs I take on. I’ve found myself in the fortunate position to have more choice over which
jobs I take, it allows me to spend more time on my own work. It took a while to get to the point of making only selfindulgent art and making a living. It can break down like this, however: commercial commissions can have
anywhere from a few days to a month, picture books take about a year (five or six months spread out over a
calendar year) and paintings can take a few months each. Other projects fall in and around this time frame.
How do you promote yourself?
When starting out, I created a disposable portfolio that could be posted to people and I wasn’t dependant on
getting it back. How you present and design your self- promotion reflects on your visual ability. My website is
absolutely essential, an accessible and immediate means of showing my work, and these days I use past
publications and self designed catalogues from shows as promo material. When you are self-employed, you are
either working for someone or promoting yourself. The ideal scenario is when the work you do for other people is
working to promote you as well.
Where do you work?
I am based in Brooklyn, New York and recently moved into a new studio, where I have everything I need in one
place. It’s an old factory building with big windows and lots of light. There are three main areas of my studio that I
rotate between, a desk for illustration and collage, a painting area and my computer desk, oh and of course a
comfy chair in a corner for thinking. There are also shelves and drawers filled with stuff, scalpels, pencils, pens,
glues, acrylics etc. I also have a few drawers filled with much collage material and also Letraset.
Why did you decide to work in children’s book illustration?
I never really intended or decided upon that direction. As an artist I’ve always been interested in the nature of
words and their relationship with pictures. Much of my early art experimented with this relationship. My first picture
book actually began from a composition sketch for a body of paintings I was preparing to exhibit in Sydney,
Australia, but the potential for narrative was so strong that I couldn’t help but see where it took me. Before I knew
it I had the bones of a picture book without realising it. Once it occurred to me, however, the transition was easy.
I’ve always loved and collected picture books, using them for reference for my art, and I knew a good one when I
came across it. Applying this sense of judgement and edit to my own work became quite natural.
How would you describe your style? Has it changed since you started?
I practice as both illustrator and artist. Unlike many practitioners who work in these fields simultaneously, my work
differs drastically between different styles of image making depending on the discipline.
They are two very different worlds, although getting closer, and although historically illustration is looked down on
by the art world, I believe this gap is shifting. Fine art definitely has an allure and a pedigree that illustration has
yet to achieve, but illustration is more popular than ever, growing in obscurity, confidence, and often its difficult to
place an image in either camp before asking the image-maker their intentions. Some want to strive forward in the
illustration world, some in the art world. As someone who is driven to make images, I strive for both both, but
seldom at the same time. It is a process that I am trying to figure out. I’m visually aware and always making art as
a way to entertain myself, tell stories, find things out or ask questions. I’m also doing it to make a living.
Sometimes my art making is executed in different mediums than others. Some generated purely as selfexpression, some purely as a way to pay my rent. I’m still making it up as I go along, but ultimately making the
kind of work I want to make.
As far as defining my style goes, I’m not sure I can. It’s probably easier for other people to describe it. I sort of just
make art and it comes out the way it does. I suppose the running thing through everything I do is narrative. I like
the potential for momentum in any one static image, and how it can be part of some larger story left unsaid.
I do work in different styles. That much I’m aware of. From collage, to gestural drawing and painting, through to
figurative painting and design. I think I can’t hide my hand even though I practice different disciplines, and I now
realize that is no bad thing.
It has changed since I started, I’m becoming more technically capable, confident and intelligent in my choices,
with a wider range of influences, which, in turn affects the decisions I make.
Do you work much from real life?
I try to, yes. And if not from real life, then from pictures of real life. Its important to know how something looks
before you decide to simplify it. Though its also important to know when to let go of that and let spontaneity and
instinct take over. In my practice as a painter I work from life as much as possible. If it’s a still-life based painting I
try to set something up as close as possible to the composition I want to accomplish. Often when painting people I
have to rely on a combination of actual sittings and posed photographs. Even for my illustration/picture books, I
use life drawing. One of the reasons relatively simple characters can achieve so much expression and momentum
in the narrative is because they are based around by the same rules of geometry and biology as the rest of us.
The idea was to educate myself and have an intimate understanding of the rules before bending and breaking
them. People can time walking into my studio badly as I’ll have them in all sorts of poses; getting in and out of a
mock boat, throwing a suitcase, things like that, to see how they go about it. Sometimes you just can’t make up
how a set of actions would really happen.
Often I use an equal amount of real life and imagination, it depending what I’m working from. Compositions often
come from curiosity and questions, and they’re visualised in my imagination, but when it comes to execute the
concept, I will test my ideas against real life, using actual objects and people as much as I can for research and
reference. In my sketchbooks, illustrations and picture books, my imagination is used more heavily than real life.
In my fine art, it is often the other way round.
How do you treat the relationship between text and image in your work?
It is one of the most important aspects of my work. It affects everything about the tone and flow of the art or story
In terms of design, there are a couple of technical rules I wasn’t aware off until the production stage of my first
book. The main one is that all the text has to be black. This is so it can be translated into different languages (the
text is printed separately and after the image has been printed for the sake of expense). Another is that basically
all picture books are 32 pages (again a cost issue), and this limits the flow of your story.
In terms of narrative, the relationship between words and pictures is always something I’ve been fascinated by
and it comes rather naturally. It isn’t always the case that a single person writes and illustrates a picture book. For
some people, they prefer to purely visualise someone else’s idea), and find the generation of narrative ideas
tricky. Personally, I think I’m at an advantage by doing both, in that the words and pictures can compliment each
other more cohesively, and create a third middle tone in the cases where they contrast. It also means that I can
construct the direction of a story toward things I like to draw.
How long does it take you on average to complete a book?
I begin with a single idea, which usually comes from a drawing, and then tease that out in my sketchbook with
hundreds of other drawings and pieces of writing that explore how the narrative can grow and extend into
something that is satisfying. Once I’ve got a basic plot, I work with the HarperCollins Editor in streamlining
everything down to fit the 32 page format (all picture books, with very few exceptions are 32 pages. Including end
papers, every book printed has a page number that is a multiple of 4 as it reduces the cost of printing.)
Getting the story to flow over 32 pages is probably the most difficult part. It’s like directing a film, where the pace
needs to be set and decisions made of what goes where. It’s at this point that many of the compositions get cut.
There is a careful balance between what the picture is showing and what the words are saying, and if something
is shown it often doesn’t need to be said. This is a great advantage of both writing and illustrating stories, as
someone who just writes comes up with the entire manuscript before it is considered visually and much potential
for interaction has gone.
So once everyone is agreed on the layout, I make black and white line art of every illustration. I then work with a
designer on laying out exactly where the text will go before I go to final art. The writing can only be black and this
can affect how an illustration is coloured. The reason for this is to allow for foreign languages to be published. The
book will be fully printed with knowledge of what foreign translation will be done and how many, this is why book
fairs exist, so all these deals can be made before final print, as again if they’re all getting done at once it reduces
the cost.
So once all the text has been properly designed and laid out, I lock myself in a room for about 6 weeks, transfer
the line art onto watercolour paper using a light-box, and just get stuck in. The whole process takes about a year.
How did you get your first book published?
I had known for a long time that I liked to draw pictures and I liked to write, and I had been putting the two together
for a while in my paintings. I even bought and collected children’s picture books both for my own enjoyment and
for research for my paintings, but it wasn’t until my final year of college that I attempted a children’s book of my
own, and seriously considered it as a direction to take my life. I had my first idea for a children’s book while sitting
on the pier of the Sydney Fish markets on a year out from studying, about a boy who tries to catch the reflection of
a star in the water, much like the Brer Rabbit story of the Moon and the Mill Pond.
I carried the idea into my final year studying Visual Communication at the University of Ulster in Belfast in 2000. I
developed self portrait drawings to narrate my thesis that year, which eventually developed into the character
used in the book, and in the second half of my final year I used my picture book concept as a piece of coursework,
deciding to see how far I could take it to a finished product. This involved getting the words right, and the pictures
right, and more importantly, the balance between the two right.
To get the words right, I read my manuscript to as many 6 year olds as I could find, slowly tweaking the story
based on the feedback I was getting. To get the pictures right I used the unending help of my older brother Rory
who basically has a lot more sense than I do. And to get the balance right we both looked at hundreds of other
picture books to see what everyone else had done.
In the process of getting the balance right, I noticed a few things about how good picture books seem to work. The
one that sticks out most is about how they seem to appeal across all ages without being forced. They aren’t
condescending, but at the same time they aren’t inaccessible. There just seems to be a natural universal appeal
to both children and adults, and lets face it, they need to appeal to adults, as however well a 6 year old is doing,
they’re unlikely to stick their hand in there
In the second half of 2001,after I had finished developing my idea, and had finished my degree in Visual
Communication, specializing in illustration, after the initial euphoria of never having to write another thesis in my
life wore off, and during that slightly intimidating ‘I actually have to do something with my life now!’ phase, I
decided I would get my book published. I looked at what was around in the book shops and thought that what I
had created was as good as, if not better, than anything else that was out there, and confidence and self –belief
are important tools when you are self motivated. My first step was to buy the Writers/Artists Yearbook, and see
where to send my manuscript. I knew I was in for a long and trying road of numerous attempts contacting
publishers, repeatedly saying ‘have you read it yet?
Apart from using the Writers and Artists Yearbook to research which publishers I should send my idea to, I also
referred to my own collection of children’s picture books. I looked to see who had published what, paying
particular attention to my favourites, and which publishers popped up more often.
My next step was to figure out what exactly to send them. There are hundreds and thousands of unsolicited ideas
that reach publishers every year- the slush pile, and my objective was to stand out among those. To be noticed.
By asking, I found that what publishers like to see in a proposal for a new book was the manuscript and a few
samples of the illustrations, a broad idea of the feel for the book. I invested a bit of money into producing 100
copies of a small spiral bound ‘sample’, with the manuscript at the start and 10 full colour illustrations after, which I
put into an envelope with a letter outlining who I was and what I was trying to do, and a self addressed envelope
for them to contact me. I also included a small portfolio (and I mean small, 8 prints that were 14 cm square each)
of other examples of my paintings and illustrations in the hope that if a particular publisher didn’t pick up on my
book idea, at least I might be able to get a few commissions while I was waiting.
A few phone calls later and I had found out who looked after the children’s division in each appropriate publishing
house, and addressed my envelope to them. The point being that it would arrive at a real persons desk instead of
some anonymous Slush Pile. I spent a while drawing up a big chart showing which publishers I had sent an
envelope to, contact name and number, date last contacted, and room for comments. I sent an envelope to the 10
biggest publishers in the UK, and the 10 biggest in USA, figuring I’d start at the top and work my way down.
Expecting a healthy dose of being ignored and avoided, I was extremely surprised when I received a phone call
from Harper Collins the next afternoon expressing their desire to publish my book. It arrived on the desk of a
young editorial assistant; she opened it, liked what she saw, and immediately decided to do something about it.
That offer was followed a week later by one from Philomel Books, a subdivision of Penguin in New York City,
where something similar happened.
And it was as simple as that. I met with both Publishers, and between the three of us we were able to devise a
cunning plan that would enable both of them to publish the book.
Although I was very lucky, I had set myself an objective and was quite methodical and logical in my efforts to get
there. Like most businesses, I had an idea, I developed it, then invested time, thought, and money in selling it. But
if I hadn’t already sold it, I’d still be trying to, and I’d still be having the same ideas for my next books, only wearing
cheaper shoes, and eating weetabix for dinner.
Has illustration for children changed much since you began and do you think it will change much in the
All illustration changes. There are always trends and styles that ebb and flow in and out of fashion. Sometimes
these are attached to advances in technology, and sometimes follow some other sort of trend, or anti trend.
Regarding advances in technology- when some new development occurs, or software is introduced, the tendency
is to completely absorb the illustration in that particular style, before it rights itself again. Think of the introduction
of vector based graphics, or flash websites. People liked to show off what they were technically capable of without
much sense of restraint. This doesn’t usually make for the most successful image. After a while when it’s a given
that these skills are accomplished, they become the means to an end, and not an end in itself. I try to restraint in
my judgement. Someone wiser than myself once said that good manners and good design shouldn’t be noticed,
its only when they’re bad that they stand out. The Children’s Book industry will continue to change. Especially in
the next few years with traditional publishing under threat with new developments like the ipad and the kindle.
Where the pendulum stops is anyone’s guess, though what is for sure is that there will always be the need for
content for stories and images, whether they appear on paper or on screen. I feel that the Children’s Picturebook
industry is on a creative upturn at the minute, where, unlike 20, years ago, so much is happening with what can be
done with picture books, and with so many creative and innovative people working in the business.
What other artists have influenced your work?
Many. Off the top of my head, here are a few: Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Saul Steinberg, Tomi Ungerer,
Edward Hopper, Tim Burton, Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, Sempe, Michael Sowa, John Currin, Gary
Baseman, Vermeer, Julian Opie, Yoshitomo Nara, Norman Rockwell, Eduardo Recife, Mark Tansey, Alan Baker,
Michael Gilette, Studio AKA, Neasden Control Centre, Alex Kanevsky, Lucian Freud, Eric Carle, Marc Boutavant,
Cy Twombly, Peter Doig, Peter Blake, Cara Klein, Ron Muick, Carrivagio, Chuck Close, David Hockney, Shel
Silverstein John Singer Sargent, Eduard Manet, Yoshitomo Nara, Martin Kippengerger, Spike Jonze, Mr Bingo,
Neil Gaimon, Wes Anderson.
Why do you think your work appeals across a range of people?
I try not to think about it too much, but I think possibly because they’re not overly forced, and I ask the opinion of
others as often in the process as possible. There’s a natural simplicity and curiosity about my picture books where
children don’t feel they’re being spoken down to (hopefully) and that, fortunately, seems to appeal to both parents
and children. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I make the sort of children’s books I’d have wanted when I
was small, and If I’ve satisfied my own curiosity, then that’s the benchmark.
I’m very aware of an adult’s opinion. I also think children aren’t as stupid as many people assume. If kids take a
moral or value from my books, that’s all well and good, but that also ultimately comes second to entertainment. I
aim to entertain anyone who opens the pages of my books. Kids are pretty clued in to whenever they’re being sold
a thinly veiled lesson, and I think that is something I have noticed about how good picture books seem to work;
they seem to appeal across all ages without being forced. They aren’t condescending, but at the same time they
aren’t inaccessible. Its important they also appeal to adults, through subtle humour and references, as it’s the
adult who buys the book, and it’s the adult who has to read it repeatedly every night.
How do you think the changes in technology affect children’s book illustration?
I think apps and e-books complement physical books, they are a different way of looking at books, but I don’t think
they replace them in any way. It is an exciting time to be developing e-books and apps, technology is changing
and it's a great time to get out there and put your stamp on the industry.
What advice would you give a budding illustrator?
Keep practicing, don’t take no for an answer and don't settle for ‘good enough’.
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