This week on Emu’s Debuts, it’s all about the dragons! We’re celebrating the debut of Penny Parker Klostermann’s delightful debut picture book, There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight. Today I’m thrilled to have snagged an interview with the books incredibly talented illustrator, Ben Mantle, who had some great insights into a part of the process we writers often know little about.
Elaine Vickers: Can you share with us the process of how you came to be the illustrator of There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight?
Ben Mantle: This was pretty straightforward really. My agency sent me the text. I read it. I loved it. I think I then read it another 10 times just because it was such fun to read, as the rhythm was so good. I really liked that it had a slightly dark storyline too. I emailed my agency and said – I would love to illustrate it and then I read it more times, faster and faster each time. Again, purely because it was such fun to do!
EV: I adore this dragon! Did he always look like this, or did he change throughout the process?
BM: The dragon was the first character that I tackled as he is the main driving force in the book. My first initial few sketches didn’t quite catch what I had in my head. After all, the Dragon is ruthless, but more than that he is just incredibly greedy and not to mention a little bad. I mean, he does just go around eating people. In my original design he just doesn’t have the manic look that I wanted or that look of desire of a very hungry person who has just sat down for an all you can eat buffet. I knew that a lot of his character would be in the eyes, which is why they are one of the main changes. His new Beady little pupils really gave him something and the curving brows are a sure fire sign of a baddie. All good baddies have large eyebrows.
EV: What is your artistic process? Tell us a little about the creation of these illustrations!
BM: Not long before the text for There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed A Knight came through, I had been feeling that I really wanted to stop relying on the computer so much and get back to painting again and I thought this book in particular with its fantasy setting, would suit being painted.
Equally, because the story has that hint of darkness, along with being very funny, I thought that it would be a nice contrast to have the artwork more traditional. Long before the painting stage though, I start making lots of little thumbnail images to capture the key moments in the book. I then scan these in and enlarge them to the correct size and start neatening them up. I do this because I often think my original sketches are more fluid and uninhibited by detail.
Next there’s a few stages of printing out, re-drawing, tidying up until everyone is happy (designer and editor). In order to then paint the final art, I print out the roughs, which have been tidied up by now, and use a drawing board I converted into a lightbox (Ok, not so much me, but a guy who is actually handy with tools), I trace the rough shapes with watercolour, adding in a little shade/texture at the same time. As you can see by the image, I paint each bit separately as this gives me more flexibility, as well as knowing that if I make a mistake, I haven’t just ruined everything! Having said that, I love the mistakes you get with paint, especially if, like me, you haven’t used it for ages.
EV: Can you share with us any particular challenges or funny incidents that happened while you were working on this book?
BM: For me, the real challenge of any book, is knowing what to show and what to leave out. What is the ‘moment’ that needs to be illustrated? With this book, I had decided that you would never actually see the Dragon eating a person, but it would be implied by the image. Plus, I felt that it was funnier to show that moment just before or just after.
Do you have a favorite character or illustration from the book?
BM: Oh, my favourite character has to be the cook. I have a real soft spot for him and my favourite illustration (and I think one of Penny’s too) in the book is the one of the cook being seasoned by the Dragon as the cook seasons his own pot of food. After all, the Dragon is just doing what comes natural to him and this is a nod to that.
EV: You’re such an accomplished illustrator, but I know you’re a picture book author yourself. How has that changed and informed your illustrating?
BM: I’ve just finished writing my third book, so now the main thing I have realised, is just how hard it is! It has definitely made me appreciate the relationship between the text and the image and that the best text knows exactly what to not say. It’s a very reciprocal relationship. The image can really add to the story, but only if the author/text is confident enough to leave breathing space. Penny is a whizz with text, as soon as I read this book I loved it and I’m looking forward to cracking on with our next book, which I can honestly say is absolutely fantastic.
Thanks so much, Ben, for sharing your time and your amazing artwork with us!
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