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Paula Metcalf Illustrating a wonderful life.

May 27, 2019

Chances are you won’t find today’s guest illustrator Paula Metcalf lounging about taking a rest in a tree like this chap below, no, no, no… she’s far too busy !

Presently completing her 20th Children’s Book and teaching on the M.A. course at Angela Ruskin University, she generously took some time out of her hectic schedule to answer some questions for Fishink Blog today.

Hi Paula, many thanks for joining us today, I’ll get straight to the questions. You wanted to be an illustrator from the age of sixteen, and I’ve read you’re now working on your 20th book, (congratulations) what does it feel like to be doing what you’ve wanted to do?

Thanks Craig for asking me. I feel incredibly lucky! As a kid I dreamt of making this my career, but it seemed almost impossible to get noticed by publishers. It took a LOT of determination and tenacity, but finally I got my dream job and I still can’t quite believe it’s true!

With so many wonderful books already created, do you prefer to write and illustrate your own work, or collaborate with writers to create a joint book ?

There are different ups and downs with both. With illustrating someone else’s text, you come to it fresh, without having wrangled with the plot/words/pacing etc for weeks (even months) before. But on the other hand, you may not love or be as invested in the story as much as one you have written yourself. Writing stories is a big passion of mine, so getting to do both is very exciting indeed.

When you’re working with a writer, how much do they get to influence the scenes you depict and how much are you left to create ideas and illustrate them yourself ?

It’s generally the publisher, not the writer, who influences how I bring the story to life, and it depends on the publisher how involved they get. Sometimes they monitor you so heavily you end up wondering if they should be illustrating rather than you! And at other end of the extreme some publishers leave you to your own devices almost entirely. Somewhere inbetween is probably best, and mostly that is what happens.

Do you have a preferred style or way of working, i.e. naturally or digitally and roughly how long would a typical book take to put together from start to finish ?

I like to work on paper using real paint, real pastel, real pencil. But those elements always get scanned into Photoshop, and meddled around with a bit. I will layer drawn or painted elements over each other, then add extra depth, colour, contrast …. whatever I think is needed. I used to over-Photohop my images, which often wrings the life out of an illustration. These days I try to keep freshness and energy in the image by walking away earlier!

Illustrating a 32 page picture book usually takes me 3 – 4 months, but can take rather longer! Recently I completed one in a much shorter time-frame (2 months) which was extremely stressful and left me quite unwell. Being an illustrator is not the healthiest career. You can spend incredibly long hours hunched over your desk/staring at a screen, so it can cause neck, shoulder and back problems. Approaching a big deadline can make you miss out on sleep, eat badly and forgo fresh air and exercise! All of those things have happened to me, so I am trying very hard to get a healthier work-life balance from now on.

Wise words indeed Paula and familiar to many artists reading this I’m certain.

I believe that you spend some time lecturing on the MA course at the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. What advice would you give to any budding illustrators who long to draw and design children’s books ?

The competition in this industry is enormous so you really have to put your heart and soul into it. Only do it if you feel genuine huge passion for illustrating, not just because you think it sounds like a fun job. The financial rewards are often not great, so this career may mean you have to make a lot of sacrifices in life. If you REALLY love what you do, this won’t bother you of course, because nothing in the world makes you happier than sitting with your pencils, brushes and paint, beavering away into the small hours!

Something else I think is important is to not panic when you don’t seem to be progressing, or everything you draw is horrible. Every illustrator has periods where they hate their work and feel totally defeated. Those feelings can even persist for a long time. But be patient, keep trying, and whatever you are struggling with in your work will generally resolve itself.

How do you see the future of Children’s books in the UK. Do you think we need to be more adventurous with our stories and styles in order to compete with the European markets or does the UK have its own look that we can be proud of ?

When I go to Bologna I barely spend any time looking at UK publishers! I feel so much more excited about books from Europe and further afield. I think British publishers do play things much too safe, in terms of stories and illustrators, and it’s a shame.

Which of your books are you the most proud of to date ?

‘Dog In Boots’ (OUP) definitely. It makes me laugh a lot – even though I wrote it myself, and even though I’ve read it lots of times. As much as I love it, I’m also a bit heartbroken that the funniest bit got axed (it was too rude!!). Maybe one day I will self-publish the uncensored version!

Which illustrators do you most admire and does anyone influence your own work ?

I am obsessed with so many illustrators! I spend far too much of my time drooling over stunning images on Instagram, and envying their talented creators. Roger Duvoisin is my all time favourite, followed by an ever changing selection, currently featuring: Lee Gee Eun, Natalia Shaloshvili, Alisa Yufa, Viola Wang, Olga Demidova, Ekaterina Khebnikova and Natascha Rosenberg.

I’m also a huge fan of Roger Duvoisin and you can see more of his work on my blog here and here.

Can you reveal which characters we might expect to see more of in the coming years ?

Philip’s best friend Ralph (the lurcher) will have his own adventure at some point in the near future. He is in a supporting role in Dog in Boots, but he is such a sweet and funny character I can’t  wait to give him a lead role!

I love this moonlit scene, such wonderfully warm feelings and sentiments arise looking at this.

I’m also a little fond of these kooky-eyed elephants.. fabulous !

Paula thank you so much for your inciteful and honest replies.

It’s so interesting to hear what an experienced artist like yourself feels about Children’s book illustration today. Let’s hope some of the UK publishers are listening !

Beautiful work, I wish you all the best for your future and well done for creating the career you have, I know it’s never as easy as people think. Do keep us posted with your new books, my own lurcher Boo is already interested in offering her services as a potential character model for you lol.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2019 1:25 pm

    Yet another wonderful article, thanks you

  2. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia permalink
    May 28, 2019 11:31 am

    I totally agree with her that over- photoshopping can ‘wring the life out of an illustration,’
    as Paula said. Photoshop is everywhere in kids’ picture books these days, and I think it kills the spark of vitality in a drawing stone dead! You need the gestural brushstroke in a picture, to make it sing!
    Her moonlit child curled up with his dog, is also my favourite! Very sweet and smudgy!

    • June 15, 2019 9:11 am

      I agree Deidre. The hand drawn look is far more appealing and has more warmth.

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