Welcome to the offical Donovan Bixley website
Here's what I've been up to lately...
MUCH ADO ABOUT SHAKESPEARE TAKING ON THE WORLD (AUGUST 2016)
This week, Much Ado About Shakespeare won the Russell Clark Illustration Award for best illustration at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Earlier this year I was invited to the Taipei International Book Exhibition to launch the Complex Chinese translation for the Taiwan and Hong Kong Market, and later this year it comes out in Simplified Chinese in mainland China. After 10 years work, it's lovely to see the book getting such a positive response around the world.
THE COMPLETED WORK OF SHAKESPEARE (SEPTEMBER 18 2015)
Today is my last day of major work on my illustrated biography of Shakespeare. I’ve been working towards a release for next year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s been almost 10 years of hard work, which I hope will pay off. But in a world where literally thousands of new Shakespeare books are published every year, you may ask ‘why another one?’
The world of Shakespeare can be a difficult one to encounter for the first time—a bit like two hours of people talking like Yoda, without the light sabers. It’s a subject that takes a long time to get in to, and the works of William Shakespeare are something that I needed to discover in small steps.
My first memory of hearing anything about Shakespeare was listening to the Dire Straits’ song Romeo and Juliet. It’s a gorgeous song but not really anything to do with the Bard. I needed some context. For me that came from getting up late at night and finding my parents watching (on black and white TV) a BBC live performance of Romeo and Juliet, where men in tights thumped about on stage making the walls tremble. As an 8 year old I couldn’t really see the appeal.
Like most kids of previous generations we were made to do Shakespeare at high school. In my last year we studied Othello. For months every boy in our year marched about the corridors saying ‘juxtaposition’, ‘sexual innuendo’ (which tied in nicely to a Guns ‘n’ Roses lyric of the time), or ‘the beast with two backs’. And like a toddler who says ‘poo’ too many times, we were eventually banned from saying lines from Shakespeare—way to make him popular! And so the Bard began to sink under the skin.
The next step in my appreciation was a chance to see New Zealand’s Ugly Shakespeare Company, who, in the first half of the show, performed the complete works of Shakespeare, then devoted the second half to a dozen adaptions of Hamlet—including one in fast forward, one in reverse, and even one as a rugby game. By this time I was a young designer straight out of AUT with my own business. I began donating my services to a theatre company where I designed posters for Richard III, As You Like It, a surfie version of Much Ado About Nothing, and once again that old favourite Romeo and Juliet. I was really beginning to understand Shakespeare. Then came the first scribblings that led to my book.
About 17 years ago, I was asked to pitch some illustration ideas to a company who made table mats and coasters. They wanted something funny and food related. My submissions were (going to be) these gorgeous faux–renaissance paintings (although I didn’t possess the skill to paint them at the time), featuring sumptuously clothed characters eating various foods: Romeo and julienned carrots, out vile jelly, every hotdog has it’s day, much ado about muffins, something sticky this way comes, and many more silly puns. The client didn’t share my enthusiasm for Shakespeare and Food, but the appeal of painting gorgeous renaissance characters never went away, and after the publication of my book Faithfully Mozart I took up Shakespeare again. My ambitious idea at the time was to do illustrated biographies of the three greatest artists—Mozart, Leonardo and Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is always being re-imagined, it’s one of the things that keeps his works alive and makes him accessible to new audiences. It’s a very complex world to get in to, and I was determined to make a book that is not a dumbed down version, nor a weighty tome (there are enough of those already). My book is not about Shakespeare’s plays—you could spend a lifetime just studying Hamlet. Instead I wanted to find the man behind the plays and peek into his world. For me, pictures are a gateway into that world. Tolstoy claimed that Shakespeare’s works were barren and devoid of feeling. Many others see Shakespeare as a blank canvas to reinvent and make accessible. I wanted my books to add to that canon of reinvention. I imagined the pictures to be bare stages (funnily enough, like those old BBC live performances), just the characters wearing only their props and costumes and expressions. In the case of this book the pictures are also a puzzle for the quick witted, with many in-jokes to decipher.
The known facts about William Shakespeare could fit on one page. That's not much to go on. But 400 years of academic research and, quite frankly, some obsessive document searching by some incredible fanatics has thrown up traces of him, the ghost of him in a rental document, or a law suit for tax evasion. Great material for an imaginative illustrator. I wanted to show off these ghosts and traces in fantastical version of his world. We always see the stereotypical image, the genius at the writing desk—but what about older brother, drunk and disorderly teenager, husband, father, pub brawler, grumpy old man? My book is the same old Shakespeare, all the facts and the myths and magic, presented through pictures. So far it’s been a vision, and a decade of unpaid work hoping that it all turns out as imagined. Now it’s done. I just need to sign up a big publishing deal.
MONKEY BOY WINS TOP JUNIOR FICTION PRIZE (AUGUST 2015)
I can now claim the honour of award winning illustrator and award winning author. The NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults was a wonderful event at Government House. A beautiful venue. Huge congratulations to all the finalists and winners. I was as nervous as any rational man who is about to do a bungee jump – my brain was saying 'be cool hunny bunny, be cool,' while my hands lost all feeling and the blood drained out of my head – and that was for an award I wasn't even up for! I was quintuply nervous because of the expectation. John Macintyre from the Children's Book Shop in Wellington said 'You're up for 5 awards, you HAVE to win something.' 'Not necessarily' said my head – trying to resist inflating. I was so gobsmacked to win the junior fiction category – you'll say 'surely not' – but I really didn't expect a book about the Napoleonic Wars to win a NZ book award. I was so flabbergasted I'm sure I forgot to acknowledge everyone in my speech ... so now that the blood flow has returned to my head, here's a more considered list. To my publishers Lynette, Penny, and Sophia at Scholastic New Zealand for their total support of the whole project (including Diana and Annette who are no longer there) – with their support and belief the finished book was bumped from 35 pages of illustrations to over 150. To Creative NZ, for the wonderful grant that allowed me to work full time just on the illustrations – which were about 4 x as much work as 1 normal picture book. To my supporters, Diana Murray, Dylan Horrocks and Craig Phillips who championed my Creative NZ funding. To my wonderful, ever supportive wife Jo, who is always there through every book – my go-to person for the first and last word on every aspect of what I'm trying to do – and it was a long 6 years in the making. To my first draft readers Chris, Sam and Jasper Marshall – it's the hardest thing to give a friend some real criticism, but you did and the final book is all the better for it. To ma and pa, who have always been so supportive of what I do through some pretty hard times. To all the sponsors and supporters and organisers, Booksellers Tokens, Copyright Licensing NZ, Fernyhough Education Trust, Nielsen Book Services, CNZ, Booksellers NZ and publishers (Scholastic, Hachette NZ, Random Penguin and Potton Burton) who made this year's awards happen. To the judges for their tireless effort and expertise in selecting the finalists from 149 books. To the staff at Government House – and their Excellencies the Governor General Lt General the Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae (what a cool Governor General we have) and Lady Janine Mateparae for their hospitality. Lastly to those 17 rejections I got for Monkey Boy. Each time I got a rejection letter I went back and honed and sharpened and refined – trying to figure out why I got rejected and trying to make Monkey Boy the best book I could. I thank you all.
Below are some photographs of the event, courtesy of Mark Tantrum Photography, including receiving my award from Lady Janine Mateparae.
VOTE HERE FOR THE CHILDREN'S CHOICE (JUNE 2015)
As written below, I have two books up for Best Children's Choice in the 2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
Click on these links to vote for your favourite.
UNPRECEDENTED AWARDS SEASON – THREE BOOKS, SIX AWARDS (JUNE 2015)
It’s awards season, and I find myself in a rather unprecedented position. The finalists for the 2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults
included not one of my books, not two of my books, but three of my books. Monkey Boy, Dragon Knight: Fire (co-created with Kyle Mewburn),
and Little Red Riding Hood Not Quite (written by Yvonne Morrison) are all up for awards – all three of which are published by Scholastic.
Having multiple books in one awards year is not entirely uncommon. As you might expect, some New Zealand greats like Margaret Mahy, Gavin Bishop,
Joy Cowley and Fleur Beale are among a handful who have done so. But, as far as I can tell, it’s fairly unprecedented to have three finalist books in one year.
I’m honoured to be among such esteemed company.
On top of that Little Red Riding Hood Not Quite AND Dragon Knight are also up for the Children’s Choice award. In previous years children could only chose
their favourite from the 20 finalist books that had already been selected by the judges. This year children across the country voted for their own finalists from
all the 149 books submitted for the awards. It’s always a great thrill to know that children like your work of their own choosing.
Then ... to top off the entire awards season, my work as a book designer on Monkey Boy is also up for an award in the PANZ Book Design Awards.
MONKEY BOY UP FOR AN AWARD OR TWO (May 2015)
My hybrid comic/novel Monkey Boy has been cracking along successfully since it's release last year, with 2 reprints in the first 3 months, and now it's up for an award.
Monkey Boy's been shortlisted for a Best Junior Fiction at the 2015 LIANZA Awards – and it's also up for the Librarian's Choice selected from all the shortlisted sections.
I'll be talking about the creation of Monkey Boy at the 2015 Auckland Writers Festival in May. Click on the above link to check it out.
"THREE BEARS SORT OF" IS AN AWARD WINNER (July 2014)
I can now add 'award-winner' to my list of accolades. Last month at the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, "Three Bears Sort Of" written by Yvonne Morrison and
illustrated by myself won the coveted Overall Children's Choice Award. The award is selected from all the finalist categories and voted by over 16,000 kids from across the country.
Even more satisfying was the judges comment that "Three Bears" was a clear winner.
"Three Bears" was one of the most challenging and fun books I've worked on and there is a post below from October 2012 which describes the process.
Yvonne and I are currently working on a sequel which is due out in March 2015. I love this photo from the awards night – it looks like they've specifically
planned it to go with my cover design. Oh, and by the way – my design work on "Three Bears" is also up for a PANZ Book Design Award later this month.
MOZART AND SHAKESPEARE STILL LOOKING FOR A NEW WORLWIDE PUBLISHER (April 2014)
To work in the publishing industry takes a lot of stubborness, perseverance, patience and luck. Firstly you have to be committed enough to work for years
on one project and see it through without getting sick of it (it took 6 years to create my book "Faithfully Mozart"). You have to withstand rejections from publishers,
not because your work is bad, rather they are not suitable to publish your book – and you have to push on to find ones that are.
Then you have to have the patience of a Saint, waiting to hear back (one punblisher took a year to reject my book "Monkey Boy" – a long time to wait after 17 other rejections) –
AND (if your book does get accepted) you'll need the patience to wait for another couple of years before your book will be seen in the shops. Lastly – you need a ton of luck,
to be in the right place at the right time and the right moment in history with what you're creating. Neil Gaiman famously had to wait years to get his masterwork "Coraline" published.
He was ahead of his time and it wasn't published until after "Harry Potter" proved that a scary books for children would be successful.
In my own case – it has been a few years since my illustrated biography "Faithfully Mozart" went out of print. In that time I've had a few interested parties
who might want to re-publish it. It's a long waiting game. I also have my follow-up book about Shakespeare, and both books had been deemed a little too clever for the general
public. They are both beautiful large format picture books, and in a world of devices and cheap reproductions, these are books that really deserve to be glorious printed books.
The probelm is that printing big beautiful books costs a lot of money. Unfortunately for me, that means 'the numbers' don't work for small markets like New Zealand and Australia.
A publisher will need big overseas sales to make them worthwhile to print. Another hurdle, is that most of the publishers I work with are children's publishers, while both Mozart and
Shakespeare are aimed at adult audiences.
So as you can see there are many aspects of book production that affect the publication of a work like this. Things that you may not think about when you are creating art, regardless of how good it is.
In the meantime I will push on – and with stubborness, perseverance, patience and luck I hope these two books will get into the hands of international readers in the next couple of years.
CHEERS TO A NEW CRAFT BEER LABEL (February 2014)
It's funny where children's books will lead you. This time last year I was approached by Bach Brewing to illustrate the label for the relaunch of their award-winning
Hopsmacker craft beer. Craig, the brewer, had a young daughter and had been exposed to my work through "Wheels on the Bus" and "Old MacDonald's Farm".
He had also had terrible luck trying to get advertising agencies to actually listen (they keep coming back with their own crazy ideas, instead of doing what
he wanted and spending hours in meetings talking round in circles and going in the wrong direction).
What Bach Brewing wanted was to get away from the traditional 'racetrack' beer label design – to make something that was obviously
New Zealand – an image that defined the kiwi beach experience: pohutukawa trees, rolling surf, the fishing boat on the back of the tractor, crays hanging on
the line and family, friends and holidays. In short they wanted an label that gave you warm fuzzies while you held your nice cold beer, and they thought that the
depictions of New Zealand they'd seen in my books was the way to go.
The image itself was a pleasure to work on and bach Brewing were so straight forward and easy to work with. Having worked in design and advertising for years,
I ended up taking on the whole job – not only doing the illustration but designing the label and recreating the Bach Brewing logo. If you know New Zealand well,
you will see a little visual pun in the background – Bear Island, which is down in Hawkes Bay, where brewer Craig has spent many summer holidays.
My initial concept was to create a scene that could be recreated for different styles of beer – a deep sunset for Red Ale, a storm-tossed sea for Dark Ale and I'm
currently working on a starlit night for Bach Brewing's next beer release in a few months.
It seems the label is a great success with the public too. I recently got this email: "I wish you could hear first hand all the compliments I constantly get on the label design,
and it is literally every customer or person I come in contact with." Job well done - and it's a bloody nice beer to boot!
THE WEATHER MACHINE – A WORDLESS FABLE (September 2013)
As a kid I owned quite a few wordless books, mainly by European artists like Mordillo or Jean Jacques Loup.
The French, in particular, have quite a strong tradition of wordless books. They are the type of books you can
go back to again and again, just taking in all the detail and trying to figure out what it all means – or indeed
making up a whole new story. I still adore those books, and over the years it’s been a delight to discover more
and more within the pages – things I didn’t get as a kid. Even now I probably look those books more frequently
than all the others on my bookshelf – of course I am an illustrator and drawn (ha ha) more to pictures than some
others may be – but I have always wanted to do my own wordless book. Over the years I’ve tried to make all
sorts of little stories work only in pictures. It was just a matter of finding the right tale.
So you can see, my new book, “The Weather Machine” began a long time ago. Like any creative process it slowly
came together by joining forces with several other ideas I had floating around. At it’s heart it’s about how we want
to control everything. The story of human civilization could be tied to our drive to tame nature and bend it to our
purposes. Building cities and diverting rivers is one thing, but in the 21st century we are now fiddling with the very
building blocks of nature. Someone trying to build a machine to control the climate seemed to me like the ultimate
in human folly. We all want the weather to be perfect all the time – but as Buzz Aldrin said, there’s no weather on
the moon, and when you come back to earth ALL weather is good weather.
I suppose “The Weather Machine” is really a Frankenstein story – about man trying to play God – except with a
more hopeful ending than Mary Shelly's tale! I’ve tried to tell it in a totally over-the-top ridiculous and humourous way.
In a lot of ways “The Weather Machine” is inspired by the hilarious Buster Keaton silent movies that I love so much
(funnily a lot of cartoonist, including Tintin’s Herge, were inspired by Buster Keaton), or, since it’s such a colourful tale,
it could be more likened to those Pixar silent shorts they play before the main movie.
“The Weather Machine” has a lot going on in it. There are all sorts of messages and symbolism – but because
it has no words, it doesn’t tell you want to think. Young children will hopefully have a good laugh just reading
the funny pictures, but older kids and adults will get something else out of it. I wanted the book to appeal to all
ages and cultures – after-all the weather affects everyone on the planet.
A huge thank you must go to the publishing team at Hachette NZ, who were totally behind this project, which
is far removed from the bestselling “Wheels on the Bus” or “Old MacDonald’s Farm” they are used to. With their support,
I set out to create something different and I think I’ve succeeded. Someone recently told me what they thought
"The Weather Machine" was about and it was completely different from what I had intended – PERFECT!
See, even I don’t really know what it’s all supposed to mean.
A LAMENT FOR HACHETTE AND UNFINISHED BOOKS (August 2013)
I don’t often like to discuss the behind the scenes industry goings-on of the publishing world – I like to focus my time on creating books,
not the sticky business underbelly of it all – nobody wants to know about sticky underbellies! However, the recent closure of Hachette’s
New Zealand publishing arm has hit me pretty hard in more ways than one.
Hachette (formally Hodder Moa) were my first publisher. It was through them I was given the opportunity to prove myself on Barry Crump’s
“Harry Hobnail and the Pungapeople”. I loved doing that book and Hachette left me pretty much to my own devices (to rise or fall on my own
decisions). I think it was the best and most cohesive manuscript of Barry Crump’s Pungapeople series and I still love it. Hachette loved it too –
it quickly became a NZ Bronze Best-seller – and so my relationship with Hachette began.
The New Zealand Hachette team have always been incredibly supportive of all my creative endeavors. They treated me like close family,
and like family they had faith in everything I did. This was never more evident than when I worked on “Faithfully Mozart”. Kevin Chapman,
Hachette’s NZ boss, was integral in taking this very unusual book (a picture book for adults) and eventually helping it to be published in
8 countries though book packager PQ Blackwell. I only realized just how unusual “Faithfully Mozart” was for a NZ publisher when it was a
finalist in the 2006 NZ Book Awards – it was the only book there that was not about New Zealand.
This led on to all sorts of fun. They gave me free range on “Marc Ellis’s Goodfullas”, and I was called in to design new looks for Anne Geddes work
and the reissue of Paul Thomas’ “Ihaka” crime series. Hachette’s Warren Addler has always been an instigator and supporter of new creative ideas.
His last big book as Hachette’s sports editor, the upcoming definitive All Black book “The First 500 Tests”, features not the standard staunch
black and white cover photograph - but a creative gamble – an All Blacks illustration by Donovan Bixley in 30’s Art Deco style.
I have known Hachette’s other editor, Jane Hingston, for 16 years when I first began designing covers for a little publisher called Tandem Press.
Jane was my best buddy as I worked on “Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald’s Farm”. When I baulked at doing ‘yet another nursery rhyme’
she didn’t bat and eye and was totally behind my desire to create “The Looky Book” instead. A recurring trait of mine is that I always want to be
trying something new, and Hachette’s ongoing support and faith have drawn those ideas out of my sketch books and into reality. Jane and the
NZ Hachette team were right behind my brand new release “The Weather Machine” (out on September 24th 2013). My initial inquiry to Jane was
‘I want to make a wordless book about climate change and the environment set in a fantasy world’ – accompanied by a rough painting of a
‘weather machine’. Her response was an immediate ‘yes - here’s a contract’. I wanted to do something really different and in the end
(a bit like “Faithfully Mozart”) I didn’t even really know what kind of book I’d created. But Hachette were behind it 100% – they believed in me,
they trusted me, and they loved what I did. That is such an important relationship to have with a publisher – believe me, I’ve worked with
ten publishers over the years – some who told me I couldn’t draw properly and others that tried to change me into something I’m not.
I will miss all the people who made up Hachette New Zealand. A twelve year relationship cannot be replaced easily.
Thankfully the NZ sales team remain. My lovely publicists Ruby & Karen will be a reassuring constant. My existing back catalogue
will still be sold – but my future projects...?
At the sudden and very surprising closure of Hachette NZ’s publishing arm I had several books in the works. These may possibly be
relegated to my self-titled ‘wheelbarrow of unpublished books’. I have quite a few books in that pile – including a follow up to
"Faithfully Mozart" called "Much ado about Shakespeare" – but there is one in particular that I had been thinking about for the past 13 years.
Two years ago I had begun serious work on this book – a World War 1 story – and I was just about to sign up with Hachette for a 2015 release
when everything collapsed around our ears. I thought it would be nice to share some of my sketches and colour studies unless it never sees the light of day.
I remain excited that I will work with the ex Hachette team again in the future and I’m keen to present some ideas and build a relationship with Hachette Australia.
THEATRICAL POSTER A WINNER [APRIL 2013]
For the second year in a row one of my theratrical poster designs has won an award at the MTNZ Awards
(I think that's the NZ Amateur Theatre Organization or somesuch). Last year I won for my "Blood Brothers"
programme and this year my poster design for "Four Flat Whites in Italy" took the top prize – also coming
2nd for the programme. Roger Hall's play is one of the funniest NZ plays and it was it was one of those
moments where I instantly had an image in my head and it came out perfectly. I also did some initial
art direction for the set design which (with the work of many others) turned out really amazing too.
The production team used the brand new Centre Stage Taupo projectors to cover the entire stage
with cool images of Italy projected on a very sparse set. One of the best productions ever put on in Taupo.
THE SECRET LIVES OF TEAPOTS – LIMITED EDITION ART PRNTS [NOVEMBER 2012]
For the first time ever I am offering limited edtion prints of two of my paintings.
The two paintings are from my "Secret Lives of Teapots" series, which are on display at the
current = Art Connection Taupo Diversity exhibition, which opened on 17 November.
There will only be 10 prints of each painting and one has already sold at the exhibition opening.
"Oriental Teapots Courting"
500 x 400mm
Not mounted or framed
8 of 10 prints available
Price: including delivery (in NZ) NZ$300
"Imperial Silverware Foraging at the Forest Edge"
400 x 500mm
Not mounted or Framed
8 of 10 prints available.
Price: including delivery (in NZ) NZ$300
For more information email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
THE ILLUSTRATOR AS AN ARTIST [OCTOBER 2012]
Are illustrators really such lowly artists? Why is it that creators of children’s books
in general seem to be at the bottom end of the artistic spectrum?
Hard sometimes not to feel like the lowest of the low.
But hang on ... our most popular, well loved, most read, biggest selling, and most internationally acclaimed New Zealand author would surely be –
no not Katherine Mansfield or Keri Hulme – but the late great Margaret Mahy. A lowly children’s writer? Children’s illustrators are held in even
less artist regard than their fellow writers. Yet I imagine, among the developed world, that the artwork of Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, and
Dr Suess would be as familiar as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. This is because great children’s books touch people at a very formative age.
They spark the imagination and stay there. For many, children’s books are the first connection with the visual and written arts.
Artistic snobbery is not limited to we lowly and far-flung antipodean illustrators. My hero, the great American painter Norman Rockwell,
although beloved by millions during his life, was not rated by the arts community until after his death. Now 40 years later he is considered
one of the great artists of the 20th century – and rightly so. But why are illustrators not seen as artists? It’s all the same thing isn’t it?
A touring exhibition of New Zealand children’s illustrator Graham Percy got me thinking about all this. Percy passed away in 2008 – so, like Rockwell,
it is cynically natural for him to be considered an ‘artist’ now. Like a lot of New Zealand writers and illustrators Graham Percy got his start with that
great institute The New Zealand School Journal. Other School Journal Alumni include Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, David Hill, David Elliot, Dick Frizzell,
several of Peter Jackson’s Weta artists, and myself). But back to Graham Percy ... I adore his artwork. His ‘illustrations’ show all the hallmarks of the
great artists I admire: Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Degas, Rockwell. So what are these hallmarks?
A lot of illustrators come from a design background, their work shows a strong sense of colour, composition and technical skill – all of which are
expressed supremely by Leonardo, Degas and Rockwell. Illustrators can’t resist a bit of humour (like Michaelangelo’s penile acorns on the
Sistine Chapel, which say ‘actually I think the Pope is a bit of a dick’). Percy’s work as a children’s illustrator is embedded with a hilarious sense of fun.
There is an ease with which illustrators communicate with the viewer – without having to explain their deeper meaning through a 1,000 word essay.
Great children’s book illustrators have a particular skill with layers of meaning that sometimes take until adulthood to unravel – thus keeping the work
alive for generations (and keeping parents engaged when reading books over and over and over). But most of all, an illustrator feels an overwhelming
need to tell stories with pictures. Every image is a peek into a wider world which expands the viewer’s imagination beyond the frame.
I think almost every artist before the 20th century was a story-telling illustrator – but I guess that’s just not ‘art’ in the 21st century.
Check out Graham Percy’s exhibition if it comes to your town. It is currently in Taupo until November 14.
Below is Graham Percy’s “Kiwi Ophelia” and my “Imperial silverware foraging at the forest edge”. This is my first ever random works of art,
froma series called "The Secret Lives of Teapots" which I'm working on for an upcoming exhibition at the Taupo Museum.
THE THREE BEARS AS YOU'VE NEVER SEEN THEM [OCTOBER 2012]
I've just finished work on one of the funniest manuscripts I ever had the pleasure to work on - "The Three Bears Sort Of" by Yvonne Morrison.
It's taken me a year and half to complete (which is really long for me - see Old MacDonald in 16 days down below!) because it kept being
put off by more and more Dinosaur Rescue books, but it has been one of the most challenging and rewarding illustration jobs I've ever done.
In fact the publishers (Scholastic) didn't really know how on earth someone could illustrate it - and so paid me a huge compliment by trusting
this job to me. The challenge is that the text leaps about with various voices as the true nature of the Three Bears is hammered out between
a adult and a child. This book was perfect for me – and I decided to make it a visual journey from realism, to traditional storybook illustration,
to 19thC woodcarvings, collage, children's drawings and finally some cartoon bears. Below is a sample of sketches from the endpapers,
which didn't make it into the final book.
It was also most unusal in the fact that I didn't do any roughs. Instead I did some very vague stick figure drawings and sent Scholastic a
long letter about what I was GOING to do with this very funny post-modern text. The challenge was, as often happens with good ideas,
is that turning them into reality is often much harder than the vague foggy picture in your head. Normally I work out a whole book in advance,
then the final illustrations are just a matter of knuckling down and making it happen - which can be a very technical process. For Three Bears
I had a tremendous amount of fun the whole way through the process, because each page was trying to figure out a new style, technique,
composition and way of interpreting the text AND make it fit together with the previous pages. All that problem solving is the most fun
part of my work. I had plenty of moments of self doubt - wondering if the whole thing was just going to be a huge mish-mash of styles
and disparate ideas - but the end result is one of my favourite works. I can't wait for it to come out, which will be Feb 2013.
DINOSAUR RESCUE WEBSITE LAUNCHED [AUGUST 2012]
The offical Dinosaur Rescue website is now up and running. You can check out all the characters, some amazing
"facts" (that Kyle and I made up) about dinosaurs and stone age people. Also there are colour-ins to download,
watch the trailers and read free samples chapters all the books. Check it out at Dinosaur-rescue.com and tell your friends.
BOOK REVIEW – LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld and Keith Thompson [APRIL 2012]
I was drawn to Scott Westerfeld's "Leviathan" series by Keith Thompson's amazing illustrations in the books. After pressing them on the rest of the family the 3 books in the series have become a favourite in our household. Below is a review by my daughter Mina.
In books with cantankerous machines, fantastical beasts, awesome action scenes and crazy battles, sometimes it’s all a bit hard to understand and imagine. That’s where you need illustrations, and in the young adult steampunk “Leviathan” series, it works perfectly.
Leviathan is set in an alternate history World War One. There’s the Clankers, with their iron walkers shaped as elephants and other animals, and flying war machines armed with phosphorous flares. The Darwinists have genetically engineered war beasts to make up their army, with jellyfish hot air balloons, whale airships, message lizards, water krakens and more. Having trouble imagining these beasties and machines? Even with the descriptions in the books, it’s hard to picture. Luckily the series has the amazing illustrator Keith Thompson on board, who takes these ideas and turns them into fantastic illustrations spread throughout the story, at least fifty to each book.
The pictures add to the story, showing how the beasts and machines look, and adding to the environment and world of Leviathan. Keith Thompson’s illustrations not only look great with their cinematic angles and action, they show exactly how the machines and creatures would look in real life without being too strange to be unbelievable. They are entirely believable.
Having illustrations means that the author, Scott Westerfeld, doesn’t have to describe the things in the picture in too much detail. He gives a brief description and the picture does the rest, and more. Illustrations are the key to an awesome book!
REVIEWED BY MINA BIXLEY
In my experience publishers like to keep the authors and illustrators separate – perhaps they fear us ganging up on them? I was interested to read that Scott Westerfeld had specifically sought out Keith Thompson and that they worked closely together on the series. For more info check out the links below.
An interview about the series with the illustrator, Keith Thompson:
Keith’s art website:
The Leviathan website:
NORTHWOOD UP FOR SCI FI AWARD [MARCH 2012]
"Northwood" (written by Brain Falkner) has already received a swag of acolades - including the US Association of Librarians top 5 books of 2011, and it's hero, Cecilia Undergarment, was listed as a Top 5 female characters in the UK Guardian's Book list. Now my illustrations for the book have been nominated for a Sir Julius Vogel "Best Sci Fi and Fantasy Professional Artwork 2011". Awards Announced in June.
DINOSAUR RESCUE OFF TO THE HOLY LAND [FEBRUARY 2012]
Dinosaur Rescue comes out in Canada this month and has recently been picked up in Israel too!
LOST DEGAS PAINTING FOUND [DECEMBER 2011]
I love doing homage paintings and making funny little in-joke references in my illustrations. Every paniter, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Dave McKean, does this too. "Faithfully Mozart" featured quite a few homages to my favourite artists like Norman Rockwell and Edgar Degas – including his famous "Place du la Concorde"(below). I was recently interviewed by Trevor Agnew for Magpies Magazine and was taking about this painting and how, sadly, it was destroyed during WWII. Well blow me down if Trevor didn't send me a link revealing how it had been found by Russian authorities and is now on display at Hermitage Museum. I love Degas and jump at any relevant opportunity to reference him. His "Place du la Concorde" seemed to fit perfectly with Mozart's life – as that's where Mozart went to buy an ice cream and laugh at the Parisian fashions (although it wasn't called Place du la Concorde until after the French Revolution).
END OF YEAR CRITICAL ACCLAIM [DECEMBER 2011]
Well, it's that time of year when 'best of 2011" list start coming out. I was pleased to see that The NZ Listener Magazine Top 50 Children's Books of 2011 featured not one, not two, BUT THREE of my books! Selected from all international Children's books out in 2011 - it included "Northwood" written by Brian Falkner, "Old MacDonald's Farm", and "Phoebe and the Night Creatures" written by Jenny Hessel. A nice way to end a very eventful year in which I've had 10 major books out, 3 of which have been on the top 10 bestsellers list.
OLD MacDONALD'S FARM IS NUMBER 1 [NOVEMBER 2011]
"Old MacDonald's Farm" has had a great opening few weeks. It made its debut at number 3 on the New Zealand Children's Bestseller list and now, three weeks later it has hit the number one spot! YIPPIEE! This is also despite the fact that the hardcover and softcover versions are counted as spearate books - so the overall sales are even more fantastic. The icing on the cake is that my "Wheels on the Bus", from last year, has had a surge in popularity too - seeing it back on the top 10 as well! Very cool to have two books on the bestseller list.
DRAWING ON TALENT - SUNDAY STAR TIMES ARTICLE [OCTOBER 2011]
Lovely full page feature article I did with Megan Nicol Reed - talking about illustration, genius and top hats. Check it out in THE SUNDAY STAR TIMES
NEW SELF PORTRAIT [SEPTEMBER 2011]
Be the first to see my new self portrait, done especially for an upcoming feature in the Dominion Post. Like a lot of my work it's fairly intuitive. AND like a lot of arty things there's lots of room for my favourite thing - post-rationalisation. That was one of the great skills learnt at Art School - one's ability to make up all sorts of complex meanings to your work (after the fact) put you in good sted for a career in advertising. This illy features my number 1 top hat (not to be confused with my everyday top hat) and shows my influences from Dr Suess to gothic creepiness, 19thC industrialism and 18thC ornatmentation. Not surprisingly a lot of these elements feature in my work.
LITTLE BO SHEEP - YOUR CHANCE TO BE PART OF CREATING A CHILDREN'S BOOK [SEPTEMBER 2011]
After months of top secret work by award winning author Kyle Mewburn and myself (along with Scholastic and Rapp advertising), Telecom's "Bills to Storybooks" campaign has been launched. As part of the campaign, Telecom customers who switch to online billing can get a chance to write a line for our collaborative children's book.
Each week Kyle will act as editor for the 100's of entries - selecting a new line which I will illustrate. Initially a rough skecth will go up - followed by a final colour version so that participants can get a taste of how a children's picture book is created. The pictures that appear online will only be portions of the final book - so there'll still be a nice surprise at the end when you see the full book.
All those who enter a line will get a digital copy of the book. The project goes for 10 weeks and if your line is selected you get to be creditied as an author of the finished book. You'll also get a hard copy of the book (which is being published by Scholastic and released in shops in Feb 2012).
It's a bit scary not knowing how the story will progress or what I'm going to do with it. But also very exciting - as how I choose to illustrate the book will influence the direction of the story, the environment and the possible characters. You can see from our opening set-up (below) that we've created an elusive "land of the long white cloud" - which will hopefully be slowly revealed depending on what people write.
Check it out at Telecom's Bills to Storybooks
DINOSAUR RESCUE FINALLY HITS THE SHOPS [AUGUST 2011]
The first two books in the Dinosaur Rescue series have just been released out of the wilds of our imagination onto the unsuspecting public. Check out the new trailer for Stego-snottysaurus below.
WATCH THE T-WRECK-ASAURUS TRAILER [JULY 2011]
Click the link below to watch the new Dinosaur Rescue: T-Wreck-asaurus trailer. Share it around all your friends and look out for the first two books – T-Wreck-asaurus & Stego-snottysaurus – in bookstores on the 1st of August
NEW WORLD RECORD SET IN BOOK PUBLISHING [6 JULY 2011]
It's a new world record... well for me anyway! After completely screwing up the deadlines for my latest book, I got a frantic call from my lovely publisher, Jane at Hachette. I, in turn, almost had a heart attack on learning that the artwork was due at the start of June, NOT the start of August. Having never missed a publishing deadline in my life I was utterly mortified. So began the world record attempt to illustrate a complete book in 16 days. AND.... YAY - It's all over - I did it!!! Thankfully publishers are used to writers and artists NEVER delivering on deadline – so the book is all back on schedule thanks to a couple of weeks INTENSE work. What's more I'm really pleased with the end result. The book in question is a followup to last years "Wheels on the Bus" which has been in the bestseller list for seven months now. With that kind of success there's always demand for a sequel (of sorts). The new book is a NZ version of "Old MacDonald" - it's a bit of a nostalgic love-letter to NZ farming, full of All Black jerseys drying on the line, rusty old Holdens and unfinished boats languishing in the back paddock. OH YEAH - and Old Mac has a few remarkable animals on the farm too. Like this cow... who makes milk shakes. Look out for it in stores in September 2011.
OH and by the way - if any publishers read this... NO I don't want to EVER do a book in 16 days again.
MOZART ANNIVERSARY [31 MAY 2011]
Today marks the day (6 years ago) that I completed work on "Faithfully Mozart" and sent it off to the printers. AND got my final payment. "Faithfully Mozart" took 6 years to complete and now we are 6 years on. So what have I done in that time? WELL... I've illustrated 14 covers, 53 school journal stories, 35 books as well as written and illustrated 4 of my own. That's the equivalent of ONE book on Mozart.
To celebrate, I've re-edited an old Mozart Interview I did with Anita McNaught, added some illustrations and music and posted it on youtube. Check it out....
REJECTIONS ARE NOT COOL [MAY 2011]
Well - just got my 11th rejection for "Monkey Boy". It's something I've learnt to accept very well. I say this, because it's important for all those aspiring writers and illustrators out there to know that it's all about perseverance. You just have to find the right publisher for the right book and it doesn't mean that your work is no good. Well actually... it could mean that your work is utter crap... or maybe even ahead of it's time. "Monkey Boy" is part novel - part comic and has been on the fire for 3 years now. It's a slow roaster. Anywho - I have an ace up my sleeve - so I'll let you know how my next pitch goes. Fingers crossed it's the right fit. In the meantime I'll keep working away on my many other projects.
DINOSAURS ARE COOL [MAY 2011]
Thanks to those who told me their favourite dinos - but I have just discovered possibly the coolest dinosaur ever - Dracorex Hogswartia. Yes - believe it or not - it is named after Hogwarts. As you can tell from this National Geographic cover, it really does look like something that would be right at home in the movies. The Draco part refers to 'dragon' rather than the evil blondie from Harry Potter. I think Dracorex will have to make an appearance in Dinosaur Rescue 4.
BE PART OF THE NEW DINOSAUR RESCUE BOOKS [APRIL 2011]
I have just begun work on Dinosaur Rescue 3 with Kyle Mewburn and I want YOU to be involved. There are 96 pages in these cool little books and there is always room to pop in lots of dinosaurs mooching about in the background. Simply visit my Facebook page (Above) and tell me your coolest or meanest or favourite dinosaur. I'll be selecting the best ones to appear in the book and posting up drawings of them. Ask your kids and grandkids their opinion too, and share this with all your Facebook friends to see if I can't double my Facebook fans - I'm only 995,947 behind Flight of the Conchords!
Here's a Styracosaurus from Dinosaur Rescue Book 2: Stego-snotty-saurus - just to give you an idea.
PHOEBE & THE NIGHT CREATURES ALL DONE AND DUSTED [February 2011]
Wahhhooo! Just finished another book. 3 down, 2 to go by the end of the month. "Phoebe & the Night Creatures" (Scholastic NZ) has been on the go since August last year with most of the work done in October. Today I finally approved the proofs and now it's off to the printers. Unfortunately you'll have to wait until August 2011 to see "Phoebe" in the shops. But I'll post up some pics on my Facebook page in the meantime to whet your appetite.
This is the first book where I am officially credited, and (most importantly) paid, as designer. Even though my day-job is as a designer - I rarely do the finished layup work for my books because I get too busy just finishing the illys. In this case Scholastic were really great and let me do my thing. It's nice not to hand over control to some other designer to stuff it up or do something boring. It's amazing the amount of times I have received proofs back and seen that my illustrations have been cropped wrong.
WHAT NOT TO ASK YOU LITERARY HERO [February 2011]
I am a huge Neil Gaiman fan - and have been since I got into comics at Art School. For those of you who don't know - Neil Gaiman is the most famous author you've never heard of. He started as a cool-as comic writer (doing heaps of ground-breaking comic stuff with the Picasso of comic art - Dave McKean) - then he made the huge leap to international award winner and best selling novelist, children's book author and screen-writer. Several of his books have been made into movies including Coroline and Stardust - he also wrote the screenplay for Beowulf and Princess Mononoke. On top of all this he is also the most generous and humble author you are likely to come across.
Anywho - back to my initial story... when I heard Neil Gaiman was coming to the Wellington Arts festival I promptly booked my tickets 5 months in advance and began working on the coolest, best-ever question to ask my hero. What did I really want to know? What would no-one else ask? I kept a notebook of the best things I could ask - big sprawling complex questions. Finally came the day. Ha ha – Being the biggest Neil Gaiman fan in New Zealand I would thwart any possible rivals by turning up to the venue a whole 45 minutes BEFORE Neil was due to appear. Here came my first shock - for I discovered (45 minutes before Neil was due to appear) that a few Neil Gaiman fans had beaten me at my game. In fact - to tell the truth - the Wellington Town Hall was already fit to busting with about 3000 other Neil Gaiman fans. Curses - but I had an ace up my sleeve - my question I had been working on for 5 months - Bwhahahaha...
I knew from my own experience with audiences, that when question time comes, everyone is too shy to put up their hand. Then after 4 minutes every single audience member wants to ask their question. So I knew that when it came to question time I would be first up with my great question - which I had carefully written out on five pages of A4 pad. Alas - if only I wasn't kidding - then I wouldn't have to relay the tragic events that follow. Sure enough – after an amazing 50 minutes of Neil talking about everything from Scientology to the secret coven he, J.K. Rowling and Stephen King are in (he was joking :-) finally came question time. I leapt up like a boy who's just wizzed on the electric fence. YES. I was 2nd in line. I made my way up to the front of the auditorium, only feet away from the master himself. Soon it was my turn to ask my question, in front of those 3000 others. My chance to show I was New Zealand's greatest Neil Gaiman fan... Neil Gaiman turned to me, eyebrows raised expectantly at the coming question... and then ... and then ... my heart started thumping like the chest-buster from Alien. My face flushed bright red and my hands started tingling ... curses (again) I wish I had my 5 page question written down. I think I stuttered and mumbled a few misheard words. As adrenalin pumped through my veins time seem to slow to a standstill. This made it seem like I had been up there for ages wasting time - so I blurted out (in my best impression of a teenager whose voice is breaking) - "so are you going to do any more comics?"
What a crap question! Of course he is - he still does comics all the time - I knew that! I buy them! But Neil answered it perfectly marvelously - making even the crappest question seem funny and interesting. I slunk back to my seat - under the gaze of all those fans who weren't me. At least I wasn't the person who asked "how do you get published?"
Never the less - all was not lost. I had carted a whole bag-load of Neil Gaiman books around Wellington on my aching shoulders for the day - so I would make up for my crap question by getting them signed. Bwhahaha. Unfortunately everyone else SOMEHOW cottoned on to my brilliant plan - and when I say everyone - I mean EVERYONE. Apparently Neil was signing books for 4 hours! Crikey I've done about an hour and that was hard on your wrist.
I'm pretty sure Neil Gaiman has been getting ideas from my website. He's obviously copying my BW portrait above.
BEST REVIEW EVER FOR WHEELS ON THE BUS [December 2010]
Just got this amazing review from the Taranaki Daily Times.
WHEELS ON THE BUS BESTSELLER [November 2010]
Well Wheels on the Bus is finally out and debuted at number 6 on the NZ bestseller list - YAY. Not bad considering that it was only on sale for 2 days of the week that the list was complied. Had heaps of good reviews so far and I was wrapped to see how the cover looked in the bookshops. Can't wait to see how it goes on a full week. Stay tuned... Just been updated - it is now sitting just behind 'Wonky Donkey' which is pretty cool as 'Wonky' is the most successful NZ children's book since 'Hairy Maclary'.
SNEAK PEAK AT NEW BOOK [November 2010]
I'm just putting the finishing touches on a new book "Phoebe and the Night Creatures" written by Jenny Hessell (of Grandma McGravey fame). It's a nice change for me - monsters and ghosts etc - all the stuff I love to draw. It's due out in August next year from Scholastic. Below I've posted a rough colour study of one of the opening pages - plus the finished illustration. Usually I do all the design work for my books (how could you not - if you want to illustrate it properly) and normally once I've finished I remove all the typography and the publishers deal with their own designers. On this book I decided that it was about time I got credit (and some extra $$$) for doing all the design. The story really suited some interesting typography - and I was inspired by one of my favourite comics "Batman Arkham Asylum" where each of the characters have their unique typographical voice - so to speak. The final illustrations didn't end up being as dark as I'd originally intended - I always like a bit of colour.
BREAKING NEWS – BEST SELLING BOOK-DOING-GUY-THING-A-ME [September 2010]
Wahoo - I can officially now say that I've done a best seller! In the last week of August "Good Fullas" outsold all other books in NZ – including all vampire related teenage novels! Sales are getting stronger in the start of September so watch this space to see what the final sales count adds up to. [So far around 25,000 - October 2010]
Good Fullas Book Launch [August 2010]
This week saw the launch of Marc Ellis' "Good Fullas". I went up to Auckland for the release party which was a blast. I had the brilliant idea that I would do a big mural of all the Kiwi blokes who were at the party - and then had a panic attack as to whether I could actually pull it off. Not that I find drawing difficult - more the pressure of doing an accurate likeness of someone in only a few minutes. Anywho - it was a great success and as the evening wore on the mural became a focus of attention, with many people confirming that I was "a bloody genius" - ha ha - it's easy to impress people who have been drinking for 3 hours. Marc had arranged an hilarious presentation of some classic kiwi fullas - who had the audience rolling with laughter in a very un PC manner. Just like the book will - we hope. The lovely people at Hachette (publishers) have high hopes for the sales - and so so I. As I have said to my lovely wife for many years (and as Jane Austin's Mrs Bennett said long before me) - "That will soon throw him into the path of other wealthy men" (in my case publishers).
Kiwi version of an old classic [June 2010]
I've just finished the roughs for a new book - due out in November. It's a classic kids song which some people might think is incredibly tiresome - but I couldn't possibly comment. It amazes me how boring some illustrators can be - they seem to just do the bare minimum. I've had heaps of fun making this fairly basic story into something really cool. There's always so much you can add if you just take the time - and both adults and kids love all the hidden little features and on-going background stories. You have to keep the parents interested - otherwise they'll never want to read it to their kids again no matter how much the kids plead. The trick is not to overpower the main story. The main action and narrative need to be clear and obvious and easy to follow. Then you can add all sorts of background details which they can discover each time they read. That's what will keep them coming back. I can't wait to get stuck into the final illys. Have to have it all done by the start of August - so I better get cracking.
New Book From Kiwi Personality [April 2010]
A new book by Kiwi personality Marc Ellis, has just been given the Donovan Bixley treatment. Marc Ellis' "Good Fullas" is a modern take on Barry Crump's "Bastards I Have Met" - a halarious poke at kiwi blokes and the most un-PC book I've done ever. Marc has a good eye for picking out the foibles of Kiwi men - and a thousand rib tickling stories to go with it - some are more sphincter-tightening. Hence it was fantastic fun to work on! A real change from the educational and children's books I do - which are often extremely PC. Whilst doing the character illustrations for "Good Fullas" I would often get feed back like - 'make him fatter', 'put some more scars on his face', or 'ad some nostril hairs'. Great fun. It should be a really good seller too - with Marc Ellis' last book chalking up 45,000 copies. So of course I'm happy to tie myself to his coat tails and be carried along. Should be off to the printers in May and then in the shops mid-year. Keep an eye out for it.
Macbeth gets a makeover [April 2010]
I'm very excited because I've been asked to design the set for a new production of Macbeth. It's been a few years since I designed a set for Les Miserables but this will be quite different. Like books, it's a long process which will take a year or so and I'm trying to think of something really cool and different. Below is a rough skecth - I wanted it to be all expressionist and falling apart - reflecting the crumbling nature of the whole play – look mate this is what you're fighting over! It's all jagged and tilted like Macbeth's mind. Also I wanted to have all sorts of cool shapes that our lighting man (the very talented Shawn Hately) can do some awesome things with. Anywho - have to wait and se now if the money is forthcoming - this kind of stuff isn't cheap to make :-)
Future projects [March 2010]
I'm really cracking on with my next book now. After some initial interest from a UK agent last year, I've been doodling around. Mainly cutting out the first eight chapters and cutting to the chase. Also adding a bit more humour - which never goes amiss. "Monkey Boy" is a YA Novel, set during the Napoleonic Wars - so of course there is lots of trouble for our hero to get into. Also it has parts of the story told in comic form. I've been working hard to try and get both words and pics to do what they each do best and not double up (I can't stand those YA Books with boring still images of something we've just read about - what a waste of time!). Also as an illustrator I'm desperate to do pics of cool things I want to draw - battleships, ghosts, people getting their heads split in half - all those great things that 11 year old boys love. Best of all I've been cracking into those illustrations - I think it's really important to show the publishers what I'm trying to achieve. NOTE: This is normally NOT the way to go about publishing - but it worked for me on "Faithfully Mozart" - show them the finished product and they can't say no. Should have it all ready to go in May/June. I've popped up a few new images on my Portfolio page.
Christmas Daughters Inspire Christmas Book [Dec 2009]
Being a princess is every girl’s dream. So my youngest daughter Sparkle was over the moon when she got to model as a princess for the illustrations in my latest children’s book A Right Royal Christmas. Funnily enough both Sparkle and author Lucy Davey’s daughter Holly Grace were born at Christmas (hence the festive names). Equally funny is that I had never met Lucy before - some coincidence huh? I did get to meet Lucy and her lovely family when Sparkle and I went up to Auckland for the launch of A Right Royal Christmas at St Helliers Library. That's the first time I've ever met one of the authors I've worked with.
I put a great deal of effort into this book with the hope that it will become a Christmas classic and get some overseas sales. Signs are looking good so far as Scholastic reprinted it before it was even released. The cover image is a homage to one of my heroes - Genardy Spirin.