John Shelley's MAGIC FOR SALE

I am a longtime fan of John Shelley's work. Happily, he stopped by to share his latest book, MAGIC FOR SALE, written by Carrie Clickard for Holiday House. And he shared some luscious work-in-progress images. Woohoo! I can't think of a better Halloween treat than this!

Click the cover to visit the book at Holiday House.
e: What is your creative process, can you walk us through it and what is your medium?
I’ve used a lot of different materials in my wider illustration career, both hand-drawn and digital, but for children’s books I tend to stick with pen & ink with watercolour.
It’s not a rule set in stone, but years ago in Japan most of my work for advertising and editorial was in a very different style using process/computer colour, it was very graphic, but inevitably quite a mechanical way of working, so my children’s books became a relief from that kind of work, the more ‘graphic’ my other work became, the more ‘analogue’ my children’s books became. It’s a more natural, intuitive way to make art, I enjoy the struggle with traditional materials. Though most of my work is for children’s publishing now, on the whole, I’ve stuck with the hand-drawn & painted method, though I’m not against working digitally at all!
      The process is pretty straightforward - a lot of prep work goes into pencil roughs, once 1/2 sized pencil sketches are approved by the editor I enlarge them to full size with photocopies and trace them onto watercolour paper, then begin inking in the lines with my dip pen (I use Leonardt EF Principal nibs for watercolour paper). When the entire book is drawn out in pen and ink, I put away my nibs and start painting layers of watercolour.
Click this image to see it larger in a new window.

e: How long did each of these illustrations take?
As I tend to work on all the spreads at once it’s a little difficult to calculate how much a single picture takes… If I were to do just one spread, then maybe 5 days to a week?, depending on the level of complexity. That’s for the final art production, there was a lot of time spent on research, sketches and so on before then.
Click this image to see it larger in a new window.
e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
I think back to that sense of wonder I had as a child when discovering children’s book illustrations, the way certain pictures capture your imagination and send a tingling down your spine. When I think of the ones that affected me, I think it comes down to one or more of three key things:
1) They are windows to another place that beg you to explore, in the sense that they take you from where you are and propel you to somewhere else, they entice the viewer to step inside the image, mentally explore them, through composition, detail, or whatever, they pull you into the picture.
2) These pictures often have a powerful sense of atmosphere or mood that places you in the location, so those illustrations that give you a sense of time of day, weather, or the fragrance of the air (pleasant, foul or otherwise!) … movement, shadows, and highlights help to convey this.
and 3) Character - personifications of people or animals that seize you with compelling emotion - fun, scary, light or dark, something about the pose, the expressions, or tone that makes them really believable figures. Illustrations that affected me as I grew up all had one or more of these qualities.
e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story? For instance, what sort of research did you have to do for this book?
When I first read Carrie’s text I was struck by the fun rollicking gait of the rhymes, but also by the spooky locations, so my first step was to create the shop interior in my own mind. I wanted to give a sense of claustrophobia, of being a jumbled, mysterious shop overflowing with spooky items in every corner, but at the same time reflect the rollicking fun of the narrative, so finding that balance was the target.
Click this image to see it larger in a new window.

      Illustrators find inspiration from all kinds of sources. Georgie was based very loosely on Fred Scuttle, a character of 1970’s TV comedian Benny Hill. I was never a massive fan of Hill’s brand of slapstick bawdy comedy (highly sexist looked at through today’s lens!), but the buttoned-up, ‘have-a-go’ Scuttle character was a definite inspiration for the kind of ghost-hunting character I envisioned Georgie to be.
      I deliberately made the ghost a friendly, non-threatening simple motif to give contrast to some of the more tightly rendered background details. The shop owner Miss Night presented me with a conundrum, on the one hand, she runs a shop so has to match the environment, but at another point, she threatens to eat Georgie, so is quite monstrous. If I were to literally make her a monster though, it would diminish Georgie’s dare to find a ghost - who would care about finding a ghost when the shop itself is run by a monster? So she is human - though a somewhat witch-like and ashen-faced one!
e: What was your favorite or most challenging part of creating this book?
I like nooks and crannies, so designing the interior of the shop and finding things to fill it’s shelves was endlessly fascinating, research took me in all kinds of mythological and supernatural directions which I’d like to explore more in future projects. I also really enjoy drawing spooky buildings and landscape too, so the views of the street and the shop from the outside were particular fun.
e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
There are a few details that might encourage some readers to delve a little deeper… some of the objects in the basement and shop are referenced from history and mythology, in addition to things specifically mentioned in the text. The ‘blue’ spread of the ghost celebrating for example - the background behind includes amongst other things a Cerberus (Greek legend), a Tarasque (French mythology), a Krampus costume (European Alps) and an Anomalocaridid, an early sea predator. Here and there you might spot the odd talisman & runic symbol aimed to protect against witchcraft (there’s one on the cover!) I don’t expect readers to understand these, but they are authentic occult symbols for those interested! No hidden messages though, and rest assured, no secret spells!
e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
At the moment I’m working on my own ideas for picture books. Over the last few years I’ve been very busy illustrating a string of picture book texts written by others, which has led me to put my own story ideas on ice for a long time, but now I’m slowly getting back into the rhythm of developing my own projects. Also I’ve been very busy working on black-and-white illustrations for novels, I just finished inking drawings for a series of three children’s novels about Auckland Harbour ships, which will scheduled to be released later this year.
      My dream project? Something magical, poetic and poignant, something timeless that speaks to us all.
      Many thanks Elizabeth!!
e: Thank you, John!


Jess Accetta said...

Wow! Great illustrations-thanks for sharing this. cant wait to see it in person...

Steven James Petruccio said...

Thanks for that insight into your work and particularly these illustrations. Beautifully detailed work John.

jama said...

Love John's work. Fab interview, thanks to both of you!

David Opie said...

Wow, I love all the detail in John's wonderful illustrations! I'm looking forward to getting a copy of the book, and I may even try out some of those nibs!