I am a big fan of Chris Dunn's gorgeous illustration work. In fact, I use his generously shared blog posts about his methods in my classes. (If you want to lose a few hours, just go wander around in his website!) So, you can imagine how thrilled I am to have the chance to talk to him today about his latest picture book, written by Steve Richardson, PAISLEY RABBIT AND THE TREEHOUSE CONTEST.
e: Hi Chris! What is your creative process and medium, can you walk us through it?
After reading the text and selecting the scene I’d like to illustrate, I start to thumbnail ideas. My thumbnail sketches are small rough abstract compositions that help me to interpret the scene from various angles, change environments, and move characters around very quickly. Sometimes I will find a suitable composition early on, and other times it can take 20 little sketches to find the right potential painting.

Once I hit the thumbnail on the head (ahem), I create a preparatory drawing. Depending on the size of the intended painting, the drawing can be around 7 x 5” upto 17 x 11”. At this point I start to gather reference images. For ‘Paisley Rabbit and the Treehouse Contest’ I was able to take photographs of local trees, fields etc. However for the animals, I was reliant on the internet to help me with their anatomy. I would also take photos of myself posing to help with the folds in clothing and the perspective of the body. By the end of the preparatory process, I would have a detail drawing and big collection of images (60+) to inform my painting. Even though there is a lot of work involved before I pick up a brush, without all that information I would struggle to create a believable imaginary world.

Once the drawing had been approved by my client, I would digitally enlarge and print the image in reverse to then transfer in soft pencil onto some stretched watercolour paper. I would then tidy up the drawing with a hard pencil and begin painting. In most cases I block in a sepia underpainting so I don’t lose any of the details in my drawing, sometimes I may apply masking fluid to preserve the white paper underneath when I am doing my initial full colour washes. Gradually I build up colour and tone working from the background into the foreground, then eventually painting in the characters and assessing their tonal relationship with their environment as I go. It can be a long process, taking 4-5 days of painting for a single page illustration. Towards the end, I often add touches of gouache to increase highlights or tidy up areas that have become a tad messy.
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?
A good illustration should take you back to a state of childlike wonder, and the only way of achieving such an image requires the artist to find wonder in what they are painting. The artist should want to explore the world in which they are creating, and revel in the characters and details they discover, only then can the artist create art that draws you in repeatedly.
e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of Paisley and the Treehouse Contest?
This is probably quite boring, but working on the book was one of the smoothest projects I have worked on. At no point did I have to rework images or argue my case for a certain illustration which I think is rather unique. Steve Richardson was very easy going and an absolute pleasure to work with.
As a quirky aside, readers of the book may spot the Toad Mayor resembles Mayor Quimby from The Simpsons. Initially I gave the mayor a chain of office around his neck, but it turns out US mayors don’t wear bling so I gave him a sash to make his role very clear. I think those US local government top dogs are missing a trick!
e: How do you advertise yourself?
Social media has been massive in exposing my artwork. I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up big jobs just through my images being shared and the right people seeing it in their timeline. It’s been a long time since I sent mail-outs to potential clients.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
I love trying to stretch myself by painting something new or with a different technique. It’s a form of training on the job that means I never get bored with an image.
e: Is there something in particular about Paisley and the Treehouse Contest you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
I would like readers to keep finding new things in the images every time they reach for the book. Some of the illustrations extrapolate on the initial story and add an extra layer to the narrative, giving the reader a hint as what has just occurred just before the scene you are reading about. Other images add a touch of humour or are a clear reference to great artists like J C Leyendecker, Beatrix Potter and Jill Barklem.
e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
I’m currently working on a series of watercolour paintings based on ‘The Wind In The Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame. They are due to be exhibited in Paris at Galerie Daniel Maghen, which is very exciting! I sincerely hope one day I can have them published in my own illustrated version of that wonderful story.
e: Thanks Chris! Read and see more of Chris's work-in-progress posts HERE. See more of the gorgeous images from PAISLEY RABBIT at Chris's Website. And watch a great video about Chris and his process during a gallery show last year.
And check out Chris's studio!

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