Tuesday 4 April 2006

Illustrator Bee Willey

This article has just been published in British SCBWI's Words & Pictures Newsletter, available as a free download to SCBWI BI members.

When Bee Willey told friends in the children’s publishing industry that she was illustrating Bob Robber and Dancing Jane, she was amazed to discover that the picture book text had been doing the rounds of editorial submission desks for years.

“It transpired that Bob had been going round and round for eight years,” Bee says. “It had a whole life before I was asked to illustrate it. All the people who had seen the text had wanted to publish it and it hadn’t been the right time or the right place!”

Bob Robber put Bee on the shortlist of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2003, along with such illustrating luminaries as Anthony Browne (The Shape Game), Mini Grey (The Pea and the Princess) and Shirley Hughes (Ella’s Big Chance), who won that year’s medal. In 2004, Bee was also shortlisted for illustrating The Wooden Dragon, written by Joan Aitken.

Bob Robber and Dancing Jane was Bee’s first attempt at using computers after a long and accomplished career in illustration (mixed media) that included 20 children’s books and clients as varied as Conran Design, The Wine Society, the Royal Mail and Halifax Building Society.

“Part of the reason I went into computer was because fixative was having an effect on my eyes – paralysing the pupil,” she explains. Although she uses a digital pen and tablet, Bee still paints the main figures in every work by hand. She scans the painting, and then uses the digital pen and Adobe Photoshop to work on the background.

Photoshop’s use of layers for compositing – in which layers of images can be stacked, rearranged, added to or subtracted from to create a complex work – revolutionises the illustrator’s work process, though as in any technology, there are those who resist it.

“I do millions of layers – sometimes up to forty, before I can get an image right. But you have to be careful how you use Photoshop because you can end up making your picture too air brushy,” Bee says. “It’s great when you are pushed for time. And there are no smudges – I used to get smudges on my work no matter how hard I tried to keep them clean. Best of all you can work on the smallest detail.”
But Bee cautions would-be illustrators to remember that the computer is not the only tool. “You can make computers do things for you but it still needs you to push it beyond what it can do.”

Bob Robber and Dancing Jane was about a compulsive thief who steals the shadow of the ethereal beauty he has fallen in love with. The challenge was to juxtapose the darkness of Bob Robber, who steals under cover of darkness, with the luminosity of Dancing Jane, in whom eventually finds redemption.

Bee fleshed out the book’s spreads in storyboards – pencil sketches of how each page would look: “You show the various routes you might take – or not and along the way, your character appears out of the scribble. At one point, I realised I was going down the German gothic route and had to change!”

Bee worked closely with the editor and book designer. “There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing,” she laughs. “I like that sort of thing. We had such a lovely time making it. At one stage, we were all sitting on the floor and looking through the drawings. There was a christmassy feeling about it. I think I spilled my coffee three times!”
Bee has kept samples of each stage in the process, a creative roadmap she can take out once in a while to review – from the pile of sketches, embroidered all over with notes from the editor and Bee’s own reminders to herself, to the actual colour proofs of the book.

The designer’s input was invaluable. “She spent ages getting the typeface right. She tried and tried to be sure that the typeface held itself well, she wanted it to flow. She managed to convey a gothicky sort of feeling. It was a fantastic design. So many books flounder in the market because the design is so repulsive.”
Would Bee ever considering writing her own text?

“I did try,” she laughs. “I sent it to a friend, saying, ‘I am counting on you not to be polite’ – and she wasn’t!”

Forthcoming is Celebrity Cat by Meredith Hooper, published by Frances Lincoln. Bee Willey was speaking at a Professional Series Evening for SCBWI BI.

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