Q&A with Chris Wormell

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Chris Wormell is one of Britain’s most celebrated author-illustrators and a print maker of immense talent and experience. His first children’s book, An Alphabet of Animals, was published in 1990 and won the Graphics Prize at the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair that year. Since then, he has illustrated over 30 children’s books, including Two FrogsThe Big Ugly Monster and George and the Dragon, as well as working on adult books and a diverse array of campaigns for companies such as Marks and Spencer and the Natural History Museum.  The cover of La Belle Sauvage, the exciting new ‘equel’ to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, is strikingly illustrated by Chris.

The third book in Big Picture Press’s ‘Welcome to the Museum’ series, Dinosaurium is a beautifully illustrated and curated look at dinosaurs. With detailed text written by Lily Murray and informed by a leading palaeontologist, it is a wonderful addition to the series and a lovely gift for dino-enthusiasts.

Can you tell us a little about the process of illustrating Dinosaurium?
Originally the publishers had wanted me to make wood engravings for this book, but when I was told I only had about six months to do all the pictures – and there are lots of them, each very large – I realised this would be impossible.  I’d need about five years to engrave all those blocks, and a lot of money to buy the boxwood!  I told the publishers, however, that I would be able to make what I call ‘digital engravings’, which involved ‘erasing’ marks from a black layer in photoshop, instead of cutting marks on a blackened block.  Not quite the same as wood engraving, but much quicker – and much easier when adding and adjusting coloured layers.  I did a test image.  The publisher liked it.  And so the project began.

On Dinosauriam, you worked with an author, Lily Murphy, and a palaeontologist, Jon Tenant. How was working in a three-person team?
There were two other members to the team also: Winsome d’Abreu  – art director, and Tasha Percy – editor.  Working with all of them was great.  All my drawings had to get passed Jon’s expert, eagle eyes and thankfully most of them did without too much trouble. I never met any of the team in person however!  Winsome was the lynch pin and of absolutely invaluable help, making sure the whole project ran along without (too many) hitches.

What is your favourite dinosaur?
I love them all!  Though the diplodocus is one of my particular favourites.  I still remember the thrill of seeing the (plaster cast) bones of ‘Dippy’ looming above me every time I stepped into the hall of the Natural History Museum as a child – which I did very often.

In November, we’re celebrating non-fiction books. What are the differences between illustrating fiction and non-fiction children’s books? Do you feel pressure for your work to be scientifically accurate and well-researched as well as visually appealing?

I don’t think there is much difference.  Obviously I’m aware of the need for scientific accuracy with books like Dinosaurium, but all illustration should be visually appealing.

What is your favourite non-fiction book?
Thomas Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds’ – one of those books (two books actually) that changed the world – the book illustration world, at least.

As a self-taught artist, what advice do you have for someone who wants to become a professional illustrator?
I can’t really be called self taught – my father is a painter.  I didn’t go to art school though, and taught myself wood engraving.

I took up wood engraving because I wanted to become a book illustrator and the books I liked best were those illustrated with wood engravings.  I was told my work was too old fashioned to begin with, but I didn’t really care, that’s what I wanted to do and I kept on doing it.  I think that’s the best advice for almost anything – keep trying and don’t give up.  But then if you really love doing something, you won’t.

As well as books, you have worked on a huge variety of projects, including stamps, packaging, and adverts, for lots of different companies and organisations. Why do you pick such diverse projects? And what is the strangest illustration work you have been asked to do?
I don’t often get to pick the projects I work on – unless it’s my own book – usually people approach me, and I almost invariable say yes.  I’m a commercial illustrator and work is work – there are always bills to be paid.

Recently I’ve been working on various frames for animations of Alexander Hamilton – as he appears on the $10 bill: bowing, clapping, tapping his foot, smiling, raising eyebrows etc. All to be used for online promotions for the musical, Hamilton, now on Broadway.

Your work often uses two methods, wood engraving and linocut, but you also seem to experiment a lot and adapt to each book. What do you like about those methods? And how do you decide which medium to use on a book?
With printing you never really know quite what you’ve created until the final moment when the block is lifted from the paper (or vice versa) – that’s exciting!  And also, very disappointing, sometimes.  But I love the discipline of print making – having to think about how to reduce something down to lines and textures, dark and light.  The image decides the method – wood engraving works for fine, detailed black and white images, lino cut for bolder, simpler and often brightly colours images.  Though now that I sometimes work digitally I often blur the edges of these definitions and create images that don’t quite fit into either.

You’ve worked on countless children’s books but you have also had enormous success with adult books like H is for Hawk. Does your audience affect how you work?
I’m not aware that it does.  The goshawk from H is for Hawk would have sat very comfortably in my first children’s book – An Alphabet of Animals.  That was for young children but the lino-cuts were done in exactly the same way as I did the goshawk.

What one picture book do you think all children should own?
I wouldn’t presume to tell them what they should or shouldn’t own.  I still love The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

What is the best thing about illustrating? Is there anything you don’t like about it?
Those very rare occasions when you realise you’ve done something really special.

Those many occasions when you fail to do anything at all special.  Actually I don’t mind that too much – failure is the spur to make you try harder.

What are you working on next?
At the moment I’m working on another book for Templar as well as a story of my own, plus numerous commercial projects.

Dinosaurium is published by Big Picture Press. See more of Chris’s work on his website