A bold claim perhaps, but 10,000 children around New Zealand agree – Donovan Bixley is New Zealand's favourite children's book illustrator. Bixley and writer Yvonne Morrison won the Children's Choice award (with those 10,000 votes) in this year's New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for The Three Bears Sort Of. Donovan Bixley has shared a behind-the-scenes look at a selection of his illustrations with commentary, from ‘Fart Jokes’ in Faithfully Mozart to ‘Moods of Mum’ in his Dinosaur Rescue series.
The entire process of researching, writing and illustrating Faithfully Mozart took more than six years. When I began, it was actually only my third attempt at breaking into books. During its course I had to completely reinvent my style to create the vision I could see in my head. I wanted to show Mozart as a real man, not some god in an ivory tower. I love the composition and depth of ‘Fart Jokes’, it is probably my favourite painting I have ever done – the nice framing of Mozart in the doorway, his dynamic figure (which, by the way, is quite impossible in real life), the reaction of the other guests, and many of the technical aspects – such as the shot-through fabric on the woman’s dress on the right – make me continually proud of the work. I am often keen to reference my heroes Degas and Rockwell, and this painting is reminiscent of their work without actually being inspired by any particular painting. For those in the know, several of Rockwell’s paintings adorn the walls, looking on in amusement (a trick Rockwell used frequently in his own work). The painting illustrates an episode when Mozart wrote his father a hilarious mock-confessional, ‘Forgive me father for I have sinned ...’, telling how he had grown some stubble and gone out to many parties where he got drunk, stayed out until dawn and, because he was a quick and lively wit, told rude jokes and dirty limericks. This painting is the perfect embodiment of what I saw in my head when I first read Mozart’s original letter. It just took a few years to get it out of my brain and onto paper.
Sometimes when I am offered a manuscript I feel that I am being given a set of instructions. With a masterful writer like Margaret Mahy it was more like being given a set of ingredients to play with. Margaret left huge holes in her bubbling words, places where she knew I would fill in all the gaps. Together they make something magical. Most notably she didn’t even describe the heroic dog. Reading a book is like going into a fantasy word, even if that world is set in the real world it’s still the artist’s fantasy version. I am always very keen to place the readers into the tone and space of that world within the first couple of pages. I want them to feel that the world in the book continues on beyond the pages. In the opening spread for Dashing Dog you can take in where all the action will happen and see many of the characters who will be part of it. I love using shadows to indicate things which are off the page – a person, or the canopy of an overhanging tree. The keen eye might even spot Norvin, Margaret’s Great White Man Eating Shark, on the beach in the background. The end result is a book I am immensely proud of, though I agonised over living up to Margaret’s words and in many ways it was one of the most painful to produce. Luckily all that pain never shows on the page.
On reading Margaret’s manuscript, one of the first visions I had in my head was this heroic leaping image. I knew right away that a cropped version of it was going to be my cover – the Dashing Dog. I also knew that I didn’t want to have blue skies. It can be very boring to paint the world so naturally all the time, and I wanted Dashing Dog to have a warm sandy feeling throughout. I’m a firm believer in taking inspiration from all my heroes, as they did themselves, and the cover image for Dashing Dog was partially inspired by Tintin and the Black Island – in the fanned out clouds zipping across the yellow sky like zoom lines behind our life-saving dog. I love the turquoise and blue ocean, it is one of my favourite things about New Zealand, and you can see it in many of my paintings. Funnily enough, after dozens of character studies, I chose to make Dashing Dog a large poodle. I loved the roan blue colour against the sandy sky. It just seemed like a poodle story to me. It was only after the book was released in shops (a year and a half later) that I discovered that Margaret had in fact written it about her own poodle Baxter. The only difference was that Baxter was black. Incredible that it is never once mentioned in the manuscript and yet I must have picked up on the ‘poodle-ishness’ in Margaret’s writing. It just goes to show how great a writer she was. Sadly Margaret died only a few weeks after I had begun working on Dashing Dog, so we never had a chance to laugh about that one.
The Wheels on the Bus is by far the most successful book I have done to date. Funnily enough, I was not very keen to do it. I believe my exact words were ‘I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot paintbrush’, a feeling which lasted exactly the time it took to say it. It was a terrible book. Precisely! It was so terrible that I knew exactly what I would do to make it an awesome book for preschoolers. Also, it had that thing which every illustrator craves – huge holes to fill in between the words. Where is the bus going? Who is on it? What does it look like? It was great fun to sit around the dinner table with my wife and three daughters trying to come up with answers to these questions. Whilst driving around the country we came up with the idea of taking some New Zealand animals on a tiki tour about the countryside. But after illustrating many native New Zealand stories I had been getting a bit tired of drawing just keas and tuis and fantails. This story would feature all our cows and dogs and cats as well as some funny New Zealand creatures, like the ski-bunny. A visit to see New Zealand’s very own colossal squid at Te Papa supplied a long-lasting native character of mine, a favourite who has since appeared in many of my books from Dashing Dog to Monkey Boy, The Weather Machine to Bo and the Circus that Wasn’t. All that was left was to decide where the bus would visit. The wipers on the bus? That had to be at New Zealand’s wettest spot – Milford Sound.
This book was produced during a very busy period, a year in which I did ten books! Unfortunately I had stuffed up my deadlines by a few months for Old MacDonald’s Farm and ended up having to work endless days and nights to get it done in time. In the end, it was all completed in a very intense sixteen days. I envisioned it as a postcard to New Zealand farming. I know that a lot of New Zealanders have a close connection to farming in their family background and I wanted to make this book a bit of a nostalgic love letter filled with idyllic scenes and kiwiana to spot. With most of my books I like to include lots of things to go back and discover time and time again. I liked the idea of parents and grandparents seeing something in one of the pictures and saying to their kids ‘we had one of those on our farm’ and passing on their history to their children. Kids have such inquisitive minds, and I’m a firm believer that the more things you put into your illustrations the more opportunities you give them to go off on a journey of discovery.
After the success of Wheels on the Bus and Old MacDonald’s Farm I had many offers to do more of the same. I like to do a wide variety of work and I didn’t want to become pigeon-holed as ‘song-book guy’. So I turned down lots of offers and said ‘I’ve got a better idea’. I may or may not have learned many things over the years, but one thing I do know is that you can’t second guess what people will like. What I really try to do is be my eight-year-old self again and try to think about what I would have really liked as a kid. I take my motto from Elizabeth Taylor: ‘If you do it for yourself at least one person will be happy.’ With that in mind I created The Looky Book, which is my homage to the wordless picture books of the 1970s that I really loved as a boy. Books by Guillermo Mordillo and Jean-Jacques Loup were not stories, just crazy silly pictures with endless things to look at. Their books Patatrac and Crazy Crazy Jungle Life remain some of my favourites.
It took a long time, but finally I got paid to draw pictures of dinosaurs! The covers for this series were tremendous fun. I always try to bring a very strong sense of colour, dynamic energy and design to my covers. It can be a fun challenge to make the composition and design elements work iconically over a complete series with years in between each painting. This would be my favourite from the series.
Dinosaur Rescue came at a time when I was already three years into working on my hybrid comic/novel Monkey Boy – so I had already formed some very strong ideas of how words and pictures could work in a chapter book format. Dinosaur Rescue was an endless pleasure to work on. Basically I was given the task (and the trust of Scholastic) to do whatever I wanted – and with 96 pages to fill, that was quite a lot. Kyle, like all great children’s writers, left big holes in the story for me to fill. It was an evolving (ha, ha!) process where I would expand on Kyle’s words, then he would see what I’d done and expand on that in the next book, and so on through the series. I was determined not to have one of those boring chapter books where the pictures just repeat the words – or worse, have the same pictures repeated on pages throughout. Instead I would latch onto some tenuous connection in the text and expand on that. On the opening page of the first book our hero describes how it was hard to know what his mum was thinking, so I came up with this aside featuring the ‘Many Moods of Arg’s Mum’. It was actually a gag I had written into Monkey Boy, but that turned out to be a further three years from publication so I used it in Dinosaur Rescue. With 96 pages to fill there was plenty of room for me to write my own silly asides too, many of which had nothing to do with the story, such as ‘Dinosaur Illnesses’, ‘Neanderthal Insults’ and this ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ page from Book 4: Diplo-dizzydocus.
I wish I’d had twice as many pages to create this book. I wanted it to be like a mini movie – inspired by all the wordless picture books I loved as a kid in the 70s. I wanted to explore the ideas of humans meddling with nature and the effects of climate change, but to do it in a way that was not preachy and nagging. On the surface The Weather Machine is a silly slapstick story inspired by my love of Buster Keaton’s silent movies. But because it’s a wordless book, readers have to make up their own interpretation. I’d always hoped that they would discover new elements and meanings depending on their age, and hopefully reinvent the story as they got older. It’s also inspired by my favourite children’s book, The Lorax. I’ve always hoped that maybe one person out there on the other side of the world might be inspired by something that I created, just as I was inspired by The Lorax. These two spreads went through many incarnations as I tried to squeeze my storytelling into 32 pages. From the start I’d wanted them to bookend the story – with the weather machine’s construction at the beginning and the re-growth of nature at the end. I loved creating the passage of time through the four seasons and was also inspired by the work of Eyvind Earle, who did amazing environmental paintings for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
Yvonne’s Three Bears Sort Of is one of the funniest manuscripts I ever had the pleasure to work on. In fact Scholastic didn't really know how on earth someone could illustrate it – so paid me a huge compliment by trusting this job to me. The challenge was that the text leaps about with various voices as the true nature of the Three Bears is hammered out between an adult and a child. This book was perfect for someone like me who likes to work in lots of different styles – and I decided to make it a visual journey from realism, to traditional storybook illustration, to nineteenth-century woodcarvings, then collage, children's drawings and finally some cartoon bears. It was also most unusual because I didn't do what I would call ‘proper roughs’. Instead I did some very vague scribble drawings and sent Scholastic a long letter about what I was GOING to do with this very funny post-modern text. The challenge was turning them into reality. Normally I work out a whole book in advance, then the final illustrations are just a matter of knuckling down and making it happen. It 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. Obviously it worked out alright because the end result is not only one of my favourite works but it also won the coveted Overall Children’s Choice Award at the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
Monkey Boy took six years to complete, not because I was slow but because I had 22 other books to illustrate over that period. It was another example of just trying to create the type of book that I would have really loved as a boy – or even the type of book I would have loved when I was at art school. Knowing how hard it is to have to cut through in the publishing market, I didn’t want to write just another novel. I wanted to create a hybrid comic/novel using all my skills – something that would make young readers go ‘wow’ even when they’d just flicked through it in the bookshop. I set myself some ‘eleven-year-old Donovan’ parameters – it had to be funny, full of action, gross and scary. I love the period of the Napoleonic Wars and I also love the excitement and horror of naval history and I was determined to create a book that shared my love of that world and proved the nay-sayers wrong – that kids actually do like historical fiction if it’s presented in an exciting format. As both an author and illustrator I had very strong ideas about using words and pictures together and getting them to tell different parts of the story in the way that each art form does best. Sometimes it can actually be quite painful to articulate the vision you have in your head, and like my work on Faithfully Mozart and Three Bears it took a long time with lots of experiments and variations before I finally said ‘that’s what I’ve been trying to do all this time’. Thanks to a grant from Creative New Zealand I was able to work on the illustration part of the book full time, with the result being some fantastic composition and layout, along with superb character work.
Donovan Bixley is an illustrator extraordinaire. His vivid, dynamic and playful style has brought to life innumerable New Zealand children's books from many of our best loved children's writers. He is a talented writer himself and has written and illustrated a number of titles, including his recent graphic novel Monkey Boy. For more information about Donovan Bixley, visit his website www.donovanbixley.com or his Facebook page. You can read a bit more about his award-winning picture book The Three Bears Sort Of on the Booksellers NZ website.
Photograph of Donovan Bixley by Mark Tantrum