An interview with Orange Beak

Posted on April 25, 2018

Speaking at our conference in May is the brilliant Orange Beak Studio, a collective comprised of Pam Smy, Maisie Paradise Shearring and Ness Wood,  award winning illustrators, designers and picture book makers. Based in Cambridge, Orange Beak offers workshops and one-to-one portfolio sessions, as well as other events aimed at creative development for illustrators.

We had a chat with them about both their own work and their work with Orange Beak, and the process of making a picture book come to life.

Orange Beak will be running break out portfolio sessions at the conference after their talk, so book your tickets for tailored advice on your work and practical tips for taking it to a publisher!

The Picture Hooks Conference will be held at Middlesbrough Central Library on 19.05.18, 9.30-5.30.

Book your conference tickets here!

First off – how did Orange Beak come to be?

One night last August we sat in Pam’s garden, discussing our experiences of teaching and our love of talking about images. We realised that although we have different experiences of the children’s book industry all three of us had a similar attitude to nurturing talent, be that through art-school experience or, in Ness’ case, a career in publishing. As the prosecco flowed we discussed what we felt would be the ideal circumstances to work with emerging talent, and how to build relationships with illustrators over time and, in the early hours of the morning, Orange Beak was formed.

Maisie, you of course are Picture Hooks alumni, mentored by the one and only Nick Sharratt! How was that?

Being mentored by Nick was a fantastic experience, one I won’t ever forget! He is incredibly kind, a good listener, thoughtful and always generous with his time. I learnt so much from Nick. He is also of course the ultimate picture book talent! He made me find the humour again in my work for a young audience and fall in love with drawing children. I would often leave a tutorial and then work out something he had said the following week whilst I was drawing, I think that is amazing teaching.

And follow up question – now you’re a mentor for illustrators yourself, do you find the way you teach has been influenced at all by that year?

Nick was always very generous with his time and also his knowledge, sharing everything from techniques for creating a story, writing text to also practical advice about photoshop and drawing. This was all invaluable, so I am always happy to share anything about my creative process, the materials and any other advice when teaching. He also said roughly three top tips over the course of the year together and these are something I also always make sure to share with students/illustrators.

I think I also just always try to remember how it can feel to be trying to approach publishers with your first book or idea (or second or third!) and be as helpful and supportive as I can.
Picturehooks was a very nurturing experience and I hope to also create that same environment through Orange Beak and when working as a lecturer.

Ness, the roles of both designer and art director are hugely important to the making of a picture book, but new illustrators may not be aware of what this entails. Can you give a quick description of what your work involves?

Well I think of a designer/art director as being the scaffolding that holds the book project together. The designer works (with an editor) and with the illustrator helping them and directing them through the process, to try to bring the best out of them creatively. From rough stage to finished artwork, I always say ‘ask me any questions, however daft you might think they are’ – if you’ve never done a book before why would you know how to do it?

Pam – Thornhill is fantastic, what an incredible debut. Can you give us an insight to how it all began, the first sketches you made? And for your academic side – what is a graphic novel anyway?

Thornhill came about through seeing a boarded up house in Cambridge, behind a high wall and ‘keep out’ signs. I whipped out my sketchbook and made a drawing of it, and, as I walked home, I began to muse over what the circumstances would be like for someone living in that forbidden place. By that evening I had the idea for Thornhill, and the two different characters, and the two different methods of telling their stories.

As an illustrator and as a lecturer I never considered what the boundaries and definitions of illustrated books, picture books and graphic novels are, – I have always just been excited about pictures and how they bounce off and rub up against words. When I was working on Thornhill what it was or how to categorise it never came up in my discussions with the publisher, David Fickling Books. Scott McCloud (1993) defines a comic as ‘Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence’ so technically Thornhill could be described as such, and through laziness I use it to explain what I have made, but in my heart I think of it simply as a story told in pictures.

Do any of you have a favourite picture book? Was it from childhood or adulthood, and how has it shaped the way you create work?

NW: I remember Richard Scarry books from my childhood, with big type and lots to look at; I remember the hand rendered typography on the front – the book was very worn out indeed. I like hand drawn type today and big typography too. Today well I love lots of work from my two colleagues of course, to Carson Ellis’s HOME, to Under the Love Umbrella by Davina Bell and illustrated by Allison Colpoys to Marika Maijala’s illustration work on many books to William Wondriska’s PUFF

PS: Most of my favourite picture books are from my adulthood. Choosing one is impossible! Can I cheat and name some favourite illustrators instead? Angela Barrett, Helen Stephens, Ardizzone, Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Ravillious, Jonny Hannah, John Broadley, William Stobbs, Helen Merrin, Simona Ciraolo and then there is this fabulous young talent called Maisie Shearring… My work isn’t like any of these people, but their inventiveness and skill is a constant inspiration and a reminder to be true to one’s inner inspirations and passions when illustrating.

MPS: My favourite picturebook from childhood was probably Avocado Baby by John Burmingham. I also loved Burglar Bill by Janet and Alan Alhberg. I like stories which have a sense of the everyday with something a bit unusual – which is often what comes out my brain and pen when I write my own. Its very hard to name one favourite picturebook from being an adult, but I will say Du Iz Tak? By Carson Ellis, because I think it has it all. Its very clever, imaginative, great to read a loud, and of course the illustration is wonderful. I suppose books I love make me hope one day people will pick up something I make and feel these same things, and so they inspire me to keep pushing and experimenting with my illustration and story ideas.

What’s next for you all – any exciting projects in the pipeline? Plug away – or give us a wink and a “nothing I can talk about right now…”

NW: I is working a few things; a couple of picture books for DFB with new illustrators (very exciting) and I am working on the next picture book of a very famous illustrator/author; (a clue Ness is hoping for afternoon tea with her favourite toy Dogger!) Plus Orange Beak events too.

PS: I am working on a new novel-told-in-pictures called The Photographer’s Son, a picture book called Merrylegs, and we are organising our first Orange Beak illustration retreat in Devon this August, so I am deliciously busy!

MPS: My first picture book as both author and illustrator, Anna and Otis, is coming out with Two Hoots in August. I am working on my second book with Two Hoots at the moment and am also currently illustrating a wonderful text with Walker Books. Orange Beak Studio is also keeping me very busy (and happy!)

We’re all looking forward to seeing you at the Picture Hooks conference in May! Can you give us a teaser of what you’ll be discussing?

We will be talking about the things that we find come up in our Orange Beak tutorials the most – drawing, characterisation, preparing work to a professional level and finding your voice as an illustrator.


Book your conference tickets here!

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