Hi Nick. First I’d just like to say how thrilled we all are that you’ve agreed to be our Illustrator Keynote Speaker! Speaking personally, there are lots of well-thumbed copies of your books around our house. The Percy books in particular were great favourites with my daughters when they were growing up.
As well as writing and illustrating your many books, you’ve also been involved in several other areas of the business, including TV and animation, so frankly you’re the complete package as far as we’re concerned! We’re really looking forward to what you have to say at our Conference in November.
Can you tell us a little about your early years? Were you an arty child?
I don’t think ‘arty’ has ever really described me, man or boy. But I have always loved drawing and making things. My parents weren’t arty, either, and I never went to art school, so whatever basic ability I have has been developed through observation and experiment. If I saw something I really liked by another artist or illustrator, I would wonder how it had been achieved and try to do my own version of it. I copied my older brother’s drawings of Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny. When I discovered Ronald Searle in the Molesworth books, I tried to copy his work. Mad Magazine was a rich source of inspiration when I was a young teenager. I still marvel at Mort Drucker’s work. I could name a lot more victims of my plagiarism!
Eventually my own style began to emerge, with some of the original ‘contributors’ more in evidence than others and, I’d like to think, just a little originality of my own!
You have a huge back catalogue of books that you’ve written and illustrated. But I believe you started out in a different direction, going from school into an apprenticeship in a printing school and shortly after that into a design firm in London – Crosby Fletcher Forbes, the forerunner of Pentagram. What do you think you learned from taking this route as opposed to going to art college?
First of all, I learnt to get up in the morning! I had to be at work by eight o’clock on a Monday morning, ready to put in a forty hour week. It was a bit of a shock to a sixteen year old used to shorter days at school with weeks and weeks of holidays too.
At the NHS Printing School (a printing establishment run by the National Children’s Home to provide a grounding in a worthwhile trade for boys from the Home as well as to print all the publicity matter) I learnt about printing processes.
I took to typography like a duck to water. (I had an affinity with letterforms. At a younger age, I had copied my brother's versions of Old English lettering which he used to write his ‘Name, Form and Date’ on his school exercise books!) My grasp of typo helped me secure a position with a small design unit in London, Frank Overton Design Associates.
Frank, as the president of the Society of Typographic Designers, was a stickler for detail in typography and I learned a lot from him. He was well connected with prominent designers in both America and Europe. He’d rubbed shoulders with people like Saul Bass, Charles Eames, Misha Black, Milner Gray and Wim Crouwel. He opened up a world of design to me that I knew next to nothing about.
Working as number four in the pecking order of a firm comprising four people also meant that I was fourth from the top! At the age of nineteen, when most of my contemporaries were at art school and still some way off their first job, I often found myself accompanying Frank to client meetings and presentations and, before long, was going alone to take design briefs from clients and make presentations myself. It was a very good grounding in the real world of graphic design.
With the benefit of this experience I applied for a post as assistant to Colin Forbes (then of Crosby Fletcher Forbes, soon to become Pentagram) and was pleased and not a little surprised to be chosen from forty applicants, to help establish the new corporate identity for Cunard Line for which CFF had been commissioned.
You and two colleagues set up your own graphic design studio after success as a freelance. What sort of things were you working on?
When I went freelance, I teamed up with two old school friends. Leon, Bernard and I had been in the same art class at school. Bernard’s leaning was towards typography and Leon was definitely an illustrator and I was somewhere in the middle. We were Baxter/Butterworth/Cope, affectionately known to our clients as the BBC!
I had the most experience and, vitally, contacts and so we picked up work from clients I had established a relationship with. Cunard Line. The Post Office. British Telecom. We also found ourselves working for a women’s underwear company! The wife of our old art teacher was the advertising manager of The Lovable Company. It was very . . . interesting work.
Not long after that Mick Inkpen joined your studio. How did that come about?
I knew Mick’s elder brother, John (now an architect in Colchester) and he enthused about his brother’s work, painting and especially his cartoons. Mick was (and is) a bright spark, all set to go to Cambridge but decided to take a year out and the BBC (my BBC!) took him on as a junior in our studio. In the end he decided against taking up his university place and just kind of stayed. He was talented and a fast learner. When, for different, amicable reasons, Bernard and Leon went their own ways, Mick and I continued to work together and our collaboration became even closer when I decided to do less graphics work and concentrate on illustration.
"I thought children’s books offered a marvellous opportunity to develop a series of illustrations in a way that editorial or advertising illustration rarely did."
A few years on and you had the publication of your first book, B.B. Blacksheep and Company. Can you remember what reasons pulled you towards children’s books, and away from design work?
Mick and Debbie Inkpen had a small collection of children’s books they had bought because they liked the illustrations. I would often browse these when I visited them. I thought children’s books offered a marvellous opportunity to develop a series of illustrations in a way that editorial or advertising illustration rarely did. The absence of having to have a commercial application also appealed to me. When my son Ben was born, I became reacquainted with children’s books from a child’s perspective and we quickly accumulated a sizable collection.
My first foray into illustration for children was actually meant to be a series of greetings cards based on nursery rhymes. I produced six illustrations and began to hawk them around card publishers. One suggested my illustrations would make a better book than cards. I duly approached children’s book publishers who almost always had a book of nursery rhymes already on their list. The suggestion was made that I might try them as greetings cards! I found myself going round in a circle until, after about a dozen rejections from as many publishers, I struck lucky with Macdonald Educational who, by some apparent oversight, didn’t have the obligatory book of nursery rhymes!
I’m intrigued by your collaboration with Mick. You’ve worked on many books together over the years. How do you think you influenced each other? And what was the division of labour on the books you collaborated on? You both write and draw so beautifully, so who did what?!
I moved into illustration whilst Mick continued in graphics. When I was commissioned by the Sunday Express to produce a regular strip for the children’s pages of the magazine, I was suddenly faced with producing a story and six or nine illustrations to go with it, every week. To relieve some of the pressure, Mick helped by doing some of the colouring of my line drawings. He was also a very good sounding board for story ideas as well as a perceptive and benign critic!
From this beginning we developed a way of working together in bookwork. One of us would write a story. We would visualise it together and then I would draw and Mick would colour. It was a good division of labour that only came to an end when the close collaboration which necessitated us working in the same room, was made more difficult by my move to Suffolk.
"‘If I gave you a million children on a Sunday morning, what would you do with them?’"
I hadn’t realised that you and Mick also had a career at TV-AM as co-presenters of a children’s show. How did that come about? Was it fun to do, or a terrifying prospect?
When the Sunday Express decided to revert to using Rupert stories instead of my Upney Junction, I found myself wondering if there was life after magazine publishing for my strip. By chance, I came across a copy of Books for Your Children, the magazine founded by Anne Wood. Anne had been producer of The Book Tower for Yorkshire Television and it suddenly occurred to me that there might be an opportunity for my stories of a group of mice living on a deserted railway station, on TV. I cold-called Anne and was amazed by the response. She said she had seen and liked my nursery rhyme book and that she had a note to herself on her desk: ‘Nick Butterworth. Television’.
Anne had recently been appointed producer of children’s programmes on TV-AM and was looking for ‘talent’ (!) We met in a hotel in London and she asked me, in her forthright manner, ‘If I gave you a million children on a Sunday morning, what would you do with them?’ I waffled some sort of answer that bought me some time. What would I do with them? I didn’t know – but I’d think of something!
Or rather, we’d think of something. Mick and I put our heads together and once again came up with a proposal that suited our natural abilities. Steve was born. We invented a young boy who would feature in a story every week in a different occupation. One week, Steve was a despatch rider. The next he might be a lift operator, or a doctor. Once he was a lepidopterist!
Mick wrote most of the stories. We produced the illustrations together but with key parts left blank. This was so that when I told the stories, direct to camera, I could draw in the missing elements to complete the pictures. It was a bit hairy, because it was recorded ‘as live’. There was very little in the way of editing facilities for children’s programmes at TV-AM! We’d prepare two sets of drawing. If I mucked up after that, well, one of the takes had to be used!
Illustrative style is always a mysterious business. Why we choose to draw noses or eyes a particular way and not another; what proportions we give to our characters; what we guess will work best for the intended audience, and so on. How did you settle on your own distinctive style? Who were your main influences?
As I said, I’m a bit of a magpie. I’ve ‘absorbed’ all kinds of styles and techniques from observing other people’s work. These days my own identity is more established, but I still want to experiment and try different things.
Besides the early influence of Searle and Mad magazine, I liked Alan Aldridge’s airbrush work. You can see an influence in my nursery rhyme book where I created pictorial capital initials for the text of the rhymes, inspired by Alan Aldridge’s beautiful initials in The Ship’s Cat.
I could list those I admire more easily that identify what influence they might have had. Michael Sowa, Bob Gill, Paul Hogarth, Janet Ahlberg, Milton Glaser, Peter Cross, Chris Riddell, Helen Oxenbury . . . this list could go on and on!
How do you typically start your books? What was the genesis of Percy the Park Keeper for example? Do you keep notebooks and sketchbooks?
Ideas often come along at the most unexpected moments. The idea for Jingle Bells, a Christmas story about two mice plagued by a farm cat, came to me while I was gazing absent-mindedly over sunlit spring fields from a hotel room during the Hay Festival.
"I have a file in which I keep all sorts of scribbled notes and drawings with ideas that have floated into my head at inopportune moments."
The idea for Percy the Park Keeper, more conventionally, popped into my head as I walked through my local park in central Romford. It was a wintry day and the park was empty. When I came across the park keeper’s hut with the door open, it struck me how cosy it looked inside on this cold and frosty morning. An idea immediately came into my head. Someone could live in a hut like this. The park would be his garden and the animals that live there too, would be his friends. I went home and started to write: ‘It’s cold in the park in winter . . .’ Well, it was. I’d just come back!
I have a file in which I keep all sorts of scribbled notes and drawings with ideas that have floated into my head at inopportune moments. Once when I was jet-lagged, I’d been lying awake for ages. My mind was racing and all sorts of ideas kept coming to me. Eventually I got up at 5am and wrote down four or five story ideas. Amazingly, three of these have made it into books!
Percy was made into several animated films a few years ago. How did you find that experience? Did you have much involvement in its development from book to TV?
HIT entertainment acquired the rights to make four half hour specials and a series of thirteen ten-minute episodes. An inherent problem when a picture book is animated (particularly with a half hour episode) is the inevitable need for more material than is contained in the book. A story can become bloated, being longer than the idea in the original book can support. Or it might be that the input from other individuals is not entirely sympathetic to the ethos of the book.
An author needs to be able to collaborate and not resist each and every suggestion from others. But he or she also needs to be able to say a firm ‘no’ when presented with ideas that threaten to undermine the essence of the original work. Most authors, I think, will fail on the second count more than the first.
I did have the right of consultation to some extent but as soon as serious money was being spent on animation, I didn’t have much input! There were things I liked about the final result and some things I wish I’d been able to influence more. I learned quite a bit from the experience and it didn’t put me off coming back for more with Q Pootle 5, although I’m glad, this time, to have been more than simply the rights holder, authorising the process.
A few years on, and it’s the excellent Q Pootle 5’s turn to make it to TV! He’s currently airing on CBeebies, but this time round it’s noticeable that you’ve formed a production company, (Snapper Films,) with your son Ben to make the series. Was that so you could retain more control over your ideas? How difficult an enterprise was setting up the company?
More of this in ‘another place’ as they say! But yes, creative control was a major factor in our deciding to form a production company. It has been a very steep learning curve and there have been some difficult times, not least in raising finance. But the rewards of working with my family and seeing the series take shape have been huge. I have grown used to working alone. To suddenly be involved with up to eighty people has called for big changes in my working practices. I’ve even had to learn to commute all over again!
Have you other animated projects in development? Is animation taking up more of your time these days than books?
The short answer is, ‘yes’ but I will have to leave that as a short answer, as I’m sworn to secrecy at the moment! But I certainly wouldn’t like to say that I’ve abandoned books. Heaven forbid.
1 Do you do many school visits and festival events? Do you find them enjoyable?
I very much enjoy going into schools and to festivals. I don’t do as many as I would like. I love sharing my enthusiasm for books, for stories, for reading, for illustration, with . . . well, anyone who will listen!
1 This will be like being asked to favour one child above another, but of all the books you’ve worked on, is one closer to your heart than others?
You’re right. I couldn’t possibly pick one – especially, as I type this, the shelves above me are loaded with the very books in question. They’re all listening. They’re thinking, ‘What will he say?’ ‘Who will he choose?’ ‘Me! Pick me!’ ‘No, no . . . Surely, it’s me! – didn’t we have a great time when, you . . . you know . . . ?‘
Yes we did have a great time. The best.
Many, many thanks for taking part!
Mike Brownlow is both an illustrator and author of many books for children, including CBBC's Little Robots. His new book Ten Little Pirates was illustrated by Simon Rickerty. Mike's clients include Orchard, Bloomsbury, OUP, Harper Collins, Pan Macmillan, pearson, Lego....
Recently Mike was Words & Pictures' featured illustrator. He is an active member of SCBWI and lives in Somerset.