This month's Featured Illustrator is Jan Barger. Originally from the US, Jan has been based in the  UK for many years, initially as a calligrapher, then a multi-published picture book illustrator. See more of Jan's work in her Featured Illustrator Gallery.

I have a little sketchbook from when I was about 6 years old that is filled with brightly coloured and imaginative crayon drawings. My techniques and materials are more sophisticated now, but I still love putting imagination and colour onto paper. I like making the intangible tangible - giving visual form to words and mental images. I marvel at the way a seemingly simple drawing can show so much, how facial expression and just the right amount of detail can define personality and place, how colours can sparkle and glow, and how all this gives life to the page.

Sketchbook drawing aged 6

My formal training was in calligraphy. When I lived in Little Rock, I worked at the State Capitol as the Arkansas State Calligrapher – it sounds a glamorous job, but it mostly entailed filling in names on THOUSANDS of certificates as well as designing and hand lettering illustrated posters, official proclamations and information packs. I also taught calligraphy and mounted exhibitions of my work.

Arkansas State Calligrapher work

As both a calligrapher and illustrator, I often turned to illuminated manuscripts for inspiration, and was particularly influenced by early Spanish manuscripts. These manuscripts are rich in imagination, character, vibrant colours and appealing simplicity, all qualities that I feel contribute equally well to good children's book illustration.

Illumination from early Spanish Silos Beatus manuscript

I was also influenced by the work of the American artist Ben Shahn, who often combined lively line drawings and hand lettering in his illustrations.
Ben Shahn drawing

When my State Calligrapher job ended I moved to London to study calligraphy at the Roehampton Institute, and while there, attended a children’s book illustration class at Chelsea School of Art that changed the course of my career. I discovered the joy and satisfaction of putting everything I love about drawing and lettering into book form. There’s a kind of magic in the interaction of words and pictures on a page, and the way each enhances the other. Hodder published my first two books in 1995 and I went on to produce nine picture books as author/illustrator and illustrated over twenty books written by other authors, with translations in German, Dutch, Japanese, Korean and Braille.

Book covers

A few years ago I got my Master's Degree in Sequential Design and Illustration from Brighton University, and for my project I focused on the Language and Lore of Colour. It was fascinating research and resulted in two illustrated book projects – one an illustrated children’s book filled with colour anecdotes, and the other an illustrated book of colour quotations.

Chromophobia (fear of colours) - from Curious About Colour MA colour project

When I start work on a book I often get inspiration from favourite images in my reference files and bookshelves. After making page layouts in roughly the same size as the finished book, I do ‘scribble’ drawings in pencil to indicate what will go on each spread and where the text will be, then progressively refine the spreads as I get closer and closer to finished roughs. At this point the work often seems to take on a life of its own, taking me along with it.

I resist revisions - who doesn't - but accept that the end product is often much better than what I thought was ‘perfect’ before. It's easy to become overly fond of a drawing and not see potential for improving it. I have worked with some very good art directors and editors who understand this and have a gentle way of making suggestions, and I am always grateful for their sensitivity and tact! Feeling passionate about my work is generally a good thing, but I have to fight being stubborn about it as well.

Pencil & colour roughs from When I Found You project

When I am ready to move to ‘good’ paper, I lightly trace the pencil layout with a fine waterproof pen, then add thicker lines and details freehand. I colour my illustrations with transparent coloured inks or acrylics, sometimes adding coloured pencil for texture and depth. I spend as much time thinking about my colours, trying to get them to sing, as actually applying them. There is some technique to that, but mostly a colour just feels right.
Colours Sing from Curious About Colour MA colour project

I was proud to have my walrus illustration chosen for the 2017 Pictures at Play SCBWI Biennial Illustrator Exhibition at the Half Moon Theatre in London:
Walruses Blow Hello Bubbles from The Best Hello project
Do I have any tips for aspiring illustrators? Try new things - you can always start over if a piece goes badly wrong!

Feature photo: Jan Barger

You can see more of Jan's work in her Featured Illustrator Gallery

She also has a page on the Brighton Illustrators site.

1 comment:

  1. A really interesting career overview - and wonderful pics from your 6 year old creation till now - cheers Jan! Great Ben Shahn too :-)


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