IN THE SHOES OF… Alexis Deacon

What's it like to be in someone else's shoes? This month Deputy Editor Françoise Price invites author and illustrator Alexis Deacon to tell us about his day.

I’ve been on the road most of the time this last month. It had been a quiet year up until the start of the new term and now I find that I am teaching almost every day. I don’t have a permanent position anywhere but instead work for several different institutions across the country and, occasionally, even further afield.




Getting up to go to the bathroom, I experience that sense of disorientation that happens when you’ve been travelling for a while. Where is this place? For a moment I am back in my childhood home, then my house in Hastings, then a Travelodge room I was in last week. This time I am in a little two-bedroom flat in Reykjavik, Iceland. For now, this knowledge is only important insofar as it gets me from my bed to the bathroom without stubbing my toes or walking into any doors.




My alarm goes and I set it to snooze. It is Saturday today — for the last week I have been teaching at an art school in town. I have been coming here once every other year for the last ten years. This is my last day here though and my thoughts are starting to turn to home.


I go over the plan for today. I have a workshop to teach to a group of graduate and professional illustrators. Several of them are former students or people I have met while I’ve been teaching here and I know their work well. This will be one of the most advanced groups I’ve ever taught so I’m feeling more than a little nervous.




Time for daily exercise! I have Hypermobility Syndrome which caused me huge problems in my twenties before I learned to manage it. If I am able to take regular exercise I can stop the symptoms from getting too bad. My luggage was too small to accommodate a yoga mat so I’m doing Pilates on top of a folded towel on the wood floor. This is exactly as fun as it sounds.




Breakfast is a strange mix as I am flying out tomorrow and need to finish what’s left in the fridge. When I’m staying in Iceland I try to buy local stuff I can’t get at home. It’s more exciting that way. This has worked fine until now when I’m faced with a choice between three different kinds of herring.


To help my students make decisions in their work I often ask them to look out for when something feels like a choice but is really just versions of the same thing. This advice is clearly meant to apply to situations like this.




Iceland is an hour behind the UK so we are entering the zone of possibility where my wife might be up. I call her. She is not up.




Still not up.




Time to go to work. On the way I listen to an audiobook of The Shadow of the Torturer, which someone recommended to me as being similar to my own work. It’s great so far but much more elaborate than my fantasy writing.


Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran church, looms above the other buildings

The walk through Reykjavik is by turns picturesque and grim. For those who have never been, Reykjavik has an embattled look, its houses clad in corrugated iron with small windows and steep roofs. Mountains and/or sea are visible from most streets and the beautiful Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran church, looms above the other buildings near where I am staying.


One of my favourite places in town is the old cemetery. I pass through it each time I walk to college. It is one of the few places where you can walk amongst trees here. The birds are all high on autumn berries this month and the noise of their chatter among the tombstones and falling leaves is a perfect counterpoint. It looks as though this may be the last time I come here to teach and this cemetery will be one of the things I miss the most.


Sounds of birds' chatter among the tombstones and falling leaves, a perfect counterpoint



My wife is up! We have a minute or two to talk but I’m already in school and people are starting to arrive.


I set out the workshop materials. This is going to be a session on colour composition.


Using coloured paper I’m going to try and explain some of the things I learned about working with colour while I was finishing my graphic novel, Curse of the Chosen.



We begin by dividing into teams and playing a racing game. Each team has to sort the stack of coloured paper by colour in rainbow sequence, then from darkest to lightest, then from dullest to brightest. This is challenging for all of us but it’s fun. One of the main things I noticed trying to teach people about colour is how easy it is to confuse these three aspects. See if you can spot our mistakes:

 David tries to teach what he has learnt about working with colour through a fun racing game



Now we’re trying a compositional challenge. We’re trying to make a picture with two distinct fields, a dark one and a light one, and make changes in each that don’t break that division. I’ve noticed that this is a problem that comes up a lot in my own illustration work.


David's compositional challenge



Lunch break. We decide to go next door to a Syrian place run by refugees from the recent war. I imagine they have a story worth telling. It is quite a journey from Syria to Iceland.


This is by far the best food within walking distance but I recall all the times I have been here over the past week. They always prepare the meals from scratch and it takes… a while. The people who eat here during the week are local workers. Trooping in as a group of 12 on a weekend and expecting to walk out again in half an hour with our bellies full seems optimistic.


One of the students valiantly volunteers to wait in the restaurant and bring us our food in doggie bags when it is ready.




Back at our desks and time for another workshop activity. This time we are looking at another compositional problem I run into a lot: what to do when a character has both dark and light elements in their design. Solution: put the dark bits in front of something light; put the light bits in front of something dark. In my head this was the harder of the two to explain but everybody seems to get the idea pretty quickly and makes some great stuff.


More compositional work exploring light and dark



Our lunch arrives. Everybody downs tools to eat pizza, falafel, kebabs and other delights. I’m worried that they are getting through the afternoon activity too quickly so hastily improvise an afternoon activity while I’m eating my houmous and salad.




The workshop ends. I forgot it was ending at 2pm. This explains why I didn’t have more planned.


Some people haven’t quite finished their lunch but the building needs to shut so they have to re-doggie bag.




Myself and my colleague, Cindy Leplar, go to a local café to do the grades for the previous week.


I am conscious of that eternal problem of grading artwork. In my mind everybody has worked well during class. I recently took a teacher training course for teaching dance and it was the first time I had encountered the concept of the specific positive as a teaching strategy. That is to tell someone exactly what is good about their work and why. It is very effective. I think I often confused teaching with passing judgement or pointing out flaws. This concept has given me a way of teaching that doesn’t involve either.




Cindy walks me part of the way back to my apartment. Saying goodbye is difficult because I don’t know if I am coming back. This job was one of the first I took after a long absence from work through illness, as I alluded to above. Iceland has a special place for me and I will really miss it. Even if you took away all of the sights and sounds, I would know it by the feel of the air alone. It is a crisp, blue air that has a timeless quality. There aren’t many people this far north and the air is still alive.




I can’t resist one last trip to Bonus supermarket with its endearing art brut pig logo.




Evening meal of three kinds of herring with leftover houmous. At least I won’t be having this for breakfast tomorrow.




I have to be up at 3am for my flight so I start getting ready for bed.




Still awake. Email exchange with my agent about an upcoming picturebook. I’ve been working on comics and YA fiction for a long time now. It’s been 10 years since my last children’s picturebook, Croc and Bird. When I get home at the end of this teaching trip in November, I am starting a new one called King School. I do re-writes of the last page in my head. It doesn’t quite work but it’s so close…

*Header illustration by Alex Crump. All other images courtesy of Alexis Deacon.



Alexis Deacon is a writer and illustrator of children's books. His first book, Slow Loris, was shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award. In 2015 it was named one of the hundred best children's books of all time by Time Magazine. He has twice been shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal and is a two time recipient of The New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books Award. In 2014 The River won the Observer/Jonathan Cape/Comica Graphic Short Story Prize. 
[Portrait photo credit: Antonio Olmos]


Alex Crump is an illustrator based in Wiltshire, with past careers as both a teacher and a zookeeper, as well as other current side-lines of storyteller and charity/museum educator.
Instagram: @alexcrumpillustration


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact:

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