Jenny Cooper is the guest interviewee for this Meet the Artist post. She has won many awards for her work and has more than 70 books to her name.
Most recently, the picture book My Grandfather’s War, written by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper, and published by EK Books, was released. I thought it would be nice to get to know a bit more about the illustrator and here’s what Jenny had to say.
What is your earliest memory of drawing?
Probably about 4 years old…. I drew weird little figures, then cut each one out and Mum stuck them on the wall. They are cute, wish I still had them.
How did you become involved in illustration work?
I always drew, all through school, but it wasn’t the sort of stuff my art teachers liked. So it was all done at home….. lots of horses and princesses! I returned to New Zealand from living in Samoa, aged 29, with two preschoolers, and I needed a profession with which to support us. All I could think to do was train as a graphic designer, because I always liked drawing. I was unaware that the job ‘children’s illustrator’ even existed. There were 6 weeks of illustration as part of this course, and I loved it. I did my very first ‘paid for’ illustration job for Wendy Pye Publishing in my final year at the Christchurch Polytechnic Design degree, and that led to more and more work with different publishers, until eventually I was full time illustrating for children.
Do you ever worry that an author might not like your interpretation of their work? How do you work through that?
Yes, I worry about it a lot! Authors generally sell their manuscripts to a publisher and then lose control over what happens next. They almost never get to choose an illustrator.
I work through it by just doing the best job I can, and taking as many clues as I can from the manuscript. I am normally not even directly in contact with the author.
For this book, however, it was different. I have worked with Glyn Harper many times, and we have to be in contact because there are so many details that I need help with. Glyn knew about uniforms, helicopters, gun boats and all sort of things I could never find out on my own. He is very easy to work with, and never tells me I am doing a bad job.
Specific questions about illustrating My Grandfather’s War
What medium and techniques have you used to create the illustrations in this book?
2B lead pencil and watercolour paint, onto 185 gsm cold pressed Arches watercolour paper.
What was your process for determining the overall look for this book when you were preparing to illustrate it?
I was told that the publisher liked a previous style of my war books, Jim’s Letters, I believe, so there is a huge hint as to style. But more importantly, the story itself seemed to call for a fairly realistic style. The more cartoony a book is, the less emotional weight the characters carry.
However I had to keep details fairly loose, as the book was talking about U.S., Australian and New Zealand soldiers fighting in Vietnam. I couldn’t go into too much detail about weapons, uniforms, guns, as they were different for each army. The author, Glyn Harper, was a lot of help here.
The other main consideration for me is that if I am looking at lots of photographs of soldiers, helicopters, guns etc., my style naturally becomes more realistic. I can’t seem to help it! I would like my war books to be a bit looser, but I can never manage it. Too many war details seem to creep in.
How long do you estimate you spent designing and illustrating My Grandfather’s War?
This is difficult to work out. Maybe 6 weeks on the pencil roughs, and another 4 – 6 weeks on the painting? I am always working on several books at once, on and off, so it is hard to know how long one book takes.
When working with the target age and such serious content how do you determine how graphic to make the illustrations while still maintaining authenticity?
The publisher will give clear guidance on things like how much blood to show for a target audience, but mainly it is simply instinct…… I think of my own kids at age 6 – 10, how much detail is needed for them to get the idea of death, fear or sadness? I don’t honestly think younger kids understand all the details that they see, and some of it is fairly vague. You can’t tell if someone is dead, or just unconscious. This leaves it up to the parent reading the book to explain. ‘Yes the villagers were scared, but they found their families later on’, or whatever the parent thinks the child can cope with.
The most important thing is to show a convincing relationship between the main characters, which the reader can understand and empathize with.
Were there any elements of My Grandfather’s War that you found difficult to convey in illustrations?
I have done quite a few WW1 books, but the Vietnam War was a different because there were so many cameras around, and so many photographs. So when I start my research, there are some truly sad images I had to look at, and won’t forget soon.
War books are always sad to work on, because you are confronted with so much death, sadness and loss. Even when the book is finished, those images remain in your head.
Jenny, is there a particular illustration in My Grandfather’s War that holds a special place for you? Why?
The whole book was special for me because the model for Robert is my own partner Chris (who is much younger that Robert would have been, but I gave him more wrinkles) and my neighbour Amelia, who is a wee firecracker. We had lots of fun taking heaps of photographs of Chris and Amelia acting the scenes from the book. I use the photographs as reference later on.
As for my favourite page, I like the war protest scene, because the research into protests was so interesting (I had forgotten how controversial this war was) but also I really like the way Robert and Sarah’s faces came out. Nice light fresh watercolour, if I do say so myself. But EK Books did a wonderful job with the colour reproduction.
For aspiring illustrators what is one piece of advice you would offer if they are considering illustrating a book with historical content?
Try not to let the historical details get in the way of the emotional story. In any era, human beings are the same, no matter what they are wearing and it is the human story which will grab the reader. Perhaps avoid using too many crowd scenes….. they are often very confusing to look at, and are extremely hard to paint! Instead focus on one or two people, and tell the story through their eyes if the script allows.