Sunday, 2 February 2020

Doctor Doodle-little - How to converse with animals through drawing (with a little help from a rescue dog) - Garry Parsons

It's not often we give ourselves space to examine what we do day to day in any great detail. I've recently been working on three picture books where the characters are all animals and because of a busy timetable I've been jumping between these books at different stages of their development.  This has resulted in a lot of intensive drawing. 

Drawing out the characters and working on the first roughs is always a favourite part of the process for me. The combined sketching and researching is always enjoyable and inevitably turns up some unexpected surprises. And, since “How do you come up with the characters?" is a question I’m often asked, I’ve been making mental notes about how the process reveals itself, which is not something I usually pay that much attention to. In considering this question, one of the challenges of coming up with an animal character is finding how to imbue it with human characteristics but maintaining its animal form and nature.

The first of the three animal books I mentioned I’ve been working on is about a llama who lives in a rather quiet and regimented community but who has a passion for dancing which he secretly expresses at night. 

My starting point for a new picture book is to gather suitable images, in this case llamas, and create a board on Pinterest that I can fill with resource material.  This becomes like a mood board for the whole book that I can add images and return to for reference as I go. But drawing animals as surrogates for complex human lives can be tricky for an illustrator. Physically they might have to hold things - books, cups or maps - and if they have hooves or feathers this can be a challenge.  They might have to wipe a tear from a cheek, lie on a sun lounger, climb up a ship’s rigging, ride a bike or remove a splinter from a dog's paw, and, if your character is a horse with clumsy hooves or a tyrannosaurus rex with a giant head, thumping great body with tiny arms and only two digits on each ‘hand,’ the physical logistics can be thorny.  

In the llama’s case he had perform to dance moves. He was required to twist, stamp his feet and keep in time to the techno beat! Not that easy with four legs and a neck that’s as long as your body, and my job as illustrator is to make this look as convincing and as normal as possible, to give life to the text as naturally as possible. 

Personally, I love this challenge. Sometimes the character just appears before me as I’m drawing, but most other times it involves a lot of rubbing out. Drawing and re-drawing, rubbing out completely and then more drawing. Often a relatively simple line might take a few goes to get it ‘right'. 

It still fascinates me what ‘right’ actually is or how I even determine I've reached it but all I know is that I have to keep going until I get there, until it looks ‘right’ and, more importantly, feels right. One way of knowing I’ve achieved this is if it makes me laugh. I distincly remember being in the cinema as a child watching The Muppet Movie. Having only ever seen the TV show of the Muppets where their felt bodies are mostly obscured from the waist down to hide the puppeteers, in the movie you see Kermit riding a bicycle, legs and all, singing along with no visible signs of strings or puppeteers. This had me in tears of laughter for most of the movie and, I admit, periodically since then!

When I feel I get a character drawing ‘right’, it somehow resonates with that image of Kermit on a bike within me and I know I’ve got something right. Psychiatrist!

When I visit schools my assembly presentation consists of me asking the pupils what things they might need in order to be an illustrator - the first being a pencil. Sounds basic, I know, but then I tell them that my pencil has a secret sidekick and not only that but my pencil is in LOVE! ...Groan! Yuk! 

We usually have to go through a myriad of different possiblilties  as to who or what this sidekick love interest is until someone yells, a rubber!  What is difficult to get across is the idea that it takes time and a lot of re-drawing to get it down. All they see is a fully formed character sketch that has taken  a lot of skill but been executed in an instant. It never comes out perfect, I tell them when it’s their turn to draw, it’s all about feeling when it’s right for you. After a day of character drawing, which has included plenty of drawing and erasing, I might only be left with two or three drawings that are ‘right’, and all the effort of achieving this is only apparent in the diminished size of the rubber and the debris surrounding it.

One of the other books I’m working on is about a flamingo. He is concerned with his looks. 
These sketches are still at the earliest stages, but once I felt I was happy with his general appearance as a flamingo I then needed to make him express his inner desire for marvelousness. Combining him, with his awkward long legs (as you know, birds legs often bend at the knee in the opposite direction to ours, as is the case for flamingos which is another challenge to anthropomorphise) and his long neck and wings into fashion poses I’d gathered onto my Pinterest board had me laughing out loud. 

This is usually the time a friend who works in the city calls me on the phone distraught from a heavy board meeting exclaiming the pressures of work life and asks me how I’m getting on? 
Oh fine I say, I’m drawing a Kookaburra on a sun lounger drinking a margarita

Facial expression is everything and this can also take an amount of drawing and re-drawing too. I can spend twenty minutes positioning and repositioning a dot in an eye to get the feel I’m after, but then, if I'm lucky, it sometimes works first time. The third book I mentioned I'm working on follows a whole bunch of birds on a poolside holiday. Birds lying on inflatables, wearing rubber rings, drinking cocktails and wearing sunglasses. Plenty of scope for unnatural fowl positions, funny expressions and awkward limbs.

Dogs are great for studying expressions and maybe a lifetime of living with them has had an influence on how I draw emotion in animals' characters. Having recently lost a dog with expressive features (Olive was a grand 17 years old) and now being the owner of a new rescue dog, Lily, I can already see everything I might need for characterisation in her face. She’s does a particularly good sorrowful look, great for visualising the problem moment in a picture book story.

Which brings me to Doctor Dolittle, originally a story by Hugh Lofting about a respected physician and bachelor who learns the secret to speaking to animals from his parrot, Polynesia and which is currently having another turn at the cinema. After seeing the film with my kids I felt a little bit like the doctor myself, conversing with the animals but via a pencil and rubber instead of a parrot, with the help of a dog from the rescue centre.


Garry Parsons has illustrated many picture books from wonderful authors. The Llama Glamarama by Simon James Green publishes this June from Scholastic. The image of the horse removing a splinter from the dog's paw is from "Dr Hoof" by Diana Kimpton, also published by Scholastic.
Follow Garry on twitter @icandrawdinos


Pippa Goodhart said...

Wonderful stuff, Gary! Are you going to write the story of the pencil in love with the rubber/eraser? I want to know what happens to them. I also instantly think of a couple I know where one is a pencil and one a rubber in emotional terms!

Jane Clarke said...

Fascinating - and I'll be watching out for Lily's expression to appear in your illustrations now

Andrea Mack said...

I love your sketches, especially that llama! So much personality!