Pete Williamson’s illustrations often depict ominous scenes and dark landscapes, but his latest project involved illustrating unicorns, fairies and monsters for our new Lonely Planet Kids title Wild Things. We chatted to Pete on how he got inspiration from walking in the woods with his daughter and how he started out illustrating books.
Tell us about the brief
The brief was to create engaging characters and images to inspire children to get outdoors and use their imagination – whether it be magical adventures, looking for fairies, witches, dragons, portals to other worlds or making potions. My daughter was eight when the brief arrived and already really loved going out into the woods and fields at the end of our garden and making potions from petals, mud and anything else that caught her imagination; so this was a project that I really identified with and was happy to be involved in. A lot of it was illustrated during a heat wave so I did a lot of wandering in the cool of the woods for inspiration.
How did you make a start?
I work in a very traditional way. I start with really loose pencil sketches on paper then trace my sketches onto Fabriano art paper, ink them up and then scan into Photoshop where, if necessary, I clean the images up digitally. I use simple copy paper instead of fancy sketchbooks that I’d be worried about spoiling with mistakes, as I wanted the illustrations to have the feeling of energy that children’s drawings have.
This brief called specifically for a sketchy pencil style and illustrations that could be placed around text and photographs, almost as if someone had taken the book out with them on a walk, and had imagined ‘wild things’ and scribbled them down before they forgot them.
It was interesting to finish the illustrations at an earlier stage in their creation than I usually would. It felt like very pure drawing as I didn’t ink in the line work or add watercolour; it was all just pencil and paper, and I think that simplicity of expression fitted in well with the Wild Things ethos.
Were there any challenges?
After illustrating 65 or so children’s books, I find the principal challenge is not to repeat myself while at the same time working within my established style. This project called for subjects that I wouldn’t usually draw (no dark atmospheric landscapes, odd creatures or eerie, weird laboratories) and using methods I rarely use, so the project was fun throughout. For me, the initial sketching is one of the most energetic, exciting times in the creation of a book, so being briefed to create purely in that sketchy style was great.
What’s the one item in your studio you can’t live without?
I think it would have to be a black and white photograph I have hanging above my drawing desk. It’s of the musicians John Zorn and Sylvie Courvoisier playing, I think, some kind of improvised duet in a small room in New York. I just know that the music is strange, beautiful and honest – pure imaginative expression. The photo is a constant wake-up call that reminds me to strive for creative integrity at all times
How did you get into illustrating books?
I worked as a designer in animation for over a decade but I was always interested in illustrating in children’s books as my very first influences were picture books such as Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Asterix.
I uploaded a character from an animated film I was co-creating to my website and it was noticed by two art directors who were looking for ‘dark’ and ‘quirky’ illustrations for Guy Bass’s Dinkin Dings and the Frightening Things and The Raven Mysteries by Marcus Sedgwick. Those two commissions were really successful (each winning a Blue Peter prize) and led to further book series with Marcus and Guy and also with many other writers, including Francesca Simon, Matt Haig , Steve Cole and even Charles Dickens!
Right now I’m working on my 67th book – a brand new collaboration with Guy Bass, which is looking great. I’m also starting to show my work in galleries and it’s had a really positive response.
Where in the world are you based?
I’m based in Kent, 50 minutes outside London, pretty much surrounded by woods and fields.
Follow Pete’s drawings @pete.williamson.illustration.