Serena Geddes on the Art of Illustration
In my previous interview I talked with author Belinda Murrell. The conversation included a discussion of the ‘Lulu Bell’ series, about a young girl who is a vet’s daughter. What immediately struck me about the illustrations was that they were the type of pictures I remembered seeing as a child. Even though digital drawings can produce some amazing images, I do admit I have a fondness for hand-drawn illustrations. Serena Geddes’ illustrations were also striking because of the life and movement of the characters. But then if you look at the professional experience she has had, dynamic drawing is probably second nature.
Tell me about your background.
My creative career began about sixteen years ago when I applied for a job working with Walt Disney Animation in Australia. This was back when jobs were advertised in the newspaper and I never realised this kind of job existed, let alone it could be a career. With huge encouragement, well more of a swift kick from my mother, I submitted my application and attached half a dozen drawings.
Every six months Disney would advertise for In-betweeners and offer a three-month training program. They were the only animation company that paid you to go through an intense training period, with a possible job offer at the end. This obviously attracted a lot of artists, and there were eight hundred applicants submitting their work when I applied.
Disney was intense and extremly hard work and I was quite slow. The entire process was unfamiliar and the concept of working to 24 frames per second baffled me. The human eye can only see 12 frames so there was a lot of illustrations that, even though they needed to look perfect, would not be seen. So spending too much time on the detail and not on the overall flow of the character had me struggling to meet the required quota. There is a huge amount of work involved in scenes that you just don’t see in the finished film.
A lot of the sequels were done in Australia so I was able to work on ‘The Lion King ’, ‘Peter Pan Return to Neverland’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Lady and the Tramp’ as well as ‘Beauty and the Beast Christmas Special’.
It was a great opportunity and was where I gained most of my illustration experience. Disney offered life drawing and various training opportunities. A definite highlight was when we worked on the Lion King II and spent a day at a wild life farm to draw and research the anatomy and behaviour of lions, lionesses and their cubs.
There were plenty of tears during my time at Disney… Well maybe it was just me who used to cry under the pressure of it all… But when you saw your work on the screen all that seemed to fall away. From the six years I was there, not only did I learn the fundamentals of traditional animation, I worked on some fabulous sequels and met some amazing and talented artists over that time.
I left Disney in 2006 to pursue a life as a receptionist /office manager/PA for eight years. I look back on those eight years as ‘my processing’ time, trying to figure out what I truly wanted to do.
What made you decide to try illustrating as a career?
One my fellow Disney colleagues Tina Burke, branched into the world of publishing in 2006 by writing and illustrating a picture book called ‘Fly Little Bird’, which I found in my local book shop. I was so proud of her she became an inspiration.
I must admit I also picked up a few books that looked ‘not so appealing’ and I found myself thinking ‘Well if this can get published surely my illustrations can too.’
How did you go about becoming an illustrator?
I spent the next two months putting together a small portfolio of about twelve pages and sent them out to about twenty publishers in Australia, and several overseas. I had one response, but that was all I needed.
It was a small publishing house called New Frontier Publishing, in Sydney. I was always told that it didn’t matter how many rejections you receive, all you need is one ‘yes’ to get the ball rolling. Within three months I’d secured my first contract and my first book. I illustrated seven books with New Frontier Publishing, while expanding on my circle of publishers.
I’ve been illustrating books for about four and a half years, and I’ve illustrated twenty-two books in this time.
How did you become the illustrator for the Lulu Bell books?
Random House Australia is my newest and biggest publisher. I had picked up a part time reception job with them, and knew a few of the people there through writers’ and illustrators’ associations. I started chatting with the head of the children’s books, who mentioned that a new series was coming up. They were looking for an illustrator for the books and hadn’t yet found anyone suitable. The first thing I did was mention about four other illustrators, until this voice in my head said ‘Put yourself forward you idiot.’
I do think this was a case of being in the right place at the right time. The first round of character designs were a bit cartoony, with the characters having little dots as eyes. I was asked to make them more realistic. This stretched me a bit, but knowing Belinda Murrell the author and her sister Kate Forsyth helped, as I began to draw the characters based off them and their personalities. Its not very common that authors and illustrators work so closely together, but I knew Belinda. So as soon as I knew I had the project I called her up and we organised a catch up over coffee at her home.
Why is it helpful to work closely with an author when illustrating a book?
I do find spending time with the authors allows for a better flow of illustration, as their excitement and enthusiasm that comes from them, it comes through my work. Lulu Bell was based on Belinda’s real experiences as a child in the vet hospital where, funnily enough, we took our cat for her vet visits and check ups.
I was able to spend some time with Belinda’s daughter Emily, who Lulu is based on. I walked out of Belinda’s home with a family photo album and a beautiful snippet of Belinda’s life. The house in the Lulu Bell series is also based on Belinda’s home, as is her backyard, the dogs Asha, Jessie and all the cousins in the cubby fort (a type of play house)! Having real people to base the characters on was such a lot of fun to illustrate.
How are the drawings for Lulu Bell different to your other illustrations?
Once the character was approved I knew I had to make Lulu more realistic. I found I shaped the character more carefully and tried not to use my rubbery arms, four fingers cartoony approach. I tend to draw the characters by working in loose circles and shapes, to get an idea of the stance and movement. For example, with Lulu Bell, she is a little tomboyish, so I try to make her stance show more of a statement like hands on hips, comfortable climbing things and looking awkward twirling in a mermaid skirt. I do try and use body language to express her emotions a little more and have emphasised the curves in the arms and legs use her hands as an extension of her personality.
The Lulu Bell drawings are very fluid and this makes them very dynamic. Do you think that’s something do with the speed you had to work at when you were with Disney?
That may be the case, every project at Disney had us studying and creating different characters, animals and people for four weeks before each project, so we were completely familiar with them before each production. I tend to people watch a lot and I guess I pick up a lot more than I realise. I enjoy playing with emotion and emphasise this in the books. I also need to research the animals Belinda has written in the story. Getting them correct is important, especially for when you have a frightened horse running towards you.
In terms of illustrations how do you know what’s needed for the different books?
I’m seeing my style is changing. I’m told I gauge expression quite nicely. Even though I’m trying to make Lulu Bell more realistic, the characters still have the same mouth expression as the rest of my characters. Looking at my older work, it’s very cartoony and I’m much preferring this style I’ve developed with Lulu Bell. As I move forward, the books I’ll do will have much more detail to them. With the Lulu Bell books Belinda will tell me what’s coming up for next book, so I can try and research what animals I need to draw, and it gives me time to practise and start visualising how it will look.
One of the books I worked on called Gracie and Josh by Susanne Gervay was the last picture book I worked on, and it was a very challenging book. The text is hugely layered and underlying story about a brother and sister. Josh has an illness, it doesn’t say cancer in the book but you know he is unwell, and he adores his little sister Gracie. She is there with him through the good weeks and bad weeks. Josh wants to be a movie director and Gracie is the star of his film. Josh stays for quite a few weeks at the hospital and continues his dream to be a movie director with nothing stopping him, and Gracie is with him the entire time. With everyone joining in Josh completes his movie, which is shown at the hospital with all the families, nurses and doctors joining in.
Originally the character design was not accepted and the publishers wanted it to be more realistic. I felt in this instance I would need to spend time with children like Josh, so I contacted the Sydney Children’s Hospital to ask if I could do a couple of free creative workshops. This meant I was able to meet the children in the hospital.
At the time I took on Gracie and Josh, I didn’t actually realise the relevance it had to my own childhood experiences. My brother was one of the first children to have open heart surgery in Melbourne nearly 40 years ago. Through the process of doing this book, my mother was able to talk about this very difficult time and the impact this experience had on her and my father almost losing my brother at such a young age, 40 years ago.
You do really have to understand the books you’re drawing don’t you?
I feel if I can relate to the books it flows easier with my creativity. Gracie and Josh was not suited to my usual sense of humour and fun style, so it pushed me out of my usual comfort zone and into the unfamiliar. Not only was I able to share an experience with some beautiful children, the staff at the hospital and my family, but I was also able to create and show diversity in my own work.
What a difference of extremes though going from Gracie and Josh to the ‘Lulu Bell’ series. I was able to relate to Lulu Bell, because I was a tomboy as a child and I loved playing with my pets, as well as always being on the look out to save a lost dog, injured bird or strayed cat.
What child wouldn’t want a book about someone who saves animals?
What makes it even more enjoyable is a lot of the stories are true, and based on things that actually happened to Belinda’s when her family when they lived behind the vet hospital!
You use simple line drawings. Do you do everything on the page before you scan or do you do you use a drawing tablet?
I tend to work traditionally; though some toilet training books I illustrated called ‘Toilet Time for Boys’ and ‘Toilet Time for Girls’ I painted on the computer for more vibrancy in the colours.
With Lulu Bell I would draw up the illustrations in pencil first just on 80gsm paper, then trace over them on a light box onto thicker water colour paper. I use Indian ink to paint the pictures working from a lighter consistency to heavier. You need to dilute the ink, as anything you paint will always appear darker once printed in a book.
Once its painted I go over it in a black pencil to sharpen the lines.
I’m really enjoying illustrating the ‘Lulu Bell’ series, and finding I’m getting much faster now when I’m painting the illustrations. Belinda has thoroughly enjoyed bringing in all sorts of animals in the book to test my drawing skills. For the first book, Lulu Bell and the Birthday Unicorn she had me painting horses, something I was petrified of doing! Being a lover and owner of horses she gave me the approval that I had done a great job and proceeded to put horses in another three books after that!
There’s something freeing about drawing and expressing by hand with the art I do, but I have just purchased a new cintiq which is a tablet for drawing and even though its only early days I am really enjoying learning about this new digital medium.