- Brian Jacques
The chapter illustrations are one of the staples of The Redwall Series– small black and white pictures at the start of each new chapter, bringing the world of Mossflower Country to life. Through the years, the art chores have passed through various hands, starting with Gary Chalk, who was followed by Allan Curless, then Fangorn, Peter Standley, and finally David Elliot.
As the current illustrator for both Redwall and the Castaways of the Flying Dutchman series, David Elliot is firmly entrenched in the worlds of Brian Jacques’ imagination. With eight Jacques books under his belt and a ninth on the way next year, he’s had one of the longest tenures of any Redwall illustrator.
David graciously agreed to be interviewed by The Long Patrol, sharing his personal experiences, views on Redwall & Castaways, and even gave us a hint on what we can expect next year with Doomwyte! (Please note that portions of this interview were conducted before the release of Eulalia! and Redwall: 20th Anniversary Edition).
You can find out more about David Elliot at his website, www.davidelliot.org.
I wish to thank David for taking the time to answer our questions! It was an honor!
Enjoy the interview!
Martin (The Long Patrol): Thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions! I’d like to start off with a little bit of personal background before moving into your work on Redwall and Castaways of the Flying Dutchman. In the profile on your website, you list as past jobs “Gatekeeper at the Edinburgh Zoo” and “dishwasher in Antarctica”. I’m curious what those experiences were like (especially the Antarctica one) and how you went from them to becoming an illustrator?
David Elliot (Illustrator, ‘Redwall’ & ‘Castaways’ Series): My trip to Antarctica came first and was a pivotal experience for me. After art school I worked as a designer for a company that manufactured interiors for pubs and clubs but really wasn’t terribly satisfied with my direction. Christchurch, New Zealand, was, and still is, the transit base for ‘Operation Deep Freeze’ flights, supplying the American McMurdo and much smaller New Zealand’s Scott Base on Ross Island, Antarctica. I managed to get a job with the catering crew for McMurdo and was lucky enough to get down on the first spring flight of 1979. The island at that time of year seems like another planet, bathed in a permanent ultra-violet twilight. It is the most beautiful and awe-inspiring place I have ever been and strangely makes you very aware of your own heart-beat, your own existence in the universe. In my spare time I did a few drawings for scientists here and there and managed to score some trips out onto the pack-ice tagging seals and monitoring orca (killer whales). I also came back by ship, threading our way between gigantic icebergs, all along the immense Antarctic Coast, which was a very powerful experience.
The other real benefit of the trip was that I managed to save enough money to keep traveling, firstly across Australia, then through South East Asia, to Europe and the U.K. Eventually I was lucky enough to get the job as Gatekeeper at Edinburgh Zoo, which turned out to be another pivotal experience.
I lived in the little stone house, inside the zoo itself, and after shutting the gates at night I more or less had the whole, bizarre place to myself, which was just wonderful. Animals that had been hiding from the public all day would suddenly appear and there were a surprising number of little native animals, such as badgers, foxes, owls, squirrels and, of course, rats, that used the place as a safe haven as well. It was here that I first started to take the idea of illustration seriously, putting together the beginnings of a portfolio and making the odd trip over to Glasgow or London to try and interest publishers. It was here too that I met my wife and right-hand person and support to be.
There is, of course, that awful cruel side of zoos, but I have to confess to being like a kid in a sweetshop — the place absolutely ‘reeked’ with characters and stories and I remember the two years I spent there very fondly.
Martin: Did you always want to be an illustrator?
David: All the way through school I wanted to be a vet. It was only at the last minute I decided to do something with my art. When I was at art school I actually actively tried to avoid the illustrative tendencies in my work. I suppose I just gave in to the inevitable in the end.
Martin: What projects had you worked on prior to ‘Redwall’?
David: Well I suppose, most significantly, I had written and illustrated five of my own picture books, four of which had won awards here in New Zealand. I had also illustrated another couple of picture books for another writer. As well as that, I had illustrated various anthologies of poetry and short stories, chapter books and several covers for chapter books. Redwall , however, was and remains, my most significant break internationally. There is a list of my publications on the Redwall Wiki and there is also a good selection of my illustrations on my own website: www.davidelliot.org
Martin: What materials do you use to create your illustrations?
David: Well, for Redwall I always rough up in pencil and biro, with the odd ink wash here and there. The final art is all done with uniball pen. For my other illustration, I use a real range of mediums, from acrylic paints and watercolours, through to pastels — and sometimes all at once.
Martin: What advice would you give to kids who are interested in pursuing a career in your field?
David: Learn to draw as well as you can. Draw from life and study other artists you admire. Practice on small projects first. In New Zealand we have a quarterly publication for primary schools, called The School Journal. This includes a variety of quality content, from various (fiction and non-fiction) writers and artists. Producing work for this publication is like working ‘in microcosm’, dealing with all the challenges, of character, composition, technique, colour, continuity, etc, which a larger job would have, without the massive investment of time and effort. Also, illustrating a story for a school journal or similar publication is often a way of getting noticed by other publishers.
Martin: Moving on to Redwall, I can recall that your arrival to the series was something of a surprise to fans, as your predecessor, Peter Standley, had only done one book (we were used to illustrators having longer tenures). How was it you came to be involved with the Redwall Series?
David: It came completely out of the blue — a phone call from the editor of Philomel (Penguin) in New York. She had seen my work through a lucky chance and thought I might have potential. The great coincidence was that I had been totally unaware of the Redwall series until a week before her call, when a publisher, here in New Zealand, had given me some damaged and returned paperbacks from their bookbins, for my kids to read. These books (including many Redwall titles) were still sitting, unlooked at, in a stack by the phone.
‘Redwall?’ I said ‘Sure, I’m looking at some right now!’
Martin: As the fifth artist to illustrate the series, how much were you influenced by the work of the four artists who came before you or, for that matter, the cover artists?
David: Philomel sent me their ‘Redwall Bible’, so I had examples of all the other illustrators’ work, but they also encouraged me to come up with my own approach. I particularly liked the way Gary Chalk broke his drawings out of their frames, so I kept that up for a bit of continuity. There was also a tradition of dividing the spots (small black and white drawings at the start of each chapter) up into three groups (i.e. character, landscape and still lifes), which I still try to enforce, although I do tend towards characters.
Martin: I was aware that a Redwall Bible existed for the Television Series, but this is the first I’ve heard of one existing for the books themselves. What sort of things are in it, besides art samples?
David: [It] was a small series of photocopied sheets the publishers sent me to bring me up to speed on the history of the books, the nature of the stories, the kind of characters they involved… and examples of previous art work. It was really just a list of goodies, baddies and the characteristics of each species. I was, of course, very interested in how each illustrator had handled the imagery.
Martin: Going through my archive of site updates, one of the things I was most impressed with when you first came on board was your approach to drawing the maps– the tilted, 2 1/2-D perspective as if we were looking at a model resting on a tabletop, rather than the traditional, flat 2-D maps. What made you decide to draw them that way?
David: I wanted to contribute something new to the series and I have always enjoyed the way you can enter into these sorts of maps, and walk around in them. They are always a lot of fun to devise and stay true to the plot.
Martin: How do you go about deciding which event in each chapter you’ll illustrate?
David: I read the story a couple of times, carefully noting descriptions of the animals, the landscape, any special devices, such as maps, weapons, etc, that Brian might have used. It then becomes a lovely puzzle to allocate spots for the main characters, key places and objects, to try and convey the mood of the story, dark or funny or whatever, and still make them as relevant to the events described in the early part of each chapter. It is the part of the work I love best.
Martin: Were there any particular scenes in any of the books that you wished you could have illustrated, if you’d only had more space?
David: They are far too numerous to mention. Brian’s books are so full of great images that some always remain undrawn. I’m sure they come alive in the reader’s imagination all the same.
Martin: How involved is Brian in the process? Does he give you guidelines or feedback of any kind?
David: Brian must always approve, firstly the roughs, and then the finished art, before it goes to print. Before he sees them, though, I will have worked in close consultation with the wonderful art director and editors at Philomel, to iron out most problems, so Brian usually seems pretty happy with the result.
Martin: Do you study, first-hand, the various species you have to illustrate in order to “get it right”? (I imagine the experience as Zoo Gatekeeper proved useful.)
David: Fortunately, for our native bird life here in New Zealand (many of our birds are ground-dwellers), the early European colonists did not introduce foxes, badgers or squirrels into the country (although they did bring in a lot of other unwanted aliens, including weasels, stoats, ferrets and rats). This means I am unable to study these creatures first-hand. I have made up a pretty comprehensive anatomical and photographic reference collection though, and try to make characters as ‘real’ as I can within the fantasy. Also, you are right, the memory of those native animals in the zoo is a great help.
Martin: Do you enjoy drawing certain species more than others? A favorite and least favorite, perhaps?
Martin: Speaking of favorites, is there any character in-particular that you enjoyed drawing the most?
David: Brian has created so many good characters that I don’t think I can point to any one in particular. He also provides great descriptions of stormy seas and dark forests that I thoroughly enjoy drawing.
Martin: One last “favorite” question– considering each book as a body of work, which are you most satisfied with and why?
David: I think I started to ‘click’ with Loamhedge, so I’m fond of that one especially.
Martin: In addition to illustrating the newer Redwall books, you also had the opportunity to go back to the series’ second entry, ‘Mossflower’, and provide all-new illustrations for its “Collector’s Edition” release in 2004, which were stunning. How did having full pages to work with change your approach?
David: Well, they have more scope, more room for perspective and detail. The Redwall spots are so small that they have to be very clear immediately. The larger Mossflower plates allow the eye to wander around and enjoy the pictorial space a bit more.
Martin: After seeing one of the ‘Mossflower’ illustrations– that of Bane struggling in the grip of Argulor– fully-colored on your homepage (it looks beautiful), I have to ask: why weren’t the illustrations colored for the Collector’s Edition? Why black and white?
Martin: Redwall fans are currently looking forward to a third collector’s re-release, the 20th Anniversary Edition of ‘Redwall’ due out this Fall. U.S. cover artist, Troy Howell, has already stated that he wasn’t commissioned to do new illustrations for the book. Does that mean you were?
David: No, I’m afraid not.
Martin: Switching over to Brian’s other series, Castaways of the Flying Dutchman– you’ve illustrated the second and third books of this series. Do you enjoy drawing the human characters more than the animals of Redwall?
David: I think my love of drawing animals wins the day.
Martin: The very nature of the chapter illustrations is different for the Castaways series. Aside from the traditional, chapter heading placement, they can sometimes be buried with the text wrapped around them, appear more vertical, and so on. There seems to be more freedom for the artist to experiment. Is that the case and are you happy to have that difference to work with?
Martin: Is this different nature the reason the illustrations aren’t included in the paperback release?
David: I didn’t know the illustrations aren’t in your paperbacks. They are included in the large format paperbacks, which we have here in New Zealand (I think).
Martin: Does the fact that this series is rooted in real-world history– and thus is subject to historical accuracy– make the job more difficult?
David: The human characters, their gestures and expressions, are a little less forgiving than animals. Also, their costume and things like ships or weapons, have to be historically accurate in the Castaways series. Again, it’s just another challenge to be enjoyed.
Martin: Having worked on both series, which do you ultimately prefer and why?
David: I enjoy both series immensely, but I suppose if pressed, I prefer the Redwall books, if only for the animals and the out and out fantasy.
David: Look out for badgers, of course, but also a thief, a smiling fox and a pitchfork.
Martin: Word has been getting around that Brian Jacques is teasing his next few books at signings in the U.S. A new Redwall book entitled ‘Doomwyte’ and an (as yet) untitled Castaways of the Flying Dutchman novel. Have you started working on either? If so, could you perhaps give us a little tease and the expected release date?
David: I can confirm that I’m working on [Doomwyte] currently, but I have no knowledge of a new Castaways. I’m not sure what the proposed publication date for Doomwyte is but I’m sure Philomel will post it up as soon as they have sorted it out. As to teases, I’d better leave that to Brian. Perhaps I could say that one of the main animal characters also features in a poem that begins “Once upon a midnight dreary……..”
Martin: The record for a Redwall illustrator’s tenure is currently six books – held by original illustrator, Gary Chalk (which you’ll tie with Doomwyte). Do you think you’ll stick with Redwall for the foreseeable future and surpass it?
David: I’m still thoroughly enjoying the series, so I hope so.
David: Well, last year I illustrated a very special book called Nacky Patcher and the Curse of the Dry-Land Boats by Jeffrey Kluger (who also wrote Lost Moon, which was later turned into the movie, Apollo 13). Nacky Patcher is beautifully written and is also Kluger’s first novel for children — it’s well worth a read.
Martin: Any last words before we go?
David: Well, just to send my best wishes to all you Redwall fans out there. I hope you have enjoyed the drawings so far and I will continue to do my best, knowing that only the best will do such great stories.
Martin: Mr. Elliot, thank you once again for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s been a privilege!
David: I’ve been happy to do so.
Which brings us to a close. Thanks again to Mr. Elliot for taking the time to give The Long Patrol this exclusive interview! It was a great experience I’ll not soon forget. Thanks for reading!