A long time fan of artist and children’s book author Lucy Cousins of Maisy fame, Karen Miles caught up with Lucy on her recent tour around Australia.
When I was at home with my little ones, who are now bigger ones, I loved to read books that had vibrant, fun imagery. The one book I never needed to hide because I couldn’t read it again was Hooray for Fish by Lucy Cousins. Lucy’s fantastical world of rhyme and imagination saw the creation of a strawberry-shaped fish, a grumpy fish, a scary fish and a hairy fish! At the turn of every page, there were so many fun fish to see and I would create silly voices to match their names, much to my kids’ delight.
Here’s what Lucy shared with me…
I loved being an art student and spent six years at art college studying graphic design. I wanted to do work for children, and then I entered a competition, ‘The Macmillan Prize’, which is for art students to write and illustrate a children’s book. I won the second prize with my book Portly’s Hat, about a penguin, which was published in 1988 while I was still at college. Once I’d made that first book, I knew creating books was the thing I loved doing, and I soon started work on a new book that was to become Maisy. My first Maisy book was published 25 years ago.
It took me years at art college to slowly develop my style. I studied graphic design, not illustration, and I think that’s been really helpful for me in creating the whole book. I’d think of the concept or idea, then not only create the illustrations, but design the whole book and paint the lettering. I also write the words. It’s really satisfying to create the entire book myself.
My parents are both artists, so I grew up in a house where there was a lot of creativity. I loved drawing and painting, and I always wanted to be an artist. Creativity was a way of life at home. My parents both had studios there and seeing them work was inspirational.
I seem to have a sort of subconscious desire to create things.
I could never retire, because it makes me feel happy, especially to think that children are enjoying the books I make.
Looking at animals and nature inspires my work. I’m inspired by Matisse, Picasso, my dad, children’s artwork and indigenous or folk art from around the world.
I have four children, and when they were young they were a constant supply of ideas and inspiration. Just observing their daily routines, seeing what they found funny, how they learnt about the world around them. Now I have a 10-month-old grandson and I enjoy looking at books with him. He thinks books with babies and animals are great, and he finds book flaps hilarious. So now I’m thinking about how I could make some fun books for babies of that age.
Before I start work, I take my dog, Rosie, for a walk in the beautiful countryside where I live in Hampshire in England. Then I start work at 9.30, and work on my books until lunchtime. I like to work in concentrated bursts, so I have frequent tea breaks. In the afternoon, either I carry on painting or writing, or do more office-type working, replying to emails and that sort of thing. Sometimes I sneak out for a game of tennis.
When my children were growing up, I only worked while they were at school, but now they are grown up, I’m not so regimented about when I work.
My workspace is at home, which is an old farmhouse. My studio is white and has windows on three sides. I like to get as much light and sunshine into the room as possible. For the past 20 years, I’ve had a cactus on my desk, but now it’s almost grown up to the ceiling, and will soon need to find a new home. I have sentimental things on my windowsills and shelves, like interesting seeds I picked up in Ecuador, photos of my family, and things my children have made. I don’t have a computer in my studio, just paints and brushes, paper, pencils and all sorts of art materials.
It’s so brilliant when I think of an idea or paint a picture that I’m really pleased with. I get a real buzz. The challenges, I suppose, are the opposite. When I sit at my desk, and just feel stuck. It can be difficult if that happens for a long period.
Once I have thought of an idea for a book, I usually start work on the pictures, and do lots of paintings. Then I work on the words, think of a beginning, middle and ending for the book. Work out how many pages would work well, and which pictures, and words should go on each pages. Then I spend a long time trying to improve everything, trying out different pictures, colours and words. The finished pictures are fairly quick and simple.
I always work with gouache paints. I love the colours, and the texture and opaqueness of the paint. I always use the same colours for Maisy, to keep a consistent look. I paint with a bold black outline, and use strong flat colours. My pictures are very simple and quite childlike and fun.
Having Maisy on a Royal Mail postage stamp in the UK a few years ago was a career highlight. She was wearing a crown, like the queen. I have won some awards, like ‘Booktrust best book of the year’, last year, which was thrilling. Also, meeting children and parents who tell me how much they’ve enjoyed my books. That’s really special.
I’ve just finished working on a new book called A Busy Day for Birds, which will be published next year. I really enjoyed painting birds of every description and colour. In the future, it would be fun to be involved in a TV series, or even a Maisy film.
Interview: Karen Miles