Award-winning author & illustrator James Mayhew is the creator of the best-selling KATIE series, ELLA BELLA books and ONCE UPON A TUNE. He is also the illustrator of MRS NOAH’S POCKETS (by Jackie Morris), the MOUSE & MOLE series (by Joyce Dunbar), Polari Prize-winner NEN AND THE LONELY FISHERMAN (by Ian Eagleton) and GASPARD THE FOX by Zeb Soanes.
James is also a presenter of family classical concerts, and takes part in many unique events at music festivals all over the country. His collaborators include the London Mozart Players, BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?
I always drew as a kid, but the decision to be an illustrator came much later. After school I took a foundation course in Art & Design at Lowestoft College. Initially I wanted to go on to study Fine Art, or Set Design. It took a while until I accepted the obvious choice – my work was always very much about drawing and narrative, so Illustration was an almost inevitable choice in the end. Even so, it was only when my first book was published (“Katie’s Picture Show”, 1989) that I really thought I’d found my vocation.
How long does it typically take to make a page or cover for a book?
The most time consuming part is often the preliminary sketches, and any research required – looking at periods of architecture or costume for example. This is when most of the decisions are made, and it can take a long time, days or even weeks. The final art would usually take a day or two.
What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?
A pair of embroidery scissors that I use when cutting papers for collage.
Do you have a favourite colour scheme, if so what and why?
I am very drawn to blues and turquoise, and I don’t really know why. I could say its because I grew up in Suffolk near the sea, and with big skies – or because of their melancholy vibe… but I don’t really think that’s true. I just like them!
Who were your inspirations when starting out?
Book illustrators! Especially the ones I grew up with: Edward Ardizzone, Tove Jansson, Brian Wildsmith, Quentin Blake, John Burningham, Maurice Sendak – a golden age!
Do you have another job beside being an illustrator, if so what?
Well, I’m a writer too, but of course that’s completely intertwined with being an illustrator.
What do you do to overcome a creative block?
I walk away – and do something different. I might walk the dog, bake a cake or do something unrelated but still creative. Maybe sketching or painting for something other than a book. Sometimes it helps to talk through problems with my husband Toto. Ultimately, most things just need time to resolve.
Do you have a favourite piece in your portfolio, if so could you share it and talk about it?
I’m hyper-critical of everything I do, but I have a great fondness for an image in Mrs Noah’s Song (story by Jackie Morris, published by Otter-Barry books). I love creating images in collage, and this was a really favourite. I depicts the dawn chorus, as the Noah family awake in a hammock. Once, as a child, I spent the night in a hammock and really was awakened by the dawn chorus – I’ve never forgotten it! So there is a lot memory and meaning in this image.
What was your first book related project?
My first ever commission was from Virago Press to illustrate the front cover of “Up The Junction” by Nell Dunn – about as far away from a children’s book as you can get. But it’s only my first by a few hours as the SAME DAY I got offered a contract for “Katie’s Picture Show”! The stars were clearly aligned that day in 1987!
What type of media do you prefer to work in and why?
For many years I used dip pen and ink, tools I still love and respond to. But latterly I’ve been exploring print-making and collage and I feel it’s brought an element of play and experiment into my work which I find very exciting.
Do you have a playlist you like working to? If so do you want to share it?
Nothing fixed – I might listen to ABBA one day and a tragic opera the next! I’m often drawn to music by specific performers. I love the voice of the Spanish singer Victoria de los Angeles, so I’ll happily listen to anything she recorded. Rossini overtures are great for meeting a deadline, they keep me going. I love the sound world of Sibelius. And if life gets too much, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is my “reset” music.
Do you have any rituals when working?
No, I don’t think I do. I believe every book is unique and different. A ritual might suggest a formula.
Do you have a favourite artist outside of the world of books, if so who and why?
I’ve explored many artists in the “Katie” series, but one artist who I love, and who was never featured in a “Katie” book, is Samuel Palmer. I love the rhapsodic nature of his work.
Did the books you read as a child influence your work?
Absolutely. In both conscious and unconscious ways. The illustrators I mentioned before were all experts with drawing in ink, and their line work was a huge inspiration. But I also find echoes of stories I loved creeping into my work, especially folk tales and myths. I firmly believe our childhood experiences, including books, words and pictures, never leave us.
Has your illustration/art style changed over time?
Yes. I don’t believe in being a “brand” and sticking with one “style”. I prefer to change, grow, evolve as I learn more and become more experienced. One of the problems of working on a long running series like “Katie” or “Mouse and Mole” is the need to be consistent, but increasingly I am moving away from drawing in ink and towards collage and print-making. I find I surprise myself and create images I didn’t necessarily expect to make. I like that thrill. It keeps it all fresh for me and challenges me.
How closely do you work with the author on developing the illustrations for a book?
Traditionally publishers acted as a go-between and you almost never spoke with an author. Nowadays it’s so much easier to be in touch, and it makes books much better I think, truly collaborative. Certainly with “Gaspard the Fox” by Zeb Soanes, a real friendship has grown and Zeb often provides reference images for the illustrations. Likewise, Ian Eagleton was a lovely collaborator with our Polari Prize winning book “Nen And The Lonely Fisherman”.
If you could illustrate any classic book which would it be and why?
So many favourites have already been brilliantly done, it’s hard to choose, but I keep coming back to “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen, which has haunted me since childhood. I think that’s something I’d love to dive into and interpret my way!
Which illustrated books in the last year have you loved?
I loved “Dadaji’s Paintbrush” by Rashmi Sirdeshpande, Illustrated by Ruchi Mhasane (an ex-student of mine from India!).
If you can please tell us about your latest project and if not your last project
My latest project is a collaboration with my husband, the Spanish artist Toto Martinez. Uniquely, we both co-wrote it and co-illustrated it. It’s a fresh new version of “The Frog Prince”. In our version, it’s the frog who is on a quest for happiness, but his “happy ever after” is a bit different to what he expected. We are really excited about this inclusive fairy tale – it’s guaranteed to make your heart skip a beat! It’s published by Scholastic on May 11th.
Do you have any events on in the near future?
In the Spring I’ll be touring Scotland with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a series of schools concerts based on my book “Once Upon A Tune”, which is really exciting. I’ll be presenting the concerts and painting live illustrations during the performances! I’ll also be leading a week long retreat, for picture-book creators, in Spain in May.