NZ Children’s Book Reviews Interviews Fifi Colston

 Fifi Colston Fifi Colston

How did The Red Poppy come about for you as an illustrator?

Penny Scown from Scholastic, with whom I have had a long and happy editor/author/illustrator relationship, emailed me 2 manuscripts for consideration. She must have heard me say to myself, ‘About time I illustrated another book.’ They were both lovely stories but David’s manuscript was the one that hit all the right chords for me.

The illustrations in The Red Poppyplay a large part in conveying the emotion of the story. How did you go about researching content for the illustrations you created?

I visited the Army Museum in Waiouru to look at their displays, bought a useful book about ANZACs from there (and a pot of grow your own Flanders poppies!), I borrowed books on WW1 from friends, trawled the internet for photos of trenches and messenger dogs and talked to 3 military uniform experts. They generously lent me their time, books and uniforms (to photograph). It’s very easy as an illustrator to make up bits you can’t find, but in a book like this, the details are crucially important. The wrong kind of helmet can suddenly place the story in another war period! I didn’t want that to happen at all. I was as careful as I could possibly be in my research.

At the back of The Red Poppyyou mention your husband’s grandfather and how you took a journey through his time as you created the illustrations. How much influence did his story have in the creation of the illustrations?

It set the tone for me. I could relate the character Jim to (Grandfather) Rothwell. They would have been the same kind of age; young men with their future ahead of them but not knowing if they would see their families again. I was blogging his postcards to his fiancé, Hilda when Penny sent me the manuscript. It seemed serendipitous somehow.

You also mention that the illustrations are done in chalk pastel. Why did you choose this medium over any other?

I do all my life drawing in chalk pastel; it’s such an immediate material- you can get into it with your fingers and work away until you are filthy with chalk. I’d never used it for illustration work before though and I knew with this book that I wanted to convey immediacy in the battle scenes. I know myself well enough that I end up getting too meticulous with book illustration (size 000 brushes) and this would make the work stilted and wooden. Every illustrator I know loves their rough working drawings much more than the finished result. I wanted to retain some of that roughness, that spontaneity and dirt. I took myself off to a pastel workshop by Julie Greig in Wanganui to learn how to use them properly. That was gold!

I hear you may have done a popup version of The Red Poppy, and that you may be able to tell students how to create their own popup. Would you be willing to share that here?

Sure- go to this link on my blog and all the instructions are there. You can print it off and colour it in with your own battlefield colours. Lots of mud and a patch of red poppies!

I normally ask authors for writing tips for students. I know you write as well as illustrate but my readers might like a change of question. So, what tips would you give students who are interested in pursuing a career in illustration?

Don’t do it if you are hoping to make a lot of money. There are times in my illustration life where this happens, but illustrating a book isn’t one of them! Don’t do it if you think it will be ‘cool career’ and you will be cool as a result. Do it only if you are passionate about drawing and painting, colour, texture, observation and mastery of form. If you’ve always loved these things then do your apprenticeship; go to design school, soak up everything your tutors can offer. Research, experiment, look and listen. Talk to people in the industry. I spent 3 years in tertiary study and 30 in practice to do what I do now- and I’m still learning! Try all kinds of media, both traditional and digital to bring your ideas to life. Be able to take criticism and a brief. You have to be o.k with other people directing you. This is not fine art. Illustration is a career for creatively determined, amenable people who can draw. If you are one of them then the other tip I’d offer is use really good art materials and digital tools. Makes a huge difference to the quality of your output.

What creative project(s) are you working on in 2012?

Currently I’m illustrating another Scholastic picture book called ‘Far Far From Home’ by Elizabeth Pulford about a cute little bug. It’s quite a different book to The Red Poppy! I also have another Wearable Art entry on the go and sometime I’ll finish writing my next novel!

For more information on Fifi Colston:

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