Oliver Jeffers on painting and The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Oliver Jeffers on painting and The Incredible Book Eating Boy

By Jo Caird 11/09/13

Oliver Jeffers, best known as a writer and illustrator of picture books, including the award-winning Lost and Found and The Incredible Book Eating Boy, is also a respected painter. On the eve of his first London exhibition, the Brooklyn-based artist tells us about juggling the commercial and the creative, not being taken advantage of and the importance of discipline. 

You moved into illustrating after starting out as a fine artist. What was it that made you choose that route?

The early paintings I made were primarily about storytelling. Storytelling is an important part of the cultural heritage of being Northern Irish. I was using the tools of words and pictures, either contrasting or complementing an image with words. It was through that exploration of words and pictures that I discovered picture books and therein I found the perfect platform for experimentation between the two disciplines.

Do the two ever feed into each other?

Oh yeah, they totally do. I can give you two examples. While I was making an exhibition called Additional InformationI paired these mathematical equations (I worked with a quantum physicist) with figurative paintings. At the same time as that I was making The Incredible Book Eating Boy; both are about the quest for ultimate intelligence.

Secondly, for a new series I've been collecting old paintings and prints, and painting disaster scenes on top of them. I didn't intend to do disaster scenes, I just noticed a trend after a while. But that was the same technique that I used in This Moose Belongs to Me.So there are a lot of similarities and they definitely thread through each other.

How does your commercial illustration work fit in with that?

When I was starting out as a picture book artist and painter the money wasn't great. I needed to pay rent and feed myself, so the commercial illustration was something that I took on purely for financial reasons.

It's something that I'm actually fading out now, concentrating purely on self-generated work rather than as a gun for hire. 

Do you feel that the way you work has changed since not having that commercial pressure?

The commercial pressure was good because it taught me to be disciplined. I learned to work under pressure, to deadlines and to organise my time. Those are still rules that I apply to the picture books that I put out, regardless of if there's a deadline or not.

Did the commercial work add to your development as an artist?

There were a lot of techniques I would explore in picture books that I’d first cut my teeth on in a commercial project. Those commercial projects were smaller in scope and wouldn't have the same amount of exposure as the picture books, soo I was able to experiment; I felt free there.

Many creative people find the business side of things challenging – how was it for you early in your career?

When I graduated I immediately took a small business course. I had to learn how to deal with tax, with invoicing and nobody had taught me that.

A lot of people want to take advantage of art college students right out of university: “Oh hey, you do work for me for free; it'll be good for you to get your work seen”. That works up to a point but you have to know when the “opportunity” is not actually an opportunity but a pain in the ass. 

Do you have any other advice for those hoping to follow in your footsteps?

There is no substitute for hard work. There just isn't. 

And when you're beginning, silence doesn't necessarily mean no - it just means that people are poorly organised and forgetful. So don't necessarily take silence for a no. And don't take no for an answer either.


In Focus: Making Stay (below)

I was having a conversation about the arrogance of human thinking and immediately the idea for Stay came to me.

First I sketched it out, then I start collecting photographs of trees, going out and photographing trees, photographing people pointing, going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Brooklyn Museum, looking at old landscapes and making a note of all those.

Then I ordered the canvas and sketched it out on that. The next stage was the underpainting, followed by the overpainting, then to the fine details.

The last bit was the typography.


Oliver Jeffers: Nothing to See Here runs at the Lazarides Rathbone Gallery from 12 September to 3 October. For more information, visit the website.

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