"So yes, come on through my studio door! Only watch your step because it’s usually a mess. Typically I have a few different projects on the go at once, and they usually just pile on top of each other in small heaps. As I look at my desk right now, there’s several small sketchbooks, hundreds of pencils, a bunch of tax records I’m currently sorting, a half-finished painting for a magazine, unopened mail, sculpting materials, several of my daughter’s toys, and the laptop I’m writing on now. But I’ll sift through these and try to give you a snapshot of the creativity under the junk.

My most recently published work is the picture book ‘Rules of Summer’, which is a project I’d been thinking about on and off for over a decade. I had a lot of different images jotted out in sketchbooks, all involving a pair of siblings caught up in strange situations, but had great difficulty bringing them all together into a single story. So in the end I decided not to, that the book would be a kind of summer holiday slide-show of random events, held together by some emotional undercurrent rather than a conventional narrative arc, and this is something that picture books can actually do much better than most other media.

caption: A typical page from one of my sketchbooks (I usually use the small moleskin type that can fit in my pocket), this couple of pages playing with various concepts that eventually evolved into ‘Rules of Summer’

On the pin-up board in front of my desk (which has always been my family’s old dining table) there are still remnants of my ‘Rules of Summer’ working drawings. A lot of these are small, quick pastel sketches which I find essential for working out colour and atmosphere before I try any larger paintings, and also to see what the book looks like as a whole. It’s not unlike the ‘colour scripts’ made for animated films, to check the flow of mood, which was something I did when working on the short film The Lost Thing. Here’s are a couple of pastel sketches for ‘Rules of Summer’, below. I really like these drawings, sometimes more so than the final paintings, they have such a fuzzy dreamlike quality.

When ‘Rules of Summer’ was developed as an app for iPad – the first time I’ve worked with an electronic book – I was quite keen to include as many sketches as possible; work that does not fit well into a printed book, but is perfectly good as supplementary material in digital media. So the app version of ‘Rules of Summer’ can actually be toggled between painting and sketch mode, so the whole book can be read in it’s preliminary form. I’ve always been interested in showing parts of a creative process, not just the end result, which is really only the final stop on a long and convoluted journey.

These sketches also reveal a key interest in colour and atmosphere, which comes from my broader practice as a painter. It’s a long story how I got into book illustration, but it’s essentially a departure from landscape painting, which was my main interest as a teenager, and something I continue to practice. While I enjoy working on big canvases, I don’t have much time to do this, and find it just as interesting to work on small 20 x 15cm panels, usually in oils. Here are a few recent little paintings of places I’ve visited, just trying to capture the feeling of them in a simple way, and learn something about colour, light and space along the way. 

Most recently, however, I’ve turned my attention a little away from painting to work on small figurative sculptures inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales. This project originated when I was asked to illustrate the cover of a German edition of Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, a re-telling of the original stories. I’d always wanted to do something related to Grimm, but could never find the right form or motivation. Reading them all again made me think to pick up some sculpting materials I’d put down in late childhood, a time when I was avidly working in clay, papier mache and soapstone (I had a real obsession with stone carving as a kid). I was also inspired by folk art I’d seen during recent trips to Mexico, and some Inuit carvings I’d seen in Vancouver. I offered to illustrate the whole collection, some 50 stories, and was glad that the publisher agreed to this and enjoyed my approach. Here are a couple of finished illustrations for Grimms Märchen (the German title).

I photographed all the works myself, experimenting with different lighting to achieve the kind of ‘museum’ atmosphere I was looking for. The thing I enjoyed the most about working on these pieces was the act of physical making, which is one reason I’ve never found working digitally very engaging – I prefer pushing things around, and the kind of interesting accidents that can ensue. In this case, the most useful stuff I found was DAS, and air-drying clay marketed mainly to children. It was quick to work with and easy to carve back into, to get a kind of eroded effect I’ve always admired in ancient sculpture, as well as in the work of modern artists such as Henry Moore. 

Since the publication of Grimms Märchen last year, I’ve been working to make these sculptural works available in an English-language form, and also to expand my range of sculptures to include other stories that do not appear in Pullman’s collection. Here is a picture of some works in various stages of completion, expecting that these will see the light of day in late 2015.

A visit to my studio where I do a little drawing:
Shaun Tan's Oscar winning animation of The Lost Thing, watch the official trailer here.
Books Illustrated offers a range of original illustrations, limited edition prints and signed books by Shaun Tan. 
View illustrations available for sale by Shaun Tan
View limited edition prints available for sale by Shaun Tan
View signed books available for sale by Shaun Tan

My blog: http://thebirdking.blogspot.com
A piece I recently contributed to Picturebook Makers, where I look closely at the development of a single painting from Rules of Summer

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