My studio is an ‘attic’, which is actually converted roof space in our little Blue Mountains miners’ cottage. It’s under a tin roof, at the top of a three-metre high stair-ladder. It gets hot up there in summer and it can get very cold in winter. Sometimes snow settles on the skylights! There's not a lot of space, but it’s functional enough and I’ve managed to pack it with all kinds of art-making treasures.

Some of these treasures include two chests of letterpress type that I bought from a retired printer in Katoomba; other kinds of rubber typographical stamps; a chest of about a hundred pictorial stamps from the 1950s; a folder of antique postcards; an old five-nibbed pen for drawing staves, a 1970s typewriter, a little box of old Dresden doll heads … and much more.

For reasons I’m not quite sure of, I also have little figures and objects around my studio and desk that appeal to me. They’re usually just things I find in op shops and markets. Each one has something about it that sparks my thinking in a good way.

As an illustrator, I’m very interested in finding new ways to make ideas visible. In fact, in most cases I only draw when I need to see my ideas on paper or to work them out. There’s a thrill in seeing something appear out of nothing.

My book The Greatest Gatsby: a visual book of grammar took this interest to another level. The challenge was to picture grammatical concepts, which are typically expressed verbally in small black type on a white page. The fun of it was that I got to use a lot of my ideas, techniques and studio tools to create this book. Fundamental to this process was treating any words as images, and therefore artwork.

My artwork techniques often vary from book to book. I think this is because each technical approach has its unique strengths for capturing ideas, emotions and atmosphere. For instance, the style I used for Yahoo Creek: an Australian mystery allowed for otherworldly, apparition-like ambiguity in the forms and lighting, which I felt best suited the mysterious content. That artwork technique for Yahoo Creek employed hand-cut stamps and stencils, and two ink pads: one black, the other blue. It produced many nice surprises.

Another feature of the artwork for Yahoo Creek was my return to entirely non-digital artwork. Something about being on the computer a lot was bugging me. As an artist, it began to feel increasingly unnatural. There’s no ‘Undo’ in real life! This also coincided with a return to painting, which I hadn’t really done since art school. So far, my paintings have been for walls not books, but whatever I’m doing I’m always learning new things about how to make images that communicate something, if only moods and feelings. 

1. Approaching the Corner (acrylic on board), 2. Burning Kombi (acrylic on board),
3. Caravan Heading North (acrylic on board), 4. Saturday Night Takeaway (acrylic on board)

My general approach to illustration techniques is that anything goes – the only rule being so long as it works. I applied this especially to the artwork in my picture book Nobody Owns the Moon, which employed a wide-ranging jumble of media and collage. I hoped this would convey something of the actual mixed-media nature of cities themselves, with their glass, concrete, timber, steel, paper, asphalt, paint, etc. 

For better or worse, I tend not to do much preliminary work before I attempt an artwork – usually just a quick lead-pencil sketch in a cheap pad of bond paper. Even though I know what the basic idea is, I like there to be a sense of discovery or surprise in the process of making the final art. (Though, because I’m learning as I go, it’s true that sometimes I have to do multiple versions of an illustration to get it right! Not every battle is won.) This is rather like the way I write, which is to find out what will happen. I never know how a story will unfold until I write it.

My influences can come from all areas of the arts. For example, Erik Satie, whose sheet music for Gnossienne No. 3, Lent appears in My Uncle’s Donkey. His distilled simplicity, his wit and his uncanny originality are inspirational. Other influences can be quite unconscious and therefore harder to pin down.

Some of my favourite illustrator/artists include nineteenth-century Aboriginal pen-and-ink drawer Tommy McCrae. He would have been an incredible book illustrator! His subjects have a Caldecott-like energy and animation, as well as being very fine, precise and informative.

Dick Roughsey, is another, for his vibrant, dynamic illustrations of Dreaming stories such The Rainbow Serpent and Turramulli the Giant Quinkin. Then there’s Sidney Nolan, especially for his Ned Kelly series. I’ve loved his work since I saw Pretty Polly Mine as a child in the Art Gallery of NSW.  Of course there are many others too: such as Sendak, Steig, Seuss and Steinberg, just to run through some S’s!

A 2.14 min book trailer of The Unforgotten by Tohby Riddle.
The Unforgotten
Books Illustrated offers a range of original illustrations, limited edition prints and signed books by Tohby Riddle. 
View signed books available for sale by Tohby Riddle

Copyright © 2019, Tohby Riddle - text and photographs . 
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