Farren Phillips is the Author/Illustrator of THE DEATH BOOK, a light-hearted and funny tale to aid children in better understanding the mysteries surrounding death, loss, and grief. The Simplified Chinese edition will be published by Yeehoo Press. Humour is a primary subject in Farren’s work but she also feels strongly about philosophy and frequently uses morals and ethics as themes in her stories. Today, we had the opportunity to speak with her about her inspiration for books as well as receive a preview of her new picture book that will be released next month in Mainland China.
I had wanted to be an artist since I was a child, but didn’t really have any direction for it. I would flit between wanting to be a graphic designer, a comic book artist, a painter, a sculptor, something different every year. It was only when I went to college that I discovered illustration after a guest speaker from the local university came in to give a talk on picturebooks, I was instantly gripped. While visiting different universities around the country to look at the illustration courses, I fell in love with picturebooks and from then on, dedicated my life to being a writer and illustrator for children!What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
That there is a lot that goes into books for children. When I first started out, I had read a lot of children’s books and thought I knew everything I needed to know. But as the years went by and I kept developing, I realized that I’m not just writing a story to make someone laugh, I’m writing a piece of media that might help to shape a young person’s development. Picture books are the first look into many aspects of the world that children experience, and they play a much bigger part in their emotional growth than I had ever realized. When writing my thesis at university I researched a lot into how certain books have stayed with people long into adulthood, and why they’ve made such an impact. Even now I still have so much more to learn.
How do you start a book project? When do you know it is ready and finished?
Sketchbooks! I always start a project with a fresh sketchbook. On the first page I will write what the theme of the book will be, then write and draw everything I can think of surrounding that theme. Once I’ve got some initial ideas, I move onto doing research. That involves looking at books that are currently popular and picking apart why they work and what is appealing about them in the current market, looking into other media around my topic (such as films, art, poetry), and drawing from life to build up ideas from the things around me.
There are lots of stages to actually making the book, once I’ve decided on a story, characters, and art style, I will draft the pages out roughly in pencil to show a publisher how the story will go, if they like it then I will make the finished art for the pages, if there are things to edit then I will go back and continue the sketches. Sometimes even after all of the artwork has been finalized, it’s still not truly finished yet. Sometimes there are still edits to be made, from fixing colors, to changing the story to fit different cultural norms in different places. You have to always be ready for anything to be thrown your way!What is your work schedule like when you’re creating a book?
Very busy! Many people think that making children’s books is a relaxing job, and while it’s very fun, it’s certainly a lot more full-on than people realize. From researching, to writing, to editing, to sketching, to painting, to digital color grading, working on contracts and invoices, as well as constantly experimenting and making changes, it’s a long process. I am a bit of a night owl, so do most of my less taxing work during the day, and get the tougher stuff done late in the evenings.
What comes first, the story or artworks?
It depends on the book, and sometimes both come together hand in hand! When I start a project, sometimes in the very earliest stages I will have an idea for a story, then build the artwork to fit the words. At other times I can feel stuck initially, so start drawing and painting instead, then build a story around the characters or scenes I produce. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.How do you develop your plot and characters?
To develop a plot, I will start with a small storyboard usually done very roughly in a felt tip pen. Then I’ll cut out each of the boxes and move them around, take some away and add in new ones in to see how the story would with different routes. Once I have settled on one that I think works best, I’ll sketch out a bigger storyboard in pencil with more details and start writing out the words. Usually, I’ll do this three or four times as the story often changes while I am working on it. For characters, it’s more a method of sketching them a lot! If I am writing a book about a cat, I will start by going to a shelter and drawing as many cats as I can to observe how they move, how they act, the sort of sounds they make and the things they do. Then when I get home I will use those sketches to start designing a character, usually filling up pages and pages to try out every possible style. Once I have chosen one that feels right, I take a little notebook around with me wherever I go and draw them whenever I have a free moment, reacting to situations. If I am on the train, I will draw the character sitting on the train too, maybe they are looking out the window, or running up and down the aisle, maybe they’re hiding under the seat or buried in their masses of luggage. If I am waiting for the pasta to boil, I’ll draw the character in the kitchen making dinner, draw the kind of kitchen they have, maybe a cat has fish shaped frying pans and mice on the wallpaper, draw what they’re cooking, maybe they make spaghetti in the shape of a ball of yarn. Maybe they burn it because they’re not a very good cook, or maybe they have a collection of little aprons and a shelf full of homemade recipe books. All of these silly little details might not be a part of the finished story, but this exercise helps me to better understand and develop the character so I know how they will think and act in any situation.What would you say is your interesting writing and/or illustrating quirk?
For writing, I suppose my passion for philosophical topics mixed with an interest in comic book style formats. Characters talking to each other in speech bubbles and asking/answering big questions is a common theme in the stories I write. I feel that writing stories like a conversation can help the reader to feel more involved and engaged. Plus it provides lots of opportunities for funny insults and slapstick comedy.
In illustration I think my quirk may be the backgrounds. In detailed scenes I always love to draw clutter to fill al the spaces, it’s fun to think about how small background details can help tell things about the characters that the words don’t.
What do you like most about being a writer and/or an artist?
Seeing characters that before had only lived in my head, come alive on the page. It’s a magical feeling when a book gets finished and you get to share your stories with the world. How cool is it that we as humans can draw and write and make the pictures in our head a real, physical thing that other people can see?
Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
From all around me! Part of being an artist and a writer is finding inspiration and knowledge everywhere you go. I like to always be learning new things, whether it’s listening to podcasts on historical events, or reading books on poetry around the world, watching documentaries about scientific discoveries, or talking to everyone I meet about their life experiences. Not everything I learn is immediately useful but being interested in the world around me provides a constant source of fresh ideas and new perspectives.How many books have you created? Which is your favorite?
Around eleven or twelve finished books in my adult life, though so far only three have been published, with another two on the way. It is hard to choose a favorite because every time I start a new book, it becomes my new favorite thing. I’m always growing and improving so every new project becomes the next big passion, at least until the next one comes along! If I had to pick, I suppose I have a soft spot for a book I made for my graduate show of my master’s degree called The Good Dog, a little book on moral ethics which is being released worldwide next year. Though I am also very excited for a book I am in the early stages of working on at the moment about a little egg yolk!As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a warrior pirate until I realized I get terribly seasick. From then on, it was an artist all the way. Though I do think I would have looked rather dashing with a sword and a fancy hat!What does your family think of your writing/illustrating career?
They are very supportive! My parents perhaps worried when I was younger that being an artist wasn’t going to be a sustainable job, but they always supported my passions and told me to work towards whatever would make me happy. They took me to galleries a lot when I was younger and exposed me to a lot of art. My mother even used to help me with my art homework in school when I’d get stuck and uninspired. We’d sit at the dining room table in the evenings and draw together until I worked things out. Even now, my parents call me up every few weeks from a different country to tell me funny ideas and silly stories they’ve come up with in case I’m running low on inspiration. I appreciate them a lot and would never be where I am today without them.Do you have any suggestions to help fellow artists become a better writer-illustrators? If so, what are they?
Never stop learning and adapting. The market is constantly changing and to be a successful illustrator it’s important to change with it. You don’t need to choose a style and stick with it forever, work in different ways for every project you do, keep practicing different things and including new skills into your work. What many people overlook is that creating a style isn’t about always drawing characters that look the same, it’s about figuring out what matters to you in the stories you are making and adding a sprinkle of that into every book. I will adapt my drawing style for every new project I do, but people always recognize them as mine because they have strong philosophical themes but also goofy characters and fart jokes. I like to have female main characters to fill a gap in the market that is lacking, and enjoy drawing characters with chubbier body types and often flamboyant movements and expressions, and those little things help my portfolio to maintain consistency while showing my range of skills.
Take an interest in things around you, find passions outside of art and keep broadening your interests so that you’ve always got inspiration to fall back on when you’re suffering from writer’s block. It doesn’t matter if the things you’re researching don’t feel relevant to what you’re doing right now, they will always loop back around eventually. I was struggling with a project centered around diversity and feminism a while back and I had really hit a mental block. I found myself unable to come up with anything unique. At the time I stepped back for a week and instead started watching lots of documentaries and listening to podcasts on life and culture in the 19th century Britain. This lead to me drawing a lot of fancy clothing, reading up about mannerisms of the century and the class system, I was drawn into a tangent and started looking into 19th-century pirates and reading up fascinating stories about how they functioned, how they were the first group of people to have a sort of insurance system, how many pirates were escaped slaves, and the most powerful pirate of the time being Ching Shih, a female pirate who lived and pillaged during the Qing Dynasty. What had originally felt like obscure, unreverent research, led me to writing a feminist book about a crew of runaway female pirates from various backgrounds fighting for a place on the high seas. All research is good research! It’s easy to get stuck in a box researching only the topic you’re currently working on, so it’s important to take breaks to investigate other things frequently.
Finally, show your work to people. No one is out there to steal your ideas, I promise. Show your mum, show your friends, post your art online on social media, show your work colleagues at your part-time job, show your art peers. Get feedback from everyone, and value it for what it’s worth. The encouragement of positive feedback will keep you going, and when you receive criticism, don’t take it too personally but keep it in mind. People’s tastes are all different and one or two people not liking your art doesn’t mean it’s bad, but there also might be something in their words that you can work on to develop. Find out why someone doesn’t like it, decide whether it’s a personal preference or whether it’s something about your work that’s confusing. If one person finds it confusing or offensive in some way, other people might too, so it’s worth revising things and seeing if there are other ways to make it work more successfully.It was great speaking with Farren Phillips. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and in-depth advice for authors and illustrators.
Visit Farren at https://www.farrenphillipsillustration.co.uk/