Sarah McIntyre (jabberworks) wrote,
Sarah McIntyre

survivors: interview with illustrator kerry hyndman

As Blue Peter Book Awards judges, one of the books we picked for the shortlist was the gritty and gripping SURVIVORS, real-life tales of people who went through terrible ordeals to stay alive in the wilderness. The smooth artwork was a real counterpoint to some of the rather shocking accounts (could you saw off your own arm with a blunt pocketknife?) and I interviewed talented illustrator Kerry Hyndman for BookTrust. This is the unedited version and you can read the shorter, snappier version over on the BookTrust website.

* Congratulations on your shortlisting for the Blue Peter Book Awards! That's exciting! Did you grow up watching Blue Peter? Do you have any favourite memories of it? (I grew up in the States, so it's interesting to hear Brits tell me what they remember!)

Thank you, I'm so chuffed to be shortlisted! Yes I did, my brother and I would watch all the time. I remembering entering a drawing competition about energy saving lightbulbs and then desperately trying to see if my picture was pinned up on the studio wall - sadly I don't think they showed it so it's great to have finally had my work shown on Blue Peter - it was definitely worth the wait!

* Your Survivors book with writer David Long really stood out from a lot of the other new non-fiction albums in shops right now. Many of them are quite sanitised and pretty, and while this is a beautiful object, it's also intensely GRITTY! (Someone saws off his own arm, someone has a wound full of maggots, someone staves off dehydration by wrestling a shark and drinking its blood, etc.) What were your thoughts when you first got the manuscript?

I was so excited about the book when I first got the brief. As a snowboarder, cyclist and someone who enjoys a good old hike, I loved the prospect of getting to research and draw all the amazing scenery. I love mountains, and snowy winter scenes are my favourite to draw so I got stuck in right away with those stories. I also really enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture the peril in each scene without making them too gory or gross. This was particularly tricky with the guy who saws his arm off and the doctor who operated on himself, but hopefully my images aren't too traumatic!

* Your artwork is very clean and the contrast is almost startling; this looks very much like a high-quality gift album, not the sort of pocket pulp reading I associate with this sort of subject matter. Why did you decide to approach the illustrations the way you did?

All of the stories are about humans surviving against the odds so I tried to use colours and tone in my illustrations to represent the intensity of the situations they overcame. I chose not to overly stylise the scenes to make it easier for the reader to read the terrain and see what the person was up against. I also really enjoyed illustrating each story so I put a lot of time into getting all of the small details right from the historic clothing to the foliage.

* These are exactly the kinds of stories I loved reading as a kid; I devoured the Drama in Real Life articles in the Reader's Digest magazines (which were ubiquitous in American waiting rooms). What were some of your favourite things to draw as a kid? Have you illustrated these kinds of stories in the past, or was this a departure for you?

I remember drawing lots of nature and wildlife when I was younger - and my cats! I used to follow them around the house drawing them, much to their annoyance. I hadn't actually done much illustration for children until this year, before that I mainly focused on advertising and editorial commissions but illustrating stories is definitely something I want to do more of in the future, I love immersing myself in a project, researching the landscapes and characters.

* I love how the publisher doesn't coddle their readers with this book. The text feels less like it was written by someone in literary circles than by a forest ranger or ambulance driver who's doing a rough recounting of the facts. (I think this might be part of its non-nonsense appeal.) The body count is quite high, but the one thing that keeps it from being terrifying is that it's called Survivors, and I always knew the main character would come out alive. None of the people you draw have distinguishing features, your pictures are more about the figures' place in the landscape, and setting a mood. Why did you choose to do this? Is it perhaps to distance the reader from their pain, or to make it easier for readers to project themselves on to the characters and feel the story more intensely that way? Perhaps to tie together stories from very different settings?

Yes I really like way it's written too, It's like that the stories don't need to be dressed up too much as the facts are enthralling enough. I wanted my illustrations to be similar in that I didn't feel it was necessary to show the expressions of the characters as their surroundings and situations should be dramatic enough that the viewer can imagine how they are feeling and what is going through their mind. I wanted to capture the imagination of the adventure-loving reader and for them to put themselves in that situation and imagine how they would feel.

* Are you an outdoor adventurer type? Has anything scary ever happened to you like one of the stories in the book? (When I was a kid, I remember accidentally going over a small waterfall in Killin, in Scotland, and being unable to surface in my panic because the weight of the falling water kept smacking me down. And as I started to pass out, you'd think my life would have flashed before my eyes or I would have thought something very profound, but my dying thought was actually, I'm going to be in Drama in Real Life in Reader's Digest. I'm not terribly proud of this. ...And then when I relaxed, I floated out from under the waterfall and popped up on the water's surface and was gasping and spluttering but totally fine.)

Oh god, that sounds terrifying!

I'd like to think I'm fairly adventurous. Most of my scary mishaps have been while snowboarding, which I've been doing since I was 14. I've gotten myself into a few hairy situations, usually while riding off piste. I've boarded though thick white-out fog before, while not being able to see the safest route away from the cliffs and rocks, but having to keep my speed up so as not to get left behind and sink into the deep snow. I've also fallen into tree holes and come very close to falling into mountain steams as well as losing my way in forests. The story about the lost snowboarder was pretty easy to sympathise with!

* Which was your favourite illustration to draw? Did you get to choose which scenes you drew or did your art director decide? (Who was your editor and art directer at Faber?)

I really liked the Mediterranean submarine illustration as I hadn't drawn any underwater scenes before but relished the challenge and knew exactly how I wanted it to look. I wanted the peace and serenity of the resting submarine and shimmering fish to contrast with the burst of bubbles and determination of the tiny little swimmer trying desperately to reach the surface. I loved adding all the textures to the water and fish to try and bring the murky depths of the ocean to life.

I had pretty much free rein to tackle the stories how I wanted to, but my art director Will Steele helped me out with some ideas for the cover and for a few of the tricker stories. Naomi Colthurst and Alice Swan were the editors on Survivors.

Early versions of the cover image

* Your work has a retro feel to it, but do you work digitally, in part or entirely? What are your favourite drawing tools?
I usually sketch out very rough and crude thumbnails for each illustration and then I mainly work digitally using my drawing tablet in Photoshop and Illustrator. I create a lot of handmade textures - ink splashes and brush marks for waves for example. I then layer these over the top of my work to give it a more handmade feel.

I'd say my favourite tool is my Wacom drawing tablet. I usually just draw straight onto the computer and love being able to scale things and move elements around until I am happy with the composition of an image.

* What's your background in illustration, where did you get your training? What do you teach at Goldsmiths? In retrospect, would you recommend aspiring illustrators take the same route as you did or do something different?

I studied Fine Art for my undergraduate degree as I knew I wanted to do something to do with art but didn't know exactly what. So I spent four year at Newcastle Uni creating oil painting portraits, which was great fun but I came out the the other side knowing that I wanted to create artwork to a brief and for an audience. I then went to Kingston Uni to do a Masters in Illustration which really helped me focus and work out what kind of work I enjoyed creating and helped me begin to piece together a portfolio. It took a long time to get together a portfolio I was happy with, certainly a lot longer than the year I took doing my Masters and I've always thought if I'd worked out sooner that I wanted to be an illustrator it wouldn't have taken me so long to build a strong body of work that I was proud of.

I think if I'd done an Art foundation course I might have chosen illustration sooner. Having said that, it is important to give yourself the time to develop your style and experiment with different mediums and although I no longer do much oil painting it's definitely a style I hope to pick up again one day!

I've recently started teaching illustration on the Media Communications course at Goldsmiths, and I'm really enjoying helping the students explore different styles and tools. It's so rewarding!

* Who are some of the illustrators whose work you most admire right now?

Ah there are so many amazing illustrators out there at the moment. I'm a big fan of Tom Clohosy Cole's work - who I'm up against in the Blue Peter Book Awards. I also really like Tom Haugomat, Chris Turnham and Isabelle Arsenault - who's beautiful textured children's books are really inspiring me at the moment.

* What's the next big project you're excited about?

I'm currently working on an idea for a graphic novel that I'm really looking forward to getting stuck into. And I'm also due to have a baby next year which I've heard it's a pretty big project so I'm pretty excited about that too!

* What are the best ways if people want to find out more about your work and follow you on social media?

You can see my full portfolio at
I regularly update my blog with all my latest work and post lots of my illustrations and photos of my cat on Twitter @kerryhyndman and Instagram @kerryhyndman
Tags: interviews

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