Behind the Book | Fiona Woodcock
last updated 07 January 2020
Bright Artist Fiona Woodcock’s The Snow Dragon has been spreading joy far and wide over Christmas and into the New Year. Written by Abi Elphinstone and published by Simon & Schuster, it tells the story of Phoebe, who lives with her sausage dog in Griselda Bone’s gloomy orphanage, where Christmas is well and truly cancelled. But just when things seem at their bleakest, magic awaits in the swirling, snow-filled air…
Following on from winning the World Illustration Awards 2019 Children’s Book Category for her children’s book LOOK, Fiona’s latest picture book The Snow Dragon is already a bestseller. It was included in The Guardian’s Best Children’s Books of 2019, the Mail Online Best Children’s Books of the Year and the Metro’s Best Books 2019, as well as being picked for the Toppsta Book Club and being chosen as the Independent Booksellers’ Children’s Book of the Month for November.
Here, we catch up with Fiona to find out how she first got involved with The Snow Dragon and discover how she worked with Abi Elphinstone to bring the book to life.
Author Abi Elphinstone and Bright Illustrator Fiona Woodcock
When did you first hear about The Snow Dragon?
Back in May 2017 I was sent a copy of the Winter Magic anthology, along with a lovely hand written note from Lara Hancock (my editor at the time), asking if I’d be interested in illustrating a picture book version of a short story in the book called The Snow Dragon by Abi Elphinstone. I replied with a hand written note saying ‘Yes, I would!’
What about this story particularly appealed to you?
On the initial read through it sparked off lots of ideas, which is always a good sign. I was drawn to the darker side of the text, which was something new for me to explore. When I take on a text to illustrate it’s important that it’s a story that I’d never conceive of or be able to write myself, so that it pushes me in new directions.
How did you begin creating the illustrations and where do you get your inspiration from for characters?
Abi’s text is very descriptive, so all the information I needed was there as a starting point for these initial sketches and designs. Phoebe evolved through my sketching but Griselda stayed exactly the same as this initial design. Early on I hit on the idea of emphasising the regimented and contained world of Griselda’s orphanage by extending her pin-stripe motif into graphic striped compositions of bars and shadows within the gloomy world of the orphanage. This serves as a contrast with the softer forms of nature on their adventure through the magical snowy landscapes.
Once my sketchy roughs were finalised I also did quite a few artwork examples to capture the atmosphere and the colour palette, so that Abi and the publishers knew what my plan was. I think that really freed me up to play and surprise myself during the artwork stage.
The design for the Snow Dragon was more challenging and it started to click into place when I focused on the movement captured in Abi’s words: “Ribbons of snow twisting free and spinning in the air” and “swirl of glittering silver”. I started to think of the dragon when he’s forming and in flight as an amorphous magical being, almost like a murmuration of birds dancing across the sky. This informed my choice to use blow-pens to create the snowy texture of the dragon. I also had to make sure to define his dragon-y features and most importantly his big ears, so he can hear all the wonderful things that Phoebe has to say!
Murmuration photo: Daniel Biber
How did you create the final artwork?
The artwork is created with a mix of rubber stamps, cut stencils with texture created with blow-pens and some pencil work. Then it’s all scanned in and composited digitally, so I can change colours and layer everything up to create the final illustration. I really like this mix, all the elements are handmade on paper so I can still get my hands dirty, but with the option of playing around with composition and colour easily in Photoshop.
What part of this project did you enjoy the most?
It’s always hard to say a favourite part… Because it’s a longer format book with quite a tight schedule, I was totally consumed by the work and I loved that. There were so many parts of it that were challenging, like how am I going to create the northern lights..? But I really enjoyed just playing and trying stuff out, and my Art Director Jane Buckley at Simon & Schuster was great at giving me space to experiment.
Did you have any creative blocks? How do you work through creative blocks when they come along?
I don’t think I exactly had any creative blocks on this one. Sure, some things were easier than others and like any book there’s a lot of problem solving. But I’ve noticed I don’t tend to have creative blocks so much on a tighter deadline. It makes me more decisive and less likely to procrastinate. But on projects when I do get stuck, I often work solutions out when I’m away from my desk having a walk. But also, another mantra is ‘draw it to solve it’. Ideas appear when I’m scribbling.
What advice would you give aspiring picture book artists?
I always say that publishers are after unique individuals - that is your selling point. So just think about what it is that you love drawing best and let ideas grow from that, dig around in memories and sketchbooks for your own unique take on something!
Fiona painting the windows of Pickled Pepper Books and The Book Nook. She also did window displays for Ottie and the Bea.
You’ve been doing lots of incredible window displays recently! How do you go about planning a window painting?
I started by getting the dimensions of all the windows, then worked out a plan that could be adapted for all of them and had potential for bespoke elements that were unique to each bookshop. I did some small sample tests on a sheet of acetate, to check how the texture and characters might work and mixed up paints to save time on the day. The whole thing was a large-scale experiment, but I really enjoy the challenge of painting big!
Fiona did signings at Waterstones Piccadilly, the Kew Bookshop and Selfridges, as well as running school workshops for The Queen’s C of E Primary School, Darell Primary School and South Hampstead High School.
What’s the best bit about your job?
I’m going to avoid pin pointing just one best bit, but here’s a few contenders; that rare feeling when you’ve just had a new idea and it all starts to click into place; experimenting and playing, when you draw a page of characters and there’s one jumping out at you; sharing my books with children at events and being blown away with their creations. I think really the best thing about this job has to be the variety!
More books by Fiona Woodcock