In Conversation With Howard Gray
last updated 06 January 2023
We recently sat down with Howard Gray and spoke all about his creative process, inspirations, advice, and work on the fantastic Mega Predators of the Past, published by Peach Tree and Land of Giants, published by Welbeck Children’s Books. Read our conversation below.
Can you give us a little intro into both books, your love of science and your studies/passion for animals?
Land of Giants and Mega Predators of the Past, although, at first glance, similar in concept, are very different books!
I began painting Mega Predators colour just as the country was going into lockdown for the first time. So, the project will forever be associated with the pandemic for me. It has been waiting in the wings for a long time, for a number of reasons, but I’m so, so pleased to see it on the shelves now. Mega Predators is a fun picturebook about prehistoric predators, written by the fantastic Melissa Stewart and published by PeachTree!
Land of Giants is aimed at older kids and goes into a little more detail for each animal featured. It’s beautifully written by Clive Gifford and features many large prehistoric and present-day animals. Note, these aren’t necessarily all predators, with many a lumbering herbivore featuring too. This project was an absolute delight to work on, and I learned LOADS! There was extra effort to make the illustrations accurate. We were all doing our best to review the literature and make sure all was correct. I’d like to give Chris Baker, our consultant on the project, a shout out – his attention to detail kept us all on the right track… and on our toes!
Talk us through your creative process. How do you approach a brief?
For these books, the first thing I wanted to do was get to know the animals a bit. So, I looked into them online. This oftentimes included scientific literature too. I much preferred to look at that than another artist’s impression of these animals that might have influenced my take on them. Now and again, I would come across animals I’d never even heard of, like the pterosaur Nyctosaurus, or the capybara-like Josephoartigasia, which was awesome. I would then try to figure out what the hard facts were about what they looked like. For example, was there evidence for feathers and if so where were they on the body? Were there any fossilised skin impressions or indeed preserved furs/skins or other material I could look at to inform colouration and textures. What excited me most was when there was something we didn’t know, and it was left to me to fill in the gaps. I’d often look at closest living relatives, or modern animals that occupy similar niches. But sometimes I would just go for maximum fun, which is why there are some cool lizard-inspired sauropods that feature in Land of Giants!
I was also really interested in what sort of behaviour the animal might have exhibited that would have been fun to showcase, particularly if it was something unusual. For example, did the animals live in social groups? How did they feed? The most difficult part for me was figuring out what the environments might have looked like. For some reason, this was always a bit more abstract to piece together.
Your work is aesthetically unique to you, how do you approach translating your ideas to the page?
Once I was happy with what an animal looked like, I would sketch it out. If the scene called for a more dynamic pose or composition, I would sometimes make a quick (low-poly) 3D model of the animal to get a sense for the proportions in 3D space. This allowed me to play with the composition very freely and was then very useful as a reference for the artwork. All the painting happened once artwork was approved by the publishing team, the author and the consultant. I mostly paint digitally these days – not only does it give me freedom but I feel it gives the client freedom too (as amends are easier to accommodate). When I paint, though, I do like the illustration to look like a painting. So, I try to choose brushes that give me lots of lovely painterly texture.
Who/What have been your key influences as an illustrator?
There’s a lot to disentangle with that one! I’ve always been a creative person and family members have always encouraged me to pursue artwork. So, they have influenced me, for sure, and some of them artists or creatives in their own right. I didn’t really consider children’s illustration as a career until after university (studying something quite different). Up until that point, wildlife art was my thing. When I first embarked on my illustration career I was very much drawn to fiction, and all the freedom it would bring. I think it’s still where my heart is in many ways. But this path into non-fiction has been a lovely surprise. I do love it, and it resonates with the scientist in me. In terms of my current style, I look at Simon Stalenhag with absolute awe! Especially his palaeo-art. I wish I could do what he does! There are a lot of artists at Bright that I idolised before I joined the Bright family! Like Benji Davies, David Litchfield and Richard Jones (argh, there are too many artists to mention, and I like them all for different reasons). Other influences for me are nature, animals and the outdoors – especially the sea. These crop up in my artwork time and time again.
How did you begin illustration? What was the spark of inspiration?
Ah well! I first entertained the idea of being a children’s illustrator when I finished university. I worked on my portfolio and sent it out to some agencies while I worked and volunteered as a marine mammal scientist in the middle east. Among other things, I was involved in the rescue of stranded marine mammals (this is relevant later). Needless to say, I didn’t get representation, and so shelved that idea while I pursued a PhD looking at dolphin genetics in the Arabian region. PhDs are tough and I had to contend with a few setbacks and other problems. During a particularly bad period, I found myself browsing the children’s picturebooks in a book shop and was naturally drawn to ‘The Storm Whale’ by Benji Davies. The story of Noi rescuing this little whale struck a chord with me; it was the perfect juxtaposition of my two worlds. I also loved Benji’s artwork. It was then that I decided I was going to have another crack at illustration, once the PhD was finished (which was a few years later). I’ll have to tell Benji sometime. So, when that was done and dusted, I started generating some portfolio pieces and getting my artwork out there on social media and websites. Everything happened very quickly. I think I’d started in earnest around spring and Bright reached out to me in the autumn. I’d signed on with Bright in time for the Christmas party!
What’s your favourite part of the illustration process?
It has to be the painting. I like to draw, I actually enjoy drawing (from life) more than painting, but the roughs stage for me is a lot more about what’s going where, and composition, than what things are actually going to look like. Sometimes, clients will need you to move things around, remove a whole spread, or even start from scratch, so I don’t like to commit too much at the roughs stage. It’s a good thing though, as it keeps ideas fluid early on, and the client probably feels more relaxed about moving things too. The trouble is, this can open you up to more amends down the line, after colour. The painting is definitely where I have the most fun, and I can really lean into the process, get into my zone, and commit to the piece. It also takes me the most time – though I think I’m getting faster! The absolutely best part of the painting process is just before it all comes together at the end. It’s all downhill for me after that! I’m rarely 100% happy with a finished piece – it’s usually in the 75-80% zone. When it comes to the published book, I do enjoy seeing it published! It’s a culmination of everyone’s hard work! But then there is a part of me that doesn’t like to look at it too much, as I can see all the flaws and problems, and now everyone can see them - argh! I sometimes think of my relationship with each piece of artwork as akin to that of Dr. Frankenstein and his own creation. I guess I can relate to actors who don’t like to watch the movies they feature in!
To an up-and-coming artist, what’s one piece of advice you would give?
What I think has served me well is; keep exploring your style and try out different techniques. This can be a new brush, or paint, or perhaps some new software! I also like to try to figure out how other artists produce their artwork. How would you go about achieving a similar effect? David Litchfield is an absolute mystery to me! He’s a magician!
What would be your dream brief?
A non- (or slightly-) anthropomorphised animal fiction story would be lovely to work on! Working on a fiction (or non-fiction) animal book with Kes Gray would be an absolute dream! His stories are so much fun (I have young kids and read them all the time). I mean, we share a surname, that must count for something!
To work with Howard, get in contact here.