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In the Studio with Greg Stobbs

last updated 25 February 2022


Greg Stobbs has worked internationally on a range of creative projects, from installations to interactive art pieces. Greg has given a TED X talk on listening to children in order to rediscover wonder. Most recently he has been celebrating the release of his debut picture book, Don’t Ask the Dragon written by acclaimed poet and author Lemn Sissay.

Here, Greg talks us through his artistic process and approach to Don’t Ask The Dragon, published by Cannongate Books, which is out on the 24th of February, which has been described by The Sunday Times as “Warm-hearted and cheerful to look at, it is simple but lyrical, and has an unexpected twist.”

Hi, I’m Greg

I’ve been drawing on walls for as long as I can remember… in fact, I’d scribble on any surface I could get to. Walls, text books, the floor, the dirty car, steamy windows, newspapers, magazines, reading books and picture books! If I could have reached the ceiling I would have drawn on that as well. Fortunately my parents were both illustrators, and understood that this was an itch that I needed to scratch!

I would watch them drawing in their studio and hide under the table, pinching their pencils while they weren’t looking. There always seemed to be some magic, or alchemy at work in that room. It was something I wanted to learn (and I really wanted a studio of my own!).

title Character sketches for Don’t Ask The Dragon

As a teenager I painted graffiti on public walls and then that evolved in to a more illustrative style in the street art scene. I studied Fine Art and Sculpture to see how these drawings would work if made in stone, or metal, or fibre glass, or as part of an installation.

There have always been these wide chasms between the disciplines of fine art or sculpture and animation, street art, or illustration. I have always wanted to build bridges between them, and make work that doesn’t obviously come from one or the other. A kind of borderless visual world, without prejudice or snobbery.

title Character sketches for Don’t Ask The Dragon

What I’ve Worked On

I’ve been lucky enough to work on stage productions, festivals, product design, packaging design, branding, giant walls, projection mapping and animation, installation, TV, film and illustration projects in various countries and with a really diverse range of clients.

I have only really begun focusing more attention on publishing picture books over the last two or three years.

title Character sketches for Don’t Ask The Dragon

My Journey With Picture Books

One project that helped to encourage me to work in picture books was the installation experience Warrior Poets where poet Lemn Sissay was the artistic director. We were working with refugees and young people in care. Visualising their stories and poetry alongside musicians, songwriters, dancers and projectionists was an extremely powerful installation, and I learnt a great deal about the partnership between words, visuals and illustration. Lemn would always be suggesting little tweaks, adding, and taking away elements, that enhanced the stories further.

title Story map Don’t Ask The Dragon

We became friends and talked about the idea of a children’s picture book about a boy with no family, who was trying to find a place to go. We talked to Arabella Stein at Bright, who instantly understood where we were coming from. This was the beginning of Don’t Ask The Dragon.

My Process

I start with sketches, extremely rough thumbnails to get a feel for the world the author is trying to create. Often just using shapes and line to build up landscapes, I try to work out how a page, or a spread will flow from left to right or top to bottom before adding any detail. It is a similar process when developing the characters. I build up their frame using shapes, seeing what their scale should be in relation to their surroundings, and to each other.

title Character sketches from Don’t Ask The Dragon

Once they have a shape, I begin to look at their features. Testing out different eyes, or noses, or bodies or arms in a kind of Mr Potato Head way. I quite often ask my own kids which they prefer… they’re generally right. I try each character out at least 10 times before settling on what they will look like.

title Finding form

I look at different body positions and body language to see how they will interact with the other characters and their world.

I then start to think about the arc of the story in relation to time: what time of day is it set? What is the light like? With Don’t Ask the Dragon we decided together that it would begin at dawn, and finish at bedtime. Light is a really important part of my work, and along with texture and layering gives it a look of its own. (I’m very keen to make illustration that doesn’t look derivative).

title A spread from Don’t Ask The Dragon

Creating The Finished Illustration

I like to bring some of the roughness from the sketch work in to the finished artwork, and believe it’s really important for the reader to feel a connection to images that are not too perfect. Anatomy is not always as it should be, colours are not what would be expected. People should be able to look at it and see that it is by another human being, faults and all.

I then begin to develop a palette, firstly focusing on the main characters, and then basing the world and the other characters colours on those. In Don’t Ask The Dragon I wanted the colours to be warm, earthy and rich so used a lot of orange, yellow, brown and red in the characters, and balanced that with greens and blues in the landscapes.

title A full spread from Don’t Ask The Dragon

I like to jump between analogue and digital illustration techniques, making abstract grounds with water colour, acrylic, spray paint, ink and whatever new texture I can get my hands on. I also collect textures that I see on walks, which I photograph. I scan these all in to the computer and use them to build up multiple layers to draw on and around.

Textures and layers really excite me, as they give depth, and a kind of tangible feeling to what otherwise is a two dimensional game. Perhaps it’s because of the many years painting on the streets, on crumbly brick or plaster walls. Graffiti and street art is a time-based process whereby a painting gets painted over again and again and again, every layer something new, but sometimes interacting with what went before. I wanted to bring that process into picture book illustration.

title A full spread from Don’t Ask The Dragon

Fusing Illustration and Narrative

I always like to have a little sub plot or side story running alongside the main focus. In Don’t Ask The Dragon, there is a little worm who appears on every page. I like to think that they are trying to find their way to a place where they belong as well.

title A full spread from Don’t Ask The Dragon

My handwriting also made it in to the book, as the font for all of the copy. At primary school I had a real aversion to joined up writing! I enjoyed making the same letter join up to itself again and again because it felt more like a drawing, but had an issue when using it to write stories. It didn’t feel very natural, and didn’t allow for any kind of individuality. I decided then that I liked the look of all of the letters on their own, and when they got joined up they looked confusing to my dyslexic brain, so have written cursive ever since. I never thought (and my teachers definitely would never have imagined) that it would be used as the type in a picture book!

title Greg’s illustrations and handwriting in Don’t Ask The Dragon

Canongate gave me a great deal of creative freedom in making the artwork for Don’t Ask The Dragon which was both encouraging, intimidating and freeing. I’ve learned a huge amount from this process, have a few author illustrated ideas that I’m working on, and I am excited for what comes next!

For Picture Books, Greg Stobbs is represented by Arabella Stein — please contact Arabella here. You can find out more about Greg here.

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