Just Picture This Illustrator Interview – Helen McCosker

Just Write For Kids are excited to introduce another talented illustrator for our ‘Just Picture This Illustrator’ Interview. Helen McCosker has illustrated widely including children’s books, ‘The Nightfall’ and ‘Coasting-a year by the Bay’, magazines and exhibitions, using a variety of media and techniques. Let’s get to know more about Helen! 🙂 

How did you come to be an illustrator and what do you like about illustrating for children?

After 4 years at the National Art School in Sydney and a short stint teaching in a secondary school, I decided that illustration was what I really wanted to do and I spent the next 30 odd years illustrating magazines and illustrated books. The topics varied greatly, from gardening, travel and newspaper editorial to a long stint illustrating a magazine for the Institute of Chartered Accountants!

My interest in illustration had been sparked quite early in my life by a wonderful old bookcase at my grandmother’s house that was stacked with illustrated encyclopaedias and ‘Children’s Wonder Books’ . The latter were collections of fairytales and myths and legends from all over the world and were illustrated by a variety of illustrators from the late 19th and early 20th century including Arthur Rackham and my favourite, Anne Andersen.
Sitting in front of this bookcase and diving into these treasures was very special.

I made a few attempts to enter the world of childrens’ book illustration. However, raising 3 children and my other work made persistence here a bit tricky. In the end I decided to write and illustrate my own picture book and send it off to several publishers. Luckily, The Five Mile Press accepted and ‘The Nightfish‘ was published in 2006. Hooray!

This story featured a series of oil paintings inspired by the coastal landscape of southern NSW and the luminous night sky above it.
Although it is no longer in print, it still enjoys life in public and school libraries.

Creating illustrations for children recreates that sparky feeling of madness, magic and wonder that I felt as a child as I was about to settle down with a new book and I love the anticipation that I saw on the faces of my children and now see on my grandchildren’s faces when they do the same.

Who are your favourite artists or book illustrators that have made an impact on you as an artist? In what way have they influenced you?

The late 19th and early 20th century illustrators from the “Golden Age “ of picture books have always fascinated me. Artists like Sir John Tenniel, Edmund Dulac, E.H. Shepard, Harry Clarke and Maxfield Parish created enchanting and imaginative worlds with fine line-work and often sumptuous colour .

My other all time favourites who continue to inspire me with their imaginative interpretation of text and their ability to add so much to it with such skilful use of materials and technique are :
Lizbeth Zwerger, Michael Foreman, Quentin Blake , Maurice Sendak and Australian illustrators Armin Greder, Shaun Tan, Robert Ingpen, Bruce Whately, Freya Blackwood and my latest addition…Lorena Carrington who has illustrated Kate Forsyth’s ‘Vasilisa the Wise.’ There are so many and I usually spend a very happy time looking through the children’s section in book shops.

I tend to veer between those that are quite dark and expressive and those that are painterly and decorative and employ unusual use of perspective.

Please tell us about your latest projects. Do you have any recent publications? What projects are you currently working on?

Since my first picture book was published and in between preparing work for several exhibitions of pastel drawings, I have been working on a few manuscripts and preparatory illustrations to go with them. One of them, an illustrated book for 7-12 year olds is ready to go off in search of a publisher. It features animal characters drawn from the Australian urban environment and there is a slight hint of “Wind in the Willows” meets “Mad Max” about it. I am really enjoying creating the pastel drawings of the main characters but I do need to send the work out before my family excommunicates me as I have been rabbiting on about it for such a long time!

As I have been working extensively with soft pastels and coloured graphite pencils on paper in my fine art work, I am using these techniques and materials for my illustrations as well.

Over the past year I have had some of my illustrations for “The Nightfish” and “Coasting-a year by the Bay” by Susan Kurosawa and illustrations for ‘Charter‘ magazine displayed at Thirroul library in its exhibition space. I plan to have another that showcases my illustrations for several gardening books there in October. I am also working on a series of drawings inspired by the Illawarra coastline.

What does your art space look like- organised or chaotic?

Both really. I start out with everything I might need laid out on a tabletop next to my work bench or easel with colours arranged in groups and reference material taped up around me in quite an orderly fashion. Things gradually deteriorate as pencil shavings mount up and pastel dust covers all in a fine film of colour. Then I have a blitz on clutter and start again.
Since moving to The Illawarra I have had a small studio built behind my house. It has a wonderful cool light, smells like oil paint and has ample storage space for my art books and clutter. I love being in it.

What are your top tips for aspiring illustrators? Have you received a valuable piece of advice and from whom?

Working as an illustrator can often be quite a solitary experience , so I have really appreciated making connections and exchanging ideas and experiences with other writers and illustrators in the field of children’s books. Di Bates’s ‘Buzzwords’ and arvo teas have been of great assistance here and I would heartily recommend the encouragement these things bring.

Looking at exhibitions, replaying favourite children’s films and re-reading old classics like the Alice books and The Brothers Grimm is a tonic that never fails to inspire and re-kindle a feeling of enchantment.

I keep a notebook handy- especially when around my grandchildren. They say and draw the most unexpected combinations of images and words. Like dreams, these need to be recorded at the time or you forget! Their drawings are often bold and unselfconscious too.

It may be old fashioned but I have a filing cabinet full of images torn from magazines that have captured something that speaks to me…a pattern, an expression, a mood etc. I can then tape them up around me for reference that is easily accessible. It’s also useful to combine images so that their usual context is changed and they are looked at with a fresh eye.

I completed a Continuing Education Course with Libby Gleeson-”Writing for Children.‘ She offered many great pieces of advice-particularly in regard to picture books. It might sound obvious but… allow the illustration to do its work and progress the story rather than just be a slave to the text, consider the possibilities of textless illos and try to include details that enrich the story but which may not be mentioned in the text.

What else do you love to do besides art? Anything unusual?

Woodwork. This is my second year at the Illawarra Woodwork School and it’s great. I like to make crazy assemblages from junk and so am aiming to improve my craftsmanship. Sanding, planing and making a decent dovetail joint is very satisfying even though learning to use the machines is a trifle scary! The gorgeous patterns of wood grain and the smell of beeswax and wood shavings are very addictive!

Thanks for illustrating your artistic life for us, Helen! 😀

Helen McCosker is an artist and illustrator based in the seaside village of Thirroul, just south of Sydney. Her free-ranging experiences as a child growing up in the bushy outskirts of Sydney gave her a love of the patterns and textures to be found there and in the wider landscape. Tangles of sticks and foliage, rusted corrugated iron sheds, the cluttered shapes of houses scattered along the Illawarra coastline, or the debris that washes up on its shores – all provide an endless source of inspiration. Much of her working life has been as an illustrator of magazines and books on travel, gardening or accounting. Helen’s first children’s picture book, The Nightfish, was published in 2006.

Find Helen at her website.

‘Looking for Bozely’ – pastel and coloured graphite
‘Under a Seashell Moon’ – pastel and coloured graphite
‘We Went by Train’ – charcoal pencil and coloured graphite

 

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