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An Interview with Illustrator Rob Ramsden

Posted By Jacob Hope, 14 August 2020

We are delighted to welcome Rob Ramsden to the blog and to speak with him about his picture book series, In the Garden and his approach to illustration.  Rob's new book with Scallywag Press We Planted a Pumpkin publishes in September.


Please can we ask you to introduce yourself giving some background about your career and publications to date?


I began creativity as a fine art painter and printmaker, I turn a 90° angle and became a comic book creator, which evolved into being an animator and Illustrator, and now as a picture book maker I think I use a little bit of all these experiences in what I do. Alongside this I’ve worked as a lecturer and I’ve run workshops in schools and events, as well as spending a whole year in a school as an animator in residence working with years 2 - 7.


I had been making picture books, sending them off to publishers and I received lots of encouraging rejection letters. The encouragement suggested that I was doing something right, and the rejection told me that something wasn’t quite there. Then I heard about the Children's Book Illustration MA at Cambridge, which transformed my understanding of what a picture book story can be. After graduating I spent a few years showing my portfolio of dummy books to publishers, and spent time developing books with some of them, although nothing got published in this period it did teach me a lot. Then a friend, Rose Robbins, introduced me to a new publisher who were putting together their first book list, who turned out to be Scallywag Press. I sent them my dummy book for I Saw A Bee, and a week later Janice Thomson rang, she suggested some edits, we talked about the story and she was genuinely interested in where the story had come from, and I immediately thought – so, this is editing, I like it. Shortly after this I showed Sarah Pakenham, the publisher, my portfolio which had an early version of We Found a Seed in there too, and by the end of the meeting we were talking about a contract to publish I Saw A BEE. What started as one book has turned into a series of books called In the Garden, which includes BEE, SEED and now We Planted a PUMPKIN which is out this September.


There’s a joyous sense of exploration of the natural world in your books and its fun looking out for and tracing the different minibeasts and plants. Are you much of a naturalist yourself?


I wouldn’t call myself a naturalist, in fact I haven’t got the kind of memory needed to remember all those Latin names, and many insects don’t have common names. What I do have is the patience and curiosity to sit and observe minibeasts, and I’m often rewarded by what nature teaches me, for instance watching pollinators reveals why flowers look the way they do. I’m now paying more attention to my garden, and doing things like leaving big piles of leaves, sticks and small logs to make areas wilder, and encouraging minibeasts to take up residence over winter too! 3 years ago I changed my gardening habits and planted for pollinators. The unexpected effect of bee friendly gardening is that there are now many more mini beasts, lots of birds, and I’ve even spotted a hedgehog. Before I began gardening for bees I wasn’t aware of just how many different varieties of bee there are, and last year I began photographing them and I’ve collected more than 25 different varieties of bee including the tree bumblebee, red-tailed and white-tailed bumble bees, mourning bees which are eerily black and white in colour, leaf-cutter, mason and mining bees and of course honey bees.


I Saw a Bee feels almost like a fable with wide-reaching comments around friendship, difference and the importance of respecting the environment around us.  There’s a wonderful visual and verbal rhythm to the book.  It has so many different applications, have you had much feedback in terms of how it has been used and how readers have responded?


The feedback and uses of the book are quite diverse. The story itself comes from different experiences and observations, firstly it came from a rhyme I made up with my son about an amazing bee that kept up with us as I was driving the car, there was something exciting about racing a bee! Then, when picking my son up from his first years at school, we’d be talking about his day, and some of this was about the bumpy rhythms of the highs and lows of friendship. At the same time in the media, there was an increasing amount of concern about the decline in bee numbers. Finally, I have vivid memories of bees being something to be afraid of, which I probably learnt as a very young child from adults with rolls of newspaper chasing them, this fear was something I had to unlearn. Each of these were light bulb moments, and although not overtly mentioned in the story, they give me the route and focus to shape the story.


I’ve seen a whole range of activities and uses for both the BEE and SEED books spring up on social media, and it’s much to the inventiveness of others that these activities happen. The books have been used for exercising motor skills by following the paths of the bee, the life cycle of bees and seeds, collecting and identifying seeds, sowing seeds and caring for the plants, making pollinator friendly areas. Perhaps the most interesting discussion I had was when I had the opportunity to meet with teaching assistant Janine Woolston, who’s a qualified Thrive practitioner. Janine told me about how she had been using I Saw A BEE to support social and emotional development with the younger children, and this really resonated with me. When I heard that one boy kept going back to the book box and reading it himself, it seemed to me that Janine had struck just the right balance between the story and her use of it. I eventually asked Janine to write the teacher notes for both BEE and SEED, which are now on the Scallywag Press website, and I couldn’t be happier with them.


The production values are extremely high with the embossed cover, quality matt paper stock, did you have input into this?


I’ll be honest here, I was asked on many occasions about all aspects of production, but I knew my book was in the hands of those with much more experience than me, and I trusted that they would make the right decisions. When I received my advance copies of I Saw A BEE I wasn’t just excited that is was my first book that I was holding, on a tactile level it felt wonderful to hold and the pages are great to turn, I love the way they sound.


Can you introduce us to We Planted a Pumpkin which publishes this year?


It features the same two children from SEED and builds on the theme of growth, this time the story follows the children as their patience is tested, they encourage and care for the pumpkin plant, and there are surprises and rewards. Patience and anticipation are there too, they need a big ripe orange pumpkin in time for Halloween. I’m attempting to grow pumpkins this year and I can safely report that there’s a little worry that goes along with growing pumpkins, and lots of anticipation too as it’s just began to show signs of turning orange.


Can you tell us a little about how you approach creating a picture book?


I keep an eye and ear alert for catching things of interest, as well as recalling experiences and keeping a sketchbook close by to makes notes and drawings, to capture it. These notes and sketches might become an idea, and then I begin to explore these ideas by expanding the drawing and writing, to see if the idea might take the shape of a story. I’ll draw the characters a lot to test their emotional range, free from the story to get to know what they’re capable of, recalling my observations of children, as well as my own memories. The growing sequence in SEED is straight out of my memories of dance lessons in primary school. Thumbnail storyboards help to test the structure and pace of the story. Eventually, I’ll begin drawing more solid characters, acting out the scene, to accompany the text, which I use to make the first dummy book. My backgrounds at this stage are still very rough, so I begin visually researching in order to draw the backgrounds. The final illustrations in the book are a mix of materials to create hand-made textures, and I trace around my drawings in Adobe Illustrator and it’s all brought together in Photoshop as a kind of digital collage. My first ever version of BEE was all made as lino-cut block prints, and some of it’s still visible in the published version. I have two studios, one has been taken over by screen printing equipment, and the other “studio” is a series of tables in my home, and a main desk for my computer. I have been known to work in the garden and kitchen too.


You’ve been involved with teaching illustration – what level/s have you taught this at and what has it entailed?


I began by teaching animation as a subject, and this is where I’ve taught at the widest age range from year 2 primary to master’s degree level. This entailed adapting the essentials of movement and narrative to each age and educational level, and for the most part the subject skills are still the same, it’s the teaching method and expectations of the learner that changes. I’ve always used paper-based animation techniques in my own work and when I teach, devices such as a flick-books, zoetrope and mutoscope. In our digital age, people are still fascinated to see individual frames blend into movement as they flick the frames with their own hands. I have a draw full of ideas for an animation book as an alternative to an ever-increasing digital culture. Since 2016 I’ve been the Illustration Lecturer on the Graphic Design degree at the University of Suffolk, where I teach illustration within the discipline of graphic design, which I find to be a great blend of skills and ideas at work. One of the projects explores the design of books, drawing attention to the physical aspects of the book to give structure for the student to explore their ideas. I don’t specifically teach children’s picture books, but I do point out that they are a rich playful source of ideas and invention.


You were longlisted for the 2020 Klaus Flugge prize, how important are prizes for new illustrators?


It’s exciting to have been longlisted, and just by looking at the other longlisted books, I feel really proud that my book was selected alongside such a list of amazing books. I think all prizes are important in shinning a light on the good work of everyone who’s involved in producing a picture book and celebrating it, and one of the things I appreciated about the Klaus Flugge prize is that the editor and designer are also credited for their part in shaping the book. When I see all the great books by authors and illustrators being published I think “there can’t be enough shelf space to hold them all”, so I do think that it’s particularly important to shine a light on those who are entering the publishing world. To introduce them and let them take centre stage for a little while so we can get to know them, their names and their books, and make sure they don’t get lost on the shelves.


Which illustrators did you enjoy as a child and are there any that have helped influence your style or approach?


One of my earliest memories of illustration is the animated series Noggin the Nog illustrated by Peter Firmin, and even when very young I was aware that these were drawings that moved, and by that I mean even today you can really see the drawing. Next, are comics like Monster Fun and Shiver & Shake which were full of crazy ideas and had a great range of characters and stories. Comics were my reading material, and I’ll always be thankful to my parents for my weekly comic. I have vivid memories of the Illustrations of Jill McDonald, whose work still excites me today, and I can see why I loved looking at it as a child, every mark is worth looking at. I did a Fine Art degree and felt a bit lost when I graduated, and what re-engaged me with creativity was the artwork and narratives explored in comics, animated cartoons and picture books. I had no idea that I wanted to make picture books, but all my interests pointed towards illustration, then animation, and eventually picture books. It’s a far reaching and eclectic list of illustrators and animators who’s work really excites me, so I’ll just name a few here for how they’ve influenced me in some way – The animator Chuck Jones and his layout artist Maurice Noble, if you watch their cartoon What’s opera, Doc? you’ll see how the background holds as much of the emotion of the scene as the main character. Although I wasn’t directly referencing this at the time, this cartoon and another called Duck Amuck are two of my favourite works of art, and after BEE was completed I saw some stills from What’s Opera, Doc? and I realised I must be absorbing potential influence all the time. Maurice Sendak and Pat Hutchins, both for their sense of movement in the characters, as well as how they construct space on the page, a bit like a stage. Jan Ormerod’s books Sunshine and Read play so wonderfully with the pacing and passing of time. As a child I really do remember being aware of the passing of time, from the first time I took notice of the second hand on a clock ticking away, to the incomprehensible amount of time to my next birthday, as well as noticing the shadows moving and how that really was time passing.


My first published books happen to be a series, and it makes sense for this to be consistent in the style of the artwork. But, I do feel nervous when I think of the idea of style, and in a similar way to how one might think of an actor being type-cast in a series, I think that one style might not be the right style for other stories that I want to write or illustrate.


What is next for you?


Scallywag Press thought that I was going to be working on a different book outside of this series, but we all became excited about a new title and concept for another book for the In The Garden series, so this is what I’m currently working on. I’m probably not allowed to say anything about it, but I’ll just say that I’m excited about working on this book because it’s about experiencing the garden in a completely different way.

A big thank you to Rob for his time and expertise answering our questions.  Rob has also generously allowed us to share a wealth of images, information on these is below.




Original dummy book for I Saw A BEE, and the published Scallywag Press hardback edition.




One of the first thumbnail storyboards for I Saw A BEE, looking at the page count and the pace of the story.




Comparison of two spreads from the published I Saw A BEE, and the original (below). My first idea was that the reader would have to circle around the book in order to read it, and therefore join in the “buzzing around”.




We Planted A PUMPKIN with the original text, storyboards and a sketchbook. I mostly draw and write on loose copier paper, so I can pin them up or spread them out, and my ideas and drawing seem to flow much quicker across less-precious paper.




Early ideas, sketches and words for We Planted A PUMPKIN. Nothing is edited out, I try to capture as many visual ideas and words before the story begins to settle into a line-by-line text, and this is typical of how I work to shape the story.




Exploring one of the characters in We Planted A PUMPKIN, and looking for the right emotion for the scene.




Early storyboard comparison for the “We know you’re trying…” spread in We Planted A PUMPKIN. Once the whole story is written, and each spread is drawn, then I give the insects all of my attention, I think of them as ‘sub plots’ such as the ants harvesting seeds (on this spread), or a spider spinning its web to catch a fly (which gets away!), and I have fun thinking of where the ladybird should be in of the spreads.




Early storyboard comparison for spread 5 in We Planted A PUMPKIN. You can see that one idea has been edited out to strengthen the focus of the scene.




Nature studies for We Planted A PUMPKIN, with character ideas for “we were the rain”.




Organising all the different stories in development is something I have had to learn to do, and this is how I organise stories which are being developed or as in the case of PUMPKIN, just finished.



A selection of bee photos, all taken in my garden.



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Tags:  Illustration  Interview  Picture Books  Reading  Reading for Pleasure 

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