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.
can we ask you to introduce yourself giving some background about
your career and publications to date?
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
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.
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?
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.
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
production values are extremely high with the embossed cover, quality
matt paper stock, did you have input into this?
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.
you introduce us to We Planted a Pumpkin which publishes this
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
you tell us a little about how you approach creating a picture book?
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.
been involved with teaching illustration – what level/s have you
taught this at and what has it entailed?
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.
were longlisted for the 2020 Klaus Flugge prize, how important are
prizes for new illustrators?
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.
illustrators did you enjoy as a child
and are there any that have helped influence your style or approach?
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.
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.
is next for you?
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
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.
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
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.