I met Benjamin Johnston this year at the Sydney SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Conference and at the Queensland launch for Engibear’s Bridge in Brisbane during the QLD Children’s Book Council Australia Book Dinner.
I'd looked forward to meeting Ben ever since I had read Engibear’s Dream (written by Andrew King) as I was impressed with his detailed, lively and precise illustrations.
During the launch Ben talked about his process of creating the new female character and Chief Engineer, Engilina. He talked about how he was able to work with anthropomorphic characters in an engineering and construction setting while keeping topics such as safety, care for the environment and a realistic construction site including real engineering principles and processes in mind.
Read on for an interview with Ben and take a step by step look at his illustrative process resulting in a double spread for Engibear's Bridge.
What is your background?
I am a trained architect and continue to work full time as an architect, but my interests have always been in the wider realm of drawing and illustrating.
I studied life-drawing and etching for a year prior to starting uni at Julian Ashton Art School, a wonderfully "old school" (literally and figuratively) art college in the Rocks, Sydney. It was a brilliant grounding in what I love to do.
How did you get into illustrating picture books?
Architecture, while a creative profession, isn't necessarily as creative as I might wish it to be. I felt that there was much more I could achieve and I looked for other outlets, initially I undertook a Commercial Illustration course and then a USYD adult education course on Children's Book Illustration, run by Donna Rawlins and Wayne Harris. This became the catapult to a new career (well OK….semi-career....well OK...let's call it a glorified hobby).
And then there were my children. Having children was a fantastic excuse for burying myself in kids books once again, via a weekly trip to the local library.
What is it that you love about illustration and what keeps you going?
Illustration has by nature a necessity of achievement. It is not enough just to paint or draw your own desires. In children's book illustration you are aiming to encompass the author's desires as well as the reader's delight. You have to strive to achieve that. It is a challenge and I love the challenge.
And then there is the feedback. Feedback is really important, especially if it is positive. I love to hear that the work I have done has meant something to a child and that they will pick it up over and over again. Goosebumps of satisfaction!
What is your favourite art medium?
I really haven't had a chance to apply my favorite medium to children's book illustration but I know what it is. I love the beauty of etching. Hard-ground, soft-ground, aquatint..... But it's not the easiest medium to whip something up.
I really hope one day I have a chance to create a whole story in etchings.
Conversely I also do a lot of my work digitally and still haven't had much of a chance to get to grips with Corel Painter...which is a fantastic program. Time, time....when will I ever have enough?
A whole story in etchings! I do hope some clever publisher will take you up on that idea.
What is it that keeps you inspired creatively?
Good projects and good briefs. I haven't had many bad projects but it is noticeable what they do to your motivation levels.
Who are some authors and/ or illustrators you admire?
How long a list would you like?
One of my favourite illustrators is Chris Riddle, a cartoonist for the Guardian in the UK but also a brilliant ink-scribe. His detailed and chiseled figures and faces are just perfect - full of expression and precise. Also in the UK you can't go past Oliver Jeffers...such a brilliant simple style that I so wish I could copy except for the fact that it would look obvious that I had. In the US there are some amazing illustrators like Adam Rex, James Jean and Brett Helquist.
Back home, I am constantly inspired by the likes of Shaun Tan, Bruce Whatley, Stephen Michael King, Freya Blackwood, Chris Nixon and Gus Gordon. While not an illustrator per se, possibly the most influential person for me has always been the late and great Jeffery Smart.
What does your dream project look like?
I probably will never do my dream project, but it is in fact the one that I began as part of the illustration course. I have always loved the musical story "Peter and the wolf". I envisaged that there could be a place for an Australian version of It...not a kangaroos and koalas "How-are-ya mate" Australia but a 1930's Great Depression in Australia version. All dusty faded colours.
Ah, what a wonderful dream, I do hope you can make it a reality one day.
It is not usual for authors and illustrators to work together on a book or even meet. However, I know you and author Andrew King get along really well and have a great working relationship. How did that evolve?
It's funny, but my experience seems to have been the complete opposite of most people and yet I never realised it. I had always assumed that the author and illustrator exchanged notes and worked together.
With the first two books I did - Angry Mangry by Barton Williams and Engibear's Dream by Andrew King - I immediately saw myself as part of the team working beside the author to achieve what they wanted for the book. I don't have what I would call a set style, so I'm always looking for feedback to determine which of the early options I'm exploring works best.
Andrew and I email or talk daily or weekly at least, throwing around ideas and options. I send regular updates from sketch through to the finished work. And Andrew, for his part (and very relevant for the type of books we are working on) gets feedback and advice from various experts - such as getting actual bridge engineers to check the structural capacity of my designs. Yes…we are a little crazy but it makes the process both fun and professional and the result is highly collaborative work that we are proud of. Andrew is an Engineer and I'm an Architect - so it make for a good relationship and we have a similar mindset.
Have you got any more books coming out soon, or other projects you would like to share?
Andrew and I are releasing book No. 2 of the Engibear series - Engibear's Bridge. But we have already begun working on book No.3 as - Engibear's Train which compares and contrasts old and new train technology in the Munnagong/Engibear world. It is going to be great.
I am sure it will be, I can think of several children looking forward to that one!
I am pleased to include a series of images with this interview for the "August" page that shows the progression from the first Storyboard to the finished image.
One of the key elements in the story is obviously the bridge and it had to be right in each image. I had a friend, Scott Findlay, build me a 3D computer model that meant I could spin it around to any view I wanted in order to draw over.
This gave me confidence in drawing the final black and white image and that assisted with the speed of each drawing. Without the computer model I would have had to set up the perspective manually.
After the black and white illustrations were complete, all colour was done digitally, in either Corel Painter or Adobe Photoshop. Adjustment to the lifework was also able to be done this way. Layering of the image meant I could place information and scale it to get it just right. As the end result is digital, it meant I was also able to undertake the text placement as well. This resulted in almost no post-production being required by the publisher.
Thank you for answering my questions, Ben and for giving us a fascinating insight into your illustrative process. I am looking forward to seeing more of your work in print and I hope one of your dream project will one day become a reality.
Andrew King and Benjamin Johnston are launching Engibear's Bridge on Thursday the 30th of October, 2014 at Strathfield North Public School at 9am.
Bio - Benjamin Johnston
Benjamin works full-time as a registered architect, however drawing and illustrating for children have always been his passion. .
Benjamin has illustrated the first books in the “Skool Rox” series, written by Barton Williams and the “Engibear” series, written by Engineer and Author Andrew King.
Benjamin is a regular illustrator for the “Little Rockets” series of early readers, published by New Frontier Publishing. “Ferret on the loose” has been released, and “Mike the Spike” will be following shortly.
Benjamin is a member of SCBWI (Society of children’s books writers and illustrators) and has had his work showcased in the Bologna Illustrators Gallery 2014.
Children's Writer and Illustrator