Q & A with “How to Look After Your Human” illustrator Helen Hancocks
How to Look After Your Human: a Dog’s Guide (Frances Lincoln) is a clever little handbook which flips the “owning a pet” manual genre on its head. Here it is Maggie Mayhem, a gorgeous border terrier, who has written the manual with the help of her human, Kim Sears. From the opening page, the tone is set: “Dear Readers, Keeping Homo sapiens is an immensely rewarding practice, yet one requires a firm paw and hours of patience”. This is such a fun witty book, full of tips from how to choose your human, to nutrition, socialisation and even how to dress them. The tone is tongue-and-cheek throughout but behind the fun is nonetheless a clever insight into every day life with a dog and the special place they take in our lives, when they don’t actually run our lives! Set up like an information book, with “handy tips” sections and an index in the end, the format makes it easy to access and adds to the overall quirkiness. Helen Hancocks’ distinctive artistic style adds to the quirkiness also, and Maggie’s stern face throughout is a joy (some of the artwork from the book can be seen here). The tone of the book will have definitely shifted with another style of illustration; it mirrors the text which has a seemingly serious tone yet lets humour seep through throughout.
This one for dog owners, dog-owners-to-be and dog lovers in general, of any age.
I was delighted when Helen Hancocks agree to answer a few questions about her work and inspirations as an illustrator
A Q & A
with Helen Hancocks
How did you become a children’s book illustrator?
I studied Illustration at university and as part of my end of year show I created a picture book, which later became Penguin In Peril, but this version was all just picture – I ran out of time to write the words, but it seemed to work. Then after graduating my family encouraged me to send it to some publishers and I guess the rest is history. But I had been doing various arts and crafty things for as long as I can remember so it was a natural progression of events I guess. After the first book, I was asked if I had anymore ideas, so I just rooted through my sketchbook for some vague ideas to present. I still get nervous and fretful about each book, especially when presenting ideas, eek.
Could you tell us a little bit about your technique?
I use gouache paint, which is a bit like watercolour but you can use less water, and the paint is thicker and more opaque. I am not really sure if I am using it properly?
I used to paint each element and then use Photoshop to make the composition, but there ended up being so many possibilities even after you had the thumbnail plans at the start. With painting the full scene in one you have to plan and pencil out in detail from the start. It can be more of a challenge, but I am starting to enjoy this more – my brain works a lot harder too and you know that you can’t just change something. Plus I find painting satisfying, although at times when pushed against a big deadline it can end in hand cramp, but its worth it if people like the books.
I still do use Photoshop, mainly to clean up bits – like when I have dropped my paint brush when the backgrounds meant to be white or if the page uses handwritten type, that would need to be added to a separate layer.
Where do you work? Have you got a studio or a special room in your house (or garden?)
I have a spare room, where I have my desk, computer, materials, boxes of old work and prints, and a small shelf of art/reference books, although its slowly getting fuller! My desk is next to the window which can be distracting as I like to watch everyone go about their day, it’s a bit like that opening scene in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. In fact I can guess the time by what’s happening – there is someone who walks their dog in a specific colour fleece every day at the same time, I get to see the postmen arrive (it’s always a disappointment when they don’t come to the door – I love to get post), and it’s time for cup of tea and biscuit when all the kids leave the school up the road. I also have my radio on, and find that a good thing to keep me in a routine, but lately I have switched to listening to podcasts. It’s not a perfect room and always see other illustrators with nice shelves and organised drawers and get quite envious, one day it will be tidy, or big enough to hide the untidy bits behind a curtain.
What inspires your work in general? More particularly, where did you get your inspiration for the art in “How to Look after your Human” ?
What inspires my work, hmmm. so many things, can I say everything?
But to narrow it down a bit, i think, cats are a big thing (don’t tell Maggie), things I find – recently I’ve have been obsessed with finding old tickets to paint. I have also been using scraps of wood my dad has been getting rid of to make little sculptures. And I love watching films, and they inspire a whole load of my work.
For How to Look After Your Human, I bought a guide to dog breeds – there’s so many more variants to draw than cats and that bought new challenges – like fur texture for those wirey boarder terriers. Cats are very much the same shape when I draw them, so it was a lot of fun to try draw all the dog shapes and sizes, I am quite good at guessing types of dog now. Although the book is about dogs and looking after your human, I did manage to sneak a few cats in with out Maggie or the editors noticing, i couldn’t help it.
For the how to dress your human chapter, I had a great fun googling dog costumes – there are some real funny costumes people make for their dogs, I think that was my favourite page to paint.
I also went on a lot of walks, which is good time away from the desk but was also fun to go dog spotting. At the moment I live quite close to a big common and would take walks there and see so many dog walkers out with their dogs. It was fantastic – I kind of wish I had a dog, it seems so much more sociable than a cat. Except the poo element, that bit seems less fun.
What illustrators made a big impression on you as a child?
So many, but we had a lot of the big names like Beatrix Potter, Judith Kerr and her Mog books, Shirley Hughes with Alfie, John Burningham and Maurice Sendak also stick out.
I definitely think I am a visual learner, as I can’t remember the words but could describe you a page from there books – like when in one Alfie story he has breakfast and the bears around his bowl seem to dance and get mixed in with his mushy cereal. I can see that so clearly even now – it just shows how books do make an impact on you.
I was surprised when I was older not to find copies stored in the boxes in the attic, we obviously just took them out the library so much I must of thought they were ours.
I also remember one about a tiger and bear who take a trip to Panama,the ending used to puzzle me, but I have now discovered is a whole series of books by Janosch.
And the book My Cat likes to Hide in Boxes by Lynley Dodd – Again the cats feature quite highly in my book collection.
And how about now?
Arghhh so many to choose – can I say ALL THE BOOKS?
No? Ok, I remember when I was at 6th form or college finding Oliver Jeffers The Incredible Book Eating Boy book and finding the collage and handwritten font really inspiring – this followed with a period that involved a lot of cutting and sticking from dictionary pages. I basically started off copying and then took what elements I liked and moulded them in to my own work and found new ways to work.
I love, love Maira Kalman, I came across her work after uni – Her books called The Principles of Uncertainty and And The Pursuit of Happiness were an eye opener to me, I wish I had known about her before – so brilliant. Her collaborations with Daniel Handler are fantastic too.
I have come across so many fabulous and amazing illustrators, its so great to sit on bookshelves with them. I am in awe of them all, It makes me want to quit drawing and open up my own bookshop, but they also inspire me to keep going and look at things in new ways.
Here are a few I love — My friend Lucy Letherland – I am in awe of all that detail in her books, Laura Carlin, Lizzy Stewart, Emma Lewis, Rob Hodgson, William Grill, Jessie Hartland, Jon Klassen, Carson Ellis, Christian Robinson, Loris Lora, Ellen Surrey, Benjamin Chaud, Marc Boutavant, all the books coming out by Wide Eyed and Flying Eye Books, and Tate are doing great stuff too, I could go on…. I am sure I will have missed some people out, but you just have to go to a bookshop to see all the amazing stuff.
Its so hard to walk into the children’s section of a bookshop with out wanting to pick everything up.
Thank you so much Helen. I love Maira Kalman’s collaboration with Daniel Handler Why We Broke Up.
How to Look After you Human: a Dog’s Guide is written by Maggie Mayhem with the help of Kim Sears and illustrated by Helen Hancocks and is out now. You can purchase a copy here.
Source: review copy from publisher