October is upon us, and we’ve had the best time working with UK-based illustrator and author Gabriel Alborozo! You’ll recognize his name and his style from books he’s illustrated with other authors (including, among others: This is the Kiss by Claire Harcup, The Two Tims by David Elliott) as well as those he’s written and illustrated on his own (including Good Night, Firefly; The Colour Thief; and The Mouse and the Moon, and more).
In addition to creating some gorgeous October artwork for Literati members, Gabe graciously took the time to talk to us about his long history with illustration, his fear of and fascination with Jaws, and what he’s working on next.
You’ve got a pretty varied portfolio, which includes creations spanning from archaeological illustration to prop-making, from cartooning to picture books. How do you make the transition from one to the others? What do they have in common?
Interesting question! As freelance work is inherently unstable, a case sometimes of feast or famine, then if you can hold yourself within many disciplines you can maintain a fairly steady work rate. When one area becomes slow, you can shift gears into something else. For example, I spent almost 20 years as a gag cartoonist for magazines, but in-between worked as an archeological/geological illustrator, editorial illustrator and also potter.
During my twenties I moved to Australia and needing money, I managed to secure work as a prop maker (Hollywood was using a lot of Australian facilities at the time) and then onto painting backgrounds for animation. From my point of view it was all a natural, fluid progression as they are all, if not always ‘creative’, then at least always making something.
What got you interested in illustration at a young age?
I always knew illustration, etc., was a way to earn a living as my father was a painter and cartoonist and my mother a writer. So I was exposed to it as a way of life from the first moments. From the age of about 5, I began to learn how to draw gag cartoons and knew it was a potential job. I also had a fascination with film and after seeing Star Wars (when it came out) I became absorbed by the techniques and use of background Matte Painting which I also tried to learn. As it was I was able to begin selling cartoons to Private Eye at 15 and soon after that to Punch so I walked that path rather than pursuing the film side of things.
Many of your stories are about characters who are helped through the dark—literal and emotional—by a new friendship or personal connection. What made you interested in telling these stories?
It wasn’t a conscious decision really. I think as I began to create children’s books, it coincided with a time in my life of extreme anxiety (happily mostly in the past now). I suppose writing stories that showed fears and anxieties—and that the way through these things isn’t to try to remove the fear, but to find a way to work through it—was a natural way to process these things myself. Also being aware that anxiety is an almost default part of the human condition, and that small children aren’t always in a position to recognise or be informed of this, then a book that shows them that these feelings are common, universal and manageable can only be to the good.
How did you land on your distinctive style of illustration? Do you tend to stick to what you like, or experiment with media in your other projects?
My style has changed hundreds of times over the years and is influenced by more people than I could count. It’s even changing again now as various aspects of my working circumstances are changing in important ways. I feel it is finally starting to settle down a little now and become more consistent. I also do, and have tried to become proficient in, as many media as possible over the years (even if they don’t get used in a book) as using them in unusual ways, mixing things up, etc., can provide incredible ideas.
Is there a past project of yours, picture book or otherwise, that’s especially close to your heart?
I’m not sure there is, really. Perhaps The Colour Thief as that was really just a case of making something sweet and funny. Goodnight Firefly is also important as it gave me the opportunity to just use pen and ink/black and white. Which was a treat.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m working on my third book for Henry Holts. This one is VERY different from my previous two in the fact that the story is focused entirely on the use of imagination and its also in full, glorious colour. It’s taking a while as each spread is a hugely detailed painting. I’m also developing new folio pieces and the constant planning for new books. I’m also quietly playing about with building automata.
We’re going to have to come back to that automata comment; we’re terribly intrigued. In the meantime, what tips do you have for young people who want to create books?
Very simple really. Just go for it, and don’t be told by anyone that it’s not a way to earn a living. It’s not an EASY way to earn a living and can be quite stressful financially. But its worth it.
Also, and I appreciate I may be in a minority here, but I do feel you need to actually put the hours in with learning to draw as best you can with traditional media. Not in any sense of ‘You have to draw properly’, but so you actually have a foundation for your future work. Yes, grabbing a copy of Photoshop will allow you to produce something quickly and with little practice, but lack of background skills will (and does) show. If you have a good grounding in solid, bare-bones draftsmanship then it will only make your work better.
Also learning to use traditional media allows you some confidence. Working without a net so to speak. Learning to make, correct and incorporate mistakes is a huge lesson to learn that you won’t get digitally unless you refuse to use the escape hatches it gives you.
Sorry, that sounded a bit preachy. Just practice drawing. All the time. Then you’ll be sweet.
What’s been your favorite interaction with a child about your work?
I wouldn’t call it interaction per se, but when you see the results of kids that have been drawing the characters from your books, then that’s pretty awesome.
Did you have any (rational or irrational) fears as a kid, or did you read a book that scared you? What helped you through your fear or worry? (It a nightlight? or a firefly? or maybe a dog named Bob?)
Aw… bless Bob.
Besides an extremely vivid nightmare when I was about 4 about the children’s show The Magic Roundabout, my greatest fear (and I suspect still is ) was of open water and sharks. That might be down to seeing ‘Jaws’ when I was about 6 though. The irony is that I have an almost endless fascination with anything in the sea, be it nature or submarines/boats etc.I don’t think I had any particular fear as a child that would keep me up at night or bother me particularly, I was always just fine with the dark for example as I loved being in bed and sleeping. I suppose if someone had sent a ball in my direction and expected me to kick it I might have had a nervous breakdown, but in broad terms, I was a pretty mellow kid.
In honor of Halloween: Who’s your favorite fictional monster/creature, and why?
Now, that’s a tough one. Having spent a frightening amount of my life submerged in science fiction/adventure books and movies, I’m not entirely sure I can pick one. Classically, I might pick Frankenstein’s monster as, yes, he may have been a touch ‘murdery’ but really he just wanted a chum and a bit of peace and quiet. Vampires and Zombies make me almost pass out with boredom…erm…I’m going to go for the shark from Jaws as its perfect film and sharks are just terrifying. HAL from 2001 (yes, he counts!) or essentially anything at all from Star Wars. I know that’s perhaps a cop out as they are all from films but hey, I’m a product of the 70’s/80’s!
No, wait! …King Kong! The Willis O’Brien version. He was a genius, the film is a masterpiece and KK is a sweetheart, really.
Besides, who doesn’t love a giant monkey?